Fifty million Americans suffer from acne and know that the struggle to treat it can feel especially violent at times. Kill bacteria, obliterate blackheads, confront external aggressors — it's like going to war with your skin, and those with severe cases often fight an uphill battle that can seem neverending. That reality has been part of 25-year-old model and beauty vlogger Cassandra Bankson's life for nearly 15 years, eight of which she's shared with candor on her YouTube channel.
To clear up her debilitating chronic cystic acne, she tried everything: changing her skin-care routine, using topical prescriptions, popping oral medications, covering it up with makeup. On a good day, it just didn't work; on the worst days — and especially when she was on antibiotics — the battle was downright unbearable.
For years, Bankson had been on a combination of common antibiotics to treat her cystic acne. "At the time, I started having health implications. I had been taking other antibiotics for travel that were inducing antibiotic resistance from the acne medications."
What happened next was the epitome of worst-case scenario — and it didn't stop at her skin. In fact, Bankson says she experienced a string of severe bodily symptoms, including internal bleeding, abdominal swelling, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, a sensitivity to light, and more. "These [can be] side effects of antibiotics, or a resistance to them, especially when taken in large amounts," she says. "The experience was both physically painful and emotionally traumatic. My acne and the products I used commonly disrupted my skin and made it red and itchy, but I had never had issues with falling asleep due to pain or severe internal bleeding before."
This was Bankson's rock-bottom moment that led her to make some major changes. Her doctor put her on a "bland diet," cutting out dairy, gluten, and soy. "It helped minimally, but my body was so inflamed that it didn't fix the situation entirely," she says. "It was very tempting to give up."
Taking extra precaution with what she was putting in her body, she soon cut out meat, poultry, and eggs as well, "which, unknowingly [can] contain the antibiotics I was sensitive to," Bankson says. Within months of adopting a vegan lifestyle, she noticed a difference in her stomach swelling, pain, and internal bleeding. Things were finally looking up.
Still, there was the issue of her skin. Bankson maintained a regimen of non-comedogenic products and washed her face only once a day, but she knew there was more work to do. "I had wrongly assumed that if I got the skin-care portion right, I would be in the clear," she says. The recent change in diet caused her to look at the bigger picture themes in life — like stress, mental health, toxic relationships, hormones — that could be contributing to her acne.
So, she changed everything. She got more sleep and drank more water; removed toxic compounds from her life — like the irritants in her laundry detergent, perfume, and on pillow cases; cut out negative energy in her life by ending harmful friendships and meditating; and went to therapy to take care of herself. "When I stopped seeking acceptance and found confidence within myself, my stress levels decreased dramatically and I was able to focus on what mattered: reaching for and achieving my goals without beating myself up in the process."
And it worked. Today, Bankson's long-term battle has finally reached its end: "I started to see slight differences with my skin at a month and a half, and my chronic acne cleared in a year, and then was fully clear by two years," she says. "It actually took me a while to come to terms with [my new skin]. I was so accustomed to having acne for over 15 years of my life, that when I finally realized I didn't have any blemishes to conceal, I felt astounded. I wondered if I was dreaming until I ran my fingers over my cheeks."
Of course, the psychological aftermath of acne can read a lot like the symptoms at the bottom of an arthritis ad: You can become paranoid, withdrawn, insecure, and depressed — all of which can be exacerbated when you're sharing your experience with the world, as Bankson was on YouTube. So it follows that even after your skin clears, you can live in fear of the symptoms coming back.
"I have definitely experienced acne dysmorphia," she explains. "It's like having a silent narrator who feeds you negative words and images. For me, I felt my image was my only point of value, and that my bare skin was actually a burden on others around me." Like healing after an injury or a bad breakup, self-love is a constant effort. But as Bankson has learned, it all starts with being kind, especially when it comes to yourself.
What works for one person may not be the right treatment for you. Before making changes to your skin regimen and diet, it's important to consult with your dermatologist and medical specialist.