Skin isn't just our largest organ: It's also the only one on display. Its conspicuous nature means it is often open to scrutiny and judgement — and those with skin conditions such as acne, scarring, or hyperpigmentation (to name just a few) will know this more than anyone.
I have rosacea, which means bright red, swollen, textured skin presents itself upon my cheeks every day. While I've learned to manage my rosacea using skin care and makeup and by making specific lifestyle changes, having such a visible condition results in lots of unsolicited skin-care advice — and I'm sick of it. This may sound ungrateful or unkind when most intentions are good; often, people genuinely believe that they are suggesting something that I haven’t already considered or tried. But what they may not realize is that they could be the 10th person today to give me "well-meaning" advice. In fact, I get hundreds of messages a week from people all convinced they know my skin better than I do.
I know I'm not alone, though, and it isn't just rosacea that attracts uninvited advice. Kali, whose Instagram account has made her one of the leading voices in the acne-positivity community, can sympathize. "Imagine I had the courage to put on makeup and left the house to buy groceries feeling like I was having a good skin day, but then someone commented on my skin and offered advice," she says. "It’s not only hurtful, but after a while it begins to wear on you. It makes you feel self-conscious, as someone has just pointed out your insecurity."
Julia* seconds the feeling of apprehension and embarrassment when people point out her adult acne and try to offer advice. "When it comes to my skin, everyone thinks they're a doctor. I've been told to stop eating sugar, cut out dairy and live on peppermint tea to 'cure' my acne. Not many people know that my breakouts are a result of cysts on my ovaries, so my hormones are at play, and I only have control over those to a certain extent," she says. "I love makeup, but at a family event recently my grandma told me off for wearing too much in front of everyone. She said that it was probably making my skin 'worse.' I was really upset and I just wanted the ground to swallow me up. People always think they know best, but they don't realize that their 'advice' is hurtful and not helpful in the slightest."
London-based consultant dermatologist Dr. Justine Kluk explains not only why it's intrusive to comment on someone’s appearance, but how it can also be damaging. "It confirms that the individual in question has a visible difference and forces them to acknowledge this publicly," she says. "While some people feel comfortable discussing their skin condition with others, perhaps as an opportunity to correct misinformation or educate, many people consider this a deep invasion of their privacy and don’t want to discuss their personal medical information with a stranger any more than they would want to discuss their smear results or gut health, just because it can be seen."
As skin conditions are relatively common and skin-care information is readily available online and in magazines, many of us feel as though we have good skin-care knowledge. But, as Dr. Kluk points out, we should question the validity of any advice we receive. "Sometimes these tips are helpful and they almost always come from a good place," she says. "Often, however, they are bizarre, untested, and unfounded in terms of medical evidence, or they consist of scaremongering about conventional treatments, such as ingredients and chemicals and so on." This, she explains, has the potential to undermine and derail proven treatment programs that may require time, patience and consistency. "Sometimes there is no 'cure' and the sufferer must adjust to living with a long-term condition," Dr. Kluk says. "In these circumstances, discussion of magic lotions and potions offer false hope and can threaten the adjustment process."
Sadly, we will never be able to control how others treat us — but we can control how we react to them. Psychodermatologist Dr. Alia Ahmed of Eudelo believes that using your painful experiences as mental fuel can be empowering. She recommends compiling a list of example responses to potential interactions.
"If someone is being rude or you don’t have the strength or emotional capacity to deal with the situation, you can walk away," Dr. Ahmed begins. "Secondly, you can acknowledge the comment but dismiss the question." For example: I’ve heard you, but I don’t think it’s kind to comment on people’s appearance. "Thirdly, you can acknowledge the comment but divert the conversation." I don’t like to talk about my skin — let’s talk about something more interesting. "Or, if you feel able to, you can educate them," Dr. Ahmed says. I have a condition. I’m seeing a doctor about it. It takes time to get to that point, and responding may feel uncomfortable at first, but going into those situations with a game plan can make you feel a lot more at ease.
All of the experts I spoke to for this piece mentioned the power of positive affirmations. Prepare five or six statements which are personal to you that you can repeat to yourself (out loud or in your head) so that when you come into these negative situations, the positive things you think about yourself are at the forefront of your mind. I am more than my skin. This will not impact my day. That person does not know me. It might sound silly, but it can be enormously helpful.
Dr. Andrew Thompson, professor of clinical psychology at Cardiff University and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, also recommends trying to reinterpret the person's motivations. He suggests discussing it with a friend to see how they would interpret it, such as, This thing happened today — is there another way I can look at it? Why do you think they approached me? Often we are too close or too emotionally invested, and it clouds our judgement. In these situations, another perspective can help us to see beyond our own biased interpretation.
Trying mindfulness exercises, which are rooted in being present, calming the body, and quieting the mind, are also helpful. If someone brings up my rosacea, my stress levels rise and my skin reacts instantly. But by excusing myself from the situation, I can go to the bathroom or to a quiet space and try to calm down. Mindful breathing, visualization, or positive mantras are all recommended.
Finally, ask for help. Dealing with the emotions that surround appearance and unsolicited comments can be a burden. Some people might feel vain or superficial when talking to a doctor about their skin, as it can be perceived as a less serious medical concern. But we would never tell anyone to ignore physical pain, so psychological pain should be no different. If your skin and the way you feel about it is impacting your day-to-day life, then you should speak to someone.
And for those who are ever tempted to comment on an individual's skin for any reason, please remember this: If someone isn’t explicitly asking for your advice, think twice about offering it.
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.