A blistering, pulsing pimple has the power to turn my day upside down. One bump (though they rarely act alone) is able to steer my schedule in any way it pleases. Going out that night? I don’t think so. Following up on that date? Not today.
But in some cases, you don’t have a choice but to continue with your preplanned day, with Mount Everest by your side. Going to work is one of those challenges. In an environment where you’re usually forced to interact with coworkers and customers for hours on end, your face and aforementioned pimples have nowhere to hide.
Acne anxieties can be all-consuming in the workplace, as skincare company Skin B5 found when surveying over 2,000 Australians in 2022. In fact, 46% of Gen Z respondents admitted to feeling judged at work because of a breakout and 41% of Gen Z believe that pimples make you look less professional.
Unfortunately, while stagnant wages and hefty workloads are known for heightening pressure at work, the stressors that acne creates are rarely taken as seriously.
"Acne, along with various other skin conditions such as eczema or rosacea, is known to have an effect on mental health for many people," Lysn psychologist Stephen O’Malley tells Refinery29 Australia.
"It is something that is often so outwardly visible on the sufferer’s face and can be hard to hide, thus leading to feelings of embarrassment and psychological distress," he says.
The topic of skin has been synthesised into our everyday conversations, placing more of an emphasis on our appearance. #Skincare has over 147 billion TikTok views and 104 million Instagram posts — it’s just as inescapable on social media as it is in conversation. “I’m having a bad skin day today,” “I’m breaking out so badly because of what I ate,” “Sorry about my face” are all common statements spouted by people who struggle with their skin.
"We often engage in negative self-talk to help diffuse concerns... or as a way to ‘justify’ our appearance or for not living up to perceived expectations of what our skin should look like," O’Malley says. He shares that people often think that if they're the first to point out their 'flaws,' then it takes the power away from others to do the same.
It’s true that we are our own worst critics, but our negative self-talk can also impact the people around us, whether we realise it or not.
"Negative self-talk can also encourage others to talk that way about themselves, thus impacting their self-esteem too. Low self-esteem can create anxiety, loneliness, and in some cases can lead to depression," O’Malley explains, adding that it can even hinder a person's willingness to interact with the world and engage in new activities.
This sentiment is echoed by Hannah English, scientist and author of Your Best Skin, who tells Refinery29 Australia, “If I hear someone put themselves down, I start to think, ‘Oh, have I [also] done that? Is that bad? I didn't know that was bad’."
“By being kind to yourself, and remembering that literally no one even noticed your pimple, means other people aren't taking that on from you as well. We pick up so many voices in our heads, and sometimes it's hard to pinpoint where they come from,” she says.
“It can be daunting to walk into a room filled with my peers knowing that my skin might tell an inaccurate story about who I am.”
Another survey in 2021 found that almost all of the 50 women with adult acne interviewed reported feelings of anxiety, depression and low self-worth because of breakouts. Acne, a condition that’s often brushed off as a temporary affliction for teenagers, can be severely debilitating.
“I've had chronic acne for more than half my life, which means the way I feel about having it on show at work is similar to how I felt in high school: exposed,” Sydney-based editor Angela tells Refinery29 Australia. “It can be daunting to walk into a room filled with my peers knowing that my skin might tell an inaccurate story about who I am.”
One major myth Angela is aware of is the belief that people may view her acne as a result of poor hygiene or lack of knowledge about skincare products (while in reality, she’s a regular at her dermatologist). This isn't uncommon, with 32% of Gen Z respondents in the 2022 survey reporting that they believe acne is related to poor hygiene — something that English debunks.
“[Acne] is just genetic. The way your environment [and] all your hormones (not just sex hormones) interact is what creates acne,” she says. English points to four factors that influence the formation of pimples: the individual chemistry of the oil in your skin, acne bacteria, clogged pores, and the over-washing of skin, which can lead to less resilient skin. So yes, that means “[overdoing] hygiene could potentially make it worse”.
Angela admits that she doesn’t think acne has really impacted her performance at work, but rather has impacted her confidence at work. “One example is in conversations, I can sometimes default into thinking someone is looking at my skin instead of simply listening to what I’m saying, however silly that may sound,” she says.
For Melbourne-based writer Jasmine, her hormonal acne flare-ups contribute to her feeling self-conscious in all aspects of her life, work included.
“I can still do my job no matter what I look like that day and I know that my colleagues appreciate me for me, not my skin.”
"I try to remain positive (or at least neutral) about my skin but seeing my colleagues with their crystal clear skin can 100% stir up feelings of comparison and that I'm less 'put together'," she tells Refinery29 Australia. I know that's not the case, but if you're raised on the beauty ideals that women should have ‘flawless’ skin, it's hard to not feel that way.”
Like Angela, Jasmine acknowledges that she doesn’t think her skin concerns affect her work performance. “I can still do my job no matter what I look like that day and I know that my colleagues appreciate me for me, not my skin,” she adds.
It's this reassurance and self-discipline that O’Malley recommends to try and keep our self-judgements in check. One technique he suggests is consciously catching yourself when you notice you're talking negatively about your appearance.
"Get in the habit of noticing it and eventually you’ll get better at being able to stop it... you can start to challenge those thoughts and turn the narrative around," he says, suggesting the practice of words of affirmation can be hugely beneficial and is also research-based.
Talking to a professional, like a psychologist or dermatologist, can also be helpful. "[They can] help you with ways to cope and arm you with tactics that might help you in the future when you’re feeling down about your appearance. Sometimes just the act of talking to someone about it can help too," O'Malley adds.
English stresses the larger issue that looms under skin insecurity: the virtuousness placed on ‘good’ skin. “It just reminds me of when I was younger, and I thought that I couldn't do things because I didn't have ‘good’ skin," she says. "Why are we assigning a moral value to our skin? Skin is skin, right? It's not good or bad.”
Work is stressful enough without the politics of skin getting in the way of us. We're just here to do our jobs, aren't we?
Please note: the medical information in this article is general in nature. Please always consult your GP to obtain advice specific to your medical condition.