An Open Letter To Every Woman Who Suffers With Adult Acne

photographed by Ana Larruy.
If you’re reading this, you probably have what the industry refers to as 'problem skin'. You are, in some form or other, acne-prone/spotty/pimply/blemished or whatever other linguistic twist we’ve come up with to separate us from those with so-called 'normal' skin.
Me too. It fucking sucks, doesn’t it?
I can’t tell you how much of a relief it is to write that. Like you, I spend so much of my time and energy looking for solutions to our 'problem', worrying about my skin and lamenting the fact that, despite being a feminist who believes in the fundamental importance of body positivity in all forms in order to liberate us from the cissexist heteropatriarchal capitalist definitions of 'beauty', I can care so deeply about my own face and its perceived ugliness. So I pretend it’s fine, and don’t give myself the mental space I need to sometimes scream (or, in this case, type very aggressively) that acne sucks ass.
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Maybe you’ve had the same type of skin your whole life; maybe you only experienced a couple of whiteheads as a teenager. So when, suddenly, your skin becomes an acneic smorgasbord, it hits you like pigeon shit on a bike ride. For me, adult acne was sudden, it was everywhere, and it made me feel eternally unclean. Whatever your starting point, having acne as an adult is a singular fuck you to the work you did to make it through puberty in the first place. But this is what happens when we associate acne so deeply with puberty. Teenage acne is a literal manifestation of the hormonal mess and mystery going on under the skin, and yet here it is, five, 10, even 15 years later, aligning you with the same insecurities and hormonal rage that defined your teenage years. That perceived immaturity doesn’t just hurt (both physically and emotionally), it’s embarrassing, too, and because of how we prioritise looks, it feels shameful.

We have to hold our spotty cheeks up with pride, ignore the unsolicited advice from internet strangers and just scream to the skies that ACNE SUCKS.

I think this is what people with 'good skin' don’t necessarily understand. We know exactly what adult acne looks like and how it can come across to the world around us – immature, dirty, unprofessional – and that's because we think these things constantly ourselves. But cultural perceptions of acne are fucked up. When a skincare brand describes its products as acne 'busting', or celebrities say the secret behind their good skin is just drinking water, what it implies for the rest of us is that we’re not doing enough. We're not putting up the good fight. We know that isn’t true; if it were, I’d have skin like Jodie Comer. Instead, we can form our own nuanced take. No, we don’t need to be ashamed of our skin and no, it doesn’t make us less of a person. In the same breath, we have to hold our spotty cheeks up with pride, ignore the unsolicited advice from internet strangers (that one is important) and just scream to the skies that ACNE SUCKS.
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photographed by Ana Larruy.
In a lot of cases, acne is genetic and no thanks to hormones, can sit largely outside our control. Even when your skin gets 'better', there's still a niggling feeling that, if adult acne can make itself known so suddenly, it might also come back and once again hit you like a ton of bricks. I’ve often grasped at anything that would undo that sense of powerlessness, as I've no doubt you have, too. That includes scouring skincare subreddits, pestering my GP, buying and trying anything with even a hint of a success rate. Some things work for a time before those clusters come back with a vengeance, while other things have absolutely no effect whatsoever. But each time, as I'm sure you have done, I pin my hope to this 'miracle' product/pill/lifestyle change, only to end up exasperated.
It reached a point where, one night, I found myself sat on the floor in the bedroom I share with my girlfriend, head in my hands, crying in that uncontrollable, ugly-wrenching-sobs kind of way. I was two months into a new prescription for my acne and it didn’t seem to have made an ounce of difference. As she asked me what was wrong, I realised it wasn’t just the ineffectiveness of the medication but shame and embarrassment about how my physical acne was now overshadowed by how much I actually cared about it. I distinctly remember grinding my palms against my eyes, trying to shove the tears back in because I didn’t want to be crying about my skin. I apologised to my girlfriend between sobs because I was so mortified.
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Having adult acne in 2018 is a real stickler. I’ve worked hard to be positive about my skin: not wearing foundation, not editing out my scars in pictures, being frank with myself about what I look like. It worked with my body image when recovering from an eating disorder, so it should work now, surely? And it did to a degree, but as I'm sure you know, it's hard to be wholly positive about something that can creep up on you out of nowhere and leave deep, red marks and indentations for months after the pain goes. In an era of #selflove, that still makes a lot of us feel ashamed.
All of this is not to offer a solution. Instead, I’m here to offer solidarity – a digital hug or handshake through the screen. I don’t know your skin and you don’t know mine, so I can’t tell you how to 'solve' whatever it's going through. But I can tell you that we now have a bond. We share these thoughts, feelings and, of course, spots with far more people than culture and social media would have you believe. We share that our skin, in all likelihood, may be like this for a long time. We share a singular, pustular otherness and we can be united in that shame, frustration and inescapable desire to just pick at it until it goes away.
You don’t have to love your skin all the time. It’s an exhausting exercise. But know that having acne doesn’t mean you’re not in 'control' of your life – whatever that means. And know that it does not mean you are a failure to have it – nor are you one to want to get rid of it.
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