I have rosacea, which means bright red, swollen and textured skin presents itself upon my cheeks every day. While I've learned to manage my rosacea using skincare and makeup and by making specific lifestyle changes, having such a visible condition results in lots of unsolicited skincare 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 realise 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 which attracts uninvited advice. Kali, one of the leading voices in the acne positivity community, can sympathise. "Imagine I had the courage to put on makeup, leave the house to buy groceries and felt 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. 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. I wanted to disappear. People always think they know best, but they don't realise that their 'advice' is hurtful and not helpful in the slightest."
London-based consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk explains why it is not only 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 seeing it as an opportunity to correct misinformation or educate), many people consider this to be a deep invasion of their privacy and don’t want to discuss their personal medical information with a stranger, no more than they would want to discuss their smear results or gut health, just because it can be seen."
When I was 20, a family member said that I'd have trouble finding a husband because of my pigmentation, especially since it's 'on my face of all places'.
As skin conditions are relatively common and skincare information is readily available online and in magazines, many of us feel as though we have good skincare 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. 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." Dr Kluk continues that this has the potential to undermine and derail proven treatment programmes that may require time, patience and consistency. "Sometimes there is no 'cure' and the sufferer must adjust to living with a long-term condition. In these circumstances, discussion of magic lotions and potions offer false hope and can threaten the adjustment process."
Brinder, founder of FaceMe_Project, an upcoming Instagram initiative fighting for representation of #realskin, knows this all too well. Having lived with black, grey pigmentation on her face since a teenager, she has received countless snippets of unsolicited advice, some of which has been damaging both physically and emotionally. "Sadly, on one occasion I was lulled into taking a friend’s advice about treatments and spent a lot of money. But not every aesthetician will tell you that some treatments aren’t suitable for ethnic skin. Long story short, my pigmentation darkened and I was distraught."
Brinder says that the worst advice came from her own family, who didn't understand her skin condition. "When I was 20, a family member said that I’d have trouble finding a husband because of my pigmentation, especially since it’s 'on my face of all places'. She advised I have my parents start looking for suitors sooner rather than later, as it would take a while to find someone willing to 'take me on'. My mum was called out as a bad parent as a result, which hurt me the most. As if that didn’t sufficiently quash my self-esteem, the family member went on to suggest I try skin lightening creams. Of course, she knew absolutely nothing about pigmentation. Thank goodness I ignored her advice (even at that impressionable age) and didn’t use creams that contain chemical ingredients that make skin sensitive to sunlight, worsening pigmentation."
Sadly, we can’t control how others treat us, but we can control how we react to them. Psychodermatologist Dr Alia Ahmed at Eudelo believes that using your painful experiences as preparation 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," says Dr Ahmed, such as 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," advises Dr Ahmed. Something along the lines of I have a condition. I’m seeing a doctor about it so it’s all under control, may be effective. It takes time and responding may feel uncomfortable at first, but it helps to know that you’re going into those situations with a game plan. There are some great self-help sheets on the Changing Faces website if you need further examples of responses.
All 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, at the forefront of your mind are the positive things you think about yourself. For example, I am more than my skin, this will not impact my day, that person does not know me. It may sound silly but it can be very 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.
I've been told to stop eating sugar, cut out dairy and live on peppermint tea to 'cure' my acne.
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, visualisation or the aforementioned 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’s 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 curious or intrigued and are tempted to comment on an individual's skin, please remember this: If someone isn’t explicitly asking for your advice, think twice about offering it. It will save a lot of unnecessary embarrassment and humiliation.
*Name has been changed