3 Reflections on my challenge with cystic acne
By Samia Abbasi, Editor
During cold weather-months, my toes puff up with eczema. It’s red and itchy and keeps me up at night, but I know its patterns and quirks after dealing with it for so long. When I started getting acne in high school, I had this idea that it would be temporary, unlike my chronic case of eczema. I thought, “It’s okay, my skin will be glowing by the time I’m 20.”
Instead, I was in for many late nights of essay-writing, hormonal shifts, and dietary changes to come. During my first year of college, I started experiencing cystic acne. Three years later, I’ve tried four kinds of birth control pills, went on Doxycycline (an antibiotic pill) for a couple of months, and experimented with many skincare products.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been noticing more conversations online about people experiencing acne break-outs due to stress and routine changes. I wanted to affirm people who are experiencing that, in addition to so many other things on their minds. Here, I share 3 significant reflections that have come out of my challenge with acne.
1. Treating acne can be expensive.
From products that make acne go away, to products that cover it up, acne can be expensive to treat long-term. Paying for a dermatologist or a doctor’s appointment to talk specifically about acne can be expensive, coupled with the medicine prescribed.
Here’s a run-down of products I use to manage my acne, and the costs add up quickly. In the morning, I wash my face lightly with water, dab it gently with Clindamycin Phosphate Topical Solution (prescription) with a cotton pad, and put on some CeraVe PM Facial Lotion. I love how lightweight the CeraVe formula is. I was surprised the first time I used Clindamycin, because it literally smells like rubbing alcohol. My favorite sunscreen I use before going out is the Nivea Sun Protect Water Gel SPF50 Sunscreen. Since it’s a water-based formula, it feels like you’re not even wearing it, and it doesn't cause me to break out. When I need a refresh throughout the day, I’ll spritz some Trader Joe’s Rosewater Toner on my face and it feels cool on my skin, especially after working out. Sometimes, I wash my face with PanOxyl 10% Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Foaming Wash. It’s very strong and dries out my face instantly. I then use Innisfree Green Tea Seed Intensive Hydrating Eye Cream and the Innisfree Green Tea Serum for moisture. I find the green tea scent in these products very calming.
At night, I take my birth control pill (prescription) around 8 PM. If I wore makeup that day, I remove it with Up & Up All in One Micellar Cleansing Water with a reusable makeup wipe, wash my face with Cetaphil Daily Cleanser, and dab some Botanics All Bright Cleansing Toner on my face. I like how Cetaphil is gentle and great for sensitive skin, which has been much better for me to use daily instead of harsher acne cleansers. I then rub Majestic Pure Cosmeceuticals Rose Hip Oil all over my skin, especially paying attention to my acne scars. I started using rose hip oil more recently, because I heard it was good for acne scars. I end my night-time routine with CeraVe PM Facial Lotion and put some Clean & Clear Persa-Gel10 Acne Medication on active pimples. If I add up the cost of all the products I mentioned here, its over $100 in skincare products and another $50 in prescription medication (after being subsidized by my insurance).
It can take a lot of trial & error and money to understand what’s happening with your skin.
At first, I felt this generalized sense that I’ve spent a lot of money dealing with my acne in these past couple of years. As I continued to think about it, I realized that it’s a privilege for me to be able to explore options, to be on my family’s medical insurance, to have an older sister who has similar acne patterns to share products with. I also want to acknowledge that with my fair skin, it’s easier for me to find concealers and foundation shades in a variety of makeup brands and price-points to work with my acne and scarring.
2. Acne takes up brain space.
It’s no secret that our insecurities and worries take up a lot of time and energy—I call this brain space. Acne occupies my brain space. When I’m brushing my teeth in the morning, I notice a pimple that’s become bigger overnight or new patches of redness on my face. Throughout the day, I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t eat or drink something, because it might impact my skin. I’ve also been more mindful of my dairy intake, opting for oat or soy milk for my teas and coffees. I spent a good amount of energy thinking about my acne without really acknowledging it until recently. It’s not to say that it’s all-consuming in my life, but when my skin is bad, it can be a significant source of self-consciousness. Scarring and hyperpigmentation also take years to fade. That valuable brain real estate could go toward developing my passions, having out-of-the-box ideas, or taking tangible steps toward achieving the best version of myself in a holistic sense. Having the brain space to imagine and write my novel is a significant example that comes to mind.
Social media does play a factor in that. There’s a lot more content related to beauty and people who filter and edit in their pictures.
Sometimes, I feel like I don’t look “Instagrammable” or “photogenic” enough.
I’m less likely to want to take photos of myself and more likely to compare myself to people with clearer skin. I’m starting to unlearn some of that and embrace what I love most about my physical features, especially when it comes to makeup. For example, I always feel like I need to use all sorts of makeup techniques, but I’ve been able to recognize what I actually like: concealer instead of foundation, mascara & neutral eyeshadows, lightly-filled eyebrows, and occasional eyeliner. That’s what makes me feel my best self.
I’ve been thinking more about how women are socially-conditioned to care about beauty in a particular way. It’s often compounded in relation to cultural, patriarchal, religious, and family values. South Asian women often internalize a lot about their self-worth based on their physical appearance, when that’s simply not true. This ranges from the overt comments from older relatives, to the subliminal signals prompting us to appear desirable but not too desirable. There’s also a pressure to fit a certain image that’s collectively crafted on social media, and sometimes, women subconsciously perpetuate it. I’m still exploring what that means and how I may have contributed to it in the past. Nevertheless, It’s exhausting. The more we unlearn the harmful expectations surrounding beauty, the more we need to fill that well with nurturing conversations and practices.
3. Acceptance is a process.
Lately, journaling and talking to my therapist have helped me understand how I feel about my physical appearance and acne. I started incorporating more natural products like rose water into my skincare routine, and I love the added benefit of aromatherapy. I’m working on recognizing what my skin needs and modifying my skincare routine when it fluctuates from oily to dry, depending on factors like the weather. It’ll take time to truly figure out the best combination of solutions for my acne.
My goal is to work toward feeling good, rather than looking good.
My skin continues to fluctuate, whether it’s cystic spots on my chin or small colonies of pimples on my cheeks. I’m constantly wondering if it’s “bad enough” to try strong treatments like Accutane. How I feel about myself and my acne will continue to change. It goes back to my high school self envisioning clear skin and not having to think about acne as much in the future. I thought that’s what I wanted, but what I want more is to accept the skin I have—unpredictability and all. I tend to think about who I will be in the coming years without also celebrating who I am today and how far I’ve come. My goal is to work toward feeling good, rather than looking good. Centering self-love and wellness has become important to me recently. I’m more proud of the woman I see in the mirror.
About — Samia Abbasi is the content editor & developer for Kulfi, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, CA. She has a degree in English (Creative Writing emph.) & a minor in Ethnic Studies from Mills College. In her free time, she is a core volunteer of South Asians 4 Black Lives and a co-host of South Asian Reading Challenge. She is an avid reader, blogger, and tea-drinker. You can read her work at samiaabbasi.com.