While we make it our mission to offer genius solutions for all your beauty woes here at Byrdie HQ, sometimes it’s not as simple as a 10-second hack, expert tip, or cult-fave product. Acne, for example, is a nuanced, complicated beast, influenced by any number of factors. Genetics, hormones, diet, and so many other seemingly random things can impact how and when it manifests. All of these potential culprits can make finding the best solution for your skin equally complicated, especially as it ages and evolves.
But the most complex part of dealing with acne isn’t about the physical ramifications, but the emotional ones. Cortisone shots and spot creams might help clear up a blemish in 24 to 48 hours, but confidence isn’t so easy to heal. In our discussion below, four editors talk about the impact acne has had on their own lives—from the remedies they’ve found helpful to overcoming lingering insecurities.
My first experience with acne was literally like something out of a Disney Channel movie: I was in seventh grade, and I woke up on picture day with a pimple on my nose. From there it kind of progressed, unfortunately. Middle school—it was really, really bad. My parents didn’t think it warranted going to a dermatologist. They were like, “Oh, it’s just puberty—you’ll get over it.” So I used a lot of really harsh over-the-counter treatments that I definitely shouldn’t have been using, and it probably exacerbated the situation. I remember one time I went to CVS and I bought these stickers that you’re supposed to put on your pimple, and I’m pretty sure it made the situation worse.
My college roommate described it perfectly: She said acne is not something that is physically debilitating; it’s more so emotionally debilitating. It’s just kind of there. There were days when I actually called in sick to school because I didn’t want to go in because I was so embarrassed. It seemed like everyone else had beautiful porcelain skin and I was the only one who had this issue.
Then I went to college, and that’s when it got really bad, and my mom said she’d take me to the doctor. So I started going on prescription medication. I was on doxycycline and I was also doing topical gels. I also went on birth control. I promised my mom I wasn’t trying to sneakily get birth control; I just wanted to clear up my skin! So that combination really helped. From then on, I also just started using a very simple skincare routine, and my skin has gotten so much better.
My story is similar—I also started breaking out in middle school. My brother always made fun of me, calling me "pimple face." It was pretty regular, like a mild to medium level of breakouts, using all the random Clean & Clear and grapefruit situations that you buy at CVS. It really got bad in college when I started getting cystic acne and blackheads on my nose all the time.
It never really went away for me or got that much better, because I didn’t follow a consistent routine. It’s the same problem I have with exercise: I would half-ass things and not stick to the schedule, and it would never really get better. For people like me who have a hard time sticking to a routine, tackling skin problems becomes really difficult because you’re not doing something consistently. I’m now taking Spironolactone twice a day, and I’m also using retinol. I think that’s contributing to a clearer complexion. But sometimes I’ll have a bag of Cheetos, like last week, and now I’m breaking out. It’s hard to figure out what actually works for me. I’m never going to be a person who doesn’t indulge, so that will always have its effects.
I would say, very similarly, when I was younger, my skin was always clear. But I went to college and suddenly I got these insane breakouts—really deep, cystic breakouts under my chin and around my neck. And surprisingly, it took a lot of visits to dermatologists before anyone brought up that it could be hormonal, which is very obvious considering when I would break out and also where it was. So I tried so many different topical creams, and all it really did was dry out my skin. I think at that time, I was still convinced I could clear my skin if I really dried it out. I ended up stripping my skin of its natural oils and anything it would need to recover naturally. I’m 28 now, and it took me many years and many drugstore products that didn’t work for me to try birth control again. After only about a month, my skin almost completely cleared up. I still get some around that time of the month, but it’s not really a problem anymore, which is kind of amazing.
I think it’s also really interesting that you all said your acne got worse when you were in your early 20s. I never even broke out as a teenager, and only in the past year or two, I’ve started getting these hormonal breakouts. And I think people don’t really understand or know that in your early 20s you almost go through a second puberty. The fact that birth control has been a solution for some of you seems to support that too.
VY: I also think what we said about going on a routine—so many people try so many different things, and you try every single product that you think will help, but once you get on that routine of really taking care of your skin, really moisturizing, and doing the same thing every day, it helps so much.
VH: Giselle, I also love what you mentioned about Cheetos impacting your skin. Do you have any other thoughts on approaching clear skin from the inside out and through lifestyle changes?
GC: I think the most effective way to do it is with a holistic approach, but it’s so hard to think about what works for your body. It all affects people differently, and you need to figure out your personal holistic approach. There are a lot of general theories that say to take these remedies even though it’s different from person to person. I think that’s my problem: I don’t know how to find the right holistic approach for me, so that has been an obstacle.
LM: There are some things that are clear—like when I eat pizza and wings, my skin is worse versus when I eat clean. But I started taking probiotics a couple of years ago, and I feel like that really makes a big difference. My skin has more of a glow to it. I noticed that on my period my skin is okay, but if I ever try to pop a pimple, it’s like, out of control. I have to learn to stop touching my face always, but especially when I’m on my period.
I have a question for you, Victoria: Do you think there’s a connection between your skin and being vegan?
VH: It’s interesting because my skin acted out in a different way. My skin was always just really dry and sensitive, and when I went vegan six years ago, it improved in a different way: It became more moisturized, and the small breakouts that I was getting went away. But then in the last year or two, I’ve started getting these really bad hormonal breakouts on my chin, so I don’t think the two are correlated. That being said, when I am not eating well, it definitely shows up on my skin. I almost feel odd commenting on acne because it was never an issue for me for such a long time. But that’s always my first recommendation to friends, is to check what you’re eating. I think that really does make a difference.
VY: I agree with what Lindsey said about touching your face; that’s something that I used to be really bad about. I stopped drinking caffeinated coffee for about a year, and I noticed my skin get a lot better after that. I also know that I’m really sensitive to dairy. I really shouldn’t be eating it, but I continue to do it. I’m trying to decide if I want to take the next step—I’m already vegetarian, but I might try to go vegan because I’m pretty sure my body doesn’t like dairy, and that could be contributing to the acne. Also just drinking a lot of water—I notice that when I stay hydrated, which I can be bad about, my skin looks a lot better.
VH: When your skin was at its worst, did you ever consider really more hardcore treatments like Accutane?
LM: I thought about it, but then my sophomore-year roommate went on it, and she was having a lot of complications. She was getting sick, her stomach was really hurting her, and it really freaked me out. I would rather have a pimple than internal organ problems. After that, I steered clear of it.
GC: Accutane seems like it’s only for people with really severe cases. For me, I didn’t feel like my skin was at that point. And I also heard stories and got a little scared of it. I was willing to take pills and use creams, but Accutane seemed too serious.
VY: I really considered it—I went to the dermatologist and was getting ready to do blood tests. But I also have friends who had negative experiences. I had a friend who went on it and his vision changed. He had to get glasses after he took Accutane. I don’t know if that’s like a scientifically proven thing, but it definitely seems scary thinking about internal organ damage, liver stuff—it just didn’t sound appealing. But I think if I hadn’t found birth control or other things that worked, I would’ve given it a shot for sure. It’s just not fun to live with really strong acne.
LM: I was also interested in the cortisone shots. I remember Deven [Hopp] wrote a story about it—I think she had negative experiences with that. But I always wanted to try it. Like when you wake up and have a giant shiner on your face, I just want to see if it really works.
VH: I know people who swear by it.
LM: Switching gears—I think a lot of times when we talk about acne, we talk about ways of treating it and good remedies. But I really think the psychological aspect of acne is really worth talking about as well. Because it is such a debilitating thing to have socially. It can make you just not want to go out. I won’t look someone in the eye sometimes, because I’m so embarrassed. It really kills my confidence. So what experiences have you guys had socially and psychologically?
GC: It was very much a confidence debilitator in high school and throughout college. I remember one time I was going with a friend to see Wall-E—whenever that came out—and I had a big one right on my face. I tried to pop it, and then I had to stop it from bleeding. Then I tried to cover it all with makeup, so much makeup on my face, panicking and making it into a big event. My friend told me you could barely tell, trying to make me feel better, but I knew. I was so embarrassed I cried to my mom about it. It really does affect your confidence.
VY: I also felt very insecure—I didn’t want to go out. When I was going to the dining commons for breakfast in college, I would put on a ton of makeup. At the gym, anywhere—I was putting on so much makeup, like a full face of concealer. And that habit’s been hard for me to break. Even though my skin’s a lot clearer, I get nervous. Like, what if a bit of a blemish shows through. I’m super envious of people who look like they have gorgeous, gleaming skin all the time. And when you’re dating people, you’re hoping they don’t see how bad my skin is, which of course they will. It makes you rethink everything, like going out and being with friends. Even just hanging out with friends who have perfect skin, you’re like, ugh, this is terrible.
LM: I think you raise a really good point about wanting to wear makeup to the gym—and everywhere. One summer I was going to the beach with my friends, and I was taking forever to put my makeup on, and they were like, “You’re going to the beach!” And we know we shouldn’t wear makeup to the gym and places like that; it’s gonna make us break out more. It’s a vicious cycle.
VH: I like what you said, Virginia—that even though your skin is better now, it still sticks with you. It’s something to consider with what the current makeup trends are now, which is very natural and dewy.
VY: Totally different. Back then, it was all about being matte and shine-free, so even now I still get so worried about oil and stuff.
VH: One last question: When you do wake up with that really big pimple on your face, what is your number one holy grail method or product for getting rid of it really quickly?
GC: I do not have one. Earlier this year, I got this serum called Active Clarifying Serum, which helped a little bit. But I have not found a holy grail remedy. Ever. With my body, those big things, it’s just patience. For some people dealing with those breakouts, it really is just time and keeping the area clean. There is no holy grail.
LM: I find that any sort of topical cream with 10% benzoyl peroxide does the trick—it doesn’t even matter what brand; it can be CVS generic. If I put that on a breakout, it will shorten its life span by at least 50%, maybe even 75%. I always go for that—I’ll put a big glob on at night.
VY: I agree—I haven’t found anything that makes it disappear overnight, but some sort of treatment with salicylic acid before bed helps. I’ve also tried those Peter Thomas Roth stickers ($12)—I think those are good because they stay in place overnight.