As a professional esthetician, I’m hyper-aware of how misbehaving skin can impact our emotional and physical wellbeing. I’ve seen it take hold over my client’s confidence and even experienced it steal away my own self-worth. While there are many skin conditions that can affect how good we feel about our reflection, dare I say acne sufferers know this truth better than anyone?
Whether or not we want to admit it, the impacts of our skin issues run deep. Recovery can be a yearslong journey, whether it’s the anxiety and fear or the literal battle scars left behind.
I’m familiar with these emotions from my own experience. As I write this, my chest gets tight just like it was yesterday. The professional embarrassment with my skin littered in cysts and raw, healing wounds. I’m an esthetician, I’m supposed to have perfect skin! The anxiety creeping in as I’m thinking, Oh God, she’s literally staring at my zits judging me. Or the worrying thoughts, It’s never going to end, adult acne is on the rise, I’m just another forever victim.
At one point, I booked a med spa consult to discuss zapping away my acne marks and scars. Even then I worried about the outcome… What are they going to say about my skin during the consultation?
You see, a few weeks prior I thought my skin was finally in a good place and scheduled an appointment. A few days before, my skin decided to teach me a lesson. Maybe I had stressed over the consultation, triggering cortisone and an influx of hormones. Overnight I had a set of new fresh cysts saying, Hi, hello! Did you miss us? As two of my peers analyzed my skin, tunnel vision set in. All I could hear was “We can’t do anything for you until you’re no longer breaking out.”
Consider me triggered. A full-blown panic attack was rushing in. I don’t remember anything but holding back tears in a full elevator, rushing to get to my car before completely losing it.
Let’s rewind for a moment because this story has a happy ending. These are the details of my skin journey and how I went from despair to hope.
Full disclosure: What I’m going to share with you wasn’t quick or easy. Healing my skin took nearly a year with the worst breakouts of my life deeply impacting my confidence and self-worth.
Through my teenage years, my skin was pretty clear, although I didn’t know any better as I regularly reached for my mom’s Ponds Cold Cream and St. Ives Scrub. In my mid-20’s, not long after receiving my esthetics license, cystic hormonal began to rear its ugly head and only worsened as the years passed.
I became my own guinea pig, trying anything and everything to overcome my breakouts. In the beginning, I used over the counter acne treatments to manage my skin. You know the type, traditional spot treatments and acne serums with salicylic acid. The usual suspects we all use while managing acne. They all turned my skin into a flaky, dehydrated mess without really making a difference in my breakouts. But it didn’t stop at topical skincare. This is what worked… and what didn’t.
Dermatologist Prescribed Acne Treatments
I’m the type of person who doesn’t take prescriptions unless absolutely necessary but my skin was driving me mad. After two years of trying traditional acne products, it was time to bite the bullet. I reached my breaking point. I was well aware of the available pharmaceutical options: antibiotics, Accutane, or spironolactone. Knowing my acne was textbook hormonal, I already knew what I wanted to try while my dermatologist listed options.
I learned my breakouts were likely caused by a common hormonal imbalance in women: excess androgens as a result of high testosterone levels. The imbalance triggers an over stimulation of oil glands, resulting in irritated follicles. Spironolactone blocks excess androgens, helping minimize breakouts and their frequency. The medication is used for both nasty, large cysts and small, annoying bumps typically found along the jawline.
For a while, I saw improvement, flirting with higher doses as directed by my dermatologist. When I addressed a vitamin D deficiency I saw even greater results. Satisfied, I felt comfortable with my bi-monthly cysts. They were no longer massive, nickel-sized lumps, it felt manageable. Within a couple of years, the short-lived fix was waning. My cystic acne had come back with a vengeance. I decided spironolactone wasn’t worth the mediocre acne-control I was receiving, on top of the massive dehydration that comes with taking a diuretic. Time to bring in the big guns, otherwise known as the long, hard route.
Diet and Internal Health
After four long years of trying everything at my disposal, like acne products and prescriptions, I decided to take a natural approach, addressing my acne from the inside out. As desperate as I was to have clear skin, addressing my internal health wasn’t an easy choice. A key part of healing was learning what my food triggers were and cutting them out. Truly one of my long time, big fears as a huge foodie. Goodbye dairy and wheat, my old friends! See you in moderation, possibly someday?
With help from colleagues guiding me, I started Whole 30, tested for food sensitivities and hormonal imbalances, and heavily cut back on refined sugar while eliminating dairy and wheat. Sticking to a strict diet, restoring my gut’s good bacteria, reducing inflammation, and using a natural alternative to spironolactone called DHT Block (approved by my dermatologist, of course) all led to clearing my skin for good.
If this is a route you want to try, I highly suggest reading Dr. Nigma Talib’s Younger Skin Starts in the Gut. In addition to practicing an elimination diet while allowing my body to heal from imbalances, this book was an informative guide. Essentially, it was my bible throughout the process.
Topical Acne Treatments and Skincare
Let’s be real, even while addressing my acne internally, I still used skincare but I focused on acne products that wouldn’t dry out my sensitive skin while keeping my skin barrier strong and healthy. Easier said than done! Many acne products aren’t designed to support our skin barrier. Instead, they tend to be too strong or harsh for daily use.
As an esthetician, I had easy access to professional chemical peels. While they provided some immediate relief with active acne, it was short lived. A few times, chemical peels produced too much inflammation within my skin, creating new cysts in unusual areas of my face. Traditional acne products with salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, retinol, and clay masks were too harsh for every day and left my skin dry, flaky and red.
What did work was using Lightstim Blue LED device for calming inflammation and eliminating bacteria, a soothing, hydrating zinc mask I happened to find in an Italian spa while traveling, and a professional-only botanical acne serum shipped directly from Australia. Not exactly realistic for Stateside acne sufferers looking for skin rescuing products. Although, you can take these ideas into consideration when hunting for skincare to calm and heal your breakouts: look for less products that increase cell turnover and more that support your skin in healing while repairing your barrier.
Self Love and Perception
Eventually, those large cysts became small zits, but they still impacted my confidence as they left behind battle scars and discoloration. Through the process, I had to give myself plenty of mental pep talks. Your worth is not based on what your skin looks like. You’re a great esthetician, this doesn’t affect how you help others overcome their skin struggles. You are whole, you are complete, you are perfect as you are. Judgment from others doesn’t change any of this, Sarah.
This might sound cheesy but self-compassion was an intricate part of healing. Until the role of being a patient was reversed, I didn’t fully understand how emotional trauma arises from skin imperfections. Let alone the hold it can have over a person. I knew I was helping my clients regain their confidence, helping them feel whole again. But I didn’t understand how deep those emotions could run. Since experiencing both sides, I now understand how debilitating, tormenting, and impactful it can be on our wellbeing. If you’re in the thick of it, be sure to take care of yourself in every aspect–you owe it to yourself.
Clear & Brilliant Laser Treatments
My industry friends suggested Clear & Brilliant to correct my battle wounds from acne, the most gentle laser option available. Clear & Brilliant is the typical med spa recommendation for post-acne sufferers looking to recover their skin in a speedy fashion. My skin had a combination of dark marks from post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, post-inflammatory erythema and uneven texture from ice pick and boxcar scars.
Clear & Brilliant resurfaces your skin to quickly give your complexion a more even tone, chipping away at discolorations within 7 days or so. The real magic happens 6 to 8 weeks after treatment when your skin begins building new collagen and filling in textural scars. Typically, providers suggest a series of 3 to 6 treatments, although I saw significant improvement with just two rounds. That said, I still have some minimal scarring but my skin has improved so much that what’s left doesn’t bother me too much. You know, practicing self-love and acceptance.
After the humiliating experience in the med spa, the day I had been waiting for arrived and pimples stopped forming. I went back and received a series of Clear & Brilliant treatments to erase my acne scars. Talk about liberation! A weight lifted from my shoulders and I felt an unfamiliar vibrance. I had finally shed acne’s powerful force that had held me down for 6 years. Putting a name to that unfamiliar feeling, I recognized it as confidence, warm and inviting me in.