I was lucky enough to have beautiful, clear skin throughout my teens. I watched school friends suffer with severe cystic acne and honestly wondered what they must have been going through and how hard it must have been for them. But I could never really fully empathise until I woke up one morning and realised that what had started as a few ordinary, hormonal spots had turned in to a full face of inflamed, sore and red acne. The photos below are not of my skin at its absolute worst, but they give you a good idea of how it looked most days, along with my miserable face, which looks like I’m about to burst in to tears at any second! :’) (Waah. A common occurrence at the time.) If you’re reading this right now and you are struggling to cope with acne, please know that you are beautiful, worthy, unbelievably strong and you will get through it. It will not last forever, I promise.
Where did it suddenly come from?
I genuinely couldn’t give you one definite answer. I have a feeling that it was a mixture of things. At the time I had just got a new camera and was doing makeup videos every single day, on top of that I was working at Nars and had to wear a full face of makeup about 4 days of the week. I used Bio Oil on my face in one of my videos (Please never use it on your face) and I think my break outs started happening soon after that.
My Relationship with Food
But the most significant change that I had made was to my diet. I had recently recovered from bulimia, and decided that I was now going to eat whatever the hell I wanted and not give a shit about dieting. Honestly, It was a really important part of my journey, and I believe that allowing myself to eat ANYTHING was crucial if I was to break my unhealthy relationship with food, and understand that ‘junk food’ had no power over me. I was eating pasta, chocolate, bread and sugar every single day without fail and totally guilt free for the first time in my life. It was liberating and unhealthy, but far better than living with my head down the toilet bowl, riddled with guilt, shame and self-loathing.
I believe that above all else, my poor diet was the driving force behind my acne becoming worse and worse. Feeling stuck in a pattern of eating processed food, feeling unwell and generally not taking care of myself became a vicious cycle that I couldn’t quite seem to break. I also felt dizzy and incredibly anxious from lacking a lot of essential vitamins and minerals, and the ridiculous amount of sugar I was eating would wake me up in the middle of night experiecing mini panic attacks, and on a few occasions – really scary hallucinations and night terrors.
Thankfully I had my boyfriend at the time to take care of me, and in my lowest moments where I literally cried my eyes out and didn’t want to leave the house because my skin looked so inflamed and sore, he told me that I was beautiful and would ask me ‘What acne?’ as though it wasn’t even there. If I hadn’t had him to reassure me and make me feel safe and loved, I genuinely think acne could have easily driven me in to depression. It sounds over the top, but until you have to stare at your reflection in the mirror feeling dirty, embarrassed, lost and hopeless – you just won’t understand.
The Struggle to Love Myself
At a time when I felt so low, I knew I had to carry on doing what I loved and what made me truly happy, so I continued to make makeup videos and was determined to show girls that their skin does not define them, and that they can still feel beautiful and love themselves despite having acne. A lot of the comments I received were cruel, people judging me, shaming me, telling me I was ‘gross’, that I needed to stop wearing makeup all together etc. And honestly while it really hurt and often made me cry, it really fuelled me to love myself even more. I would look in the mirror, smile through gritted teeth and say ‘I love you, you are so much more than your skin. You have so much more to offer the world than your physical body.” and I worked at that belief every single day.
I have nothing but pity for people who choose to tear others down based on their outer appearance, as I know their shallow and unforgiving perspective only proves that they judge themselves in this exact same way. Our words and actions come from within us and are a direct reflection of how we truly feel inside, and if we are holding a space for darkness, anxiety, bitterness and insecurity – this is exactly what we will put out to the world. When we are filled with self-love, kindness, compassion and empathy, we can give the world exactly that. We can lift each other up and compliment each other, we can be strong and supportive knowing that everybody is doing the best they can and we gain nothing by judging or critising another soul.
Now, the biggest mistake I made on my journey to healing my acne was to ignore what my gut was telling me. That my diet was to blame. What I needed to realise was that clearing my skin would be far more about what I put in my body than what I put on my face. I’d had tests done to find out my intolerances when I was younger and knew that wheat and dairy were by far the foods that affected me the most. They made me feel sick, bloated, tired, run down, and now it seemed they were causing me to break out. I did my research and found that dairy was a leading cause of acne.
Acne and Dairy
There is an abundance of a hormone called IGF-1 in milk, which is really good for baby cows, but not for humans. It’s a growth hormone. It makes baby cows grow big and strong, but in humans, it tends to make our acne grow big and strong instead. This hormone is one of several factors that cause inflammation in humans, and which eventually lead to acne (and the redness and swelling that makes acne so annoying). Milk and dairy products cause an insulin spike in humans that cause the liver to produce even more IGF-1, leading to even more acne.
Dairy causes your skin to produce excess sebum (oil), leading to – you guessed it! – more clogged pores, more acne, and a breeding ground for bacteria, which feed on your sebum and spew out inflammatory by-products. It glues together dead skin cells inside your pores, so they can’t exit naturally, leading to clogged pores (and thus more acne).
Acne and Gluten Intolerance
Acne is also a result of blood sugar problems and chronic inflammation. These trigger hormonal reactions that lead to increased oil, blocked pores and overgrowth of bacteria. Inflammation which is caused by the body’s immune system working to “fight off” an invader (gluten) happens to people who are gluten intolerant, releasing histamine and increasing inflammation as well as insulin resistance. Insulin resistance leads to blood sugar issues which have been linked to acne. So there is another explanation. And honestly, I’d never felt so hormonal, moody, up and down, anxious or ‘not myself’ in my life.
Skin Care Routine
Despite researching all of the above, I refused to believe that I had to change my diet, and clung on to the idea that a good skin care routine would save me. I TRIED EVERYTHING. Literally. There is not one recommendation that someone sent to me that I didn’t try. Some days my skin looked slightly better and I would be over the moon, and then the next day I’d wake up with 7 new sore, inflamed spots. And we were back to square one. I did face masks every day. I spent hundreds of pounds on expensive creams in Selfridges. I mixed vinegar with clay and my face smelt like a weird, sweaty foot for about 2 weeks. I watched YouTube videos where girls had used one bar of soap from Lush for a week and never had a pimple again, and people who’d tried one new cleanser and suddenly it all cleared up. I just couldn’t understand why this wouldn’t happen for me.
The only piece of advice that I ignored was to stop any kind of skincare routine all together, strip it back, wash my face with water only and allow my skin to heal. This is the last thing I wanted to do. As humans we have this funny way of always needing to do more, to take action, to be in control. And when I finally held my hands up, surrendered, and binned the 45 skincare products sitting in my bathroom cupboard, my skin finally started to calm down. I also stopped working at Nars, and therefore wore a lot less makeup so my skin had time to breathe.
If I did a makeup tutorial I’d take the makeup off as soon as I finished so that I only wore foundation for an hour tops, and I would make sure to use an oil to remove everything. My favourite oil cleanser at the time was from Shu Uemura and I would hands down recommend it to everyone, it’s incredible. I also used Mabel and Meg Vitamin C serum, but I stopped using moisturiser all together.
I then started to use Acnecide Benzoyl Peroxide Wash and the Gel (5% strength) every morning and night, and my skin soon began to dry up and went so dry and flaky, I literally felt like a crocodile. After another 2 weeks of using both twice a day, my skin finally began to heal and I was left with the odd spot and a lot of pigmentation and scarring. My diet was slowly improving as I began to make more conscious choices without sending myself on a strict diet which would only trigger old habits and potentially interfere with my number one priority – healing from an eating disorder. I then started to use Pai rose hip oil for my scarring and it made a huge difference.
Once the acne had cleared, the only problem I had were the tiny white bumps all over my face, even though there were now no red or inflamed spots, they were still really annoying and looked super lumpy under my makeup. I still have a few now, but they’re not very noticeable and I’m sure they’ll clear up over time. When I came out to Bali, lay in the sunshine and got a tan, those little white lumps literally began to disappear, and within a few weeks my skin was clear, glowing and happy. One thing I won’t advocate is going on the sunbed, as I’m personally terrified of skin damage and the risks of getting skin cancer, but I do genuinely believe that a little sun exposure really does help my skin. If you are using benxoyl peroxide or any other acne treatment, please don’t go in the sun as they make your skin way more vulernable to UV light.
Here’s a photo of my skin today. Honestly, it seems like an absolute miracle to to sit here without having to worry about putting creams on, double cleansing, stressing, picking, squeezing and crying. My diet in Bali has been so nutritious, healthy and full of goodness! (Although I’ve had a lot more alcohol than I usually would! Woops.)
So here’s my advice – the number one thing you should do is look in to potential food intolerances, and handle those first. Make sure you’re drinking a shit tonne of water, and think about what you’re putting in to your body. Listen to her. She needs nutrition, she needs love, she needs taking care of. Acne is a sign that something is off balance. If you’re on the contraceptive pill, you have the coil or implant etc. then please consider what this is doing to your body and whether or not it’s effecting your hormones and causing acne.
Next, if you can go down the natural skincare route first, and that works – then great. So many people have amazing results using tea tree oil, rose hip oil and certain masks, soaps and cleansers from Lush are all natural and I’ve heard amazing things. Absolutely none of them worked for me! The only thing that helped was Bragg’s organic apple cider vinegar which I bought off Amazon, but the charcoal masks that everyone raves about did nothing. However, we are all very different, and there are so many potential causes for acne that one thing isn’t always going to work for someone else.
Benzoyl peroxide was a life saver for me, and definitely the next option before considering taking any form of hormonal contraceptive pill, or other acne medication such as Accutane (Which I very nearly considered, and I know people have had great results with, but the risks and side effects are way too scary sounding to me!) I know other people that have had amazing results with anti-biotics, but again, it wasn’t something I felt drawn towards.
Here is a list of suggestions that I know many people have had success with.
- Going gluten-free
- Removing and/or limiting dairy
- Removing and/or limiting coffee and caffeine
- Eliminating eggs
- Candida cleansing
- Benzoyl peroxide
- Vitamin C serum
- Supplementing l-glutamate, alpha lipoic acid, selenium, zinc, and lecithin
- Using herbs for acne
- Trying homeopathic remedy
- Taking probiotics
- Megadosing vitamin A (under a naturopathic doctor’s supervision)
- Improving food quality by choosing organic/pastured/clean when possible
- Reducing/Eliminating sugar
- Reducing/Eliminating alcohol
- Moisturising with natural oils
- Switching to mineral makeup
- Washing your face with raw honey a few times a week
If you have any tips for how to deal with acne, or you’re struggling, please feel free to share in the comments or message me and I will share your experience so that others can learn, grow and feel a little more comfortable knowing they’re not alone. I love you all so much.