My run-in with adult acne taught me about medicine, mental health, and myself.
By Morgan Dick, Calgary writer.
Unlike many Canadians, I never experienced acne as a teenager. While my peers fought painful pimples and stubborn blackheads, my skin remained effortlessly clear. I know, I know—I was lucky. By the time I turned twenty, I thought I had escaped.
You can imagine my surprise when, at age twenty-six, a bout of cystic acne consumed the lower half of my face and wouldn’t go away no matter what over-the-counter creams I smeared on it.
Over the next twelve months, I navigated a landscape of acne information, misinformation, and hard-to-pronounce prescription drugs. The journey taught me a lot—not only about my skin, but about myself.
# 1 Adults get acne, too
I was frustrated and embarrassed when my acne first developed. I was also flummoxed. Only teenagers got pimples this bad. Right? Wrong, it turns out.
According to the Acne and Rosacea Society of Canada, acne affects one in five adult women, along with three percent of men. Women like me, who fall between the ages of twenty and forty, are even more likely to experience acne due to the influence of hormones. Yes, you heard me—hormones! The pimples hadn’t appeared because I ate too much sugar or didn’t wash my face enough.
Relieved to learn the acne wasn’t my fault, I resolved to move forward. This meant booking a visit to the doctor.
# 2 It’s treatable…
My family physician, who is experienced in acne treatment, became a valuable ally on my journey. (You might find the same support in a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in skin conditions.) She validated me by treating my acne as a serious medical problem. She also provided encouragement and sound guidance.
While we trialed a series of medications—everything from retinol creams to oral antibiotics—I learned not to pop, squeeze, or pick at my acne. I learned to buy non-comedogenic makeup and face creams, which wouldn’t clog my pores. I learned to be patient and trust that together we would find an answer.
And we did! When the antibiotic pills proved unsuccessful, we took the plunge to isotretinoin, the oral treatment once known as Accutane. Although I experienced a variety of unpleasant side effects, such as dry eyes and flaking skin, my six-month course of isotretinoin completely cleared my acne. A year later, I’m still acne-free.
# 3 …but you don’t have to treat it if you don’t want to
Despite the spectrum of effective treatments available for acne, some folks still have a tough time getting rid of it. The condition may improve after a course of medication but worsen a few months or years down the road. For a minority of people, acne never really goes away. And if you don’t have prescription drug coverage, the process can also be costly.
Some individuals choose to accept their acne rather than treat it. For inspiration, we need look no further than TikTok and Instagram, where acne-positive influencers flaunt their blemishes and scars for the online public. Ultimately, what you do about your acne—whether you treat it, embrace it, or both—is up to you.
# 4 Acne isn’t just “cosmetic”
I had to pay out of pocket for my acne treatment because my student benefits plan didn’t cover the medications. When I called the insurance provider to find out why, a representative informed me that “cosmetic” treatments were ineligible. (If this happens to you, talk to your provider about their drug exception process. Signed documentation from a physician is usually required.)
With all due respect to my insurance provider, acne is much more than cosmetic. My pimples were itchy, uncomfortable, and even painful. They also did a serious number on my self-esteem.
I have no pictures of my acne at its worst because I made a point of avoiding cameras. I also avoided mirrors and made excuses not to attend gatherings with friends and family. On good days, I felt ugly. On bad days, I felt worthless.
#5 You aren’t alone
Thankfully, I was able to share these feelings with trusted friends, my doctor, and my psychologist. I also had the support of a partner who saw past my acne and strived to make me feel beautiful. Day by day, things got better.
I now know that depression and anxiety are common for people with acne—which is all the more reason to seek the help of a medical professional.
If my acne returns, I’ll know where to go. I’ll have the right tools and connections. And I’ll know that no matter how bad it gets, I’m not alone.
(More about adult acne here).