Acne isn’t only a teenage problem – and this persistent misconception fuels the stigma felt by adults experiencing symptoms, from small spots to painful cysts.
Lou Northcote, 24, from London, saw her modelling career collapse overnight when she developed acne. That – and the general shame attached to skin conditions – knocked her self-esteem, to the point where she’d stay in her room for days.
“I wouldn’t go to the corner shop and get food without putting foundation on – makeup became this thing I couldn’t live without,” she says during HuffPost’s Am I Making Your Uncomfortable? podcast. “Sometimes I would even sleep with my foundation on if I was staying at a friend’s house because I was so ashamed.”
Northcote’s skin anxiety hit “rock bottom” just as the body positivity movement was gaining traction. In a snap decision, she posted a makeup-free selfie with a caption detailing her story – and to her surprise, the comments that flooded in were overwhelmingly positive.
She now runs Free The Pimple, an online community where people share photos of their acne and work towards embracing their skin. “I’ve now seen other people like me and it really did change my life as a whole, not just online,” she says. “I came back to that confident person who didn’t care about my skin.”
Vlad Predescu, 22, from Romania, is among those who’ve appeared on Northcote’s page. The online acne community is dominated by women, so Predescu created an Instagram account that would resonate with men, too. He developed acne when he was 19 and it gradually became more prominent.
“When I saw my face covered with cystic acne, I felt very bad mentally,” he says. “I avoided mirrors because I didn’t want to see myself.”
Predescu sought the help of a dermatologist to reduce his acne, but says finding other people like him online helped boost his confidence.
“In real life, most of my friends have clear skin and maybe, a pimple now and then,” he says. “Those who choose to follow and support me make my day better when I feel down. I know it’s my responsibility to make myself happy, but sometimes I simply can’t do it.”
Of course, not everyone who experiences acne is ready to share photos online. Amy, 26, from London, developed painful cystic acne in her early 20s and has spent time and energy trying to hide it.
“It really impacted my lifestyle,” says Amy, who chose not to share her surname. “I wouldn’t exercise because I was so self-conscious about the sweat removing my makeup. I wouldn’t shower at other people’s houses so I wouldn’t have to be without makeup.”
One of the most difficult aspects was strangers commenting on her skin. “People in public would offer me their solutions,” she says. “I think people think they have some sort of right or that they’re doing you a favour by bringing this up, even if they don’t know who you are. I found it really stressful.”
She was eventually prescribed Roaccutane – a medication used to treat severe acne – but says few people realise the impact of the medication itself.
“It’s a really big lifestyle change – you have to go to the hospital every month to get your bloods checked. You can’t drink alcohol and you can get joint pain, because it stops the oil production in your body,” she explains. “It worked for me and I’m so much less anxious and self-conscious now. But it’s a big commitment. I would say think very carefully about it.”
5 Things A Dermatologist Wants You To Know About Adult Acne
Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, tells us five quick but vital facts.
1. Adult acne is not your fault
”We don’t know for sure the exact reasons why adult acne suddenly appears, but it’s probably hormonally and genetically related.”
2. Identifying your type of acne may help you find treatment
“Adult acne is more common in women and consists of two subtypes: persistent acne (acne that continues from teenage years and fails to clear) and late-onset acne (beginning after the age of 25 years).”
3. Some over-the-counter products are better than others
“Products that contain salicylic acid and zinc may be beneficial. Try over-the-counter acne treatments such as benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid to apply directly onto spots. Avoid heavy cosmetics and products that will block pores and choose items that are oil-free and non-comedogenic.”
4. A GP or doctor can offer different options
”Prescription treatments include oral antibiotics and hormonal treatments such as spironolactone or isotretinoin. Your consultant dermatologist will be able to advise based on your individual circumstances.”
5. Skin ‘fads’ may irritate your acne further
“Those who suffer from acne can sometimes be taken in by the latest fad, celebrity-backed products or advice from non-medical professionals or influencers. Always get your skincare advice from a healthcare professional, ideally a qualified dermatologist. These are the only people properly trained in managing skin problems.”
While it’s important to ask a medical professional for advice on treatment, the online acne community can be a great place to find emotional support and confidence-boosting tips. Predescu’s advice is to focus on your hobbies on days when skin anxiety is brewing.
“Skin shouldn’t define you,” he says. “Do things that make you happy. Do you like reading? Painting? Exercising? Do that, don’t wait for your skin to be clear. Just focus on what you can control for now.”
If you’re finding it hard to get out of the house, Northcote recommends taking baby steps. “Do a FaceTime with your parents makeup-free or your friends,” she recommends. “Then, if you want to go outside, it sounds weird but just walk up and down your street. In your head you’re like: ‘Actually I did that and I was fine.’
“Then you can take it to the next level – go to the shop and get some milk or something.” Before long, you’ll realise everyone is too busy with themselves to be paying that much attention to your skin, she says.
And importantly: work on self-care, too. “It isn’t just about showing your acne,” says Northcote. “It’s about accepting yourself during that time.”