A College Student’s Guide to Surviving Acne

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Acne is hard. Especially when you’re past your teenage years and, suddenly, you’re “too old” to still be suffering from it. But, as everyone who has endured acne knows, turning 20 is rarely the magic cure.

My Story

My acne first reared its head when I was 15. I was a sophomore in high school and I was so shy. The last thing my confidence needed was a pimply face. My solution to this issue was to do what all 15-year-olds would: cry to my mother. She took me to Target where we stocked up on all the over-the-counter acne products we could find — from face wash to nose strips. Unsurprisingly, these remedies didn’t work.

For months, I slathered my face with concealer and accepted my acne-ridden fate.

I have a distinct memory of when this acceptance changed. I was fed up and I needed to try something new. My mom took me to Ulta, where we splurged on the first product that would actually work — the Clinique Acne Solutions Clear Skin System. I saw improvements in my skin within weeks. I was euphoric. Finally, something had worked. Unfortunately, these improvements would only last for a few months. At 16, thinking I had kicked my skin affliction, I was brought back to the acne battlefield, defeated, head-in-hands.

This was the beginning of a long and familiar story for those who have dealt with acne — the neverending process of trying a new solution and having it work for months (sometimes even years) before your breakouts come back full force. A cycle of new hope being crushed by failure.

From that point on, I was always in the process of “trying something new for my skin.”

I waited until I was at a breaking point to call the dermatologist, only to be shocked when I was told there was a five-month waiting period before I could see a doctor. Naturally, it was a long five months, but I am so glad I waited — my dermatologist changed my life.

There’s a timeline for treating acne that everyone I know who has suffered from acne has gone through. It starts with low-intensity topical creams and ends with Accutane. Tretinoin cream, Clindamycin lotion, Doxycycline pills, birth control — dermatologists seem to go through a checklist of treatments, hoping each will work, before prescribing Accutane (AKA the final boss of acne).

For me, each trial worked for a time. For a while, I thought birth control would be my “final” treatment. I was on it for about a year and a half (in conjunction with a couple of topical medicines) before my breakouts came back — the longest any treatment had ever kept my acne at bay. When the birth control stopped working, it was time to try Accutane. In my third year of college, five years into my acne journey, I finally took what I hope is the last step in kicking my acne.

Your Guide to Surviving Acne
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1. Call the dermatologist right away.

Like many specialists, dermatologists are not easy to get an appointment with. If you’ve been coping with acne for any considerable amount of time (more than three months), call the dermatologist now. It takes months to get an appointment, and months can feel like years when you have acne.

When you add the time it takes to find a treatment that actually works for your skin, you’ll want to start the process as soon as possible.

2. Be gentle with your skin.

It can be tempting to throw all the products available on your face in hopes of clearing your skin, but this never works how we hope it will. With no moderation, acne treatments, masks, fancy face washes, you name it, can dry out and inflame your skin. This makes acne look worse and makes your makeup appear more “cakey.”

Instead, opt for a gentle face wash like Cetaphil or CeraVe. Moisturizing is important, but try to stick with light, gel-based moisturizers. Other things are okay in moderation, of course, but based on my experience — and my dermatologist’s advice — it’s best to largely stick to the basics.

It’s also important to avoid picking at your skin and popping pimples to the best of your ability. I know it’s tempting but, trust me, it makes things so much worse.

A tip from my dermatologist: wash your face with this Oxy face wash in the morning and this Cetaphil face wash at night.

3. Be gentle with your psyche.

Acne is a psychologically challenging thing to deal with. I know this sounds dramatic, but ask anyone in your life who has dealt with it — the toll acne takes on your confidence is major. I remember sobbing to my mom in high school that I couldn’t go anywhere without makeup on. I was so insecure all the time. When my skin was at its worst during my first year of college, I would wake up an hour early to apply a full face of makeup before leaving my dorm, and it still felt like everyone was staring.

Allow yourself to feel these things — it’s okay to be insecure — but also remember that people aren’t looking at you as much as you think they are. My favorite piece of wisdom my dad passed down was that people are always thinking about themselves and how they are perceived more than they are thinking about you. No one is judging you for your acne, they’re too busy worrying about their own insecurities.

4. Prioritize your physical health.

I know how frustrating it is to have people suggest that your acne is due to diet, lack of sleep, drinking too much, etc., I’m not here to tell you that. Rather, I want to suggest that being aware of things like what you’re eating and how much you’re working out can boost your overall well-being.

Honestly, my acne always made me feel gross. No matter how recently I washed my face, it felt dirty. The best way I found to combat this feeling was to make sure I was taking care of myself in other realms. I made sure I was eating fruits and vegetables, I washed my hair more often, I kept clean sheets on my bed, I worked out. It helped.

My acne didn’t exist because of a lack of hygiene or health, but prioritizing these things just a little more made me feel better overall.

5. Don’t let your acne stop you from living your life.

It can be easy to give in to insecurities and allow them to stop you from living your life. It’s important though to fight these thoughts.

I understand the urge to stay in when your skin is flaring up, but doing this has never made me feel better about myself. In fact, pushing through these fears and embracing my skin helped me more than hiding ever did.

Know that you are not alone. So many people have dealt with acne and will understand your experiences — find them, talk with them, get their personalized tips on dealing with it. Acne can only hold you back if you let it.


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