We Need to Talk About Adult Acne

As soon as I hit my 20s, my skin erupted in an angry mess of red spots around my chin and cheek area. But throughout my teenage years, I never had a problem, so this sudden occurrence of acne was mind-boggling. Before it happened, I didn’t even know it was a thing. If lockdown gave me anything, it was the luxury of being able to have makeup-free days. With the absence of my usual 9-5, I felt no need to wear makeup as there was no one around to notice my skin. 

In reality – adult acne can be worse in your twenties (especially for women) than as a teenager. Despite it being so common, one study in the US suggested 85% of females and 15% of males have adult acne, it is still surrounded by misconceptions. Above all, it’s not just a skin condition, but can affect your daily life, confidence and relationships with others. 

The common assumption to make by those who have never suffered from acne is that people with bad skin don’t look after it. It is assumed that their face must be dirty and they have a bad diet, laden with greasy foods and an absence of fruit and veg. However, there are no foods that cause acne directly – and the root problem occurs beneath the skin – not on the surface, so blaming it on ‘dirty’ skin stems from a problematic misconception.

Women are more likely to suffer from adult acne than men, due to hormonal changes that can occur in your 20s. But acne can also be aggravated by your physical environment and worsen due to pollution or excessive sun exposure and can also be emotionally triggered by anxiety, depression or stress. It rarely has anything to do with diet or cleanliness – despite what the beauty industry tells us.  

The experience of lockdown has allowed my skin to breathe, but with the possibility of returning to ‘normality’ on the horizon, I fear the prospect of spending mornings covering up my face again, just in order to feel somewhat socially acceptable. Lucy feels similar, stating that:

“Annoyingly, this flare-up came at a time when society was beginning to open up again. As I started making plans to see people IRL, I felt like I needed to start trying to sort my skin out.”

Lockdown, despite the freedoms it may have given us, has introduced new expectations about clear skin. It’s easy to focus on this element as it’s the one that sufferers present to the rest of the world most visibly. Acne is a prominent physical condition, but its impact is more than skin deep.

Spots come and go, but for many, the scarring acne leaves behind can severely affect our self-esteem. As bad as having spots is, acne can leave permanent scarring that stays for life unless you get expensive skin treatments which are not guaranteed to work. The correlation between acne and poor mental health is something I have felt over the past few months, although having spots alone hasn’t been the overall trigger, it is always a contributing factor, and Annabel told me this is something she’s noticed, mentioning how “I don’t think [acne] affects my mental health as a standalone issue but when I do feel down about my appearance it’s definitely a contributing factor.”

Sometimes it can feel that the acne will never completely go away and that my skin will always be tarnished by these years when my skin was problematic. Being an adult in my 20s, I often feel ashamed that I have spots and wonder what assumptions people make when they see me. And it seems I’m not alone, a woman in her twenties, who wishes to stay anonymous, told me: 

“I have a very frustrating relationship with my skin, as for the most part I’ve acknowledged that I am in the prime of my life and my skin should look young and clear.”

And those expectations for me, are enough to make me cancel plans, or not feel confident enough posting a selfie online without a filter. Despite lockdown potentially giving us more freedom for our skin, the experience of it has made me put more pressure on myself to have perfect skin. Over the past few months, I’ve spent hundreds of pounds on skincare products in the hope of finally being able to sort my skin out, coupled with wearing makeup only a handful of times, but to no avail.

Nowadays, I’ve come to realise it’s something I’m just going to have to live with. But the pressures of the beauty and skincare industry can affect us all, Annabel told me how “I don’t wear makeup very often but I have changed the products I’m using to more expensive brands in the hope they will be better for my skin.”

Suffering from acne is very physical – but for me, it manifests itself the most in making me feel even more laced with anxiety and low confidence. On the surface, it may seem like a trivial problem to have in the grand scheme of things that is Covid-19, but it is enough to severely impact anyone’s mental health. Lucy explains how:

“I don’t think people realise the seriousness of acne. In addition to it being less than appealing to look at, it is physically, emotionally and mentally painful.”

We need to start treating acne as far more than a skin condition, but one that can severely impact our mental health and relationships. Living with acne on a daily basis can drastically impact upon the way we perceive ourselves and our self-worth.

The advent of the ‘mascne’ phenomenon due to the pandemic, has resulted in people who otherwise don’t usually have skin problems, from trivializing the condition that so many people suffer in silence with.

The panicked appearance of spots around the jawline, where a mask sits, has caused many people to go into panic – but only for the short term. The coining of this term trivialises the otherwise serious condition that many adults face – for many, there is no quick solution but a continuous battle of trying to embrace problematic skin concerns, but being hit by social misconceptions about skin that claim eating healthily, drinking water and cleaning your face will be the solution to all your skin woes. If only it was that easy.  

Whilst wearing copious amounts of foundation and concealer can further aggravate acne-prone skin, the provision of it can act as a lifeline for people who are not confident enough to go barefaced. However, it can result in a vicious habit and dependence on make-up, with one sufferer telling me that “ it’s [now] got to a point where I sometimes feel the need to wear 2 layers of foundation to really cover up the redness. I’ve felt powerless.”

Lockdown’s provision of makeup-free days may have also encouraged acne sufferers to embrace their skin as they become more accustomed to seeing themselves without makeup. Or even, ditching the foundation efforts to focus on emphasising other features, as Danni mentions:

“I wear a lot less base makeup now – I’ve switched to covering my skin less and focusing on a fun eye look (winged liner in full force). I have found myself creeping up on the amount of base makeup I wear recently but it’s more blush and highlight rather than concealing my chin.”

Whilst many acne sufferers still have a complicated relationship with make-up and are trying to strike a healthy balance, it is interesting to see how using it can be a tool to embrace “skin neutrality” and increase confidence. I must admit, I am not there yet, as I still feel the pull of having to present clear skin to others, especially in the workplace. 

For a common condition, there is a severe lack of genuine conversations about adult acne in wider society as it is fuelled by the common misconception that sufferers are typically only hormonal teenagers. It is tainted by the misconceptions created by the beauty industry that tells us that fixing our diet, ‘dirty’ skin and water intake will give us the solution to all our woes – but these need to be purged from the conversation so we can talk about acne with the seriousness it deserves. 

Acne can be a debilitating condition and needs to be talked about more but stigmatised less, and the beauty industry doesn’t help the conversation. Spending more money and being lured in by the false promises from brands and influencers will not necessarily change your skin and wellbeing, but it is an excellent example of how a booming industry has perforated the conversation and our understanding of adult acne within wider society.

Instead of promoting quick-fix solutions and simple explanations to the causes of adult acne, we should spend more energy on encouraging sufferers to be able to live better and be comfortable in their own skin. 

Words by Violet Daniels


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