Skin Is In.

A lifetime ago, I dedicated lots of blog space to the condition my skin was in, because I’m generally a vain and horrible person who thinks strangers on the internet care about my acne. I’ve heard tell that the Youngs these days (you know, the spry, energetic college undergrads who use SnapChat and listen to Miley Cyrus ironically) call this day of the week “Throwback Thursday,” so I figure today I will post again about my face skin and what it’s been up to, just for old times’ sake.

When I was 19, after living for five years with persistent, permanent, and absolutely unfortunate acne on my face, chest, and back, I was prescribed Accutane. The prescription came after much begging and pleading with my dermatologist, who eventually referred me to a physician’s assistant who specialized in Accutane paperwork. (Yes, the drug is such a tremendous pain that, at least at that time nearly a decade ago, people needed to be Accutane specialists in order to feel comfortable enough to hand it over.) I left the appointment with the PA with a prescription for this acne wonder drug, a huge smile, and an enormous three-inch binder full of warnings and precautions.

I spent the next six months having routine blood tests to check that I wasn’t pregnant or dying of liver failure and watching my face dry, peel, and crack into a bleeding mess. I stopped smiling, because a genuine grin was enough to split the corners of my mouth. I stopped wearing contacts and battled sties and pink eye on the regular. And yet, I was thrilled. I’d spent years cycling through antibiotics and prescription acid creams and various face washes tens of dermatologists promised me would work. I’d been on hugely high doses of hormonal birth control, which made me feel dizzy and spacey and ballooned out every part of my body so quickly that my college dorm floor thought I’d gotten breast implants. I’d subjected my body to so much nonsense, and none of it had worked. Despite how miserable I was on Accutane, I felt I was finally doing something that would help me. I was finally miserable for a reason. (And yes, I am aware of how pathetic that sounds.) I would be done with acne forever and I could put all the pain and crushing self-hate behind me.

And I was right. I got off the big orange pill, and my skin was gorgeous. Very shortly afterwards, I fell in love and got on hormonal birth control for the second time, albeit at a much, much lower dose. I was on birth control very happily for about five years, with glowing skin. It was the first time I felt worthy of attention, and if I’m honest, of love.

I stopped taking hormonal birth control in May 2012, 1) because I was having strange chest pains and headaches and I was concerned I may throw a clot to my brain and 2) because I was planning on having a baby. Luckily, I did not die of an embolism (there’s still time!). I also did not get pregnant.

In addition to failing to die or get pregnant, I also experienced acne for the first time since I tortured myself on Accutane for the privilege of never having to see it again. For a long time, I was in full panic mode, expecting every morning to wake up with an upper body (face, back, and chest) covered in angry cystic pimples that would force me back into high-necked t-shirts and constant makeup application. I’d wake up from dreams about break outs with my hands on my face, reassuring myself that it wasn’t real the same way most normal people do when they wake up from nightmares about normal people things, like zombies or home invasions.

While things never got that bad, they also didn’t improve. For the first year post-hormonal birth control, I was also trying to regulate and get pregnant, so I was taking things like Clomid and progesterone replacements, which I figured were not doing wonders for my skin. And then, at the end of June 2013, I left home for an archaeological field school in Ireland, where despite having my face in giant dirt holes all day, my skin was perfection. Thank you, manual labor outside in the lovely UV radiation of the summer sun.

By the time I came home, however, my life had completely fallen apart. I was getting divorced, I was finishing a Masters thesis, I was leading a classroom, I was living with my parents. In a desperate attempt to gain some control over my life, I started looking into natural ways of regulating my hormonal acne, which by this time was back in full force. Having spent all my teenage years sitting in dermatologists’ offices, I had been of the mind that what you eat doesn’t influence your skin. Doctor after doctor had told me that my diet had no impact on my face, and that the only thing to do was slather on some more benzoyl peroxide and hope for the best.

However, as a person who has put every synthetic acne treatment in existence both on my face and in my body only to be physically hurt or deeply disappointed, I started to think that maybe pharmaceuticals weren’t the answer. I cut out sugar and started taking supplements like agnus castus (an herbal progesterone regulator), beta-carotene (which is converted to vitamin A in the body and is essentially nature’s Accutane), and cod liver and flaxseed oils. I saw lots of improvement in my skin, but I was also buried by stress and anxiety, and losing terrifying amounts of weight. I wasn’t at my healthiest in any sense.

Then, I moved across the world to England. I was tired and crazed and yet finally, mercifully, eating again. I started drinking double-shot lattes and eating delicious English cookies. I stopped taking the supplements, because my skin was better. I adjusted to a new routine, and vitamins weren’t a part of it.

Until my face starting boiling. That is the best, most evocative description I can manage. Huge, cystic pimples on my chin, that flared up, became enormous, and then healed just in time for another one or two to take their place. For a while, I thought it might have been the weather here, which is decidedly less sunny than Los Angeles, or the stress of the move. I kept waiting for improvement. Instead, it kept getting worse, until my acne was the worst it had been since I was 19 and carrying that three-ring binder.

So, I started tracking the flare ups. I’ve never done anything like that before. I am usually content to just float through my life in my body, not really taking much stock of what is causing various reactions. For my entire adult life, I have been amazed by women who can tell when they are getting their periods or if they are pregnant, just simply based on how they feel.

Now, though, I am normal human woman (physically – not mentally, obviously), so I could finally make some assessments. And the results? My skin gets worse after I have dairy, sugar, and caffeine – all things that are known to aggravate hormonal imbalances. All those days drinking at least one double-shot latte? Wreaking havoc my face.

I am currently conducting an experiment. I have not had sugar, dairy, coffee, or black tea since Monday morning (when someone very kindly bought me a latte and I drank a few sips, to be polite, okay?). I am drinking tons of green tea and eating more whole foods. I have had not one new pimple. (And that there is saying something. We were on a day-by-day basis just last week.) Those I did have are healing up and going away.

COULD THIS BE WORKING? After all this time, is it possible that what you put in your body does matter?

That remains to be seen. I think most scientific journals will require progress that lasts more than three days.

On Saturday, my package of herbal supplements and teas is finally arriving. When I get it, I will lay out all my hippie granola freakshow purchases and take photos and then tell you all about them.

Get excited.

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7 thoughts on “Skin Is In.

  1. Do you wear make up now? I worked at a hospital and the dermatologists could never understand how my skin cleared up, but it was simply by cutting out all make up. I had got into the cycle of covering spots with make up which equalled more spots etc etc so as soon as i stopped wearing ANY AT ALL it got better (I know that will probably not help at all but i suppose it supports the whole what gets put in/on our body can affect it.

    • Oh I know. I’m currently trying to wean myself off of it. I keep breaking out in literally the SAME spots, and it is 100% because I am using makeup. I’ve never, ever worn full-face makeup (I never understood why people with clear skin do that!), but I am a notorious concealer fiend.

      My issue is that post-Accutane, I still get the same size pimples (read: huge), but with the added benefit that my skin takes forever to heal and I get terrible hyperpigmentation. And as awesome as I think I am, I am not strong enough to let it all loose.

      I’ve got a new rule, though: if it’s not active, I don’t cover it. That should speed up the healing because the scars will get more sun and I still get to feel like less of a monster by cutting the redness of the big angry ones. (Currently have no big angry ones, though. Progress?)

  2. I’ve read several of your posts and I just have to thank you. Your input on this subject is appreciated, especially since you’ve had so many misfortunes with different doctors and medications that you’ve begun doing your own research. The theory that diet is a cause of acne thing is heavily debated; my ex boyfriend swore up and down that Mountain Dew made him break out like nobody’s business and my mom never eats chocolate before she gets her period. I do believe diet affects some people’s acne, like in your case when your acne improved after you cut out sugar from your diet. I’m eating vegan right now and went vegan for two months last year and I don’t think it had any bearing on my acne, but I think starting a log like you did to track my bad days would be really helpful. I never thought to cut sugar or caffeine out of my diet, that seems way harder than just getting rid of dairy and animal products. How is it going doing the no sugar thing? Or are you only consuming natural sugars? Any advice for someone who might be willing to try that?

    • I’m so glad you liked the skin posts. That’s the reason I’m okay with sharing such gross and embarrassing parts of my life – I always secretly hope someone will find them helpful or supportive. After dealing with this for such a long time, I think the internet is an incredible tool. I’ve found such a community here. It’s awesome.

      In terms of cutting out sugar, when I had just started using supplements and changing my diet, I cut out dairy, caffeine, and all processed sugar. So: all candy/sweets (obviously), white flour (in bread and in pasta), and white rice. I wanted to start from scratch, with a clean slate, to see what really impacted my skin. I continued to eat tons of fruits, so natural sugars were (and are!) still a major part of my diet.

      It’s been about two and a half months now, and I’ve relaxed the sugar/white flour ban a little, because I’ve noticed it’s actually not a huge trigger for me. For example, I’m eating pasta occasionally and when I want to eat a shortbread cookie, I eat one. This doesn’t seem to cause any problems.

      I’d say the biggest factor for me was starting to take DIM. I missed a few days last week when I placed an online reorder too late, and I starting breaking out a little. Since being back on the supplements, my skin is clear. Because it’s a powerful hormonal regulator, it’s screwed with my cycle a little (I missed a period the first full month I took it), but I would SO recommend it if you think that hormones may be part of your problem.

      I could go on and on, but essentially I’d say you should cut out things you think might be triggers, just for a few weeks, to clear your system, and then introduce them back into your diet to see if they really do have negative effects. I went full force, cutting out everything at first, because I was just so tired of having to deal with acne and wanted to find a solution as soon as possible. I found, though, that being super strict with my food made me really anxious and miserable. Also, I wasn’t really eating ENOUGH – roasted vegetables, brown rice, and apples are only so interesting/nourishing. So, I slowly started bringing back carbs, and it’s been fine.

      I’d say try to limit the processed food you eat, but don’t make it the sole focus of your life. That was my issue, and being so stressed out about food probably made it harder for me to get clear skin.

      And (fiiiinally – sorry!), I really can’t say enough about the supplements. I feel like a crazy person being so into them, but I have seen SUCH improvement on DIM, agnus castus, and burdock root. It’s amazing.

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