“People think I’m dirty”: Most of us face acne – so why is our knowledge of it skin-deep?

As celebrities like Lorde, Saoirse Ronan and Kendall Jenner talk about their spots, the myths surrounding acne are at a turning-point.

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I am 28, looking in the mirror, and crying about my spots. The one bit of teen nostalgia I don’t revel in. It’s just not as fun as reminiscing about ra-ra skirts and 5ive. I’m supposed to be getting ready to go out, but a snatched comment by a not-quite-acquaintance has catapulted me back to doing exactly what I did as a despairing 14-year-old. Except with less poetry.

The aside that took me unwillingly down memory lane a few months ago was apparently intended as advice (“here’s how I got rid of my spots…”) but, as most people with acne will agree, any unsolicited mention of your skin – even in solidarity – is simply a reminder that, yes, you still have spots, and yes, people notice.

Acne can smash your confidence at any age, but usually it’s at the time when confidence is in short supply, and there’s a hell of a lot more to worry about than literally showing your face (and, in my case, my back – a genuine trauma in the golden age of the spaghetti strap).

“Do you wash your face?”

Having it during your teens is a bit like attaching a turbo-booster to all the regular adolescent concerns: feeling self-conscious about your new, weird body; wondering how to make yourself look attractive; and trying to fit in with everybody else.

After a couple of years doing everything from dowsing myself in Clearasil, parching my skin with talc and liberally applying toothpaste overnight, I finally got to see a dermatologist, who tried all the creams, gels and antibiotics she had in her locker – plus regular sessions under the shonky hospital laser – but nothing helped, and I was too scared to take roaccutane (the controversial acne drug linked to depression).

It was only when I went on the pill that it generally cleared up, though I still break out, cycle through different rubbish face washes, and occasionally despair.

A few days ago, the 21-year-old singer Lorde joked about society’s attitude towards acne in an Instagram story. Lying in bed under a hand-held blue and red acne light, she told her fans she’s had it “for years and years and years”, and mocked people giving her bogus cures.

“You know what worked for me, is moisturising!” she mimicked. “Make a mask out of honey, Greek yogurt, and avocado! All you need to do is buy an apricot scrub! Coconut oil! The secret is coconut oil!... Do you wash your face?”

Lorde ended the video with an encouraging message: “For everyone out there who’s got bad skin —and actual bad skin, not just the kind of bad skin you can just use a fancy cream for for a few days and it’ll get better — I feel your pain. We’ll get there, we will. I promise.”

And she’s not the only one to finally start talking about a medical condition that is so often mistaken for a cosmetic concern. At the Golden Globes in January, Kendall Jenner didn’t cover up her acne with make-up, and responded to a fan praising her confidence: “Never let that shit stop you!”

The TV personality had previously written about it on her old website, revealing how it had “completely ruined my self-esteem” and how she used to feel like an “outcast” and cover her face when speaking. But like Lorde, she was also reassuring, saying she, “realized that it’s a part of life for some people and it doesn’t define who you are”.

Recently, the director Greta Gerwig asked the lead actor, Saoirse Ronan, in her coming-of-age film Ladybird not to cover up her spots for the role. The 23-year-old Ronan has since spoken positively about her acne in multiple interviews, saying she developed it at the age of 21 and doesn’t feel “insecure or self-conscious” about it: “I thought it was a really good opportunity to let a teenager’s face in a movie actually look like a teenager’s face in real life,” she told Vanity Fair.


Saoirse Ronan in Ladybird. Photo: YouTube screengrab

“I don’t think that’s something you get to see much,” she said in another interview, with Racked. “Growing up, a lot of the teenage girls I saw in movies and TV shows were played by these fully formed 30-year-olds with great skin. I hope it helps young people – and anyone who struggles with their skin – to connect with the character.”

The Made in Chelsea and I’m a Celebrity star Toff has also gone public, revealing her red-marked and scarred skin without make-up on This Morning earlier this week. She spoke about crying over her acne, and how she will sometimes “dread leaving the house”, adding: “I think for so long I’ve hidden. I think actually now I’m in the limelight, I don’t want everyone who follows me to think I’m perfect.”

Other depictions of undisguised acne can be seen in the British teen drama Skins and the more recent Norwegian web series SKAM.

Sid in Skins


Magnus in SKAM. Photo: screengrab

It’s unsurprising so many celebrities have acne, considering 80 per cent of people suffer from it at some point. What’s harder to understand is why it’s always been such a misunderstood condition – and why, up until now, it has barely been discussed with any honesty or accuracy.

“I’ve never been to the doctors about it because I felt silly about it; I thought they’d say ‘why are you coming to the doctors about this, it’s a cosmetic problem?’” says a 27-year-old British journalist and researcher working in the Middle East, who developed adult acne at 22, which she says makes “me feel like crap” and means she’s mistaken for a 16-year-old while she’s working.

“People think you ask for it, like you’re not looking after yourself or you’re dirty, you’re not washing,” she adds. “Or people think you’ve got a really bad diet, like you’re living on junk food, because there’s this sort of impression that people who have bad acne have [a bad lifestyle].”

“There are many misleading misconceptions about acne”

Dr Anjali Mahto, a consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, finds that, “there are still many negative and misleading misconceptions about acne”, and rules out poor hygiene, make-up or diet as causes.

“Until these myths are dispelled, we have a long way to go in providing people with the support they need,” she says. “For example, acne sufferers will often be told they are dirty or not washing enough, or their diet is poor, or they will simply grow out of it.”

“I slept with this guy, got up early to put make-up on and then got back into bed”

Because of this lack of awareness, many go down a road of ineffective “cures”, spending money on useless over-the-counter skin products or using risky sun lamps.

One 34-year-old I speak to, who is a designer based in London, tells me her dizzying journey through creams that made her skin flake and classmates call her a “Klingon”, “weird” tablets (with side effects that could turn the whites of your eyes blue), Chinese herbal medicine that she would brew on the cooker in her university shared kitchen, and even considering an acid wash.

“I was crying most nights,” she tells me, having suffered from acne from 16 to 26. “If you’ve grown up with this negativity of not being happy with your face, I think that stays with you… I hate when I see photos of university; I literally look at them and think ‘oh, god, poor girl’. I feel for the young me in the picture.”

She recalls disguising her skin even in bed. “I remember once sleeping with this guy and getting up early to put make-up on and then getting back into bed, pretending I’d just woken up,” she says. “I just didn’t want anyone to see me without foundation on.”

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According to the British Skin Foundation, 95 per cent of acne sufferers say acne has an impact on their daily lives, and 63 per cent feel a drop in self-confidence due to acne.

“It’s important not to trivialise the emotional impact of the disease,” says Dr Mahto. “Being a visual condition, acne can have a huge impact on a person’s self-esteem, bringing with it potential long-term effects on the individual.”

She applauds the recent celebrity candidness about the condition, finding the beauty industry and social media perpetuating unrealistic messages about skincare and appearance. “For many young women, they are role models and seeing them being open about their skin allows others to be brave and follow suit.”

“There is slowly more acceptance of everyone not being absolutely perfect and flawless 24/7”

This is where social media can have a double-edged effect: while it does fuel the need for a flawless selfie, it also allows celebrities to reach their fans directly and intimately, airbrush-free and sometimes make up-free too.

“There is so much of a focus on having the most perfect skin, and looking the best on Instagram and other social media, and plastering make-up on and so much Photoshop that it is becoming nothing like reality,” says Giorgia Frost, a 19-year-old geography student from Greater Manchester, who developed spots at the age of seven that spread over her body, and was diagnosed with severe cystic aggressive acne at 14.

However, she finds honesty like Lorde’s a sign that this could be changing, not least because this celebrity trend raises awareness that “money evidently doesn’t affect acne” and it’s not a lifestyle thing.

“I suppose they [famous people] feel more judged on a daily basis than a normal everyday person with acne,” she adds. “[It] potentially shows there is slowly a lot more acceptance of everyone not being absolutely perfect and flawless 24/7. It shows that no matter who you are, and even whatever age you are, it will affect you and it is just normal.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.