It's Acne Awareness Month: Why We Should Rethink How We Talk About Our Skin
I started getting acne when I was in my teens—the typical hormonal type that feels physically deep and emotionally embarrassing. It kept with me in fits and spurts for the next decade and a half. Sometimes I would have clear, "good" skin; other times, large cystic pimples would sprout all over and leave behind inflammation marks and enlarged pores.
I remember my first dermatologist visit, too. It was a few months after my first pimples formed. My doctor (with the best intentions) launched into my "battle plan" for "attacking," "fighting," and "defeating" my acne. After that, I always noticed all the acne-related beauty advertisements or magazine spreads where the young, poreless women would literally be fighting big red dots, with punches and kicks. Or the product wording splashed across products with the same language. With every zit, my skin became the enemy.
Now, I truly don't think anyone meant any harm with framing the conversation like this. Nor, I should note, do I think this is the biggest issue we need to address in the beauty industry (sustainable packing, nontoxic ingredients, and diversity, to name a few, are much higher on the list.)
But it is Acne Awareness Month, and this is an annoyance of mine.
You do not need to attack or fight any part of your skin, zit or otherwise. You need to care for it, and, when you have flare-ups, you can treat them. It's a simple mental shift—away from aggression, toward treatment—but one I made a few years ago. It changed my skin care routine, the way I felt about skin, and eventually my skin itself.
"You don't want to be always reacting to a breakout; it's about taking a moment to self-assess your skin and figure out what's going on at the root to care for it day-to-day to help resolve some of those things that have gotten out of balance," says holistic esthetician Jeni Sykes. For me, my skin issues had come from a compromised skin barrier from overexfoliation, lifestyle stressors, a few triggers from dairy and sugar, and—of course—genetic predisposition outside of my control.
By adjusting my mental space, I was better equipped to handle breakouts. A few zits on my chin didn't launch me into using a too-strong chemical peel multiple days in a row—followed by a charcoal mask and topped with a retinol serum. (I'm not kidding; I regularly did this. And sure, a few days later I had dried out that handful of pimples, but so had I dried the rest of my face. I'd be red, blotchy, and uneven for another few days, and then the cycle would continue.) I had so long framed my skin as the enemy that I was perfectly fine treating it like one—with harsh and unforgiving methods.
"When people react to acne, they tend to apply so many intense products to the skin that it can actually create its own reaction that looks and feels similar to acne," says Sykes. "Or over a long period of time, using these can strip the skin barrier and make acne worse."
And this isn't just about sappy, "feel good beauty." As we know from research1, there is a connection between mental well-being and skin conditions. "It is strong, bidirectional, and should not be underestimated," says board-certified dermatologist and psychiatrist Amy Wechsler, M.D., who authored The Mind-Beauty Connection. "Talking about acne should be done respectfully, as with all patients. If [someone] refers to their skin in a negative way, never repeat or use the negative words back to them."
Now, I keep my basic skin care principles in check—gentle cleanser, vitamin C product, hydrating hyaluronic acid serum, and top it with a no-fuss moisturizer—and I simply spot treat if the pimple warrants something stronger. But those? Few and far between.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.