Why we should all embrace a new era of skin positivity

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Stylist Beauty Team
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With adult acne on the rise, Stylist speaks to four women who refuse to be ashamed of their skin.

Contouring. Strobing. Microblading. When it comes to beauty, it often feels as though social media is on a permanent quest for perfection – one that very few of us can live up to. But now the (flawlessly buffed) mask is slipping. In a bold rejection of conventional beauty ideals, women with acne are posting make-up-free selfies with hashtags such as #skinpositivity, showing their skin in its raw, blemished state and opening up about the shame that can come with having less-than-perfect skin.

The conversation first started in 2015 when vlogger Em Ford posted a video titled ‘You Look Disgusting’, detailing the horrific comments she’d endured about her acne. To date, it’s had 27 million views. But it’s this year that the movement has won widespread support, with everyone from celebrities to industry insiders taking the bold step to reveal all. Saoirse Ronan requested her make-up artist on Lady Bird leave her spots on show to promote different skin types on screen, while Natalie Portman has gone on the record about her acne. And just last week, Lorde took to Instagram Stories to reveal all the negative comments and unsolicited advice she’s been given over the years about her acne.

“Just as the body positivity movement led to diverse shapes and sizes being celebrated, skin positivity has the power to redefine our expectations around our skin,” says dermatologist Dr Anjai Mahto, who recently posted a selfie of her breakouts. And with adult acne on the rise (one study found a 200% increase in adults seeking treatment in the last year), there’s never been a better time for the revolution. Here, four women explain why they’re no longer covering up.

30-year-old Julie Luu is an IT supporter from east London. She has experienced hormone-activated acne since she was 14.

“It was on my 30th birthday, seven months ago, that I stopped trying to hide my acne. In my 20s I cared a lot about what other people thought, but one day I decided to put a make-up-free photo of myself on my blog. I wanted people to be able to relate to me – I thought if I’m going to talk about acne, I need to show it. The number of positive comments I got was overwhelming and I realised I’d wasted too much time worrying about my skin. Happiness shouldn’t be reliant on its perfection. I’ve tried to get rid of my hormonal acne since I was a teenager with everything from medication to Chinese medicine.”

“It tends to come around my period and then go away, but I know it’s always going to return. I used to worry that people thought I didn’t wash properly, which made me feel self-conscious. I’d always wear foundation and often cover my chin with my hand when I was speaking. Now I’ve come to accept that this is just my skin. I’m a woman and I have hormones – that’s not going to change. Adult acne is normal, and it’s time people realised that. Yes, I still wear a bit of make-up if I feel like it, but I no longer try to hide my scars because they don’t bother me any more. Marks, scars and spots make you who you are – I’m finally accepting of my skin at any time of the month.”

Laura Grant, 27, lives in Chelmsford, Essex, and works in shipping insurance. She has had cystic acne for over a decade.

“People’s attitude to acne is so strange. They would never weigh in on a disability, yet they are happy to comment openly on a skin condition. I once went bare-faced to the supermarket and a woman asked, ‘What’s wrong with your face?’ I packed up my shopping in silence, but cried hysterically when I got home – her words made me feel disgusting and shameful. Comments like that happened a lot and completely shattered my confidence.”

“I started documenting my acne on Instagram last year after I read a book about a woman who has a dream life on social media that doesn’t resemble reality. It really resonated with me. I used to feel like I was the only person in the world with imperfections, which was incredibly isolating. After a while I began to question my relationship with make-up, as it clearly wasn’t hiding my acne. It made me realise I shouldn’t be relying on foundation to solve my confidence issues. I used to cake it on but after baby steps to use less I’ve given up wearing it every day. Going bare-faced has completely changed the shame I feel about my skin and helped me accept it as it is. Now I treat it as naturally as possible. After all these years of hating it,my skin deserves a little kindness.”

Lucy Arnold, 27, from Sheffield, owns an activewear brand and is a personal trainer. She didn’t get acne until she was 21.

“In the fitness industry, there’s a lot of pressure to look perfect, so I used to wear make-up all the time – even to work out. Some clients asked if my skin was sore, but others weren’t so kind – one woman asked how I live with skin like mine. At one point I was getting through a bottle of foundation a month. I spent five years on antibiotics for my adult acne, and then used a drug called Roaccutane, which didn’t agree with me. The turning point came when my step-grandad passed away. My skin was good as I had just come off Roaccutane, and I remember him saying, ‘I’m so glad you’re finally happy.’ This made me realise how much I’d let acne take over my life, so I decided to focus on the positives instead – and stop wearing make-up except for special occasions.”

“Six months later my acne reappeared, but by then I was mentally much stronger. I realised acne didn’t run my life, it didn’t affect being successful in my career or how my family and friends saw me. Slowly I became more confident in my skin, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve worn make-up this year. Seeing celebrities go bare-faced in public is inspiring. Women shouldn’t feel like they have to conform to a flawless image of female beauty. It’s time to just be ourselves instead.”

Amerley Ollennu, 33, is a freelance beauty editor and blogger. She has been affected by acne since she was a teenager.

“As a beauty editor, I have access to the world’s best experts and products, yet I still suffer from acne. I’ve previously taken medication but when I was hospitalised, possibly as a result, I realised things had to change. I decided to stop agonising over the scarring, even though it affects me more, as darker skins are more prone to hyperpigmentation post-acne. It took me a long time to transform my mindset, but now I firmly believe that if you’re positive about the way you look, it shines through. Acne doesn’t stop you being beautiful. We need to change our idea of what beauty is.

“I don’t wear make-up 90% of the time and if I do it’s not because I feel I have to, it’s because I want to. I think make-up is a great tool for self-expression but I don’t think we should use it to hide. And not having ‘perfect’ skin doesn’t mean I can’t do my job well – if anything, it means my advice is more real and relatable.”

The latest breakout breakthroughs

Stylist investigates the therapies, foods and products at the heart of research into combatting acne

Treatments to try

The futuristic Light Therapy face mask by Neutrogena, £59.99, you’ve seen across Instagram is just a sign of things to come. In the past, light therapy, which combats acne and inflammation through the use of low-level lasers, was only available in clinics and doctors’ surgeries and improvements weren’t guaranteed. Recent research, though, has shown that red-light therapy on its own, or with blue light, may be more effective at beating acne than previously thought. With the advent of masks that can be used at home for 10 minutes a day, of which 98% of sufferers claimed an improvement after 12 weeks, and clinics such as Skin Laundry offering 15 minute laser and light facials, people are now able to take the treatment of their skin conditions into their own hands.

There’s also a surge of interest in botanical solutions. Kamedis Acne Spot Treatment, with a blend of botanical ingredients including rheum palmatum (Chinese rhubarb) and the succulent portulaca olearacea, is only currently available in the US but has caused a stir after dermatological studies identified a 66% improvement in skin after 10 days. In the meantime, for extreme cases of acne, isotretinoin – known as Roaccutane – is available on prescription. “Many acne sufferers find this provides a permanent solution to their skin problems,” says consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk. “Occasionally it doesn’t work or can’t be used due to existing medical conditions. In those cases, spironolactone may be helpful.” Ultimately, a dermatologist will be your best ally in finding the most effective treatment for your skin.

Examine your diet

When acne emerges, it’s tempting to look for a quick fix, such as giving up sugar or dairy, but experts agree that diet alone is rarely the root cause. “There’s emerging evidence that dairy may be a problem for some people,” concedes Kluk, before warning that “you should never cut it out of your diet before speaking to a doctor, though, as that could put you at risk of nutritional deficiencies”.

If your acne is caused by a hormonal imbalance (check this with a blood test from your GP or dermatologist), clinical aesthetician Pamela Marshall advises one dietary change you might not have thought of: “Removing whey protein and whey isolate from your diet is a must as they might be increasing androgen hormone levels.” As well as being present in dairy products such as ricotta, it could also mean a rethink of any protein bars or shakes you consume.

Adapt your skincare

When it comes to your skincare routine, it’s time to meet your new best friend in the beauty world – the word ‘non-comedogenic’. It describes formulas that won’t block pores and trigger breakouts. With this in mind, invest in good beauty basics: a non-foaming gentle cleanser such as Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser, £8.99, a barrier-boosting moisturiser (try La Roche-Posay Effaclar H Moisturiser, £16) and a good-quality sunscreen (such as Garnier Ambre Solaire Sensitive Advanced Anti-Imperfection Protection Cream SPF30, £8.50). 

“SPF will help reduce permanent discolouration and scarring,” says Kluk. Then it’s a case of adding in key actives: benzoyl peroxide is a powerful ingredient that destroys acne-causing bacteria in your pores (ask your pharmacist about Acnecide 5% Gel, £9.99, which contains this active) and should be used in the morning. Then choose a retinoid, such as Medik8 Retinol 3 TR Serum, £33, which rejuvenates skin and reduces irritation, for night time.

This article was originally published in Stylist magazine in February 2018.

Images: Provided