Let’s play a game of “Would You Rather…” Would you rather gain ten pounds, and keep it on for the rest of your life, BUT have clear skin forever, or, would you want to lose ten pounds and deal with mild to moderate acne for you entire adult life. I don’t even have to think about my answer. I would gain ten pounds in a heartbeat if it meant I didn’t wake up at least twice a month with a giant, pink, evil little monster on my upper lip.

The thing about gaining ten pounds is that there are ways to cover that up. Clothing now is not just for the stick-thin. I could dress my body in a flattering way and although I would always worry that a lump or bump would show, I would be eternally happy knowing that lump or bump wasn’t sitting on my nose, acting like a beacon for guiding ships into harbor. Yes, I might be exaggerating but that’s what having acne feels like. It’s out in front, always on your mind, clouding everything you do because you are constantly left to wonder – is the person I’m talking to talking to me, or my zit?

I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve felt the urge to say, “This isn’t a cold sore, it’s a pimple,” as if that would make the thing on my face somehow better. Why did I constantly get tiny little spots on the corners of my mouth? Why were my cheeks almost always clear, but my jaw gets attacked? The answer was so simple I felt stupid for even asking: Hormones.

Let me take this back a few years. In high school I didn’t have bad skin. I got a few strays here and there, mostly in my t-zone, always gone after a few days. I watched girls my age suffer through skin that would surely be scarred later in life, and I watched it clear in time for graduation. My real skin “journey” began when I was nineteen. One day I woke up with more spots than usual. No matter, right? Just wash with Cetaphil, slap on some moisturizer and wait for the moon to wax or something. But they didn’t go away. In fact, they got stronger and they multiplied. My once clear cheeks were covered in hard, deep, painful pimples. There was only one real course of action once I realized that my problem went beyond the drugstore. I talked with my dermatologist who immediately agreed that I was a candidate for accutane (isotretinoin if you want to get specific).

The history of accutane is rocky, but my family history with it is not. My mother and both my sisters went through the treatment and came out on the other side without depression, weight gain, or dry, cracking skin. For them, and millions of others, it was and is a miracle pill. My doctor warned me about the side effects, I went through the FDA’s incredibly strict rules and procedures, and I was off and running.
The thing with accutane is  – and my doctor warned me about this –  that it makes your skin worse for the first ten weeks of the twenty week treatment. It was quite literally hell. This happened during the fall semester of my third year of college and it turned me into a shut-in. I was so embarrassed and conscious of my skin that I only left my dorm for the essentials: work, class, and food. Otherwise I got to know Netflix very, very well. But the funniest thing happened – my skin cleared up. After week ten I didn’t see a slow, steady clearing, it happened almost all at once. When my treatment was over I had the clearest, smoothest skin of my life and miracle of miracles, I photographed well for the first time ever.

Six months later, I had spots again.

My doctor told me that some people saw their acne return in a few years’ time and had to undergo treatment again. But six months? That had to be a joke. There were no longer big, cystic monsters on my face but little pinpricks with white heads that popped up around my mouth. Who was going to want to kiss a mouth like that? Why did makeup always melt off my lip after about a minute? I was frustrated, angry, sad, and every other negative emotion all at once.

It took years, but I finally saw the light once again. Once my research landed me on the hormonal conclusion, I went off my birth control pill and got a non-hormonal IUD (because there was no way I would be going unprotected in that department) to make my body rely on its own hormones. I didn’t see an immediate clearing of my skin, but I saw a slight improvement. I knew then that all was left was trial and error.

I started by taking vitamins a plenty, including Biotin, the supposed miracle B-Complex that leads to healthy skin, hair, and nails. Of course for me it led to a constant breakout along my jaw. Here’s a hint, when you start a Google Search “Biotin causing” and it fills in “acne on jaw” for you, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I dropped anything with a vitamin B in it, and the jaw acne went away. This included my multivitamin so I supplemented with a dose of D and C every day. No more jawcne.

So once my insides were going strong it was time to go topical. I started reading about the best care for hormonal acne and everyone said the same thing: Retinol cream. I went to Mecca (Sephora) and asked for their recommendations on the best retinol cream. They led me to Philophy’s Help Me cream. Applied once a day, at night, over moisturizer it acts similar to accutane in that it is a vitamin-a based cream that fights damage and heals skin. It is very drying, so I got a bag of moisturizer samples and tried to find the best one. Clinique’s Moisture Surge is incredible – it goes on thick but still feels light, and I can feel it working immediately. With that in my bag on my next trip I went straight to the Clinique section for a good exfoliating wash. Exfoliators are essential with a retinol cream as they help scrub away dead, dry skin. The Clinique 7-Day Scrub is perfect because it is a softer, finer scrub that can be used every day without doing damage (as opposed to a rougher exfoliator which should be used a few times per week). For shits and giggles I added the Clinique Acne Solutions Clinical Gel, a salicylic acid to my morning routine.

Stand alone, none of these products did the trick, but added together in a cocktail (along with my ever trust Cetaphil – you be hard pressed to find a cleaner, more refreshing wash from a drugstore or anywhere else) my skin only improves. I still get the occasional flare up around my time of the month, but they are gone in days and are so passive that they willingly get covered by makeup and stay that way.

What a long, strange road I took to get to clear skin. I probably won’t ever be comfortable enough to leave the house without at least a dusting of makeup, but I no longer worry that every person I talk to is focusing on my facial flaws. And my answer hasn’t changed. Given the choice, I would gain ten pounds any day.

#31 - Fire Martini