A Spot Of Bother

1st February 2013

Blackheads, whiteheads, spots and pustules… everyone has poor skin in their teens (all those hormonal changes) – but everyone grows out of it by the time they’re 20.

Don’t they?

Claire Moulds tells a very personal story…

And so, once again, I found myself facing the age old debate of what to wear to a Christmas party. While others were weighing up the varied merits of sequins versus glitter, though, I was primarily basing my decision on which areas of my skin I needed to hide – because I am a 34 year old acne sufferer.

Scanning my wardrobe for the perfect party number that would conceal the spot on my neck that had decided to set up camp the previous week and the crop of pimples in my cleavage that sprang up in protest to the change in weather, I couldn’t help thinking ‘I’m too old for this’.

Since I got my first spot, at the age of 11, I have been waiting to ‘grow out of it’ and I can’t believe that over two decades later I’m still battling with what is widely, and mistakenly, perceived to be a teenage problem. In fact, acne affects 50% of adult women and 25% of adult men at some time in their adult lives. Unfortunately for me, ‘some time’ is more like ‘all of the time’ and it drives me to distraction.

Of course, when that first little red bump appeared on my otherwise blemish- free skin I resigned myself to enduring the sort of occasional blip that my friends faced. A dab of concealer from the Body Shop, a cunning side parting and all would be well until it went. One spot, however, became several and, as my skin became greasier and bumpier, I started looking for a problem-solving facewash or cleanser.

Desperate for a solution, I worked my way systematically through one skincare range after another: from inexpensive names to the most premium of premium brands, from entirely natural treatments to sophisticated cocktails of all the latest ‘scientifically proven’ ingredients. I spent hours in the bathroom applying facemasks and exfoliators but the little red army marched on regardless.

While my confidence took a sharp knock I still believed it was a temporary hiccup. That was until I woke one day to a huge red spot around four centimetres in diameter on my cheek. Suddenly the problem was getting bigger – literally! – and harder to hide. In fact, that day was the first time someone commented on the state of my skin, when a girl at school confronted me and said ‘What is that?!’

My healthstore-obsessed mother was convinced that a range of supplements would do the trick and for months I took various vitamins and minerals, but to no avail. By now my most pressing problem was not so much the number of spots but the fact that they were taking on a boil-like appearance and were extremely painful. Worryingly they were also beginning to leave a lasting mark on my complexion.

Increasingly desperate, I begged to see our GP. My parents were reluctant, though, on the grounds that it was ‘just’ a case of teenage spots – but eventually they relented, and I left the surgery clutching the first of many prescriptions for antibiotics and with mum apologising for not taking me sooner.

Words cannot express how elated I was at being given a ‘proper’ treatment nor how devastated I would be when I found out that it would take nearly six months for the results of the antibiotics to show – and that was only if I’d been prescribed one that my skin responded to.

Eventually, after several years of taking different antibiotics with no discernible improvement, I was referred to a dermatologist. Once again the hope of a cure was cruelly snatched away: he dismissed my concerns because I wasn’t ‘covered’ in spots.

When you’re young and vulnerable and don’t know any better, you take the word of an ‘expert’ and accept it. In hindsight I should have pushed then for a second opinion as my life was completely overshadowed by my skin. I’d wake up every morning with trepidation, feeling my face to see what had risen to the surface in the night. I’d avoid social occasions because my skin was so bad and felt excruciatingly self-conscious all the time.

For nearly five more years I battled on until, in my final year at university, I put my foot down and demanded to see a different dermatologist… who took one look at me and my notes and prescribed Roaccutane.

I can safely say that Roaccutane is the best thing that has ever happened to my skin! Yes, it got very dry and my lips peeled and the sides of my mouth split and yes, I had to take extra care of myself physically in terms of what I ate and drank and getting enough rest, but the results were amazing. For the first time in nearly ten years I had clear skin. I could get up in the morning without having to worry about needing to ‘treat’ the spots that had appeared overnight, could just hop in the shower, throw on whatever outfit I wanted – however skin revealing! – and step outside confident, positive and happy.

For around six months I was buoyant as I graduated, started my career and met my future husband. But then the spots started creeping back. At first they were tiny pimples that I could ignore, but when the ‘big boys’ made a reappearance I was taking no chances and went straight back to the dermatologist. He reassured me that it was common to require a second, longer, stronger course of Roaccutane to get the acne fully under control and this time the results were even better!

For five years I had clear skin, until those all-too-familiar pimples started to pop up again. Keen to nip it in the bud, and with my wedding on the horizon, I asked my new GP to prescribe something. Once more I found myself on a course of antibiotics with a medicated face wash and a topical gel. Although this regime didn’t give me the completely clear skin that Roaccutane had done, it did stop the situation from escalating, so that on my wedding day I only had two small spots to contend with.

Since then I’ve had to switch antibiotics more than once, as there’s been a steady deterioration, with spots spreading from my face to chest, neck and back. Some days are better than others – summer is always hard thanks to warmer weather, sun cream, sweat and having less clothes to hide behind – and it’s nowhere near as bad as it was when I was a teenager, but it is an ever-present issue that continues to determine how I feel on any given day. The psychological impact of acne should never be underestimated; when I evaluate how I feel and interact with people when my skin is bad as opposed to when it’s clear, there really is no comparison. I’m a different person.

One of my biggest frustrations remains the lack of new treatments which is why I was delighted to hear of a breakthrough made by a team of American researchers earlier this year. It may lead to viruses being used to infect and kill acne-causing bacteria. While the research is still in its infancy, the potential for any new form of treatment will leave acne sufferers, young and old, firmly crossing their fingers.

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