Living With Acne as a Student

Written by Emma McKnight |

At university I think our appearance matters so much more to us than we let on. While many of us have outgrown that ‘awkward’ teenage stage, as young adults we are still very much in the process of figuring out who we are, what our identity is – and therefore what our ‘image’ is. Finding your sense of self is a tricky enough process, surrounded by an ocean of people who all seem to have their lives together, as well as being a part of a society which very much tells us how to look. And yet, despite our best efforts, it is hard not to let those voices influence you.

As a long-time acne sufferer, I felt that this image-making process became a lot more difficult. What seems like a superficial issue on paper, in reality manages to affect every aspect of your day to day life. There were days when I would look in the mirror and not really see myself. My appearance didn’t match how I felt, and this can be a little soul destroying when you are trying to become your best and most confident self. Yet when you have acne at this age, advice about your skin can feel persistent and intrusive from all angles. Your diet, your makeup, your skincare, your sleeping habits, how much water you drink etc… It can seem like everything is to blame for the way your skin is, yet nothing helps. As students we are often told that we only need to fix our poor diet or sleep schedule (or simply become ‘not stressed’) and our breakouts will magically disappear – which can feel extra frustrating when the resolution isn’t as simple as that. While some methods work for some, they certainly don’t work for everyone.

“There were days when I would look in the mirror and not really see myself.”

A recent online article from BBC Three reiterates that acne is something that can affect people of all genders “well into adulthood. It doesn’t just affect appearance; it can impact self-esteem and confidence levels. It can cause people to isolate themselves and even trigger mental health problems.” Acne is so much more than the superficial problem that it appears to be, and particularly as a student, it can really feel embarrassing and impact your self-confidence.

Whilst we are lucky to have a university campus which is pretty small and accepting, with a kind of community atmosphere – the personal self confidence battle can still feel like a lot. However, it took a change in my skin, and speaking to more people about their own skin issues, to realise that quite often people are so wrapped up in their own insecurities, that they might not even acknowledge yours.  This switch was something that I came to notice most over the course of last summer.

Quite near the beginning of my second year I was put on an acne drug called Roaccutane, which was, for me, the last option at the end of a long time of trying many many different acne treatments. The drug itself is pretty harsh, so while over time the drug did clear my skin completely, the six month course brought its own batch of skin-confidence issues. Dry skin, red skin, peeling lips, an initial breakout – each was a new layer on top of my already wobbling self-esteem cake. 

Yet, what I learned from this the most was the fact that – nobody cares. Everyone is often so caught up with their own self-confidence or appearance issues that it really isn’t as big a deal as it can feel like to you. When I first documented my experience of having acne, and being on Roaccutane, on my blog, the response I quite often got was that people hadn’t really noticed my skin being particularly bad before, and that while they were pleased that I am feeling a lot better about the way that I look now, I shouldn’t have felt so rubbish beforehand, as it wasn’t noticeable.

As lovely as it is to hear things like this, I don’t think it will ever be easy to lose that part of my self that feels conscious of other people looking at my skin. Even now, with clear skin for the first time in what feels like forever, I feel as though I am anticipating it to all come back again. But the biggest lesson of it all has been that acne or not, you are ‘you’ at the end of the day, and your external appearance is not the defining factor of your ‘self’. No one has perfect skin, and everyone has their own hang ups that make them feel self-conscious and a little less them. 

“Everyone is often so caught up with their own self-confidence or appearance issues that it really isn’t as big a deal as it can feel like to you.”

It is all just a part of being human – you are beautiful regardless of how you feel you look – so enjoy these years of making yourself!