A 17-year-old high school student looks in the mirror. She curls her upper lip and snarls at the face looking back at her. Running her fingers down her left cheek, she cringes at each bump they touch. After a couple seconds, she feels a small sense of relief when they reach a crater instead of a cyst, for once. When she reaches another large bump she begins to blush, though she can’t distinguish the rosiness in her cheeks from the redness the bumps have caused — the bumps commonly known as acne.
Thoughts begin to rush through her head as her impending anxiety attack approaches. What did she do to deserve this? She washes her face every day. Why can’t she control this reptilian plague?
Interactive by Jillian Baker
She opens the medicine cabinet and frantically searches for her giant tube of cover-up, knocking over containers of ineffective prescription acne medications she had let expire. Once she finds the makeup, she begins to smear it on her face with a cotton swab. Though she sees right away, a cotton swab isn’t nearly big enough to cover the pimples, even with her bangs covering her forehead. She pours the liquid formula on her hands and begins to dab one inflamed pustule at a time, tears forming in her eyes when she realizes resistance against the wretched eruptions is futile.
Mornings like these are normal for 17-year-olds, both male and female. But when they become 18-year-olds and leave high school, they are overcome with excitement that their acne will be gone — or so their parents say.
Think again. College students’ faces carry acne, appropriately named acne vulgaris, just as much as high school students’ do. But the stakes for college students may be higher than for high school students.
Friends, jobs and romance — the holy triad many students want to achieve — are often impacted by the struggles acne causes. And in college, when students live in such close proximity with one another and are constantly bothered with the overwhelming stress job-searching inflicts, it is easy to feel smothered — and acne doesn’t help.
Senior Leslie Thompson, blonde-haired with glasses, said she has been struggling with pimples since puberty. Craters and cysts alike are scattered across her cheeks, with additional pale red cysts sprouting on her chin. When she went to see a dermatologist, the doctor gave her many prescription medications, though none of them were effective, she said. One of her remedies included isotretinoin — more commonly known as Accutane — a prescription oral medication that reduces the skin’s natural oil production. Thompson said because the medicine made her skin really dry and sensitive, it caused a blistering sunburn once when she left the house.
“I hated it,” she said. “Plus, it was right when I was going to Bonnaroo for the first time, and I was like, ‘I can’t take this and go to Bonnaroo,’ because you’re in the sun the whole time.”
Now, after trying different products and doing some of her own research, Thompson has been using plain honey as a spot treatment, which she said has proved rather successful. She found the remedy on the Reddit forum “Skincare Addiction.” She said she came across the website after having a bad breakout.
“They talk a lot about natural stuff that you can try,” she said. “So I was thinking about trying some other things like that, just because why not? It can’t hurt, and it’s better than throwing medicine at your face.”
Self-confidence is arguably a major priority for students entering college, and it remains a prime concern throughout. It was the “highlight” of senior Julianne Ishler’s sophomore year when she attended a Cornell University fraternity party that would end up putting her acne on display. After having applied medicine and foundation on a pimple on her chin with the intention that the party would be dark enough so nobody would notice her blemish, she walked into the party confident and ready to have fun. However, the night was crippled after Ishler entered the room and a friend informed her right away that her chin was glowing under the blacklight illuminating the room.
“It was so humiliating,” she said. “My friend was trying to set me up, and she would go up to guys and say, ‘Hey, see my friend over there? She’s really pretty, isn’t she?’ And I’m like, ‘Leave me alone.’”
Ishler describes her skin as “combination,” meaning it is both oily and dry. She said having combination skin has made finding a steady skincare regimen difficult for her.
Ishler’s skin contains more ingrained blemishes under the skin, rather than cysts, such as craters and blackheads, encompassed by oil. On occasions, a few red cysts will bud on her cheek, chin or forehead. She has had similar struggles as Thompson when it comes to her acne. Ishler attributed the acne to sweating constantly, while Thompson attributed it to hormones and stress. But like Thompson, Ishler sought help from a local dermatologist.
Among natural topical products, Ishler said she currently takes Bactrim, an oral prescription medication, whenever she gets a new breakout.
“I don’t like to take it regularly unless I have a flare-up, because it’s not really good for your liver,” she said. “When I was on it before, I had to be tested every year for anemia.”
The risks that accompany certain acne medications can be dangerous, especially with drugs such as Bactrim and isotretinoin. Julie Luckman-Wilcox, a physician assistant at Ithaca Dermatology, said dryness is a common side effect; however, there are other threatening side effects patients should be aware of. For isotretinoin, the side effects can affect a patient’s mood, cholesterol and liver functions, so drinking alcohol is off-limits while on the medicine, she said.
“I certainly wouldn’t take it lightly,” Luckman-Wilcox said. “If you qualify with the severity of acne, then you want to weigh out those things. It’s not for everybody, but it works well for what it does.”
While college students may be wary about sacrificing a semester of drinking to be on some of these medications, Luckman-Wilcox said there is a chance alcohol is one of the poisons causing breakouts in the first place.
“It adds to the inflammation,” she said. “It’s a toxin; that’s all it boils down to.”
A treatment both Ishler and Thompson have in common is oral contraceptives. Thompson said it didn’t always work for her because she would forget to take the pills, but Ishler said it helped control her acne.
“I always thought that was working,” she said. “I went off them over the summer because I didn’t have a boyfriend or anything.”
Ishler said she often becomes insecure when beginning romantic relationships because her skin is a sensitive subject.
“I don’t want [guys] knowing I have issues with it, so I don’t take off my makeup,” she said. “But at the same time, this is ruining my skin. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t like having sleepovers with guys.”
However, despite the inhibiting moments, there are always points in time when the positive feelings outweigh the negative ones. Thompson said she felt proud of her skin was a few weeks ago when she visited her boyfriend, who attends the University of Vermont. She said he noticed her skin had been looking particularly clear that day, so he made an unexpected statement.
“He was just like, ‘Your skin looks really good right now,’” she said. “If someone makes an offhand comment, that definitely makes you feel good. It makes you feel like you want to keep going with what you’re doing.”
However, not everyone is as encouraging as Thompson’s boyfriend. Senior Meg Ciminera, a licensed cosmetologist, said not all of her friends have been supportive of her — some of them make her feel even more insecure about her skin, which is sprinkled with small cysts almost exclusively across her chin.
“I had a cystic pimple and I popped it,” she said. “And my friend had come up and been like, ‘Oh, you have a third eye.’ And I was just like, ‘Thank you. I’m not self-conscious enough about it, but you have to make it a part of my face.’”
Female students aren’t the only ones who experience teasing from their friends because of their skin. Senior Taylor Palmer was expecting to have a good time with his friends at an eighth grade dance, when suddenly he found himself alone on the dance floor, as his buddies were all dancing with girls. Palmer, who was already insecure about talking to women because of his skin, felt discouraged to try to dance with a girl after another friend belittled him by asking, “Who’d want to dance with that guy?”
Eight years later, Palmer said he is now confident in his skin because it has cleared up over time. However, he still wears cover-up and other makeup because he said it makes him feel positive, even if there may be a stigma attached to men wearing makeup.
“It bums me out that more guys feel like they can’t do this,” he said. “There’s this heavy stigma for a lot of people about, ‘Oh, it’s not manly; it’s not a masculine thing to do.’”
Thompson said after she graduates in May she is nervous about entering the working world, mainly because of the interviewing process.
“For a first impression, you definitely wonder if they’re going to look,” she said. “And you can say in the back of your mind that they’re just looking at your resume; they’re not looking at your skin. But logic never plays a part in that.”
A study released in 2011 by researchers from Rice University and the University of Houston said a job candidate with acne is less likely to get a job over someone without it. While the study said those with facial blemishes weren’t discriminated against, the interviewers commonly didn’t find those candidates as memorable.
While acne may be difficult for college students to manage, entering the real world upon graduation isn’t so scary to some. Junior Nathaniel Fishburn, an acting major who has struggled with acne, said he isn’t nervous to enter a field where facial features are constantly scrutinized. He said none of his professors ever told him he needed to clear his skin up.
“As an actor, it hasn’t really been a problem,” he said. “There’s no one — at least in my department — who has said, ‘You need to fix your acne problem, STAT.’ But it can be frustrating when you see new breakouts that you fixate on.”
With so much nervousness and anxiety trickling through college students’ minds, Ciminera was able to offer advice for her peers feeling similar emotions.
“Go to dermatologists; do what you can,” she said. “And just believe in yourself. Everyone has parts of themselves that they aren’t confident in, but if you act like it doesn’t bother you then people can’t target you. And as hard as it is, ‘faking it ’til you make it’ is oftentimes the best advice you can give someone.”