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  • Lily Bradbar

Self Love with Acne

Updated: Jan 4

I paid five bucks for this stock image, if you can believe that. It shows a crayon drawing of a girl with red hair and acne frowning. The drawing is cartoonish in style. I could have done it myself, but I apparently thought I had money to burn. To the artist's credit, it's super cute, and they did a much better job than I could have.

No matter how hard I work at self love, nothing can undo my progress faster than one too many pimples. Having been through the gamut of benzoyl peroxide, Epiduo, antibiotics, spironolactone, C02 laser, and two courses of Roaccutane, I am no stranger to bleached pillow cases, bleeding lips, and last-minute cancellations. More than a few times, I've felt as though my acne days were behind me, only to wake one morning with the sort of sting on my chin that can only mean something cystic. On those days, I'm fourteen again: that same young girl searching her one concealer and pressed powder for something approaching dignity before the heart-in-her-stomach sprint to the school bus.

So what do we do on days when self love feels like a product of clear skin, like the sort of thing felt by people who associate 'breaking out' with Houdini? I don't have all the answers, but in my journey toward unconditional self love, here's what worked for me.

Daily Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) (or Another Suitable Form of Therapy)

This is a photo of what appears to be a therapy session. A woman is writing notes and looking attentively at a client. The client is photographed from behind, so you can only see her hair.

This is a bit of an intense way to start, but I begin here because it's important.

During the height of my body dysmorphia, I thought my psychiatrist was so unreasonable. I don't need your little workbooks, sir. I need an authority script for Xanax, something done about the kinks in my DNA, and just once it'd be nice if someone asked if I'd ever considered modelling. In response, he told my GP I had 'difficulty with the methodical use of behavioural techniques to counter negative assumptions'. The audacity!

Almost out of spite, I started daily CBT. At first, it felt like picking at a scab while my heart threatened to give out. Over time, as I begrudgingly reported to my psychiatrist, I started to feel a bit better. Triggers didn't trigger as much, and, after a couple of years of daily practice, some triggers stopped being triggers at all. (Medication helped too!)

The format I used (and still use) was simple:

What am I feeling?

What is the assumption behind the feeling?

Can I challenge the assumption?

On a day I was struggling with acne, I would write something like this:

What am I feeling? Insecure

What is the assumption behind the feeling? My acne makes me look bad. People will think less of me.

Can I challenge the assumption? There is no point placing value on the appearance of my skin. I know I take good care of myself, and it's not something that needs to get in the way of how I spend my day. I don't think the people I love are any less beautiful on the days their skin looks different, so I shouldn't feel that way toward myself. If someone thinks less of me, it's because they haven't done the work of critically engaging with regressive ideas about how people should or shouldn't look. By not letting this limit me, I am modelling to myself and others that we can do better than only valuing our bodies when they look a certain way.

Importantly, I would do this every day. It wasn't always about my skin or about my appearance, but I would use CBT the way one would use a kitchen sponge: to clean up little messes before they became bigger messes. We don't enter the world ashamed of our bodies. That is the product of daily conditioning. If I wanted to fight this daily conditioning, my defences would also need to be a daily effort.

I also found it useful to make note of what I was doing before any uneasy feelings came on, writing it above each entry. Recognising that I always felt anxious after consuming certain types of media or spending time with certain people was useful information when learning how to better act in the interest of my mental hygiene.

If acne is affecting your self esteem, consulting a therapist may be a good idea. Even acne for a few years in your youth can lay the foundation for a lifelong struggle with body dysmorphia. There are also cases of people developing eating disorders over fears certain foods might trigger more acne. A therapist can steer you toward therapeutic strategies that may, over time, help you appreciate your body more for what it can do than what it looks like. CBT is what is generally recommended for body-image issues, but I also found Narrative Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy useful. By discussing your concerns with a professional, you can find what works for you.

Do Something You Love

A man is shown leaning over a cake. It's covered in what appears to be a chocolate ganache. He is placing flowers on top of it, and he's doing a beautiful job.

When you're struggling to accept something about your appearance, it can be all too tempting to lean over a mirror muttering mean things about yourself.

But consider this: What are some of the happiest times in your life? Fair enough if some of those times include moments you looked and felt your best, but what about the time you finished that project you worked so hard on? Or laughed yourself breathless with your best friend? Or became so immersed in something you didn't even realise the whole day had passed?

There's no denying that the conditions for self love are a group effort. When someone lectures us about self love, it's often our first instinct to look at what they have that we don't and think, 'Easy for you to say.' I don't want to pretend you're invincible and that whatever led you here doesn't actually matter or shouldn't actually hurt. Of course it matters, and of course it hurts, and none of this is fair.

For better or worse, how you look may — for now at least (see my first tip) — be a part of what goes into making you feel confident or happy. If you can't feel good about your appearance today, think about the other things that make you feel good and that have nothing to do with how you look. That might be drawing, singing, photography, putting your all into your job or your homework, or spending quality time with quality people. Today might also be a great opportunity to discover a new hobby, reorganise your room or home, or learn a new recipe. Distracting yourself from the things you can't control with something you actually can control can help to re-empower you on days when you're feeling a little powerless.

You can't think your acne out of existence, so, if you can, do your best to redirect your energy toward something rewarding. Your body can still take in new memories and discoveries, so do your best to nourish it with something that reminds you of your creativity or strength or discipline or sense of humour. So many of the things you enjoy when your skin is clear are still there to enjoy.

Explore Nature or Bond with Your Companion Animals

A couple, photographed from the neck down, lean into each other affectionately. A dog is on their lap. The dog is white and fluffy with a black nose.

Have you ever looked at a dog with an overbite and decided they were completely unacceptable? Or was their overbite just as endearing to you as the glee in their eyes and the wag of their tail? Did you maybe feel the sort of unconditional acceptance toward that dog that many report feeling when seeing photos of their younger selves?

We've all known a few bullies in our time, but no other species of animal is thinking any differently of you no matter what your skin is doing. I remember returning home after going under anaesthetic for the most aggressive laser treatment of my life. My face was swollen and oozing and bloody. To make matters worse, a nurse had covered this red-and-yellow patchwork in a thick, shiny layer of petroleum jelly. Opening the front door that afternoon, I must've looked like the living dead. My dog, however, was unfazed. She was just happy to see me.

On nights I feel a bit down about myself, having my dog next to me on the lounge is a comforting reminder that I'm loved and valued no matter what's going on in my head or on my face. It's a reminder that life comes in way more shapes than even a Dove commercial could possibly show us. It's a reminder of how it feels to be seen without human superficiality distorting what is there.

If you don't have a companion animal, exploring nature can also be healing and help put things in perspective. One study from the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that 'even short-term visits to nature areas have positive effects on perceived stress relief compared to built-up environment'. One of my favourite things to do when I'm spending too much time with my thoughts is to get in my car, put on some good music, and drive somewhere abundant and marvel at the sky or the cliffs or the shore or the sense of something more I feel in the presence of a nightlit forest. There's something about reconnecting with the raw building blocks of our world that makes the way I look, or who said this, or who thought that feel so much less urgent.

It's easy to forget the world when our bodies rob us of our mental energy. Today, if you can, take the time to immerse yourself in the endlessly varied, endlessly colourful artery of our existence. This can even mean driving the long way home from work or taking the dog for a walk after school. Notice how you observe the texture of the rocks or the angles of the branches or the temperature of the creek — without expectation and with a willingness to accept whatever you find. See if you can start to see yourself the same way: not as an unsuccessful reproduction of some arbitrary standard, but as one of the many wonderful ways nature brings life to form.

A Social Media Cleanse

Two women are looking at a laptop. They both have their hands on the keyboard, and one is touching the screen.

A 2016 study on the relationship between social media addiction, life satisfaction, and self-esteem came to the unsurprising conclusion that high levels of social media addiction were associated with low levels of self esteem. Of course anyone with any sort of addiction is more likely to have below-average self esteem, but a 2022 study determined that social media addiction is specifically associated with higher levels of body dysmorphia and disordered eating.

I do not want to tell you to stop using social media entirely. I will, however, tell you a three-month break from Instagram was enough to break the compulsion to look at it. Even when I reactivated my account, the itch upon waking was no longer there to reach for my phone and see which pretty person was prettily doing which pretty thing. Even a short break may be enough time to establish habits that empower you instead of making you feel defeated before you've even begun. As already discussed, time doing the things you love is always preferable to time spent measuring yourself against some self-defeating standard.

Another important thing may be thinking critically about how certain accounts make you feel. If an account is constantly making you feel like you're not enough, it might be time to unfollow or at least mute that person. On the other hand, you might find some accounts help you feel better about yourself. Sometimes, self love can feel too ambitious of a goal to even know where to start. Finding people you admire with features similar to the ones you're insecure about can be a great first step toward learning it's possible to love yourself without first having to change yourself. If a social media break is too hard right now, or if you want a safer feed to return to, seek out accounts that show people like you living without the limitations you're convinced protect you.

Reframing Your Relationship with Clothing and Makeup

A woman is leaning into a mirror and applying makeup. She has a very sweet smile.

I end here because I know makeup can be a crutch for people struggling with acne. I remember being too afraid to even spend the night at a former partner's house because I didn't want him to see me without the foundation I felt I needed in order to keep him in my life.

As I've tried to reconcile my love of fashion and beauty with the sort of life that keeps my body dysmorphia in check, I've had to reevaluate what fashion and beauty mean to me. I've had to stop dressing the person my sickness wants me to be and start dressing the glorious, ever-changing person I am. This has meant no longer seeing clothing and makeup as tools of conformity, but as tools of self-expression.

In recognition of this new philosophy, I decided I no longer wanted my makeup routine to revolve around complexion products that would 'hide' my features. I wanted a simple routine motivated by sensorial pleasure instead of a 'routine' that was really just anxious compulsion. I wanted to pare my makeup collection back to products I could trust to A: cooperate with my skin, no matter its condition, and B: give me the flexibility to play with colour and focus on ornamenting my face rather than concealing it.

Before sharing the products that helped me develop a more joyous relationship to makeup, I want to stress my intentions. I do not want to endorse the idea that anyone needs makeup. If you're someone who doesn't use makeup, these recommendations are not for you. Keep doing what feels right to you. This is for people struggling with self love who see makeup as a chore and who wish they could see makeup as an opportunity for play. By simplifying your routine, you may find yourself becoming less worried about obliterating your features and more excited about experimenting with new lip and eye colours. Like a sort of exposure therapy, the process of paring your routine back to the steps you genuinely enjoy may even set you up to go makeup free on days where you have other priorities. Also, I must stress that none of these recommendations tie in with any sponsorships or affiliation deals. At the time of writing this, I don't have a URL (hopefully next pay!), let alone corporate support.

With my purpose established, here are some of my go-to products that work just as well on the days I have acne as the days I don't. I don't include lip, cheek, and eye products because this is more about having a fuss-free 'base' I can then go on to decorate however I please. These are the products that reduced my emotional dependency on a lengthy procedure of primer, foundation, concealer, contour, and powder. With this simplified routine, I was less anxious about getting ready, more excited about the 'fun' parts of doing my makeup, and able to fit more into my day without the time-sink of my old routine.

Two sunblocks are shown beside each other. One is Airyday's Mineral Mousse SPF50+ Dreamscreen and the other is Naked Sunday's SPF50+ Collagen Glow 100% Mineral Perfecting Priming Lotion.

As one of the cheapest, easiest, and safest things we can do for our long-term health, SPF was a non-negotiable. Still, it was important to me that I found a sunblock that wouldn't irritate my rosacea and that would pair well with makeup. What I ended up with was a routine based on two sunblocks: Airyday's Mineral Mousse SPF50+ Dreamscreen and Naked Sundays' SPF50+ Collagen Glow 100% Mineral Perfecting Priming Lotion. Both of these are zinc based, so they're quite soothing. I've also never had any issues with them triggering breakouts, but my experience obviously cannot predict yours.

On days I'm staying in, I use a cheaper sunblock (usually from Ethical Zinc), meaning I'm not having to replace these every month. On days I'm wearing makeup, I apply the Airyday sunblock on my T-zone and eye area where I need more oil control. I also apply it to areas that have a bit more pitting and scarring because it's beautifully silicone dense, so it works better, in my opinion, than nearly any blurring primer. If you're using enough, it may feel a bit strange and sticky for a bit, but trust the process. SPF usually needs a few minutes to 'set up' on the skin anyway. I then apply the Naked Sundays everywhere else. Both products are sufficiently 'sticky' as a makeup base, negating the need for an additional primer, including eye primer. The Airyday, rich in silicone, works just as well as a mattifying eye primer, and the Naked Sunday, thick and moisturising, keeps my tretinoin flakeys from interfering with my base products. This two-in-one function reduces steps, which means I can free up time for the fun parts of applying makeup (like eyeshadows and lip colours) without sacrificing sun protection.

This is a photo of Nyx's colour correcting palette. It has six different colours, including some neutrals, a lilac, a green, and a yellow.

Now, I'm not a fan of the term colour 'correcting'. Whatever colour you are is never wrong, which is why I will preference the term 'neutralisers'.

My main advice with any neutralising product is this: Proceed with caution. If you're anything like me, your makeup 'technique' may be better suited to painting a house than your face. Anyone who knows what it's like to cover stubborn acne or post-inflammatory erythema or hyperpigmentation would understand how easy it is for this habit to develop. With neutralisers, however, just the smallest amount can yield a brightening, evening effect you may have struggled achieving with even a liberal amount of foundation or concealer. If you're going to an event where there is going to be photography, some of these neutralising pigments may be a bit more visible if there's not a skin-colour product (like a foundation, concealer, or BB cream) over the top. For every day use though, I sometimes find a strategic application of neutralisers over my SPF is all I need. This goes against the rules a bit, but if you haven't tried a lilac tone in place of an under-eye concealer, you may be surprised by how brightening and reviving it can be.

I will write an article about the specifics of neutralising, but the basic theory is that you want to use colours on the opposite side of the colour wheel to whichever colours you're attempting to cover or counterbalance. In short: green neutralises red; warm orangey red shades neutralise blue tones (like dark circles or even shadows from facial hair); and lilacs and lavenders neutralise yellow tones (which you might consider helpful if you're prone to jaundice, like me). The darker your skin, the brighter you can go with your neutralising pigments. This Ben Nye palette, for instance, is more saturated than others, and it's cream based, which gives the most natural result. If you're fair, pastel pigments will be easier to blend. I like this one from Nyx, but Stila do a nice one too if you don't mind spending a bit more money. Both are cream based. If you're not interested in having a lilac on hand, this Make Up Forever palette is pricey but a sound investment given its mix-and-match potential. I would recommend it to both fair and dark alike (there's a fair and dark version), but the deepest tones could afford to go deeper.

This is a promotional image of Purito's Cica Clearing BB Cream. It shows the six shades the product comes in.

For a long time, I dismissed BB creams as 'pretty girl makeup'. My attitude was that I would have a quick-and-easy routine if I looked a certain way, but because I looked like myself, I was resigned to spend my mornings piling on opaque layer after opaque layer.

The good news is makeup is makeup and having a physical form is the only prerequisite to wearing it. More than that: this Purito BB cream doesn't crack apart the way foundation does ever since I started using tretinoin daily. It's also more pigmented than any other BB cream I've used, allowing me the artistic flexibility of a foundation without losing the ease and additional SPF of a BB cream. The buildable coverage allows me to achieve any effect I want while also trusting that the product will melt into areas where I may have some acne or flakiness or both. Never again will I sob while a concealer bunches up around a pimple.

Even better, it usually sells for around $10.

My only criticism is, as I'm sure is obvious: the lack of shades. I will give credit to the brand for including muted tones underrepresented by even inclusive brands. Aside from that though, the shade range is seriously lacking. If you have deeper, darker skin, please leave your recommendations down below. My knowledge is a bit limited, but I have used and enjoyed the bareMinerals Complexion Rescue Tinted Gel Cream. The shade range is better than Purito's, and the coverage is a bit lighter, so the shades are more flexible. I have also heard good things about Iman's Skin Tone Evener BB Crème, which is black (icon) owned and also very reasonably priced.

This is a promotional photo of Trinny London's Face Finish Mattifying Balm. It shows the pot the product comes in positioned beside a swatch of the creamy formula.

This next one has received hit-and-miss reviews, but I will stand by it. I stand by it especially for those of us who rely on aggressive skin actives like tretinoin, benzoyl peroxide, and hydroquinone. While some influencers may be comfortable piling on powder to set their makeup, powder, for me, can go from mattifying to mosaic in the space of a minute. That's why I am a fan of this Face Finish Mattifying Balm from Trinny London. In the spirit of full transparency, it is not as blurring and mattifying as something like the Urban Decay All Nighter Softening Loose Setting Powder. With that said, it is still much, much better than nothing, and its balmy formula allows it to get to work without revealing whatever flake, crust, or texture may be lurking under the surface. There have been too many times I've had to redo my makeup at the last minute because a powder tipped my complexion products from hanging-in-there to barely-hanging-on. This product eliminates this liability from my makeup application process, and, when struggling with body-image anxiety, anything to reduce stress around getting ready is a godsend to me.

This is a promotional photo for Squish Beauty's floral pimple patches. It shows two models wearing the pimple patches and looking fiercely into the camera.

I end with these cute pimple patches, which can — in my opinion, at least — be worn whether you're going out or staying in. Squish pimple patches create a hygienic seal over your pimples, safeguarding against the temptation to pick or squeeze. They don't contain any actives, but as dermatologist Dr Dray points out, putting ingredients like salicylic acid under occlusion can drive up irritation. If you're using actives at night, you might find the occlusive barrier during the day is all you need to let your body heal itself without the temptation to lean over a mirror and poke, prod, and pick at your skin. (I've since discovered Glo Patch if, like me, you're located in Australia.)

One other advantage is that, unlike clear pimple patches, these actually visually occlude the pimple. Pimples obviously shouldn't be a barrier to self love, but it is not our fault we're indoctrinated with media equating certain types of faces and bodies with what it means to be successful or dignified or beautiful. If I'm feeling a bit vulnerable, the out-of-sight-out-of-mind effect of these patches can free me up to focus on things that are actually productive. It's for this reason I've even grown to prefer these patches over concealer. It might not be a look you want for a corporate environment, and I get that, but it can look cute and playful for a day out. Also, with Euphoria popularising face gems, it's now a totally legitimate nighttime look.

Finally, if you want a way to celebrate yourself when you're breaking out, why not become a garden for a day? Wear your patches, a sundress or aloha shirt, a floral perfume and keep on smiling.

This photo shows a woman sipping a glass of white wine in a garden. She is alone, but not lonely, honey. I don't think it is Kelly Clarkson, but who knows?

Feel free to comment below with anything you want to add to this conversation, whether a gratitude journal you like or an eye glitter that makes you feel beautiful on the worst of days.

I leave you with this: You're not ugly. You're a victim of forced conformity. Do what you need to get through today, but don't mistake anyone's regressive ideals for a credible assessment of your worth or capacity to love or be loved. The shame society has created around acne is the failure here, not you or your skin.


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