My Face Hurts: Experimenting with acne treatments is hard

"He who is brave is free." - Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Twelve days ago I began an experiment to discover what acne treatment regimen would work best. I was motivated by a jumble of reasons. I wanted to know what worked best for me, how I could improve my own compliance, and how bad my acne actually is without treatment. If I failed to discover any new information, at least I would get a break from a tiresome and time consuming daily regimen.

These twelve days have been a roller coaster.

At first I was elated to have one less thing to worry about in my day. I woke up, showered, brushed my teeth and that was it. I was done! No astringents, moisturizers, masks, spot treatment, pills, topical ointments, toners...nothing! At night I could just floss, brush my teeth and go to sleep. It really felt amazing.

Four days in, my acne had not gotten worse. It had maybe even gotten better. I thought, Maybe, just maybe, I've grown out of having acne. I'm 21 now. It's possible.

Even when I stopped the rest of my treatment, I kept washing my face with a non-comedogenic chemical soap once in the morning while in the shower. I had great compliance with that and it didn't make sense to me to abolish a good habit like that. Maybe, I thought, that's all I need.

I'm not sure I've ever been more wrong in my life.

Six days in, my acne started getting slightly worse. I got my first whitehead since stopping treatment, and a string of small red bumps had sprung up along my upper lip. More and more acne appeared on my neck, hairline, chin, and cheeks over the next two days, while the entire area around my mouth started to look leprous. Or at least how I imagine leprosy looks. I don't know. It looked really awful.

No longer elated to have stopped treatment, I couldn't wait to start cleaning my face up again. I couldn't leave the house without mild social anxiety. Will people be scared to look at me? Will my friends make excuses to not spend time with me? Will my coworkers avoid inviting me to meetings?

An ongoing argument began in my head, one side arguing that this was insane, that I would alienate everyone. The other argued that that was just the spotlight effect talking, that people might be a little grossed out for a second but that they're too busy worrying about themselves to spare any thought on my appearance. Whichever side is right, I have a hard time thinking of anything else in my life except my acne.

On day eight, as was the plan, I started reintroducing treatments one week at a time, starting with a moisturizer-sunscreen. It hasn't helped a bit.

On day 10 a giant whitehead popped up at the left corner of my mouth. It hasn't gone away and it's made it hard to smile. I've also stopped using chap stick because I read online it causes zits to show up at the corner of my mouth. So now my lips are extremely chapped and that makes it hard to smile, too. The total acne-caused inflammation of my upper lip and chin doesn't help either.

I've started to dream at night about beautiful people with clear skin. They tease me about being so self-conscious. I look forward to starting treatment with a sulfur mask on Friday the way Christian Bale looked forward to taking a whiff in The Fighter.

Why put myself through this, you ask? Surely the experiment isn't worth this? Surely not.

But I'll tell you this. I don't like being a slave to my acne, to a sense of self-worth apparently wholly based on physical attractiveness.

I want to be free. The way out of this fire is through.

DSLcast #3: Max Schechter

I'm excited about this episode. Max Schechter is a good friend of mine who is now working on a senate campaign. We talked about campaign life, moral indignation in high school, PE classes, and what Max does in his free time. You can find him on Twitter at @MaxSchechter.

As always, you can also subscribe on iTunes.

I'm now taking suggestions for what the podcast sign-off should be. I like Chris Hardwick's nonsensical "Enjoy your burrito" but I'm open to something totally different, too. Let me know at @dsethlewis.

Stay hydrated, y'all.