Acne influencers on why they would never change their spots

Whether it’s the newly coined ‘maskne’ that is the cause of your recent breakout, or a long history with hormonal spots originating from your teenage years, acne continues to be a prevalent discussion in our society.

The mental health side effects are also sobering. A 2019 study by E45 found 10 million people in the UK have suffered with mental health issues as a result. 

However, the #acnepositivity movement is continuing to try to change the way we look at acne and has empowered those with the condition to no longer hide behind a mask of heavy makeup. I spoke with two influencers on their stories and why they’ve taken it upon themselves to say having acne is all okay.

The influencers

Ella Gorton @_myskinstory, 26, skincare specialist, Salford

Even through challenging times, Ella says she wouldn’t change a thing and is grateful for what acne has brought to her life. Image credit: Ella Gorton.

As someone who had the odd one or two spots as a teenager, a girls’ holiday at 21 was when Ella noticed her skin had got progressively worse. She put this down to using oil-based sun creams, but when she returned home, the acne didn’t disappear. “It was more my mum that pushed me to go and speak to a doctor because I was probably in a bit of denial,” says Ella. “I was like, ‘Oh, it’ll be fine, it’ll get better. I’m 21, it won’t get any worse’, but it did get progressively worse to a point where I took my mum’s advice and went to seek medical advice from the doctor.”

A two-year period of trial and error prescription and topical treatments lead to a course of Roaccutane (isotretinoin), the acne-fighting drug which has had some bad press due to its sometimes harsh side effects. “The first course I was on was for four-and-a-half months, then I ended up going privately through the private dermatologist because the NHS waiting list is weeks or even months.”

It was from here that Ella started posting about her acne and using Roaccutane on Instagram in October 2016, albeit she admits to initially doing so for personal gain than helping others. “This may sound really bad, but it was probably more selfishly that I started because I wanted to use it as a bit of a platform to keep me motivated when I went on Roaccutane,” says Ella. “But I started my Instagram more for selfish reasons, to keep me motivated knowing full well that, regardless of how I felt, regardless of how my skin went, if I posted a picture every day, I needed to post that picture every day and document that journey.” 

Ella regularly posts updates on her acne journey to her many Instagram followers, and has done so since October 2016. Media credit: Ella Gorton/Instagram @_myskinstory.


Ella’s Salford roots are what she credits for her thick-skinned approach when she first started posting pictures of her acne. “I’ve never been the type of sensitive person that if someone would have said something bad about my skin it would have really affected me. 

“If anything, once I posted, it empowered me a lot because you expect a lot of people to judge, that’s just kind of a natural instinct.” 

Ella, a trained beautician and makeup artist, now runs My Skin Story Clinic, a  treatment and consultation service which has now moved solely online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She admits to having a lot more to learn about skin, but interest in the clinic has increased since lockdown measures were introduced with people having more time on their hands. Bridging the support gap from what the NHS provides for patients with acne has also been a significant factor for Ella. “It’s funny because it’s something that I’ve done for quite a long time,” says Ella. “We [influencers] can bridge that support gap between not being able to get to a dermatologist or doctor and being able to speak to somebody about it, and I think for us it’s good because we can really empathise with people. With my experience going to a doctor or a dermatologist, as amazing people as they are, they don’t really have that empathy side of things.”  

Even through challenging times, Ella says she wouldn’t change a thing and is grateful for what acne has brought to her life. “If you would have asked me back in 2016 when I was at my lowest and didn’t want to even leave the house, it was a hindrance then and if I look back now, I am so grateful to have acne,” she says. “I know that sounds really, really crazy, but I am because it’s sent me on the path I’m on now, not just from a business perspective but from a lifestyle perspective.”

Kara Olivia Eden @karaoliviabeauty, 23, production coordinator, Manchester

Kara says Instagram’s acne community was her influence to start posting about her own condition. Image credit: Kara Olivia Eden.

Going through teenage life without acne, it was coming off the contraceptive pill due to feeling tired, and at the same time as some of her friends, that first triggered Kara’s condition. “We all felt great but, unfortunately, I was the only one where my skin broke out,” says Kara. “I didn’t really understand why because I didn’t have acne before and looking at other people who came off the pill and developed acne, they had acne before it. But I think for me, it was just a massive hormone imbalance that caused my acne.” 

One particular moment that changed her way of thinking about acne was when Kara went to the shops without makeup on. “I saw so many people stare at me and it made me feel really uncomfortable,” she says. “But there was one person who had acne as well, who was looking at me and giving me a bit of a smile, and I was like, ‘Oh, hello!’. I thought about it, I was in my own head and was thinking the reason why it’s not normal and accepted is because we’re so conscious of it and we cover it up, so other people don’t really know that it’s there.”

It was around three-and-a-half years ago that Kara found the acne community on Instagram, and was influenced by the stories she saw to start posting about her own condition. However, it was a scary transition at first for someone who didn’t like to leave the house without makeup. “I archived it, even though I only had about five or six followers,” says Kara. “But the next day I woke up and thought I just need to put it out there. So my mindset kind of just shifted overnight. I went on loads of acne accounts and followed loads of other people because I literally went from the night before thinking, ‘I don’t want anyone to see this’ to ‘I want everyone to see this’.” 

Kara’s posts such as this one have helped generate more than 8,000 loyal Instagram followers. Media credit: Kara Olivia Eden/Instagram: @karaoliviabeauty


She was initially scared of receiving hurtful comments the people she followed at the time had, but recognises how far the acne community has come. “I would read the comments to try and find useful tips and there would be people commenting on there saying, ‘Oh, that’s ugly, that’s disgusting, go wash your face’, just really horrible comments,” says Kara. “I noticed that, from three and a half years ago and looking at it now, you don’t see any of those comments anymore. When I first followed the hashtag #acnecommunity, it had less than 1,000 followers on it. Now, it’s 64,400 likes on that hashtag. It just goes to show how many people have embraced it and are aware of it now.” 

So what motivates Kara to continue posting about her acne? “Looking back at my prior self and thinking how alone I was, I don’t want anyone else to feel alone. You’re never alone with any condition you’ve got, there’s always someone that’s got something similar to you and that’s the same with acne,” she says, discussing a particular post before lockdown where she wore no makeup to the airport. “When you go to the airport and people are dressed up like they’re going on a night out sometimes, because they want to look nice going on holiday. But I made the conscious effort to not do that because what I hoped was someone would see me and think ‘if she can do it, I can do it’. That’s kind of the attitude I’ve got. If I can do it, you can definitely do it too.”

Supporting your teenager through acne

It’s not just teenagers that fight stubborn acne. Parents are at the brunt of their frustrations with limited expert support. Here, Jack Wynn speaks with two mothers about how they’ve supported their children through the fight, and what resources are available during the pandemic

Aside from the occasional blog post or advice page from skincare manufacturers, it’s hard to find constructive support out there if you’re a parent watching your child struggle with acne and going through crippling anxiety.

An analysis of 42 acne studies recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (JAMA) also supports the link between acne and depression. Although there is a stronger link with adults, the condition affects 85% of teenagers and researchers say acne should be recognised as a mental health concern. 

One mother knows all too well about living with severe acne, in addition to supporting her own child through the same process. Karen*, a secondary school teacher from Hertford, Hertfordshire, supported her daughter through the struggle but also suffered with the condition herself. “I remember being very aware that I looked at my face in the mirror once,” says Karen. “I think I would have been about 12 or 13. Then it really, really escalated and we’re talking the whole sides of my face, my back, my chest, it got to the point where it wasn’t even individual spots. It was just awful. I was obsessed with it; as far as I thought, it was the first thing that anybody ever saw. Let’s be truthful: it is.” 

Feeling isolated as none of her friends had the condition, acne was still a significant part of Karen’s life even after finishing school. “I still had it [acne] when I went to university,” says Karen. “The very first or second day I met my best friend. She had acne and we talked about it sometime afterwards and it was a bonding thing. It was one of the first things we noticed about each other.” 

I was obsessed with it; as far as I thought, it was the first thing that anybody ever saw. Let’s be truthful: it is

Her daughter also started developing acne in her teens. At first, Karen didn’t say anything and waited for her daughter to initiate the conversation, but as time went on, there was a clear change in self-esteem. She recalls one incident with a physics teacher during her daughter’s A levels. “It was one of the few times I interfered as I’m a teacher myself,” says Karen. “[He] made fun of her for the amount of makeup she wore. You don’t have any right to make any comment on a kid’s appearance anyway; I would never, ever do that, it’s so unprofessional and teenagers are at the most vulnerable anyway. But that was horrible, it made her not want to go to his lessons.” 

She ended up quitting her physics A level, and this spurred Karen to take further action. “When I went into the doctors as a very assertive person, I went in with my facts because I knew that people had been fobbed off with, ‘Oh, it’s just her age, she’ll grow out of it’. I went in saying, ‘I know this is available, or we could try this’ and ‘would you please’ and the doctor did as I asked them to do.”

Her daughter now has a successful career and leads a happy life. There is still, however, some insecurity about her skin. “I’ve never been allowed to tag my daughter in Facebook pictures or anything like that, unless I run it past her, and it started with the acne,” says Karen. She also has lived with her own insecurities even after the acne stopped; wearing foundation is still used as a mask due to the emotions of acne still living with her, but Karen says she’s becoming more confident in going out barefaced. Karen’s advice to other parents going through similar situations: “Listen, and never, ever say ‘don’t be so silly!’ If somebody is worried or frightened by anything, it’s real to them. Telling someone to not be so silly isn’t going to help, is it? They are worried about it, so you’ve got to listen, take it seriously.” 

Alison Newman, a support worker from Romford, Essex, also knows the painful struggle of supporting a child with severe acne, particularly as a single parent coping with the stress all by herself. When her son started to develop acne at the beginning of secondary school, there wasn’t much need for concern until its severity worsened over a short time. She says parents have to be persistent in trying to get the answers and support they need. “The support from doctors is there, but only if you’re the type of person to push for a referral to a specialist”, says Alison. “[Acne] is not seen as important enough as it’s not medical but cosmetic in their opinion, which I think is completely wrong.”

The support from doctors is there, but only if you’re the type of person to push for a referral to a specialist

Alison’s advice is simple, but effective. “Don’t give up! Go to see the doctor and get the medication that is needed. You have to push for help and don’t let anyone fob you off with the typical ‘it’s just teenage skin and they will grow out of it’ excuse.” 

The counsellor perspective

Parents can often feel they are highlighting an issue when talking to their children, which can compound them to be self conscious. They feel they are juggling a practical solution in helping their child with self care, or seeking medical help in some cases, while at the same time they try to get their children to a point where they do not focus too heavily on the demands of appearance. “A lot of parents express struggling with knowing how to connect with and help their teens,” says Victoria Browne, a mindset coach who helps parents deal with their children’s acne, as well as adults suffering a loss of confidence as a result of childhood acne. “There is a fear of getting ‘it’ wrong, judgement by others and not allowing their child space to grow while supporting and guiding them.” 

Victoria also says online counselling services for parents and children are a great way to find support, particularly during lockdown and obvious straints. “The NHS counselling services are stretched between 8-12 week waiting lists, and many GP’s prescribe medication for mental health issues rather than therapeutic services,” says Victoria. “Many online counselling services are great especially for busy, time short people so that hasn’t changed during lockdown. Some parents I have as clients have also reported a closer connection with their teens during lockdown, having greater conversations with both time and depth.” 
Jerilee Claydon has a unique perspective. As a psychotherapist, she suffers with acne herself and worries her children, aged three and five, will suffer with the same issues. In particular, she claims her three-year-old son has “identical” skin to her. “Even while he is only three years old, I’m looking at options for him and how to protect him from acne,” says Jerilee. She recognises the lack of empathy towards acne associated with GPs and suggests parents need more access to education. “[Parents] need to know how to treat acne at its first signs. If it’s managed early on and treated appropriately inside and out, there is a much better chance of managing it. Diet, products, treatments, and medication all need to be considered.”

Affordable lockdown counselling services

*Accredited by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).  

  1. Meredith El-Jawhari, PhD: An experienced psychologist in both the UK and US, one of Meredith’s specialities is child psychology and helping parents and children cope with anxiety, depression and low moods. Sessions start from £45 and she also offers telephone and online counselling services via Zoom (T: 07925948931/E: contact@meredith-therapy.co.uk/W: meredith-therapy.co.uk) 
  2. Ella Tekdag: Ella specialises in helping young people and children cope with the pressure of modern society influenced by social media to improve self-esteem. An initial one-hour session is £40 and she is currently holding counselling sessions via Skype and Zoom (T: 07787 537608/E: ella_tekdag@hotmail.com/W: ellatekdag.com) 
  3. Gillian Reid: Gillian first studied social and child psychology in her bachelor’s degree and uses the method of psychodynamic therapy, where clients can understand the root cause(s) of their issues. Sessions start at £50 and provides both telephone and online counselling (T: 07501 674689/W: gillianreidcounselling.com) 
  4. Phil Martin: Phil has more than 15 years’ experience working with children and families and can help with key areas including stress, anxiety, self-esteem and depression. Online and telephone counselling are available and sessions start at £40 (T: 07789 072592/E: hello@sojourn.org.uk/W: sojourn.org.uk) 
  5. Helen Brown: As an integrative counsellor, merging different psychotherapy methods together, Helen specialises in working with children and adults to explore how early life and previous relationships could impact current behaviours and self-esteem. Telephone and online counselling are available throughout the pandemic and sessions start at £50 (T: 07580425305/E: helenbrowncounselling@gmail.com/W: helenbrowncounselling.co.uk) 

•Editorial note: As requested by the interviewee, we have not used her surname to protect the identity of her daughter, following clause 2 (privacy) of the IPSO Editors’ Code of Practice.

Celebrating acne is a confusing prospect

The #acnepositivity and #skinpositivity movements have made it possible for those living with the condition to feel more confident in their own skin. But even after following these influencers for some time, Jack Wynn still finds the concept difficult to take on board

It was during the transition from primary to secondary school when acne first entered my life. The small, unsightly whiteheads around my t-zone area fairly quickly turned into angry looking pustules, and with the majority of my classmates excitedly eager to move on with the next chapters of their social lives, I was left facing an uncertain future about whether I would fit into a scary new environment.

But unlike a recent study of 25,000 adults published in JAMA Dermatology claiming fatty foods and sugary drinks are indeed contributory factors to developing acne, my upbringing of eating a balanced diet was a contrast to some others who survived on crisps and chocolate bars, yet had clear, almost perfect complexions.   

The concept of acne and skin positivity would have been laughed at immediately when I was at school in the early 2000s and, inevitably, I became a visible target for bullies. It was certainly expected; my sister started the same secondary school two years before and encountered some similar experiences. Although the soul destroying taunts of ‘ugly’ and ‘go wash your face’ that bellowed down the halls left my confidence at an all time low, I was hopeful that my mother’s words of “it will all disappear in no time” would one day come true.

Zoe Vi, 31 from Dartford, had a similar experience when acne first entered her life at a very young age. “I remember it first starting for me when I was nine”, says Zoe. “When I was at school, my friend bought me an acne cream for my birthday, so that was when it first felt like it was a big issue.” The move to secondary school was when the condition got progressively worse for Zoe, and comments from family members didn’t help her situation, “I was getting a lot of criticism for my skin and my parents kept on telling me that it was best for me to cover it up. It then became a necessary thing for me to do before I left the house.”  

She agrees that the social media movements to normalise and embrace acne are a good thing for boosting confidence, even for those that don’t suffer with the condition themselves. “Even the people that don’t necessarily have acne, they’ll look at it and think, ‘well, if they have acne, then it’s a normal thing’. People that don’t have it [acne] can say some horrible things”, says Zoe. 

But as the increasing number of social media influencers from all over the world dedicated to skin or acne positivity are posting empowering messages of hope, showcasing acne’s visibility so publicly and proudly is difficult for me to process. I’ve always felt ashamed of the condition and, despite now only suffering with mild acne on my face and the tops of my legs, the horror and embarrassment has lived with me all of these years later. 

It was only a few years ago I would watch YouTube tutorials of people making their own DIY face masks out of lemon juice and crushed paracetamol, desperately attempting to combat the condition. But now, a dramatic shift in social attitudes is attempting to change how acne is perceived. 

Kate Kerr, an experienced clinical facialist based in London, agrees that being positive about acne is confusing and regularly meets with clients desperately wanting to get rid of the condition. “Acne is a medical condition, I don’t think anyone could be happy to accept a medical condition and be positive about it when there is treatment available,” says Kate. “The thing is, with acne, it can easily cause scarring and the scarring effects can be with you for life. The psychological effects of acne are very far-reaching and I find people actually have more of an unrealistic expectation of skin health and clarity nowadays because of social media.” 

Kate also recognises the potential physical scarring effects of acne and how this could impact an individual’s self-esteem. “The scarring is something to take into account. So the acne may not bother you now, but the scarring that’s left over may bother you. Even if not now, but in years to come. I think it’s something that shouldn’t be left.”

Eve Langhorn, 25, works as a marketing and PR manager in London and first developed acne shortly after her teenage years at the age of 20. After using topical treatments such as benzoyl peroxide and undergoing an eight-month course of Roaccutane, Eve’s skin doesn’t breakout as much as it did in the beginning, but flare ups sometimes occur. “I don’t have perfect skin by any means and acne comes back in waves”, says Eve, who praises the skin positivity movement as a way of promoting acceptance.

In her group of girlfriends, she considers herself to be the ‘token friend’ with bad skin, “Unfortunately, I’m in a friend group of eight girls and I’m the token friend who has bad skin. You know, if there had been more of a push for skin positivity a few years ago, it would have maybe helped me out.” 

As it’s expected that influencer marketing will grow to an estimated $9.7 billion in 2020, the positivity movement also means big business and a profitable avenue for skincare brands to advertise. Dixie D’Amelio, a US TikTok social media influencer with more than 26 million followers, was recently awarded an ambassador role for Dermalogica’s Clear Start brand. Part of the campaign is for Dixie to discuss her personal experience with acne and it coincided with the release of their new Clear Start FlashFoliant exfoliator. Moving into the social media influencer marketing space was described by Carly Rogers, business leader at Clear Start, Dermalogica as “the most successful way to build our community brand awareness.” 

The problem I see here is building reliability; the products being promoted could well be a viable option for some to help manage their acne, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the condition. For me, and others I’ve spoken with via Facebook forums such as Acne Support Group UK over the years, a combination of a good skincare regime and lifestyle factors such as minimising the amount of sugar in your diet, limiting alcohol consumption and avoiding direct exposure to harsh sunlight are also contributory factors to calming the condition. 

But not all influencers are in the game of pushing products to their followers. Lou Northcote, a former contestant on Britain’s Next Top Model and creator of the #FreeThePimple Instagram movement, is an example of a growing influencer making an impact. Not only is her mission to normalise acne, she also gives useful tips and advice she has learnt from dermatologists and other skincare professionals on the active ingredients brands use and how these can be really beneficial for the skin, telling Women’s Health UK in May this year, “I really try to use my platform to educate people. I’m lucky to have had access to all these dermatologists and all this different skincare, so I try to share that.”     

From what I’ve encountered, I initially thought the acne positivity influencer market was oversaturated. As someone that follows the movement and works with social media on a daily basis, I was curious to find out Eve’s thoughts on whether this was the case. “I think, from my perspective, there’s not enough of them to promote it”, says Eve Langhorn, marketing and PR manager. “I don’t think enough is being done. There will always be a strive to achieve perfection, though. I think it can be more normalised but I don’t think it can ever be fully accepted.” 

Positivity influencers could also be instrumental in the campaign to introduce more psychological help for those with skin conditions including acne, such as managing stress and body dysmorphia. The British Skin Foundation found as a result of a 2019 study that 87% of dermatologists agree more psychological treatments are needed for both children and adults. Dr Maria Gonzalez, medical director at the Specialist Skin Clinic in Cardiff and a dermatologist with more than 25 years’ experience, says this has been an issue for quite some time and may be even harder to action during the current pandemic. “The main problem with this is funding, especially on the NHS,” says Dr Gonzalez. “With private practice, they can do this [refer to counselling services]. But with the NHS, this will not happen anytime soon, particularly during the current climate.” 

However, there are some support initiatives available on the NHS. The Psychology in Dermatology Service at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital in London, for example, provides emotional support to those experiencing difficulties with day-to-day activities as a result of having a skin condition. The service, which schedules one-hour appointments either in-person, over the phone or Skype, helps to deal with issues such as anxiety, coping with different treatments, long-term management techniques, and the effect the skin condition may have on self-esteem. The Skin Support website, created by the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD), also provides useful tools recommended by professionals.  

To this day, it’s still daunting for me to have a picture taken at a certain closeness in case it magnifies some of the leftover scarring, and sometimes the thought of a video call during one of my rare but problematic flare ups makes my heart race. I especially could never imagine during the times where I was battling severe cystic acne I would choose to post pictures so exposed and in a vulnerable position. I still struggle with the idea of embracing the condition, and I can’t help but sometimes wonder about how happy social media influencers truly are that they feel the need to expose a deeply vulnerable part of their lives. But I must try to remember the change in social acceptance of acne and how the positivity movement is making a significant impact for many sufferers.

Having acne is hard for anyone but as a gay man it’s so much worse

Two years ago, I got talking to a guy on a dating app. I was excited when he asked me for a drink and we got to the swanky restaurant, and sat down with our glasses of wine, only for him to point out the cluster of spots on my chin.

Acne can range from pesky to debilitating for anyone but there are additional issues within the gay community.

There is a lot of pressure for gay men to ‘look the part’. A 2012 study revealed that 48 per cent of gay males said they would sacrifice at least one year of their lives to attain the ‘perfect body’. A healthy head of hair, trim physique and clear complexion are three of the most sought-after attributes.

Despite my negative experience, I was persistent in visiting gay bars in London to build a network of friends, and felt more confident with my latest crop of spots disguised at least partly under a layer of concealer.

But more often than not the night would end with my confidence hitting rock bottom, and me feeling vulnerable and close to tears. More and more, I ended up completely avoiding the gay scene, instead choosing to go out with my circle of straight friends, where I felt more accepted in conventional settings.

Finding acceptance in the cis and hetero communities has been something of a contradiction. I grew up as the only gay kid in my year in a small home counties town, being teased for not wanting to play football with the lads. With acne as well, I stuck out like a sore thumb.

Now, once again, I was being made to feel like an outsider when acceptance was everything I had craved – but not from the people you’d expect.

My friends had faces similar to mine, faces that showed their acne and scars without the mask of make-up.

Maybe, like many issues that affect minorities, acceptance of acne comes down to representation. Straight celebrities tend to dominate mainstream media, which gives likes of Kendall Jenner and Justin Bieber not only a platform to speak about their acne, but a ready-made audience who will accept them no matter what.

Acne is yet to be discussed by gay celebrities and this filters down. Now more than ever, celebrity culture has a strong influence on how gay men want to appear and this has naturally led to acne becoming a taboo issue.

However, for young boys struggling with their sexuality, acceptance is vital. Lack of self-worth and belonging at a young age can build up insecurity over the years, leading to an unhealthy perception of what your body ‘should’ look like.

The consequences can be serious: a 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (JAAD) revealed that sexual minorities with acne could be at higher risk of developing mental health problems.

As the years have gone by, I feel much more comfortable not masking my acne before going to a gay bar, but there are still anxious moments when meeting new people or my partner’s friends in the community.

I’m fortunate to now be in a very loving relationship and recently engaged to my soulmate. Even though I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, my acne is still a daily chore to manage and social gatherings still hold a lot of anxiety.

The attitude toward acne in the gay community is far from changing. Publications targeted for the gay market – that have held a huge amount influence over the decades – could make a significant difference in normalising the idea of having a few spots. In addition, gay public figures could do more to become inclusive and separate themselves more from the ‘body ideal’ and embrace vulnerability. What’s the fear of doing this? 

There has been much talk over the years of women making a stand against public figures and publications for not portraying a realistic body image, but a similar movement also needs to be made in the gay community.

Acne is a condition that I did not choose and I cannot help but, if I could go back, I wouldn’t change it. It’s made me the person I am today: strong, independent and resilient.

Today, I feel proud to be a gay man. It’s come with many trials and tribulations, but my experience has led me to accept myself. I feel I can take on any challenge that comes my way and, although my relationship has played a big part in how I see myself, I can move forward without my appearance being at the forefront of my thinking.

Originally published here