When Self-Care Gets In The Way

I used to have acne. Not just your typical teenage smattering of spots, but a full-blown pimple parade marching across my forehead, nose, and chin. When my birthdays ticked over from teens to twenties, the battle began in earnest. I tried everything—salicylic acid, oils and washes, and benzoyl peroxide that left my pillowcases and towels bleached pink.

I thought that self-treating my acne was a form of “self-care.” However, my obsession with trying to fix it on my own rather than seeking professional help resulted in a lot of unnecessary suffering. While basic self-care is important, it is critical that it does not become a substitute for proper medical care. My experience with acne made me realize how easy it is to try to use self-care to try to cure problems that are ultimately too big to treat alone.

Unsolicited Comments In The Streets

When I moved to Spain my Junior year of college at the age of 21, I was thrilled. Everything would be different—my diet, my environment, the pH of the water. Something would surely calm the blotchy battleground of my face.

People in Spain are known for saying what they think. It was no different for me and my acne. As I took the train to Sol, the heart of Madrid, a stranger approached me to tell me I should try sulfur soap, urging me to go to a pharmacy that day. The pharmacists gave me clindamycin instead, which helped a bit, but not much. A few weeks later, an older lady stopped me in the street to tell me, “Serías bonita, excepto por tu cara.” You would be pretty, except for your face. She told me to try tea tree oil.

I had always been a confident person, but the acne was taking a serious toll. Even after changing everything about my daily routine and giving each attempt a long trial time, spots still dappled my face.

My New 10-Step Self-Care Routine

After two years of despairing, I found what I thought might solve all of my problems: the 10-step Korean Skincare routine.

In my pursuit of anything, anything that would clear my acne, I went deep into a rabbit hole of products involving snail “essences” and custom day-and-night routines with 10 steps. People online claimed miracles for their acne and otherwise damaged skin.

Here is an example routine:

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Example routine from Beauty MNL

Products began to clutter up my bathroom cabinet. I spent hours on the subreddit scouring reviews. I tried multiple products for each step, mixing and matching. Every time a box arrived at the door I felt hope; maybe this would be the one that would end the siege against my confidence.

Skincare as Self-Care

One notable thing on the forums I frequented was the talk about ‘self-care.’ There were plenty of people with spotless skin who kept up routines. It wasn’t just about reducing redness, preventing wrinkles, or achieving a dewy complexion. It was about taking the time each morning and every afternoon to really take care of yourself.

I liked the idea of taking this long, complicated routine and reframing it as time set aside for self-care. I delighted in sending goofy snaps of my facemasked self and ensuring I was fully sunscreened up before leaving the house. However, my actual goal had nothing to do with self-care.

The truth was that I was hoping for a miracle, and my wallet was taking the hit.

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An actual shot of my ‘beauty battlestation’ from 4 years ago

What does a miracle cost?

The Expense of Self-Care

I have avoided adding up how much I spent on skincare products—this was before I started keeping expense reports, back when I preferred to bury my head in the sand when it came to finances.

I’m certain we’re talking about hundreds of dollars sunk into my desperate attempt to mitigate my acne. Every morning I woke up hopeful, and every day I was disappointed: I still had pimples appearing on my chin, cysts lining my temples, gross reminders that all the self-care in the world was not enough to stop the spots.

Going to the Dermatologist

Why did it take me so long to go to a specialist? I don’t have a proper excuse. I was busy with school, not sure how to make an appointment, and didn’t know how to take the steps to find out what was covered under our family healthcare plan. However, I was finally done with self-medicating. I needed an expert opinion.

The dermatologist took one look at me and recommended Accutane, also known as isotretinoin, an intense 6-month regimen of oral medication. The program includes monthly bloodwork, pregnancy tests, and check-ups to monitor potential side-effects. I burst into tears as she scrutinized my skin, embarrassed by having someone look straight at my face and also scared to hope that this might work.

The Rise of Anxiety and Fall of Treatment

I was utterly relieved when—for the first time in a long time—my face cleared.

Over time, my 10-step routine dwindled to the bare necessities (yes, sunscreen is necessary, people!). I do think self-care is important and self-evident. We should be going for walks, eating healthier, setting boundaries, and taking time to relax. However, I consider these the basics. If you are taking these steps and something still feels off, it might be time to see a professional.

I have to wonder if the rise of self-care reflects the fall of available and affordable treatment. In 2018, the American Psychiatric Association reported that 39% of U.S. adults felt more anxious than they did just one year before. Yet the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 56.7% of US adults and 59.4% of American youths with a mental illness did not receive treatment.

Self-care is not healthcare.Click To Tweet

While to the individual it might seem like self-care is cheaper, easier and more convenient than a visit to a therapist or psychiatrist, in the long-term the costs– to your mental state, personal relationships, and bank account too– all stack up.

Self-Care As A Stopgap

Taking care of ourselves is important, but I’m wary of how the wellness industry is selling us gimmicky products to band-aid deeper wounds.

I wish I could go back in time and tell myself to see a professional. In the long run, it would have saved me money and a lot of angst. Self-care might be a stopgap measure until we can get the help we need—but ultimately self-care is not healthcare.

What about you?

What is your experience with self-care?

Do you go to a professional when you need help?

Have you ever tried to treat something on your own? How did it go?

Let me know in the comments below

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21 Comments

  1. Love this. Thanks for sharing your vulnerability. I have felt similarly about my teeth, one of my biggest insecurities. Unfortunately, not exactly something you can “fix” on your own (except for that one person who 3D printed their own aligners). However, earlier in the year, I decided to go for it and get aligners 🙂

    1. Ah man I’m sorry to hear about that, but really glad you are pursuing something with a pro to get your insecurities addressed.

  2. I can’t believe how long it took me to go to a dermatologist either. Even though it seemed “expensive” I only have to pay a copay and now that we have found what works it’s much cheaper than browsing Sephora and spending a ton of money on speculation that something could work. An interesting tidbit I learned- people with acne tend to age slower. Unfortunately I don’t have the source but it is because of the discipline we’ve learned in taking care of our skin which includes things that help prevent aging like sunscreen, moisturizer, eating healthier and working out. You don’t have it shown above but Elta MD sunscreen is really good for acne prone skin.

  3. Thanks for sharing. I can see how as someone who highly values being able to fix other things yourself, that you would have leant into self-care as a fix here too.

    I’ve had to unlearn a resistance to seeing a doctor when health issues pop up; a hesitancy I think I gained from my mother, who rarely goes for herself (even with having a week-long cold this year)! I still have to force myself to go if I have concerns, as I’d much rather try and self-diagnose (despite this being ineffective in the past).

    1. Yes and it’s also important to go in for preventative measures and treatments, yet it’s easy to procrastinate those things as well. I’m hoping something will disrupt the healthcare industry to make it painless to get checked or to just contact your doctor about concerns.

  4. I think self-care is an important addendum to professional help but yes people shouldn’t try on their own to tackle a lot of the things that they do.

    I did finally see a dermatologist about a year ago. My pimples weren’t bad but at age 50 it was ridiculous to have to deal with the ones that did crop up (at least one or two at any given time). It’s been amazing to not have to deal with them anymore. Wish I’d gone sooner!

  5. As someone who has also fought acne for years, I feel this. I’ve never seen it as self-care though. It’s not fun or something I enjoy, so for me it does not fit into self-care at all. However, I do have other things that are expensive and that I do go to a professional for, and I see it as self-care. I think you make a really good point about it though, as nowadays – everyone with perfect skin is an influencer trying to get you to purchase a new skincare product that will solve all your problems. My instagram is full of people trying to sell me self-care. Give me a break. I hate that self-care has become an even bigger money pit than it was before the internet age.

    Side note, I have been on Accutane and every other thing too. Two years after I stopped Accutane, it all came back. 🙁 Now I’m fighting it again and I’m almost 30. After I’m settled into my next base, I’m thinking of trying a second round, but we will see.

    Thank you for sharing your vulnerability. I know how hard it can be.

    1. I agree– it’s gotten to be a major money maker for the wrong reasons. Ah man I’m sorry to hear the acne came back, that’s a nightmare. It’s been about 5 years but once in a while I might have a few crop up and it brings back those memories. I’m thinking good thoughts for you!

    1. Right?! I’m not 100% fluent so I had to replay the words in my head afterwards to be like… wait did she really just say what I think she just said?

  6. I had a similar experience with a brutally honest stranger as an acne-laden teen. My mom and I were in a health food store and were not shopping for skincare items at all, not talking about it or anything, but the cashier told me my acne would clear up if I stopped eating dairy. RUDE! But he was 100% right. When I stick to it and avoid dairy my skin clears up within about 2 weeks. (But like, cheese. . . so its touch and go, lol!) Before that, I also spent TONS of time and money on all kinds of masks, gels, creams, treatments, makeup, etc. to try to fix it, only to find that my skin prefers to mostly be left alone. Go figure.

    1. Uh that is so rude! But kind of hilarious that the advice actually worked for you. I tried limiting dairy as well but it didn’t do much for me. I do wish that any of the unsolicited advice would have been helpful. Now that I’m done with Accutane my skin doesn’t need much care at all either. I’m glad that you found a fix!

  7. Fellow acne sufferer here. I’m still on the struggle bus with it and I’m about to turn 40! I have been to so many doctors and nothing has worked. Even went the Accutane route but my body wasn’t liking it and had the blood tests indicated I had to stop.

    I stopped trying doctors about 10 years ago so maybe it’s time for me to head back in and see another professional.

    I’ve been fighting going in because of the years of failure and there is also part of me that thinks that I am causing my acne-that all I have to do is eat better (like cut out dairy). But I’m no expert.

    Great post! Definitely got me thinking.

    1. Ah man I’m sorry to hear that you are dealing with this too. If it’s been 10 years then I definitely recommend a doctor. They should be able to weigh in and hopefully alleviate the fears that it might be self-caused (I doubt it but I’m not a professional!)

      Good luck, I will be cheering for you!

  8. I’m sorry you went through all this! The marketing industry does such a great job convincing people that they have the perfect solution to your problems. I have minor cystic acne that, lucky for me, mostly cleared up in my twenties when a doctor recommended a specific birth control pill to help with it, and so many products I would try when it was bad would end up making it worst.

    My own experience with self-care has to do with anxiety… Thinking the one solution of relaxation, exercise, vitamin, massage, yoga, mindset would eventually be enough to calm my constant worries. Little did I know, I kept adding and adding “things” I “should” be pursuing and increasing my anxiety tenfold at trying to find the right thing. Some of those things did end up being awesome tools to help lower my anxiety, but only after seeking therapy and starting medication could my brain be truly available to benefit from those.

    1. I’m so glad your acne cleared up with the doctor’s suggestion.

      Yes, it feels like we put the pressure on ourselves to “fix” ourselves and wonder why we still feel broken, then feel even more guilt. I’m so glad you got the help you needed in the form of therapy and medication to lower your anxiety.

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