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:
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.
What does a miracle cost?
The Expense of Self-Care
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.
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