“Ew, my skin is so bad right now!". There are no words more infuriating than these to hear from your friend who developed a single spot overnight, especially when you’ve spent the majority of your early adult years seeking out a cure for your acne.
Acne, especially adult acne, is a very taboo subject in a world where Instagram filters and skin-smoothing apps are so easily accessible, and despite 80% of British 11-30-year-olds suffering from the condition at some point, using a blur to get rid of those pesky spots is something even I’ve fallen victim to using.
The closest thing to a cure there is available right now is controversial drug Isotretinoin (AKA Roaccutane), but four years of antibiotics, topical creams, toothpaste, and not being comfortable taking my makeup off in front of *anyone* later, I was willing to give it a go.
Roaccutane works by decreasing sebum production in the skin (blocking acne-causing chemicals), but for patients and dermatologists alike, is a last resort due to its bad reputation of extreme side effects including dry, fragile skin, aching muscles, increased risk of liver inflammation (requiring monthly blood tests throughout the treatment), and even links to depression and suicide (although this has never been scientifically proven).
However, getting your hands on the drug isn’t easy, requiring a GP’s referral to a skin specialist at your hospital dermatology clinic, blood tests, pregnancy tests (due to risk of birth defects) and exhausting every other treatment possible. Once prescribed, it can take up to a year to complete the course, but 9/10 people will never have their acne return, and for me, this was the motivation to end my skin troubles once and for all, and share how I get on if it’s something you’re considering…
(Obviously, this is my personal experience with Roaccutane and the side effects/experience differs for everybody.)
Regardless of the five-page document listing all the potential side effects of taking Roaccutane, no amount of nosebleeds or joint tenderness could waver my excitement that I'm officially en route to the glass skin of my dreams.
That being said, the process of getting here wasn't easy. My parents were supportive but weren't happy about my decision and understandably worried about what might happen. I also went through a number of blood tests and peeing in cups to check my liver function, had a serious mental health intervention, and even got my consultant's mobile number in case I had a total freak out about a bizarre symptom at 2am.
As a 21-year-old going into this, my biggest concern was how much I had to cut back on my drinking habits. Getting the response "DAMN GIRL" from my consultant when I told him how much I sip on a night out told me everything I needed to know when it came to partying - and five drinks during one night out per month was my limit. Ideally you should avoid drinking completely during the treatment, but let's be real here, that just wasn't going to happen.
Starting out on 20mg (the lowest dose) was by no means smooth-sailing for a first-timer. The first two weeks my skin got a *lot* worse and I found myself feeling even more self-conscious and doubling up on heavy-duty foundations. Thankfully after around 14 days, things started clearing up, and already after one month, my skin is the closest it's ever been to spot-free.
As for side effects, let's make one thing clear: THEY DO NOT LIE ABOUT DRY LIPS. I've formed a very close relationship with Carmex, and my lips crack and bleed virtually every time I smile (so I guess having a valentine is off the cards this year) - not cute. I've called my mum approximately four times (and counting) about a mysterious itchy rash covering my hand, but if that's as far as my problems stretch, I'm already counting myself pretty lucky.
My mood is a lot more easily irritable - the slightest inconvenience prompts me to have a dramatic all-guns-blazing-crying meltdown, which is extremely ironic given that my eyes are so dry I have to apply artificial tears three times a day. But on the plus side, I might win an Oscar.
Despite my valiant attempt at Dry January, I caved and went out a couple of times, and because of the drug's blood-thinning, my tolerance to alcohol has dropped dramatically. After three drinks it felt like I'd been drinking all day, which for my bank account = good, but my social acceptance...not looking so cool.
Despite a rollercoaster month (who likes January anyway?), things are looking promising, and I can't wait to see what rogue side effect gets thrown at me next.
Beauty must-haves undergoing month one of Roaccutane:
EOS visibly soft lip balm, £6.50 (to help soothe dry lips)
The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% 30ml, £5.00 (to help with scarring)
My dose has doubled, the side effects have doubled and I'm beginning to understand the woes of other sufferers that take to online forums to share their experiences.
Don't get me wrong, it's by no means unbearable. But since taking a jump from 20mg to 40mg, things have gotten pretty intense. My lips are still dry and bleed multiple times a day (who knows, maybe i'll find myself a vampire?) and the inside of my nose feels like it has been attacked by a cat (I wish I was exaggerating). I've had to upgrade from my £6 EOS to a more intense lip mask (at a staggering £95), but right now, it feels like there's no cure for my crusty pout.
Oh, and that weird rash I mentioned? It turned out to be accute dermatitis - which is apparently common in almost everybody that takes the drug. Is there worse possible timing for someone who hates the feeling of moisturiser on their hands?
I should also mention if you're thinking of Roaccutane as a solution - become less interested in sports. As a seasoned couch potato, the aching bones of an 80 year old are something that I can handle, but excessive exercise or standing for long periods of time can leave you feeling weak. At least that's my excuse when I'm pressing 'next episode' on Netflix for the 6th time that day...
Admittedly, the biggest #firstworldproblem I'm having right now is that whenever I go for facials, they're very selective in the treatments that they can give me - strictly no exfoliation or hard massages, and I'm spending 80% of my time googling softer remedies for that pesky peach fuzz.
Negativity aside, my overall mood has actually become a lot more confident. I no longer feel like I'm inclined to cry at Chuck and Blair's 36th breakup in a single episode of Gossip Girl, and I've ventured out of the house au natural multiple times this month - and even had people comment on how glowy my skin is looking. Watch your back, Kendall Jenner.
Scarring is still my most problematic area right now, and it's worse that I have no shame in admitting as soon as I feel a spot coming on, I will seek, and destroy. As my skin is more sensitive from the drug, it's also a lot easier for scarring to surface, and some of my more recent spots I thought I was so innocently squeezing, have left me with red marks.
For month 2 - I'm impressed. Side effects aside, I'd be lying if I said I didn't see why they call this drug a miracle worker. My skin is practically clear already, and the prospect of hopping into swimming pools makeup-free this summer is definitely keeping me excited through the (unwanted) extras.
My must-have products for month 2:
Clinique Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector & Optimizer, £62
111Skin Meso Infusion Lip Mask and Plumping Duo, £95
Here's every single product you need if you're taking Roaccutane
Rejoice! After only three months my dermatologist has decided I only have four months to go because my skin has cleared up so nicely. That doesn't, however, mean that things are any easier right now. It also doesn't mean I'll be posting any bare-faced photos anytime soon, and there's still a long road to go.
It's bordering on festival season, the temperatures are rising, my lips are crustier than ever (I shouldn't complain but it was 30 degrees on the holiday I just returned from) and the flakes are slowly spreading across my face. Great. That being said, it gives me an excuse to pile on more glitter than ever before, but drinking considerably less alcohol than I would usually in the mud could be my most challenging venture yet. Since my last update, I've had ONE spot (is this how Kim Kardashian feels?) but my scarring is still proving difficult to combat. I'm also partial to a nose bleed because of how dry the inside of my nose is, combined with the joys of spring allergies leaving me sneezing 24/7.
What will the summer months bring? Am I destined to dry out into a pile of dust? Does Ed Westwick favour a woman with peeling skin? Stay tuned to find out...
Must-have products for month 3:
Nip + Fab Bee Sting Fix Toning Pads, £12.95, Boots
111Skin Vitamin C Brightening Booster, £95, 111Skin
Months 4, 5 and 6
Lets group these together because ultimately not a lot happened. My now-clear skin stayed the same (apart from the dreaded anxiety that a single spot would one day appear), and alas, I quickly learnt that if you choose to drink on Roaccutane (come on, it's festival season) you will wake up with a break out. Pain-staking drugs aside, you will wake up with the fattest zit you can imagine. Cancelled.
I also made the error of deciding to bring back epilating. You know that super painful thing that only the bravest of women opt for to get silky smooth legs? Sophie, your skin is more fragile than you think.
One swipe on my journey to dolphin skin and I have a graze that stretches the entire length of my calf. Great. Heatwave, and now trousers season.
This is also a time when not only are you about to become very injury-prone, but also very infection-prone. Imagine a cough, a cold, weird aches and pains, finding random lumps in the most bizarre places on your body, and convincing yourself you have a brain tumour, but all at the same time. I've moved doctors because they're practically sick of me at this point.
On a lighter note, after 4 months of quite frankly *gross* crusty lips (unless you enjoy peeling off a brand new lip every couple of days), I have found the holy grail. And she is £6 - living proof that high-end isn't always the way to go. Skincare brand Eucerin have just brought out an intensive lip balm and oh my God it is epic and moisturising and beautiful. Even if you're not taking Roaccutane, please go and buy it. #NotSpon
Must-have products for months 4, 5 and 6:
Eucerin Acute Lip Balm, £6, Boots
Mario Badescu Drying Lotion, £16, Beauty Bay
THE END IS IN SIGHT. It's month seven, and no ache, nor pain, nor getting sunburnt from standing outside for five minutes on a cloudy day can stop me.
But seriously, back to the sunburn. Throughout this process, the biggest misconception is just how sensitive and fragile your skin is about to become. What went from briefly lingering outside the office on a cloudy day (because who doesn't need fresh air?!), quickly became tomato skin. The type of tomato skin that you see on Google when you search 'sunburn memes.' Wear SPF, ladies.
New skin tones aside, all that's on my mind right now is being discharged from the clinic and wrapping my lips around an ice-cold glass of Rosé.
That being said, the drug can stay in your system for up to six weeks, so I won't be going *too* wild to begin with. Boo.
Discharge month (month 8)
Holy sh*t. It's finally here. When you've taken a drug that's shifted your whole lifestyle and mindset for eight whole months, the thought of going back to ordinary life (plus clear skin) seems almost alien.
Heading to the clinic for the final time, my dermatologist admitted he was impressed by how quickly my skin had transformed - usually it can take 12 months or longer to get the full impact.
Shaking his hand and leaving the room for the final time, armed with a prescription of a topical cream that would help keep on top of things for the next couple of months (there's a 1 in 10 chance that a flare-up could resurface), I felt strangely relieved. Not relieved that it was over as such - but that despite every red-top newspaper article deterring me, putting aside how my skin affected my mental health for the sake of an online forum that told me not to - I did it, and survived.
If this is an option you're considering, I'm one of the few people on the internet there that says 'do it'. Having skin that you don't feel comfortable in is a lot worse than cutting back on the booze and waking up with sore limbs. If it gets too much, there are so many ways out - and you can even try again in a year if you feel like it.
I can't speak on behalf of everybody as this isn't something for everyone out there, but five years after getting acne and three years after chickening out of taking Roaccutane (there's nothing wrong with chickening out, BTW), my skin is glowing, and I finally feel like the best version of myself.