“Have you tried just using Dove soap? That’s what I use.” That's the advice my freshman-year roommate gave me after I had complained to her for the millionth time about how my acne was making me miserable and the antibiotics I'd been taking for it for years were no longer making a difference. In the eights months we'd lived together, I had seen her with a pimple maybe once.
Now I open Instagram to a parade of influencers with flawless complexions telling me about the newest life-changing face oil they happen to have a discount code for. Twitter accounts preach how tea tree oil and rosewater are the secret to clear, radiant skin. In every Q&A, models tell me I can look just like them if I drink more water (hot with lemon, only in the morning) and do yoga three times a week.
Clear, perfect skin has long been a symbol of wealth and beauty, but thanks in part to social media and millennials' skin care obsession, perfect skin has become an even greater signifier. When I was in high school, compliments were always more holistic: “You look so pretty,” “Your makeup looks so good.” Now whenever I meet up with a group of friends, someone will say, “Your skin looks amazing,” or leave a comment on Instagram like "OMG skin."
At this point, having flawless skin is like social currency. It goes beyond showing you have money (look at celebrities who have been open about acne struggles, including Kendall Jenner and Lorde). Rather, it's a sort of signal that you belong to an elite club and are someone who takes pride in taking care of themselves. Influencers are posting close-up photos of their skin as if to invite people to comment on how good it is. In fact, one I follow routinely posts stories of herself testing skin care products with #nofilter. She might not be intentionally bragging about her perfect canvas (but I mean, come on), but that's exactly what it feels like when her content pops up on my phone.
Here's the thing, though: It’s not the new products that account for the fact she has no pimples or her skin is so luminous she doesn’t need makeup. I’m sure they, along with access to facialists and derms, help. But her genetics are the real star of the show.
In both real life and online, I’m bombarded by people with perfect skin telling me a single product or regimen is to thank. But I don’t buy any of it. The fact of the matter is I’ll never have the skin these women were born with.
"As much as I can laser a patient’s skin or give out prescription medications, nothing can beat good genetics," says New York dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. "It’s better to have good genes than a good dermatologist." Recent studies have also confirmed a deeper link between genetics and acne.
I'm not saying skin care doesn't matter. When I cocktail and combine effectively, it most certainly does. I have a number of products I rely on to keep my cystic acne manageable and my flaky skin at bay. But no serum, lotion, or oil will ever truly—and completely—transform my face. The closest I can get to good genes is a round of Accutane, which I did last year, and I still struggle with breakouts. Those are caused by hormonal factors that aren't as easy to fix as a couple of zits that appeared because I used the wrong sunscreen.
Last February, Lorde posted an Instagram story discussing how frustrating it is when people who don’t have acne try to suggest “cures” that are really just skincare basics like moisturising or — yes, really — washing your face. I've experienced similar questions from people. In the age of self-care, the assumption that I don't know how to — or worse, don't want to — take care of myself adds an extra layer to the shame of acne itself. And this is why I've stopped taking acne treatment suggestions from people with perfect skin. Much like my roommate, who urged me to try regular body soap on my face, I find most people with clear complexions have less knowledge of proper skin care than those of us chronically dealing with acne or other issues.
Bring in the fact that so many glowing faces you see on Instagram are the result of partnerships between influencers and brands, which means a product recommendation is often required of them to get paid, and you really have to take another look at whom you’re trusting. (Dr. Zeichner notes he knows of influencers who ask for treatments specifically to look more like their edited photos.)[ id="1128407924919783424"]
I prefer to seek skin care knowledge from people who have been open about their issues. There are a handful of influencers who have gotten real about their skin, as well as community groups such as the Glowing Up Facebook group and skin care subreddits. The now defunct XOVain.com is where I learned about how beneficial hyaluronic acid is from a writer who had been chronicling her journey with breakouts. My acne-prone friends and I swap skin care tips the way we do celebrity tea — the latest being pimple patches, which have totally changed my skin care game. And of course, I’ll always listen to my dermatologist, who led me to Accutane, which I credit as my personal number-one beauty tip.
At the end of the day, if you're someone who struggles with cystic or chronic acne, there's no miracle product that's going to take your skin from severely broken out to perfectly clear overnight. That's just not how it works. I'm not discounting influencers' recommendations, maybe for them, the products they love really are life-changing. But if you see a girl doling out advice and she has a few zits on her chin, don't discount what she has to say. Believe me, she probably knows what she's talking about.
Bella Cacciatore is a beauty assistant at Glamour. Follow her @bellacacciatore_.