On Friday, I was discussing why I can, at times, get so obsessive about my food, and that I know the real reason is simply because I have a deep fear about my severe acne coming back.

I manage to be fine with eating out at restaurants sometimes, or eating processed foods once in a while. But the idea of not being in full control of my food for an extended period of time totally freaks me out.

Changing my diet and moving toward a healthier lifestyle is what allowed me to get rid of the acne. So my subconscious feels that if those steps were reversed – ie – I didn’t eat exactly right or keep a tight grip and constant watchdog on my health – the obvious and automatic consequence is that I would slowly break out more and more and more until my skin was exactly where it was when I started.

Due to a very thoughtful comment by a reader named Christelle on Friday’s post, and her reminder that there seems to be a lot of different factors that trigger acne, it got me revisiting what it was that was going on my life when my bad acne struck.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably wracked your brain a thousand times trying to figure out what the exact trigger was that caused your skin to flare up and make your acne worse. And if you’re like me, you still don’t know exactly what it was. 

I mean, sure. I was eating really badly when my acne struck. But there have been plenty of times in my life when I was eating and living very unhealthfully and my acne really wasn’t that bad at all.

One time that comes to mind was when I backpacked Europe in 2008. I ended up working at a hostel in Budapest, Hungary, for a couple of months in the winter, and man, were we an unhealthy bunch. We drank to excess every other night, hardly ever went outside, never exercised, stayed up all night and slept till 2 most days (I swear we spent more than half our lives having naps). Diet – I don’t know, but I remember a lot of white bread, pasta, and kit kat bars. Whatever was cheap and easy.

You’d think with a lifestyle like that, I’d be covered in pimples, but on the whole, my skin was fine.

So is it really fair to look at my breakouts as this linear equation? 50% bad diet = 50% face covered in zits?? 70% care free = 70% acne ridden? No, but that’s how my mind thinks about it.

Okay, so let’s examine the things that were going on my life that could have been a contributing factor when I came down with my severe acne.

1) I was in an ill-suited relationship.

Now, I wouldn’t say I was in a bad relationship… he wasn’t a bad guy or anything. We were just really different and not very well suited for each other. And even though I knew it was just a temporary kind of relationship that wasn’t going anywhere, and I logically knew that our problems were simply because we were different with different tastes, I couldn’t help but let it do a number on my self esteem when I felt like I couldn’t totally please him.

I guess I wanted to be a perfect woman, who could please anybody, no matter who they were and how different we were. Kind of lofty goals, no? Well, that backfired on me, certainly. So I was going through a bit of a rough time there.

2) I really was eating badly and drinking more than I wanted

At the time, I was waitressing at a pub in Vancouver. Their “thing” they were known for was that they made their own fancy sausages, and then they served them in a white bun with cheese and vegetables grilled in canola oil and some chipotle sauce on top. They had pretty addicting french fries too. Anyway – the food was really tasty – and we got a free meal every shift. Disaster waiting to happen right there.

Also, if you’ve ever worked in the hospitality industry, particularly in pubs, you may have noticed there is a lot of peer pressure to drink a lot. It was just the work culture to be drinking after shifts, and even during shifts. I wasn’t a big fan of this, and even though I resisted as much as I could, I still ended up drinking more than I wanted to.

3) The stress of the job

I find waitressing stressful. In order to be quick and snappy and be on top of serving all your tables correctly, it’s kind of a given that you need to be a bit stressed out at all times. I feel like I’m a pretty slow paced person by nature, so that didn’t jive with me so well.

4) I took the morning after pill a lot

Because I had a bad experience with hormonal birth control when I was a teenager, I relied on condoms as my sole birth control method for years after that. Unfortunately condoms break and slide off and stuff, and rather be safe than sorry, I would make sure to take a morning-after pill whenever this happened.

To my annoyance, it happened a lot more than I liked, and I took it quite a few times in the few years before my bad acne, and at least 2 (or even 3) times in the months leading up to the severe acne breakout. I assume this probably messed with my hormones a great deal, much like what happens to some people when they go off the birth control pill.

5) I was switching between skin care routines constantly

About four months prior to the bad acne breakout, I decided to quit benzoyl peroxide which I had been using religiously  for 4 years. It just didn’t seem like it was doing that much anymore as I was still getting enough breakouts to really peeve me off.

However, two weeks after quitting it, I did begin to break out slightly more than usual on my forehead, which usually responded so well to the benzoyl. So I freaked out and trucked myself to the drug store to scour the aisles looking for something new to try. Every two weeks or so I’d be trying something new – sulfur cream, different moisturizers, different face washes, a topical antibiotic, Differin gel, and even trying to crawl back to benzoyl.

At the time of the breakout itself, I was using something called Carli’s Clear and Smooth, and had been for about a month. The reviews online were soooo good (I actually now think that most of them are fake), and my hopes were so very high. It was more of a natural product, but the product contained really harsh exfoliator beads, and part of the routine was that you had to remove the stuff completely by exfoliating with a wash cloth. It was stressed that you had to do the routine just so or it might not work.

It actually did seem like this was making my non-inflamed skin quite nice and smooth, but looking back, how ridiculously bad is this for inflamed acne? It’s one of the most abrasive things I’d ever used on my skin.

6) The stress of the breakout itself

My breakout started on my forehead, when it seemed like over night, I broke out there worse than I had ever broken out before. I had always perceived my acne as being “bad” before, but this was of the likes I had never seen.

I quit Carli’s Clear and Smooth, thinking it would go away, but it didn’t, so I just got more and more stressed every day. The stress would be the worst when my boyfriend came over because I was so embarrassed, compounding my self esteem issues that were already surrounding him and our relationship.

Then it seemed like the breakout started making its way down my face, until my entire chin and smile lines were as bad as my forehead. I would say I was the most stressed I’d ever been in my life at that point.

… hmm… I guess that’s only 6 reasons.

Okay, so looking at that list, you can see that there were a lot of things going on that may have been a contributing factor to my acne getting as bad as it was.

But guess what?

Half of them are stress related, not food related, and hardly any of these factors even apply to my life anymore and probably won’t again.

1) I’m in a really good relationship now

I broke up with my boyfriend soon after my skin got bad. I wasn’t in love with him, and it was a very mutual break up, so I wasn’t all that upset over that. But dating him did help me to realize how important it is to find someone you really jive with emotionally and who will support you through the bad times. I started dating him in the first place because he seemed cool and exciting, not necessarily because we were well suited.

On the contrast, my current partner, Luke, is the most loving, and emotionally connected guy I could ever ask for. We actually met at the hostel in Budapest and were together for a while, but I went home to Canada and started dating this other guy instead. Although Luke and I got along swimmingly, I was adamant I didn’t want to be with him because he was too “nice” (you know how girls can be about nice guys).

However, we kept in very close contact over the computer, and when my skin got bad, he was actually one of the only people I felt like I could turn to for support because I knew he would offer it without judgment. Just knowing he was there for me and I could talk to him about everything going on was of tremendous comfort to me during that dark time.

After all, it’s not type of thing that you can just talk about with anyone.

Later he came over to North America (he’s from Australia), and we got back together and lived happily ever after once I finally realized that the emotional connection we shared was invaluable. And so…. there you go. This crappy relationship stress factor is now nixed.

2) It’s unlikely I would ever eat that bad again

I hardly ever drink anymore simply because I don’t like being hungover and have better things to do. And I don’t want to work in a restaurant ever again where I get free sausage-in-bun specials for lunch every day. And even if I did get a bit lenient with my diet, I really doubt it will ever get that bad again.

3) I have a job I love

I quit my waitressing job. I realized the environment was not suited to me, whether it was the food, the constant stress, or the peer-pressure. I returned to my job renting kayaks, which was much more chill and much more my style than serving beer. Now I have my own business that I love dearly. So this factor is gone.

4) I have a better form of birth control

A few months after my breakout, I got a non-hormonal copper IUD put in as my method of birth control. It has a 99-point-something-% success rate, and while it can still be problematic for some people, it seems to work quite well for me. So no more morning after pills or hormonal birth control!

5) I don’t even have a skin care routine anymore

Luckily I know better now about how irritating and unnecessary using chemicals on the skin is and also how damaging constantly switching back and forth between skin care products is. I mean, heck, I don’t even wash my face at all anymore and this has worked out the best for my skin yet! So this factor is definitely gone for good.

6) The stress of the breakout…. well….

… if any of these factors are still an issue, it would be this one. I admit to still getting quite aggravated whenever I have mild acne breakouts, and if I suddenly started breaking out badly, I’m not entirely sure I’d be able to keep wraps on my stress.

But…. now that I’ve made this list, do you think it sounds likely that I ever WOULD break out badly again and have to send my stress levels into lock down in order to not make things worse?

It doesn’t really sound like it to me either.

I mean, sure, I may have to deal with mild acne here and there until the time comes when I figure that out for good, but I really shouldn’t be so afraid of it becoming a total disaster again, and focus more on how to truly be okay with the mild acne. Because maybe that is all that is needed for it to go for good. And mild acne never ruled my life before it got severe, so why does it have to now?

If the mild acne isn’t stress related, then whatever. I’ll find something one day. I have not tried every avenue yet (for example, maybe I need to go take a salivary hormone test and there will be a simple supplement that can correct an imbalance and voila. Done. (Update: that happened). I just have to let go, and allow the universe to bring it to me when the time is right.

Besides, I really have had enough experiences now to know that stress can make it so much worse. For example, when Luke came to North America to win me back, we reunited by doing a camping road trip together from Los Angeles to Vancouver. This was only a few months after I had gotten clear from my bad acne, and I was petrified. I was SO scared to be far from home and not eating exactly the way I wanted.

We cooked every single meal on our little camp stove and I mostly was eating how I would have at home, but I was getting caught up on all the little details, and I was so stressed that I really didn’t have that good of a time. I mean, I did have some fun, but I was mostly stressed and itching to get home and back to my kitchen.

Luke and I in the hills ‘o’ California. When I think about this trip, I find it hard not to think about how nutty I was

Didn’t matter though, because I had breakouts the entire trip. When I got home and back to “safety”, they went away. When we went to Australia this winter, I didn’t feel in control of my food and environment again. And I had some pretty persistent breakouts the whole time I was there. Now that I’m back home to “safety”, my skin has been totally great.

I was speculating that my Australia breakouts had something to do with the fact that they have fluoride in their water, and maybe that was a partial factor, but it really does sound stress related doesn’t it??

There’s also the fact that I seem to rarely, if ever, break out on a fun weekend away when I give myself permission (just for that short weekend) to not think about my skin or food too much.

It just goes to show that as much as we want to control, it doesn’t necessarily work to our advantage. We may as well have just let ourselves have a good time AND have clearer skin as a result, right?

Did you have certain factors in your life when your acne started or worsened that no longer apply? 

photo by galeria stefbu’s