Is your skin your enemy? The journey to clear skin can be awkward and depressing
Jancee Dunn's boss once told her a blemish on her face could be seen "from outer space"
The state of your skin can be a barometer for the state of your physical and mental health
I have what is known as “sensitive” skin. No, the more accurate term is “touchy.” Actually, it might be “hysterical.”
As a kid, I never thought too much about my complexion. Who does? But then puberty hit, and my skin acted pretty much the way my 13-year-old self did: It flared into dramatics at the slightest provocation. When Doug Shelley—the Brad Pitt of my eighth-grade class—asked to borrow a pen, I broke out in flaming hives all over my face and neck.
If someone made eye contact for more than two seconds, I blushed. In the days leading up to a party, I’d get so nervous my face would erupt in a hideous constellation of zits. Sometimes, just to complete the look, my body would break out in a bumpy red rash, too.
Worse, I was easily the palest person in my class. This was New Jersey in the 1980s, when it was the height of fashion for white people to bake themselves the deep brown of a Louis Vuitton bag (a look that Snooki and various Housewives are trying their best to revive). Meanwhile, I was as translucently pale as a baby squid—not the most alluring look. So I spent countless weekends at the Jersey Shore, basting myself with oil like a rotisserie chicken, but my pigment-free skin was incapable of turning any color but magenta.
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My skin was my enemy throughout high school and college, constantly ready to betray me. No matter how cool I would try to act, my hives would announce my real feelings to the world. At least hives were temporary: My blemishes never seemed to go away.
Desperately I cycled through drying creams, harsh scrubs (maybe the worst idea), and masks. I moved on to folk remedies: blobs of toothpaste, lemon juice, crushed papaya, a paste of salt and water. I tried rubbing alcohol. Nothing worked. I layered on cover-up, followed by pressed powder, until my face resembled cracked soil after a drought.
Thankfully, the eruptions were fewer by the time I got my first job after college, as a writer for Rolling Stone. Even better, a grayish-white pallor was the norm among my coworkers, who only ventured outside after dark, to go to music clubs. So when, a few years into the job, I got a call to audition as a VJ for MTV2, I thought, “Why not?” My skin had, for the most part, calmed down. It was no longer something to fear.
Well. The hives began to form the minute I saw the crew. When I was told to improvise some banter as the camera rolled, I felt like they were physically pulsating.
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“Stop tape,” barked the producer. He and the makeup artist hustled over to me as I miserably explained my situation. “I’ve seen worse,” said the makeup artist kindly as she spackled my cheeks and neck. (I asked when, exactly, but she couldn’t remember.) Despite my changeable skin, I got the job, and from then on, the crew knew that if I was interviewing any major celebrity, I had to wear a turtleneck or a scarf and trowel on the makeup.
As for my acne, it only appeared when I was stressed. There was one problem: In my line of work, I was in a constant state of mild panic, given that I never knew if the musician in front of me was going to be in a bad mood, or a no-show, or drunk.
And of course, zits were guaranteed to appear if I was interviewing one of my heroes. Two nights before my on-camera chat with Bono, a blemish rose out of my head that was so absurdly large, a friend said I looked like a unicorn. By the day of the shoot, it had grown to the point that my producer pulled me aside and said that it would be better if I faced the camera straight on when I was talking to Bono, rather than alarm viewers with my side profile.
“You can see it on camera?” I whispered. “You can see it from outer space,” he said.
Bono was charming, if slightly puzzled, because I carried on a whole conversation while rigidly staring at the camera. I wasn’t about to explain to him what was going on.
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After that little incident, I decided I had to get my skin under control. So I visited a string of big-name New York City dermatologists but grew tired of the four-month waits for an appointment (and then, when I made it in, the inevitable pitch to buy the derm’s skin-care line).
Happily, I discovered the publicity-shy chairman of dermatology at Columbia, who gave brisk no-nonsense orders as he peered at my face. Use sunscreen every day, even in the dead of winter. Wash with a mild, been-around-forever soap such as Dove or the Neutrogena cleansing bar. A good drugstore moisturizer works just as well as a pricey one—the only difference is scent and texture, really.
He cleared my complexion up for good—and more important, changed my entire view on an organ I had taken completely for granted. My pale, temperamental skin, he told me, gave me an instant read on my physical and mental health. If I used his simple regimen, took care of myself, and managed my stress, my skin problems would subside.
I had never thought of it that way before, but his words made sense: My skin was constantly reflecting what was going on in my life. I once went out with a sullen hipster with a quick temper and a budding drug problem, and throughout our relationship, my skin was a red, bumpy mess. When I dumped him and cleared his stuff out of my apartment, my skin cleared up, too. If I’m tired, my face is weirdly papery and dry.
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I never remember when it’s that time of the month, but my skin does (occasional breakouts are now tamed with a staggeringly effective, if humiliatingly named, over-the-counter potion called End-Zit). Conversely, if I’m on vacation, my face is pristine.
And when I was pregnant, I really did have that fabled glow (although I think all the water I retained helped plump out my face, giving the effect of an expensive Fraxel treatment). After my daughter was born, my life was all over the place, and so was my hormone-addled skin.
These days, I’m grateful for having oily skin, and that I retreated permanently from the sun in my early 20s, because the end result is that I’m now in my 40s and don’t have many wrinkles. My sun damage is confined to a sprinkling of freckles.
After years of baking, scouring, and drying out my face, I now treat it with the utmost care. I use my doctor-recommended Dove Sensitive Skin Unscented Beauty Bar and Neutrogena 45 SPF sunblock. (Having oily skin, I was very apprehensive about using it as a moisturizer, but it’s wonderfully light and gives that elusive kind of dewiness that starlets always seem to have.)
I drink eight glasses of water a day and make sure that I get enough rest (at least, as much as I’m able with a toddler at home). And let’s face it: A relatively unlined face has a lot to do with genetics, too, so I’m especially thankful that both my parents look decades younger than they are.
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Given my formerly fraught relationship with my complexion, I’m not about to freak out if I spot a new crease. I can deal with fine lines. Although I will admit to being dismayed by the skin on my hands. Why, why did I never put sunscreen on them? When I hold up my toddler after her bath, my rough, mottled hands resemble the grasping claws of a falcon.
But mostly, I view my skin as a friend who tells you the truth about yourself when you’re not able to see it. One time, it even knew something before I did. I met my husband, Tom, on a blind date with a few friends who had set us up. At one point, Tom left our table to take a phone call, and I whispered to my friend that although he was cute and funny, I just didn’t think there was a spark.
“Oh?” said my friend, smirking. “You could have fooled me. Every time you talk to the guy, you’re blushing like crazy.”