I tried every acne treatment under the sun and realized the fix was in the food.
It started late in high school—deep, painful acne, mostly in clusters on my chin. It seemed to get worse and worse, and I just thought, "Oh, maybe it's that hormone thing that everyone talks about." So I just chalked it up to that.
Eventually, I got frustrated and went to the dermatologist, who put me on antibiotics, birth control, and a topical cream, which kept my acne at bay—at least for a little while. But easing my acne didn't come without side effects: the cream would make me itchy, it would burn, and anytime I was in the sun my face would sting. The antibiotics screwed up my digestion, so I was constipated.
Over the course of about 10 years, I tried everything—lotions, potions, serums, creams, pills—and everything came with its own bouquet of side effects. Every time my doctor prescribed me something new, it seemed to help for a little while—but everything would come with consequences: a rash, burning, stinging, digestion issues, and so on. At one point, it seemed like I went through every drug there was. For so long, my attitude was, "I don't care what the risk is; as long as it's going to make my acne go away, just give it to me."
"Acne made me feel inferior—like something was wrong with me."
Everyone gets bumps here and there, but having severe acne like that, over time, it makes you really self-conscious. If I was having a bad skin day, it would change my personality. I had no confidence. I wouldn't look people in the eye. I didn't want to go out and do things, especially when it got to a point where I couldn't cover it or hide it. Acne made me feel inferior—like something was wrong with me. Like I should be able to take care of myself and can't, even though, in reality, I was trying so hard to have clear skin—something other people have without even trying. (BTW adult acne is super common. Here are five reasons you might be breaking out.)
I remember at one point, I had been on an acne drug called Accutane that completely clears up 80 percent of people's acne. Six or seven months in, it just wasn't working for me, and my dermatologist got visibly angry at this pimple on my chin—he was so frustrated, because he hadn't seen someone resist treatment so much.
Through this whole process, I never thought about changing my diet. When I first started back in high school, I asked my doctor, and she said there's no correlation between diet and acne. And I believed it: I thought, I'm a "regular person" and I know other "regular people" who eat whatever they want, and they don't ever have acne. So I figured it must just be a genetic thing or a hormonal thing.
For the most part, I ate a pretty standard American diet, but went through some stints of trying veganism or vegetarianism. To be honest, I really didn't know what I was doing. I started to believe that basically nothing was edible except for raw fruits and veggies, and I didn't really understand the concept of calories, so I wasn't eating enough. I got way too skinny, and only lasted a few months, if that. So I went back to eating "normal" stuff: bagels and cream cheese for breakfast, chicken vindaloo from a local Indian restaurant, lots of 99-cent pizza. Now, I look back and it totally makes sense that my skin was freaking out.
At one point, I decided to try to go off birth control. Nothing was working, and I felt like I was never going to be able to live without a pill or cream or something. Meanwhile, my digestion was getting worse, I was feeling worse, having anxiety and depression, and I decided I was going to go the "healthy" route again. I started cleaning up my diet and decided I wanted to go off of birth control as part of that. I didn't realize that when you've been on birth control for eight years, any skin issues are almost definitely going to get worse—and it got a lot worse.
One of my best friends is a yoga teacher and natural chef, and has been vegan for a while. She suggested cutting dairy out of my diet. So I did, and eventually found myself going totally vegan. I still bought tons of processed foods—pretty much anything that said "vegan" on it. It wasn't really a whole-foods, plant-based diet. Vegan ice cream, french fries, Oreos, Sour Patch Kids—I was still eating it all. (See: 10 Foods That Can Make You Break Out)
"I felt hopeless."
My acne was getting better, but my skin still wasn't clear; I'd always have at least one big cystic breakout on me. And at this point, I was only vegan to try to help my skin. I was focusing solely on my appearance—a flimsy thing to hang all your hopes and dreams on. When you put all your energy into something that consistently lets you down, it leaves you hopeless.
Then I saw the documentary on Netflix called Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead, and decided to go on a juice fast. To stay motivated, I watched all these other health documentaries that popped up on my Netflix cue. One of them, called Vegucated, went into the ethical part of veganism, and it hit me really hard. I broke down crying, grabbed my cat, and sobbed, telling him, "I would never eat you!" That's the moment I truly became vegan. I really started doing my research and became passionate about the ethical part of veganism; it was hard to watch, read, and understand what we really do to these animals, but I felt like I had a responsibility to know instead of just turning away. I was in veganism for the long haul.
At the same time, I started running outside and was really loving it, but it set off a rash on my skin. My doctor said I had to go off of all acne products and just let my skin breathe. My acne came back with a vengeance, and my only option was to try to change my lifestyle again. (See what other things might be causing your post-workout skin redness.)
So I started eating really clean—whole-food, plant-based, and lots of healthy fats. I started feeling better. My skin didn't completely clear up but definitely calmed down, and my digestion really improved. I was moving in the right direction, but still wasn't where I wanted, so I kept researching online. I was determined not to go back out into the world until I fixed my skin. I literally locked myself up in my apartment and committed to living this healthy lifestyle—yoga, vegan cooking, researching all day—to try to fix my skin.
"For a week, I only ate grapefruits."
While watching vegan cooking videos on YouTube, I found myself in this raw vegan and fruit-only fasting wormhole and decided to try it. (Here are the basics of a raw food diet.) The idea is that you slowly cut out animal products and processed foods from your diet until you're eating a plant-based vegan diet (like I was), and then, to take it to the next level, you monofast—eat only one type of fruit for a period of time. For a week, I only ate grapefruits—I literally ordered 10 bags of them to my apartment. The delivery guy thought I was insane. Next, I tried cantelope for two weeks, and after that, watermelon. I ate whatever was in season.
I went several months eating just fruit, and my skin was still really, really bad. The worst it had ever been. (While some people praise monodiets for their detoxifying properties, some health professionals warn why a monodiet might be a bad idea.) This entire time, I never left the house (luckily, my husband could provide for both of us at this time—he really is a saint). It was a dark time and it was really freaking hard, but I felt like it was worth it. I truly believe that monodieting for certain periods of time is incredibly healing to the body, and I wanted to see it through to the end.
About six months in, I slowly started adding vegetables: giant green salads with entire heads of lettuce and cucumbers, and tomatoes with tons of fresh garlic and lemon juice. I'd make a big smoothie or half a melon for breakfast, seven mangoes for lunch, and have raw sushi rolls with kelp noodles and avocado. I finally got out of the house and started working at Juice Press. I ditched makeup, stopped putting anything on my face because it just seems to make everything worse. My skin started getting better.
Now that I was raw, my hair was growing like a weed. The ridges were gone from my fingernails. My digestion was finally consistent. After the initial fatigue that came with becoming raw, I started craving exercise. I had so much energy.
After about a year, my skin was so much better—I didn't have a 100-percent clear day, but my deep, angry, painful acne was finally significantly better. After I made it past the one-year mark, I rewarded myself with something I'd been craving for a while: potatoes. Now I have veggie soups with potatoes, cooked vegetables and lentils, but haven't added any oils or nuts or seeds in yet. I still don't use any skincare or makeup products on my face. I exfoliate every other day with a $3 konjac sponge, and that's it.
I will always be vegan and I feel really good about it. I don't feel deprived. It's funny how when you stop seeing something as food—which is how I see animal products—they stop being tempting or appetizing. It's hard, sometimes, explaining my diet to other people, because they have a lot of questions, but not a lot of openness to the answers.
Now, I'm a cycling instructor and I love it. I know that I'm strong and healthy and you can see—right on my face—that it's true.