Vietnam: A wake up call.

In Vietnam, I made memories to last a life time. I spent 6 months teaching English in Hanoi, the Northern capital, and spent my weekends exploring ancient cities, beaches untouched by tourists and drinking cheap beer. But whilst I was “finding myself” in Asia, my acne (that I’d previously managed to control) found me again. I can only attribute this to the dangerously high levels of pollution I experienced in Hanoi and I firmly believe my experience is something we can come to expect in Western cities if we continue to pollute our environment.

When we hear the word pollution, we tend to think of cities covered in a shroud of smog, overpopulated India, polluted rivers, cities dominated with traffic congestion. I never once considered acne and hair loss to be a side effect of pollution. But after a month of living in Hanoi, I began to experience just that. Before I left for Asia, I was sleepwalking through pollution. I frequently saw pleas from Greenpeace in my emails, articles about pollution on Facebook, but it was always happening somewhere else, not at home. When I read an article about pollution I would be angry, but five minutes later my mind would trail off to other things, I forgot about it. Of course I think differently now as I’ve experienced firsthand what pollution does to our bodies, not just the environment.

My skin a month before I went to Vietnam. I wasn’t wearing any foundation here and I’m shocked how clear my skin looks.

The first things I noticed when I landed in Hanoi after a 17 hour flight were the humidity and pollution. The burning of plastic on the street, the smell of oil in street vendor’s woks, the constant hum of engines and honks of horns signalled a population dependant on economically inefficient motorbikes with exhaust fumes that choked you. I often wondered whether Hanoi’s population were even aware of what pollution was as they openly burnt their piles of rubbish on the street with their children dancing around their feet. Mothers and their babies would ride round with flimsy dentist masks, as if they could prevent the toxic fumes from entering their system. There was no underground to ease congestion and the tram system is still a work in progress. Whilst living in Hanoi, the news broke that F1 would be hosting the 2020 Grand Prix there and whilst this is great news for their economy, do globally influential companies such as F1 have a duty to host their events in cities that recognise the detrimental effects pollution has on our health and the environment?

I ran three, four times a week before I went to teach in Vietnam and I wanted to keep this up. Once I’d settled into the crazy, chaotic city, I began to run around Cau Giay, the urban district I inhabited. Originally I ran round the local park and I loved seeing people of all ages do their exercises round the park, they’d have aerobics, board games, martial arts and dance classes. Everyone looked so happy whilst blissfully unaware that they were breathing in deadly amounts of fumes from the nearby traffic. The mopeds often cut through the park, narrowly dodging dogs and pedestrians. I often found myself leaping out of the way of the mopeds as if my feet were being shot at. So I abandoned the park and decided to run laps around the block instead.

Looking back now I must have been crazy to think that it was a good idea to run for 30 minutes solid whilst sucking in exhaust fumes, but then pollution has been linked to cognitive performance… I’d left for Vietnam with clear skin but gradually my acne flared up and my hair started falling out in alarming amounts every time I washed my hair, and the only comfort I had was knowing most of the girls I was living with experienced the same. I knew it couldn’t have been my diet as I ate as much fruit and vegetables as possible (which all came wrapped up in plastic and then individually wrapped in plastic bags, which would later be burnt on the street). It was a good job internet data was so cheap in Vietnam (£3 a month for 2GB a day) as I spent most of my time googling foods and supplements to prevent hair fall and acne.

Before Vietnam, I was so happy and confident in my own skin for the first time in years, and then whilst I was having this amazing adventure, my acne came back and stopped me having the fun I should have had. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, on particularly bad days after being stuck in a hot stuffy classroom all day, I’d be glad to be back in my room and hide my spotty face away instead of drinking at the bia hois.

My skin whilst living in Hanoi.

Sometimes on weekend getaways, my skin would improve with the strong sunlight. But now I realise I was only ageing my skin and masking my spots with a tan. As soon as I got back to Hanoi, the spots would came back. And they were often painful. Whilst it was hot in Hanoi, the pollution often hid the sun, so I was trapped in a cycle of waiting for sun at the weekend and then watching my skin flare up when I returned.

Whilst travel agencies sell Asia as a go to destination, we have a duty to ourselves and the next generation to educate ourselves and the rest of the world of the effects pollution has on our bodies, not just environment, and realise where our plastic waste ends up. We condone Asia for its archaic approach to tackling pollution, yet we pump and overload our seas with plastic which drifts to the continent we are so desperate to explore. With these countries becoming increasingly more accessible, how will Asia’s pollution problem ever get better when we as tourists are fuelling it.

Economically and industrially, we have advanced Asia for so long, but are we about to be catapulted back in an environmental crisis?

The benefits of having acne.

There’s a sentence I bet you thought you’d never see.

I had an idea to write about the benefits of having acne after one of my usual self-critical evenings, spent in the mirror poking and prodding my skin and shouting ‘I’ll be out in just a minute!’ but emerging half an hour later. I’d scour the bathroom cabinet to try and find a solution, as if I hadn’t read all the labels of the various sized and coloured bottles and tubes and tested them all before.

But this time something snapped. I realised that, in the grand scheme of things, my minor skin issues were just a small part of my anatomy that I didn’t like. My face might be one of the first things people see, but it doesn’t define me. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought about how lucky I actually am, I have no health problems, neither do my family. My acne is a phase, albeit a long phase I wish had ended before I went travelling, but it’s a phase none the less. And dealing with it, I hope, has made me a stronger person.

So here are the benefits of acne.

  • Empathy

Having issues with my skin has helped me to empathise with other people. I find that I feel this emotion a lot, a lot more than what I would if I hadn’t experienced days where I wanted to do nothing more than lie in bed and not face the world. Empathy is important because it helps us to be kind and helpful human beings.

  • More appreciative of the things I like about myself

In this day in age, it seems more acceptable to talk about what you don’t like about yourself rather than the things you like. How many times have you said to your friend ‘Actually, I really love my hair today’ or ‘I love the colour of my eyes’, it almost feels socially unacceptable. But having acne makes me grateful for the things about myself. I like my legs, I like my eyes. Whilst I’m dreaming of having someone’s clear skin, they could be dreaming they were taller or smaller, freckles or no freckles. Whenever I find myself feeling envious of other people, or down about myself, I remind myself of the good things about me.

  • It’ll make you mentally strong

This wasn’t always the case, especially whilst living in Vietnam, but since I’ve been home I’ve tried to change to my mindset. Acne isn’t just a skin problem, it’s a voice inside your head telling you everyone is looking at how bad your skin is, you can’t go out because you’ll be the only person there with acne, what’s the point in wearing make-up when you can still see my scars. If you can control that voice inside your head, that takes mental strength. I learnt to control it with a book called The Chimp Paradox, recommended to me by a friend who loved it. Whilst The Chimp Paradox hasn’t totally removed the doubting voice in my head, it’s taught me how to control it and I can put this into practice with work and relationships.

  • Good skin care

I’ve been aware of brands like Clinique and Clarins since I was an early teenager and I know it matters what you use on your skin and how important it is to not wash it with cheap chemical filled products. So having acne has given me an awareness and knowledge of skin routines, ingredients and brands that will help me even after my acne has gone.

  • We age better!!!! (according to ScienceAlert.com)

Yes, according to this website, we’re protected against early signs of ageing! Although there isn’t a lot of research into this, scientists have found that women who experienced acne showed signs of ageing later. Yay, no botox!!! (https://www.sciencealert.com/good-news-people-prone-to-acne-are-protected-against-the-signs-of-ageing)

I’d love to hear what benefits you’ve realised through having acne 🙂

A month on…

Tomorrow marks four weeks on roaccutane.

For me, the biggest change so far is my complexion. I’m not saying the roaccutane has already begun to heal scars and prevent spots, but my face seems to have this red glow, which in turn masks the red scars.

Day 1 compared to day 25

In this post, I’m going to discuss my side effects, diet, exercise and mental wellbeing.

Side effects

So far, my nose and lips are the victims of roaccutane. I’ve had the horrible habit of picking and biting my lips since my Mum took away my comfort blanket when I was 6 years old, so for me to have flaky chapped lips is only fuelling the habit. I’ve gone through an endless amount of vaseline already and I use it most when I wake up, as my lips are at their driest at this point. My nose sometimes feels very sore on the inside, so I’ve been using vaseline there as well to try and soothe it! Other than that, I can’t say I’ve had any real side effects that I can definitely attribute to roaccutane.

I’m trying really hard to resist researching side effects. I think we can make ourselves so worked up about the side effects that we either turn into hypochondriac or make ourselves worn out and ill with worry and stress. It’s a vicious cycle. I’ve told myself I’m just going to try and look after my body as best I can whilst on roaccutane to try and minimise the effects, I understand that keeping stress to a minimum will also help.

Diet

Some people find their diet effects their acne, but for me, I can’t pinpoint a particular food category, such as dairy and meat, that trigger it. Sometimes I eat a ton of sugar, enough to suffice a small family (I could quite happily eat nothing but Daim bar cheesecake for the rest of my life), and I expect to wake up splattered with acne… But I don’t. Then there’s times I eat really well and drink gallons of green tea and lemon water, yet wake up with an outbreak. That’s why it annoys me so much when people, often with flawless skin, offer unsolicited advice to change your diet.

Lots of people tell me their skin worsens after drinking alcohol, but incredibly, my skin sometimes looks better after drinking.

Whilst on roaccutane, I have decided to reintroduce red meat to my diet. I cut out red meat and chicken around a year ago, only eating it as a treat. My reasons for this were environmental, health and animal welfare. However, before being allowed to start my roaccutane treatment I had to have blood tests to check everything inside me was working properly and I had the correct levels of the important stuff. It turned out I’m deficient in iron and B12. So I’ve started taking B12 tablets, three times a day. I was offered iron tablets but I’d rather change my diet than endure the side effects. When I look back now it was obvious I was deficient in something as I was constantly cold and tired. I’ve decided to eat red meat once a week, just to give my body what it needs.

Exercise

I went for a run this morning and noticed a bit of lower back pain. Of course, I instantly thought this was because of roaccutane as I know a sore back is a side effect, but it subdued within a few minutes. I really hope I’m able to maintain my current level of exercise (I just run a few times a week), as I find it helps with my acne and also puts me in a great mood.

Mental Wellbeing

Admitedly, I’ve had a low day today. About midday I just wanted to get in bed and shut myself away from the world. I was hungry but didn’t want to eat, tired but couldn’t sleep. I’m proud of myself for being able to acknowledge this feeling and recognise this isn’t my usual self. It’s taken me by surprise as I’ve been quite perky this week. My period is due soon and sometimes I do feel quite low before it starts, but today I’ve felt particularly low and I was worried it could be the roaccutane. Maybe it’s too early to tell.

I don’t seem to feel as tired as I did when I first started the treatment which I’m happy about.

I’m both anxious and excited to see what the next few weeks have in store for me.

Acne and I

Acne. Who would have thought a four letter word could have such a big impact on my life. I’ve dealt* with (*wasted hundreds of pounds on products that didn’t work) acne for what feels like since I came out of the womb. It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly it got worse because over the years it’s cleared up then returned with a vengeance. I’m now 23 so I’ve endured both teenage and adult acne, which both target different areas of the face.

This is my skin on a really good day. As you can see, I mainly suffer with red marks.

When I was 15, I went to my GP about my skin and my doctor quickly prescribed me lymecycline. I can confidently say it did nothing to clear my skin, so I gave up, naiively wishing my acne would naturally clear. I then went on the pill around 17 and stayed on this for 2 years. It’s hard to know whether this really cleared my skin up as when you have acne you tend to avoid mirrors unless you’re poking and prodding your spots and the only photos I have I tend to be wearing makeup. The pill also made me one moody little b*tch at times so I decided it was doing more harm than good. I went back to the doctor and this time I was prescribed skinoren, a cream which makes your skin feel as dry as the Sahara desert. Again, this didn’t clear my skin up. Looking back now I feel frustrated my doctor didn’t suggest roaccutane to me sooner as this could have prevented some of my scarring.

It wasn’t until I relocated to Vietnam to teach English and discussed roaccutane with a fellow teacher who had used it that I decided I needed this drug.

My acne severely flared up whilst in Vietnam thanks to the pollution and poor diet, and the strong sunlight was only a temporary solution to a constant problem. My self-esteem hit at a rock bottom, especially being surrounded by people with flawless skin. I remember FaceTiming home upset on numerous occasions and cancelling plans with friends so I could hide away in my room. Whenever I did go out, my skin was always in the back of my mind “Are they staring at my skin? I wonder what they’re thinking“. A part of me knew I was being ridiculous because I knew I was lucky and could suffer with a far worse skin condition, but my acne controlled my thinking. I remember spending days on the beach whilst in Vietnam with moderately suncleared skin and feeling happy and confident, wishing I could always feel like this and glumly knowing that this feeling would disappear overnight when my acne crept back.

The first thing I did when I arrived back in Britain was book an appointment with my GP. I came prepared with facts and figures expecting to put up a fight to be considered suitable for roaccutane. But to my surprise (and slight offence because no one had really mentioned my scarring before and I guess I didnt think it was obvious), he agreed without any persuasion that I was suitable due to my scars and the fact that I had exhausted all other routes to a cure.

I joined the waiting list to see a dermatologist. A waiting list that was months long.

I was pretty desperate to start treatment so I decided to go private (see bottom for costs). I don’t regret this as I had an appointment within a week of enquiring and the consultant took time to explain the side effects and what type of acne I had, something I’ve been guessing for ages as there are different types of acne and I’ve usually just guessed.

He agreed I could start so long as my blood tests came back clear. My blood test results actually came back that I was anaemic and B12 deficient, which explains why I always get told I look tired, but I was allowed to start the treatment anyway.

So here I am today on week one of my treatment. One thing I want to say is, if like me you’ve been waiting and waiting for your skin to magically clear up and it isn’t, it really is worth weighing up the pros and cons of roaccutane. It also means I could have cut short years of unwelcomed lectures from people who thought they could cure my skin by telling me to drink water – as if I hadn’t had already tried that, sliced lemons and all. It is also important to remember that everyone’s skin is different and that we don’t all react the same way to the same treatments. You also absolutely cannot get pregnant during treatment. I’m hoping roaccutane is my miracle drug, but it doesn’t come at an easy price. I will go into the side effects in a later blog post.

 

 

Costs: A private consultation cost me £160, I’ll need to pay this again when I go for a check up to see if I need to up my dose. A one month private prescription then costs around £26. It’s best to shop around as different pharmacies have different prices. Obviously these prices don’t apply if you’re going down the NHS route.