As a kid, I was kind of a mess in the looks department. I started life as a pretty child, actually – but near the end of first grade I started losing my baby teeth, and by the end of second grade my adult teeth had entered my mouth every which way. So by the middle of fourth grade I was wearing an orthodontic face bow day and night (yes, one of these things), and I wasn’t out of braces until my freshman year of high school. I then had a permanent retainer cemented into my mouth (which wasn’t visible unless I smiled very broadly) which remained adhered to my teeth for the next dozen years. (I only got it removed when my dentist gently suggested she could take it off for me in time for my wedding, so that the silver wouldn’t be a part of my pictures.)
When I escaped the orthodontist back in high school, I had hoped the worst was behind me. But then the pimples that had slowly started to emerge when I hit puberty (at age 13) went into overdrive, and my olive skin suffered from nodular acne. The sizable cysts looked horrible (never mind that they were incredibly painful as well), and I became so self-conscious that I did my very best to avoid having my picture taken. I wanted no permanent record of my “ugly” face.
To add insult to injury, during my first year of high school I contracted chicken pox (from spending literally 10 minutes around a sick three-year-old), so by the time I was 15 my face had pock marks from both the pox and the pimples. While the chicken pox went away after a few weeks, the acne remained. And it haunted me throughout high school, and into college.
When I arrived at university, I was paired with a roommate whom I had never met before. K was from a town similar to the one I grew up in, but was radically different from me. She was blonde, fair skinned, petite, wore trendy clothing, had a serious boyfriend, pledged a sorority, was spunky, outgoing, social – and above all, was a genuinely kind person. Contrast all of this to my dark brown hair, messed up face, American-average body (i.e., about 10 lbs overweight) that I clothed daily with jeans and random baggy t-shirts, my total lack of interest in all things “popular” (i.e., the Greek system), and my seriously self-conscious, introverted, negative self-view. Yet for all of our differences, K and I got along really well. As a 1980s movie might predict, during our first semester together I helped K learn how to study and do well on the academic side of school, and she helped open my eyes to options that I was previously unaware of: things like pushup bras (her chest was as flat as mine, but you’d never know it to look at her – the bras she wore were magic!), hair serum (upon waking in the morning her hair was as messy as mine was, but a small dab of serum got those crazy strands 100% under control), clothing that fit (she was the one who let me know that I was not a size extra-large, but rather more like a medium), and dermatology.
I was obsessing in the mirror one evening when K walked in and caught me frowning at my own face. After a bit of questioning and nudging, I confided in her that I thought my face was ugly, that I hated all the acne, and that I wished I could make it go away. I had tried a bajillion over-the-counter astringents, lotions, and creams, ever hopeful that I could find one that would solve my problem skin forever – and of course was disappointed every single time. K then let me know that in high school her skin was riddled with large, painful acne, too – but then her mom took her to the dermatologist, and within 6 months of treatment her face was nearly free of cysts.
I looked at her seemingly flawless skin, and simply couldn’t believe that she ever struggled with acne. I was also puzzled by the notion of a ‘dermatologist’. The only medical professionals I knew about were a pediatrician, a dentist, an orthodontist, and an opthomologist – I had literally no idea that other doctors (who focused on more specific areas of the body) even existed. There were doctors who did nothing but treat skin? Like, all they did was help kids get rid of acne? I was floored.
(Please let the record show that as an adult, I now have a much more informed view of what dermatologists actually do – that I know they address a whole host of very serious maladies, and are not simply “pimple poppers“.)
During the summer break between my first and second year of college, I brought this new-found information to my mom. I asked her if she could take me to see one of these skin doctors. My mom seemed a little bit surprised by my request; I don’t think she ever knew 1) how painful my acne was, or 2) how much it negatively impacted my self-esteem and overall quality of life. But she agreed to schedule an appointment for me, and by the end of the summer my skin was being treated with isotretinoin.
Looking back, I can see that this was a pretty drastic measure for the dermatologist to take (i.e., jumping from basically zero treatment [apart from my years of self-applied lotions and potions] to extremely aggressive internal medication). But both then and now, I was (and am still) grateful that the doctor decided to go a fast-and-furious route with me. Quickly my facial nodules started to shrink, and within a few months the worst of the acne was over. By the end of the year, I had mostly clear skin, for the first time in a very long time.
While I still get the occasional smallish pimple (even at 37 years old [gotta love hormones]), the days of very large, very deep cystic nodules are behind me. But I do still carry scars from my past on my face. While the pock mark are not as deep, discolored, or numerous as they are for Tommy Lee Jones or Edward James Olmos, they do exist.
For the most part, I’ve let go of being self-conscious about my scars. They are vestiges of what my body has endured, similar to the stretch marks on my thighs (from losing 30 lbs since high school) and the four faint pink blotches on my abdomen (insertion points from medical instruments used during laparoscopic gall bladder surgery).
But as I continue to progress in life, I’m noticing more changes keep coming to my face (and my body). This year was the first time I saw real wrinkles starting to form around my eyes and lips. And back in the spring I noticed that my skin was starting to look a little ashen. Palled. Tired. Like it needed a good deep-clean, a solid re-invigoration. And no matter how many at-home mud masques I applied, no matter how many times I scrubbed with an ultrasonic device, no matter how much water I drank, my face seemed a little drawn. Lifeless. Sad.
Interestingly, around this time, I met a friend for coffee. This woman and I get together once every 4-6 months, and it had been a while since I last saw her. When we sat down and started chatting, I noticed that her skin looked amazing. At our previous encounter, my friend’s skin appeared to be rather similar to mine (overall healthy, but seemingly ashen and tired-looking) – but at this meeting, her skin looked radiant. She honestly looked 5 years younger. I was stunned.
After talking for a while, I complimented my friend on her skin, and casually asked what she had done to get such a beautiful complexion. In her very direct manner, she bluntly answered, “Chemical peels. A friend told me about a great gal she uses to keep her skin looking fantastic, so I made an appointment, had the woman slap chemicals on my face, and voila – here are the results.” She waved her hand in front of her face, and smiled.
I smiled back, but inside my stomach knotted up a bit. Chemicals, applied right to your face? I had seen the 20/20 exposés about women who went to a beauty clinic for “a little work”, and who had come out permanently scarred and disfigured. I don’t have a much trust (or faith) in so-called ‘medical’ professionals who are not MDs [yes, I am aware that this is a large bias], and to allow any random person to apply such powerful (and therefore potentially very harmful) compounds to one’s face – yikes. That seemed like an extreme (and unnecessary) leap of faith to take. I’ll keep my ashy, sallow skin, if it means I avoid risking deformation.
Still, when I started this 101 project, I had a hunch that I ‘wanted’ (i.e., likely needed) to explore some new-to-me health-and-beauty options (hence the inclusion of the original item #60, “Get a microderm abrasion”) – so I refrained from dismissing the idea of a chemical peel outright. Instead of instinctively shouting “No!” to the idea, I paused, and did some research. I learned that a microderm abrasion is a mechanical form of exfoliation, and a chemical peel is a liquid form of exfoliation. With microderm, the facial skin is pulled into a tube and roughed up with a wand that has a coarse end. This action basically scrubs old, dead skin off of the face (and the removed skin is then sucked into the tube) – so what is left behind is a layer of new skin. So basically, microderm is like applying sandpaper to the face, then coming behind with a wet-vac to clean up the residue.
Yikes. Had I known all of this, I would not have put this facial treatment on the list. Hmm… what to do? I decided to research “chemical peel”, just to see….
After visiting some trusted, reputable medical websites, I found out that a chemical peel involves applying acid to the skin for a few minutes, then neutralizing the acid and washing it off. As the face is washed, dead skin that was loosened via the acid is removed, and what remains is a layer of new skin. So in this instance,
chemical peel : Goo Gone :: dead facial skin : sticker
I’ll be honest, I didn’t find a lot of comfort in either scenario. I don’t want my face sand-papered, but I don’t want to put acid on it, either.
What to do?
In the end, I decided that I would prefer to receive a potentially more ‘dangerous’ treatment from a recommended source than to take a shot in the dark and possibly receive a ‘safer’ treatment from a hack. In the wrong hands, both treatments could result in damage and pain; I hoped that in the right hands, a chemical peel could deliver the positive results that I saw my friend enjoy.
After sitting on this information for a few more months (literally), I finally decided to bite the bullet and schedule an appointment for a facial peel.
But when the morning of the appointment arrived, I started to have serious second thoughts about the whole deal. What if the peel was super-painful? What if my face looked horrible afterwards? What if my face started to flake uncontrollably a few days after the procedure? I would regret the decision of basically choosing to inflict damage on my own body, and would be ashamed that I let vanity take such a strong hold of me that I did something stupid in the pursuit of ‘beauty’.
Yet at the same time, I also felt like I couldn’t not go through with the appointment. I knew that what I was feeling was mostly fear: fear of discomfort, fear of the unknown, fear of change. And as I’ve said before, I do NOT want to let fear push me around and keep me from things that could be good, helpful, positive developments in my life. The only way to become free from fear is to walk (or push, or bust) through it – so I kinda knew I had to see this experience all the way through.
Ugh. I frequently wonder: How do I get myself into these situations?!
As the appointment time approached, I got into my car and drove to the personal residence of N, a licensed esthetician who has been performing facial peels out of her home for a decade. After exchanging pleasantries, I confessed that I was somewhat anxious about the process, and was having serious second thoughts about the whole deal. N looked at me, smiled reassuringly, and said, “We are going to make your skin look fabulous! You are going to be thrilled with the results, I promise.” With that, she led me to her treatment room, where I laid down on a padded table and nervously waited for N to begin working on my face.
The first thing N did was clean my face with a creamy lotion. Next, she used a hot towel to open my pores, then completed a round of extractions (a process I had never undergone before). She was gentle-yet-effective in her approach, and I started to feel a tiny bit less nervous. After the extractions N wiped my face with another hot towel, then announced that it was time for the peel. She explained that she would apply two coats of chemicals to my face, then ask me what I felt. If I was fine, she would apply a third coat of chemicals, then check-in with me again. She could repeat this process up to six times – but if at any time I told her I was feeling significant discomfort, she would stop immediately. At the words “significant discomfort” I cringed slightly. N ignored my involuntary physical reaction, and simply asked calmly, “Are you ready?” I nodded almost imperceptibly, and quietly said, “Yes.” With that, N gave me a small fan to hold near my face, and began.
It took N less than 30 seconds to apply the first two coats of chemicals. As she finished coat #2, she asked, “On a scale of 1-10, with 1 meaning that you feel nothing, and 10 meaning that you feel intense pain, what do you feel?” I thought about it, and responded, “Three, maybe four.” N smiled. She said, “I would have put you at a three. Terrific. Let’s do a third coat.” Before I could even think about it, N applied another coat of chemicals, then asked me again, “On a scale of 1-10, with 1 meaning that you feel nothing, and 10 meaning that you feel intense pain, what do you feel?” I paused, checked in with the sensations of my face, and answered, “A solid four.” N smiled again, and said, “Great. Let’s do another coat.” Immediately she applied a fourth coat of chemicals, then again asked me the 1-10 rating scale question. This time I could definitely feel an increase in intensity on my face, so I replied, “About a six.” N nodded, and said, “I think that is great for your first peel. We’ll stop right here.” With that, she applied a neutralizing solution to my face, then wiped everything off with a cool wet cloth.
Once all of the chemicals were off, N spent a good five minutes massaging my face with moisturizer. She then wiped my face with a warm towel one last time, then applied sunscreen (and a wee bit of concealer on a few spots where she had performed extractions that were still a little bit red). She gave me instructions to not do anything to my face for the next 48 hours except wash with a mild cleanser, and apply a moisturizer with at least SPF 30 in it. After two days I could resume using my regular facial cleansers and toner. N also encouraged me to keep my hands off of my face as much as possible for the next few days, and that if some old skin did flake off a bit, to not pick or pull at it. Based on what she saw, N didn’t think my skin would flake at all, but just in case, she wanted to make sure she gave me the full set of standard parting instructions.
With that, I paid N for her services, thanked her for her care with me (she did a great job of explaining the things she was doing all along the way, as well as keeping me as calm as possible throughout the process), then got in my car and drove home.
When I walked into the house, of course the first thing I did was make a beeline for the bathroom and examine my face in the mirror. As I looked at my reflection, I was genuinely surprised. My skin looked like it did when I was 30 years old – seriously. The slightly ashy hue from before was completely gone; my face now had a peachy-glowy quality to it. My pores looked markedly smaller than I had ever seen them, and my skin in general had a much more even quality to it. I did see some red spots where N had performed extractions, and my face did feel rather “tight” (like someone was stretching it flat with their palms), but all in all, I was very pleased with what I saw.
Two days later, I am happy to report that the red spots completely went away after a few hours, and that the overly “tight” sensation dissipated within 24 hours. My skin still looks peachy and vibrant, and my pores still look much smaller than they did before the peel. I haven’t experienced any flaking skin, nor have I experienced any significant dryness. I did get a pimple in one of the spots that N partially extracted (which she warned me about during the session; she explained that she didn’t want to go too deep with forcing an extraction [as that could result in permanent scarring], so she was knowingly and intentionally leaving some sebum in one of my clogged follicles – and cautioned that this could turn into a pimple. Which it did.), but I treated this blemish like I would any other pimple, and it is now on the tail end of the healing cycle. All in all, my skin truly feels healthier than it did before the peel, and I think it looks better, too. I’m sure the visual results are not significantly noticeable to anyone but me – but that’s fine. I can see (and feel!) the difference, and that is what is most important to me. And of course, another benefit I received from this process is that I gave fear a nudge. Better health both inside and out; well worth the time, cost, and experience in general. And of course, the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction I receive in being able to cross another item off my 101 list. :)