My Acne Has Gotten Worse As I Travel The World — But I Care About It Less Than Ever

Leonardo Valencia

When I set out for a full year of globetrotting on December 31, 2017, my acne was the last thing on my mind. I knew that this period of long term travel would be transformative, to put it mildly, and many stresses that had plagued my daily thoughts while living in New York City for the past eight years — affording rent, how stylish I looked, my weight, and yes, my acne —fell to the wayside, replaced instead by dreams of eating arepas in Colombia and lazing on beaches in Cape Town. Simply put, I was far less worried about putting on appearances and far more concerned with preparing myself for the adventure of a lifetime.

So far, it's been everything I'd hoped it would. I have: been to seven different countries, learned an inexplicable amount, made a flock of new like-minded friends, eaten gluttonously well, grown professionally, and I feel way more confident in my goals and myself than before. I'm happier than I've ever been...and yet my acne is at its all-time worst.

As a quick primer, I've had acne of varying degrees since I was about 17. At times, it has fluctuated from mild breakouts to cystic acne and has often left me embarrassed, sad, and wanting to hide from the world. During my senior year of college I was prescribed a topical benzoyl peroxide treatment called Epiduo. It worked like magic for me and within about four months of using it I would only get the occasional breakout. My skin was happy, healthy and smooth and I, in turn, was happy, healthy, and confident.

Justine Bilodeau

Fast forward to right before leaving for my trip. I had decided to stop taking daily birth control pills and get an IUD out of convenience and responsibility, as it can be very hard to obtain birth control pills abroad and I only had four months worth from my doctor. Ultimately, I had to get the IUD taken out after just one week; I learned that my uterus is abnormally shaped and the IUD therefore didn't sit right within it. One of its metal "arms" actually poked through a part of my uterine wall. I decided to go off birth control altogether but two months into my travels I ended up hooking up with a guy and promptly started taking the daily pill again. (I'd brought my four packs along just in case!) Yep, my hormonal balance was screwed.

Between that hormonal insanity and the fact that I couldn't find many of the same products I'd used in the United States while in South America (my usual skincare routine went completely out the window), my clear skin was toast. By the second month of my travels I was experiencing regular breakouts and now, six months in, both of my cheeks are spotted with scarrs, day-old cystic spots, and blackheads. You'd think that being in warm and humid climates for half of a year would do wonders for one's skin but mine has had to deal with changing airplanes, pollution levels, water quality, altitudes, and more at such an alarming rate that it simply can't handle it. Just a few weeks ago it looked like this (ouch!):

Back in New York, breakouts of this severity and regularity would have devastated me. That might sound dramatic, but working in a city full of beautiful, stylish, and successful people made me want to be the most "perfect" version of myself I could be. I used to think perfect included having clear skin.

While my acne certainly hasn't improved my travel experience I've definitely cared about it much less than I would have in my past life. Is it because of the fact that I'm more focused on what I'll be doing every day rather than how I look while doing it? Is it because I'm not around models, musicians, and influencers on a daily basis? Is it because I've seen people in heartbreaking situations within the cities I've traveled to and have realized how trivial of an issue acne is for me personally? I can't say definitively, but what I do know is that the life I have worked so hard to build for myself in this moment is so incredible that I don't want to waste any extra time or energy going overboard stressing about my skin.

Do I love my acne? No, and I am not sure I'll ever get to a place where I will fell 100 percent confident rocking a makeup-free face in the middle of a serious breakout, although Retin A is currently doing wonders for me. (I am also a master with Laura Mercier's Secret Camouflage concealer!) I wholeheartedly admire people who do and would love to get that same place but I am also very real with myself. However, I also refuse to let my acne prevent me in any way from living this dream experience to its absolute fullest.

I've danced my ass and makeup off at super sweaty festivals on two different continents; I fell for a boy in Mexico City and regularly slept over at his place while simultaneously sleeping off my concealer (always wash your face before bed, kids!!!); I went swimming in a river in Argentina's Sierras with a zit-cum-third eye on my forehead; and I pulled my hair back into a ponytail and revealed my scars in all their glory for a philanthropic run. No matter how it looks, skin is simply skin. So long as it's doing what it needs to do to keep me happy, healthy, and able, I won't worry too much about its smoothness.