Nothing Dermatologists Prescribed Could Clear the Pimples All Over My Neck, Chest, and Back

State of Skin is our monthlong exploration of what women love, hate, and need to know about their skin — from the most common concerns to the best kept secrets in beauty.

STATE OF SKIN: First Person Folliculitis Essay
Photo: Erin Glover/InStyle

Picture waking up in the morning, puffy eyed and groggy, as you drag your body toward the bathroom to shower. You rinse off, dry yourself with a towel, and as the steam clears from the mirror, you notice it: 500 (or seemingly so) whiteheads and red bumps, all over your chest and back, and a decent amount crawling their way up your neck, too.

And now, you have to go to work like that.

Oh, and did I mention, it’s summertime, so wearing a scarf would look extra suspicious?

This was my life for years — years — with the number of pesky pimples increasing as I got older. They would form once there was a hint of humidity in the air (sometimes, as early as April) and stay put until it got cold again (which could very well mean November).

Horrified, I went to five different dermatologists to figure out what the issue was. They all ran some tests, and eventually diagnosed my condition as folliculitis, which is the inflammation of hair follicles, in this case, very tiny ones. Once my results came back negative for any bad bacteria, they each prescribed me a different medicated cream, as well as a sulfur-rich wash to absorb any oil and dry out my skin, then they sent me on my way. But nothing they gave me really helped, and if it did, it wasn’t for long.


Even the tiniest bit of sweat made my skin 10 times worse. “Take a cool shower right after you get home,” the dermatologists would tell me. So, I did. “Keep wipes in your bag in case you can’t rinse off,” they said. So, I did. My life constantly felt like a race to the nearest restroom sink, where I could wash my chest and, hopefully, delay a breakout. I admittedly wasn’t hitting the gym regularly, but even long, sweaty walks or sprints to the subway meant trouble. I had a full panic attack when I signed up for a fitness class through work, only to realize it was outside on a 90-degree day. I sat out for most of it, worrying about how many pimples would pop up if I continued.

The only time I ever saw a glimmer of hope was when I was given a topical steroid. I tried my best to use it sparingly and take breaks after a few weeks, since these creams are known to cause skin thinning among other issues, but it took a lot of discipline.

The steroid gave me the option of feeling confident while wearing a tank top or T-shirt in public. Not using it meant I would break out, and be forced to disguise my bumps on my neck and chest, sometimes meaning I would have to work a bandana into every single outfit (I now own bandanas in 30 different colors).

Folliculitis was no doubt ruining my life, and no one — not even the usually-wise Internet — seemed to be able help me. There were no articles highlighting solutions, no dermatologist who could give me a straight answer, and, unfortunately, things were getting worse. I was now getting pimples in the winter, too, especially if I fell asleep with a sweatshirt on and ended up sweating during the night.

I had anxiety over getting a breakout, and I felt like my life revolved around my skin.


Then, I read something somewhere — a short sentence about how birth control pills can sometimes be the cause of frustrating breakouts, rather than the solution. After doing some backtracking, it hit me that I’d actually been on the pill since the start of my folliculitis flareups (when it was minor, and not everywhere), and I wondered if that might be the culprit. There was no real need for me to continue using them (I was already pretty bad about being consistent and always used condoms to be safe), so I decided to stop for a few weeks, just to see what would happen.

Miraculously, it worked. Or, at the very least, ditching the pill made my breakouts less intense. The summer after I quit, I was waking up to just three to five pimples on my body, rather than hundreds. I was still fearful my folliculitis nightmare would return (and to this day, get paranoid when I'm in intense heat), but another summer came and went, and the results were the same.

Of course, I always recommend checking in with your doctor before making many major decisions of your own. But, perhaps, your skin solution is less complicated than covering yourself in cream and trying to bathe yourself in the bathroom after you start sweating at a rooftop bar.

I’m just happy that I don’t have to make a case for “summer scarves” anymore.

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