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The homepage ofAkne.orgit looks like an ad for pimple cream masquerading as an online resource. If you scroll down, you'll see a list of recommended reading like Alcohol and Acne, Acne.org treatment ads, a ton of product reviews, and a photo gallery of blemished faces.
Then you see forums - very, very active forums: Scarless Healing, started just a minute ago; "I'm 50 years old and I'm breaking my whole forehead" was founded 20 minutes ago; and "Searching for Advice and Reccos for Acne Scars", founded 22 minutes ago. And at the bottom of the site you can see the pretty impressive numbers: Acne.org has 641,596 members, 2,089 of which are online now, and over 3.5 million posts. What at first appears to be a sterile, dictionary-like website is actually home to the largest online community dedicated solely to discussing acne.
Reading these forums made me feel like a teenager again, browsing anonymous forums where people discuss seemingly fleeting issues that can be deeply traumatic. While acne is common and temporary — like many things associated with adolescence — living with it can feel alienating, especially in adulthood. Acne.org creator Daniel Kern knew that feeling, which is why he created the site.
Since its inception, a few years after Kern started Acne.org to share his own skincare journey, the forums have always been active, which doesn't surprise him. "Everyone has had acne at some point in their lives," he says. What surprised him, however, was how active and populated the forum on the emotional and psychological effects of acne had become. "I guess I thought it would be a place where people could share scientific information or exchange ideas about what worked and what didn't," he says.
But as anyone who grew up in the wee hours of the morning can attest, anonymous forums often become emotional havens. Here, the conversation goes beyond how acne makes you look and how it makes you feel. "Acne is psychologically devastating for many people, so I guess I should have expected that," says Kern.
With over 360,000 members and hundreds of thousands of threads, this forum is the biggest and can get very obscure quickly. (Kern has banned some threads and pinned a post containing a collection of mental health resources for those considering self-harm. Volunteer moderators also monitor the site to ensure that all discussions are safe.) Acceptance Discussionslonelinessand Losing Love are interspersed with journal-like posts from those wanting to vent about how acne has negatively affected their lives.
This forum is also where most of the bizarre "support" is born. In a certain thread, a member posted that he is worried about never being intimate with a woman because of his acne, to which another member responded and told him.Go for "dumb girls" or "fat ugly girls".That advice was then disputed by one member who said, “Dude, stop suggesting people USE LOW CONFIDENCE GIRLS. this is a forum for people with acne!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” As disturbing as this thread is, advice like this is rare on Acne.org, and unproductive or harmful threads are promptly closed by moderators.
According to teen and young adult psychologist Dr. Jaclyn Ghamar, emotional scarring is one of the most enduring effects of acne, even more so than literal scarring. "Those who have had acne are more likely to have low self-esteem, which can affect them in social situations and during job interviews," she says. Even as her face clears, the shame of having acne persists.
Kern's battle with acne began at age 11 and continued through college. He has tried over-the-counter topical treatments and routines prescribed by dermatologists, neither of which have been very successful. At one point, his acne got so bad he couldn't even look at himself in the mirror. Eventually he was prescribedAccutane– the holy grail of those with seemingly incorrigible skin – and her acne disappeared instantly. But after stopping the medication, some of the same problems reappeared. Although his body acne had subsided, he still struggled with facial acne on a daily basis. At that point, he returned to a topic that had worked for him a little: benzoyl. After independent research, he found that 2.5% benzoyl cleansed his skin without drying it out, as opposed to the 10% he used in his youth. Thus, the Acne.org program was born.
With the internet boom of the late 1990s, he saw an opportunity to share knowledge about what he considered his "unique talent": how to clean your skin. In 1996 he founded Acne.org and shared his success story. A few years later, he added interactive features to the site, including a place to write reviews, a photo gallery, and forums. He wanted Acne.org to be a place where people could learn from each other, not just him. “More heads are always better,” he says. Acne.org members range in age from 12 to 50, but most fall into the young adult category.
dr Ghamar can attest to the trauma acne causes at a young age and the importance of having a safe place like Acne.org. "Acne can lower a person's self-esteem and lead to increased anxiety," she says. "It can definitely make you more likely to be depressed and increase suicidal thoughts." But having a community where other people are having and discussing the same problem as you can be tremendously therapeutic.
Acne.org normalizes their experiences, and the anonymity of message boards helps them feel less defined by their acne. "Your face is the first thing people see when they look at you, so if you're embarrassed early on, throw in a hormonal imbalance, those with acne feel like no one ever thought about anything other than their acne." will recognize. Says Ghamar. But on anonymous online message boards, your face doesn't really matter.
The forums are divided into categories including acne and its treatments, lifestyle and acne specifics, all containing thousands of topics. The specificity of each thread conveys the raw desperation of people who have scoured all their habits to find out exactly why they have acne. New members reluctantly post their skincare journeys in hopes that someone will take pity on them, and more often than not, that's what happens.
In one thread, a member shares his story of howVaping gave him cystic acneand users responded with comments like, "This may be the first time I've been asked to respond to a post like this, but I'm struggling with the EXACT same problem."Are pumpkin seeds good for acne?” “What is more likely to cause my acne, high carbs or gluten??” and the most medicalIs it OK to take zinc and vitamin D3 pills while taking minocycline and tretinoin gel??”
Arguably the most unusual discussions on Acne.org, however, are those that don't deal with acne. A forum called The Lounge hosts threads where people share what they're reading, what movies they're watching, or anything deemed "off topic". It's not as active as the other forums, but it shows how safe Acne.org makes people feel. People stop and look around to see what other people in the community are doing. One place that I originally thought was a one-stop shop is where many have pitched their tents.
Ryan (whose name has been changed) discovered Acne.org at age 16 and has been a presenter for three years. He was recruited by another moderator who noticed his frequent activity on the forums. Moderators take responsibility for viewing reports submitted by users and enforcing community rules. They also send people in mental crisis to the appropriate places. For Ryan, the site offers instant support for something that is often dismissed, especially by those who do not suffer from it. Those with acne "are constantly told, 'You'll get over it,' and 'It could be worse,' which isn't very comforting," he says. "They need support and advice now."