Real Talk: Jessica DeFino Yarbrough on Hormonal Acne, Self Esteem, & Beauty Industry BS

Real Talk is Blood + Milk’s latest column, which features exclusive interviews with editors on their most intimate experiences and journeys with health, wellness, body image, and more.

Jessica DeFino Yarbrough is a beauty journalist who has written extensively about her experience developing chronic dermatitis and healing her own skin naturally. Her work has appeared in Vogue, Harper’s BAZAAR, New York Magazine’s The Cut, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Glamour, SELF, HelloGiggles, Business Insider, The Zoe Report, Fashionista.com, and more. 

For our “Real Talk” series, we asked Jessica about her experience with hormonal acne and how to not get duped by the beauty industry—or your dermatologist.

1. You’ve written about meditating, breathing, and crystal-healing your way to better skin? Can you tell us the role of “woo woo” in your quest to cure hormonal acne?

The “woo woo” has maybe been the most effective part of my quest to heal my hormonal acne and dermatitis, but the reason I started exploring the “woo woo” was pretty vain. My skin had been so sensitized by prescription steroids that it couldn’t handle topical treatments—I had no other options, and I had nothing to lose, so one day I just started meditating. A mantra popped into my head: “I am beautiful on the inside and it shines through the outside.” I repeated that for the entire length of my daily meditations for a week, and when I tell you the changes in my skin were profound, I mean it. It opened my mind to other, less conventional forms of healing: affirmations, gratitude journaling, breathwork, connecting to nature, witchcraft, crystals, and more.

When I think about how and why these practices have worked for me, I think there are a couple of levels to it: One, all of the above are stress-reducing, and there are plenty of scientific studies that prove stress negatively impacts the skin and stress-reducing activities positively impact the skin. And two, I believe that when you heal the self—the soul-deep self—that healing radiates through every level of your being: spiritual, emotional, and even physical. It’s an energetic shift!

Jessica DeFino Yarbrough

2. For someone struggling with hormonal acne, it can be completely overwhelming to know where to start. What’s your advice, especially for someone who has been struggling with dermatologist recommendations? 

First, I would say listen to your intuition. If there’s something that doesn’t feel right about a dermatologists’ recommendation or prescription, explore that. Do your research, meditate on it, feel into what feels right for you. The thing to keep in mind with hormonal acne is that it stems from an internal imbalance, so there is a limit to what topical “solutions” can do. The only real, true solution is to deal with your hormones and heal your hormones. This will look different for every individual. Some things that I found helpful: Reading the book Woman Code by Alisa Vitti to better understand my own hormonal system, seed cycling, drinking two cups of spearmint tea per day, balancing my stress levels, and avoiding dairy. 

A mantra popped into my head: “I am beautiful on the inside and it shines through the outside.” I repeated that for the entire length of my daily meditations for a week, and when I tell you the changes in my skin were profound, I mean it.

3. You’ve written about seed cycling as hormonal acne treatment—can you briefly share what that is and how it works?

Seed cycling is a natural method of balancing the body’s inherent hormonal fluctuations throughout the course of your menstrual cycle. I wrote about all the details for Cosmo here, but basically, you eat a tablespoon each of pumpkin seeds and flax seeds from Day 1 – 14 of your cycle (starting on the first day of your period) and a tablespoon each of sesame seeds and sunflower seeds from Day 15 – 28. The nutrients (fiber, Omega fatty acids) and hormone-binding or hormone-supporting qualities of these seeds help you avoid the kind of rapid spikes in progesterone and estrogen that are responsible for symptoms of PMS (including, in my experience, hormonal acne!).

Before and after, image courtesy of Jessica DeFino Yarbrough

4. When you were struggling with acne, did it impact your self esteem? Do you have any advice for others going through this experience?

My self-esteem for sure suffered when I was dealing with dermatitis and hormonal acne. It still does. In modern society, appearance is so tied up in worth that it’s almost impossible not to associate what you look like with how you feel about yourself. Something that’s really helped me work through this is the skin neutrality movement. I’ve written about this before here, but the practice of skin neutrality is basically the practice of detaching your worth as a human from your outward appearance. Instead of “good skin” or “bad skin,” you just have… skin:  “A flesh-suit, an outer coating, a functional layer holding your insides together — not a signifier of status, or factor of self-worth or even something to be proud of.” It’s not easy (and maybe not possible?) to fully detach, but whenever I’m in the midst of a “bad skin day” and feeling down about it, I take a few minutes and remind myself that I am so much more than my skin—I’m a full, vibrant, dynamic soul.

Of course, it’s much easier to book an injectable appointment… but eventually, I think we’re going to have to reckon with some of the deeper implications of these aesthetic treatments.

5. You’re not afraid to call out BS in the beauty industry. Are there any trends right now that you find particularly worrisome or troubling?

I think a lot about injectables—fillers, Botox, all of that—and especially the growing popularity of “tweakments,” which is the industry term for tiny little treatments that don’t dramatically change how you look to the outside world but make you feel better about how you look. You know, a touch of Botox here or a half a syringe of lip filler. It’s considered a form of self-care now, and that’s so troubling to me.  I see the “tweakment” trend as a sign that people are actually chasing a sense of inner calm and self-confidence because it’s not about changing your appearance in a way that other people will notice—it’s about changing how you feel about how you look. So why are (potentially dangerous) injectables the vehicle of choice? Those kinds of changes can only be achieved through self-reflection and inner work. Of course, it’s much easier to book an injectable appointment… but eventually, I think we’re going to have to reckon with some of the deeper implications of these aesthetic treatments.

6. There are some crazy good marketers out there for some very meh brands. Are there any skincare products out there you wish people would just stop buying? 

Almost all of them! Honestly, my hope is that we learn to lessen our reliance on all products and start to explore the innate wisdom of our own skin and our own bodies. The skin has built-in mechanisms to self-cleanse, self-moisturize, self-exfoliate, and self-heal. When we support these inherent functions instead of suppressing them with products, the skin thrives. I always say, the best moisturizer money can’t buy is your own sebum! Your natural stores of hyaluronic acid are going to be way more effective than any hyaluronic acid product on the market! But if I had to pick one thing, I wish people would stop it with all the exfoliation already. Acids, scrubs, chemical peels, retinol, all of it. The skin barrier is the single most important layer of the skin when it comes to keeping everything underneath it healthy and happy and functioning, and when you slough away that skin barrier with products, you can do more harm than good.

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