It felt like ants were crawling inside her skin. The small, dark red circles trail from her shoulders down to her fingertips. Sometimes the bumps appear on her eyelids, chest, or legs. She feared touching her own skin.
The only respite for Quynh Nhu Dang is the viola. When the 18-year-old plays on stage she feels confident. She feels the audiences’ eyes shift away from her skin to her viola. Then after her final musical note, her fears come back.
Social media makes it worse. Dang sees the accounts of girls with “perfect skin” and wonders why she can’t be like them.
It took four dermatologists and eight years to find an answer.
In 2019, Dang was diagnosed with keratosis pilaris — a skin condition also called “chicken skin” — that causes patches of rough, small, and acne-like bumps. She’s lived with it ever since she moved from Vietnam to Tampa at the age of 9 to reunite with her father.
Dang felt alone — but she wasn’t. Studies show teens suffering from skin conditions can also experience anxiety and depression.
Nurx, a women’s telehealth network, says it has seen an increase in girls ages 13 to 17 seeking treatment for skin conditions, primarily acne.
The company says it recently conducted a national survey of 900 patients that shows how skin conditions affect their lives. In the survey, 61 percent say acne negatively impacted an important life event; 1 in 3 say they skipped a social event because of a breakout; and 41 percent say they’ve heard rude comments.
Kristine Cooley, a Tampa advanced practice nurse who works for Nurx, said she is also treating more teens for skin conditions. She blames several factors: it can take months to see a dermatologist; the pandemic; lack of education about skin conditions; and social media.
“They see what is perceived on social media of what they should look like and that may cause them to feel even more negative about themselves,” Cooley said.
But there are ways to heal on the inside and out, as two Tampa Bay women found out: Dang and Lindy Baker.
• • •
Baker remembers watching TV with her family when it became painful to open her arms. It felt like sharp nails piercing her skin.
She was 3 when she was diagnosed with eczema. It’s a chronic, persistent inflammatory disease influenced by genetics and environmental factors. It went away soon after, but the pain and itching returned a decade later. Patches of a dry, itchy rash began to cover the 14-year-old’s body from head to toe.
Her daily routine became painful. She woke up surrounded by piles of dead skin. If she scratched it, she bled. Nothing was more painful than taking a shower; she said it felt like someone was squeezing lemon juice into the open sores of her skin.
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She fell into a depression. She kept the lights off when she used the bathroom so she wouldn’t see herself in the mirror. She spent months inside her family’s Wesley Chapel home, scared to go outside. When she did venture outside, she always wore a green button-up jacket and jeans, even if it was 80 degrees outside.
“I felt so ugly,” she said. “I felt like Shrek ... people just kind of looked at me like ‘What’s wrong with you? Is it contagious?’”
For a year, Baker resisted seeing a doctor. She didn’t want to believe she was sick, that something was wrong with her. She feared people would judge her.A doctor told her eczema could be fueled by food allergies and recommended allergy shots and daily topical steroid creams to treat her condition — and hide it. But she didn’t want to keep covering up her body.
“I don’t want to go back even a little bit because I’m reminded too much of sleepless tormenting nights, embarrassment,” Baker said, “and feeling like no one understood or validated my pain.”
A nutritionist helped her figure out what to cut out of her diet. Out went dairy, shellfish, gluten and wheat. She tried to address environmental factors by avoiding places she fears made her ill or exacerbated her asthma. It still took months for her skin to heal. When she was 20 she had just minor spots of eczema left on her body.
Now 21, her eczema is barely visible. She is no longer scared to see herself in the mirror or go outside. There are still times when her skin flares up, but that doesn’t stop Baker from living her life.
She now shares her mental health journey on Instagram and tries to inspire others living with eczema to be confident in their skin.
“Take a break from scrolling mindlessly,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “Stop comparing yourself to other people. Spend time doing something you actually like doing. Talk to someone face to face.”
• • •
Dang felt even more isolated after making her first trip back to Vietnam in 2014. A neighbor in her old village asked Dang if she had a sexually transmitted disease.
She said she felt estranged from her culture and upbringing after seeing other Vietnamese women with “smooth, beautiful” skin that looked nothing like hers.
She started wearing long-sleeved shirts and jeans. She stopped shaking hands. She tried to hide her condition.
But Dang found her own salve: The viola. Between the musical sheets and classical tunes, Dang concentrated on her music rather than her skin. She believed others would also focus on her music, not her skin.
After she was diagnosed, her dermatologist recommended a topical steroid cream daily to help with the itching and Eucerin lotion to help smooth out her skin. The bumps, though, never went away, leaving the young girl even more frustrated.
“I just wanted it to stop,” she said.
Dang’s confidence in her skin grew even more as she got involved in local organizations like Teen Connect Tampa Bay and Tampa Mayor’s Youth Corps. She no longer felt like “the Asian girl with a skin condition.”
She starts classes at the University of South Florida this month. She’s still nervous about showing her skin, but she knows she’s not alone.
”No one judges you as much as you judge yourself,” Dang said. “Do whatever makes you happy and don’t put other people into your practice.”