‘For five years, I could barely speak’: the skin health campaigner who overcame bullying for severe acne

Scott McGlynn is effortlessly sociable. He lives in a nice house in Cardiff with his partner, Justin, a pet groomer, and their dogs Belle, Cleo, Faith, Bridget and Buffy. McGlynn, who is 34, regularly goes out with friends, and engages with more than 250,000 followers on Instagram. Life is good. But, occasionally – and, he says, I’ve caught him on one of these days – all he wants is to be “by myself, in my own head”.

McGlynn’s social retreats are, he is sure, a hangover from his teenage years, when the soul-destroying impact of bullying left him all but mute. He grew up in Barry, not far from Cardiff, and went to two secondary schools in the towns of Dinas Powys and Penarth. “For five years of my life, five days a week, from 8.30am until after 3pm, I could barely speak,” he says.

Bullies targeted McGlynn in breaks, ruining the few friendships he tried to maintain. They went for him on the commute, forcing him to run to catch a train home before the crowds, or else cower at school until most people had left. And they picked on him in class, so he stopped putting up his hand and watched his grades and prospects fall away.

The bullies ridiculed McGlynn’s speech, hurling at him the whole gamut of homophobic slurs that were so pervasive in the 1990s. And they went for him because, from the age of 11, he had bad acne. Two decades later, the experience guides the actor and influencer’s work as a campaigner for skin health. “It’s why I’ve been very outspoken about my life and where I’ve come from, because the sad thing is, this is still happening to kids today,” he says. “I want them to know that they’re not the only ones.”

Having spots in your teens is so common that campaigners and health professionals say we overlook the suffering it can cause. “It gets normalised, but we know that severe acne can have a big impact on mental health, depression and suicide,” says Tess McPherson, a consultant dermatologist, who leads the paediatric dermatology service at Oxford University Hospitals.

There is also evidence to suggest that the effects on mental health of bullying over acne can be worse among sexual minorities. According to a 2017 study published by researchers at the University of Minnesota, the rate of suicidal ideation among sexual minorities with acne was 35.4%, compared to 7.9% among their heterosexual counterparts.

“There’s still so much stigmatisation,” adds McPherson, who, in a fairly unusual setup for an NHS adolescent skin service, works alongside a psychologist to tackle the emotional, as well as physical, scars of bad acne. “People will still assume that someone with acne is less healthy, eats less well and doesn’t look after their skin. These are completely false.”

McGlynn’s acne got progressively worse through his time at secondary school, spreading across his face and back. He avoided changing rooms and sometimes ate lunch while hiding in empty classrooms. He had the support and love of his parents – his father was a BT engineer while his mother still works for an exam board – and tried to get help from doctors. But it was only some time after leaving school, at 16, with poor grades, that he began to recover emotionally. Meanwhile, his acne gradually improved, although he can still suffer flare-ups.

McGlynn went on to complete a year-long computing course, going straight from classes each day to a six-hour shift at a McDonald’s in Barry, where he worked for three years. At about the age of 20, he moved to Cardiff – which proved to be a big turning point in his life. He felt able to fully embrace his sexuality, and made friends for life, going to gigs and travelling, while working at a hair salon. “Suddenly people were interested in me and I felt wanted for the first time,” he says. “It felt amazing.”

McGlynn met Justin online, when he was 24, and soon afterwards felt compelled to share his experience as a teenager. In 2016, he self-published a memoir, Out, which focused on how he had grappled with his sexual identity over the years. The book did well and McGlynn received several emails from people, who identified with what he had been through. His social media profile was growing and, as well as starting a skincare blog, he decided to create a series of podcast interviews with well-known LGBTQ+ people and allies.

Between January 2017 and May last year, McGlynn put out more than 100 episodes of The Scott McGlynn Show, speaking to the Queer as Folk actor Craig Kelly, James Dreyfus, who starred with Kathy Burke in Gimme Gimme Gimme, and the American gossip merchant Perez Hilton. There were also episodes about mental health, and an interview, in 2019, with Daisy Jing, an American influencer turned skincare entrepreneur, who founded the popular Acne Channel on YouTube in 2009. McGlynn’s show occasionally made Apple’s top five podcasts in the UK.

In September 2020, McGlynn pivoted to Instagram, where he now hosts Celebrity Skin Talk, a series of video interviews with actors, singers and reality TV stars. There is also the more recent Acne Uncovered, another series of Instagram video feeds on his account, in which he talks to acne sufferers and skincare influencers.

McGlynn is at the heart of a burgeoning social media movement that trades in hashtags such as #acnepositivity and #freethepimple. “Skinfluencers” and everyday acne sufferers not only share advice on treatment but also unfiltered selfies with positive messages about living with acne without feeling judged or victimised. McGlynn says it represents a shift in the perfection aesthetic on which so much of Instagram culture was built. “We want to bring realness back into it,” he says.

“We know that content on social media and selfies showing unobtainable skin makes people feel worse about themselves, particularly girls,” says McPherson. “But we are hopefully seeing a more honest, positive narrative now, even if there’s still a long way to go.”

Yet McPherson is also concerned about the barrage of sponsored content and advertising for treatments that often accompany such posts. “A lot of it is empty words or concentrations of active ingredients that are too low to be clinically useful,” she says. “It can be exploitative, and people will spend a lot of money on things they wish and believe will be a solution, but may not work.”

McGlynn now earns much of his income by working with skincare brands via Instagram, but insists that he is careful to do his own research and says he always tests products before endorsing them. As well as making a living, he says he wants to fuel and be part of a positive community. He frequently re-posts tearful reactions from fans who have been moved by a feeling of belonging.

McPherson advises people with mild acne to first go to a pharmacy in search of non-comedogenic skincare products, which do not contain oils that can block pores. The NHS recommends limiting the use of makeup and not overwashing, which can irritate skin. McPherson also says that anyone concerned about more serious acne, particularly if it causes scarring or mental health problems, should see a GP, as prescription creams or antibiotics can help.

McGlynn’s growing profile, and the huge confidence it has given him more than 15 years after moving to Cardiff, has also inspired a fledgling acting career. He has had a small part on Casualty and, on the day we speak, he is preparing to shoot a low-budget horror sequel called Summoning Bloody Mary 2.

When he has his quiet days, he still often thinks back to his time at school. “I wish I could say to my younger self, ‘Be who you are; don’t let people talk you down’,” he says. “It should be such a great fun time, with no responsibility, and I just missed out on that whole time in my life.” He is delighted when people now want to talk to him, given that back then “nobody wanted to have anything to do with me”. But he occasionally hears from old school acquaintances who suddenly want to make friends. “I just don’t reply,” he says. “If they want to get to know me, they should have done it 20 years ago.”

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