Cynthia Nixon was fed up with her skin. No matter how hard she scrubbed, or how many industrial-strength products she used, she couldn’t get rid of what she thought was a bad case of adult acne. The problem? It wasn’t acne—it was rosacea, an inflammatory vascular condition that affects more than 16 million Americans.
“I struggled with it for 8 years and I did all the wrong things,” says Cynthia, who has teamed up with the National Rosacea Society to promote awareness of the condition at RosaceaFacts.com. “When I was finally diagnosed, it was like night and day.”
We chatted with the 46-year-old actress (just days before her hush-hush wedding!) about skincare, cancer and the secret behind Sex and the City’s silliest storylines.
Spry: Like you, I’m fair-skinned, and I think sometimes we take flushing as par for the course. How did you know it was something more?
Cynthia Nixon: I thought it was acne—I had such bad acne in my teens and twenties, and I thought I’d outgrown it but it was coming back. I tried to do all the things I used to, like using hard astringents, scrubs and antibacterial washes, but it didn’t get any better. Then I happened to go to the dermatologist for a suspicious mole, and while examining me she said, “By the way, you have rosacea.” She gave me a list of do’s and don’ts, and pretty much everything on the don’t list I was doing, and everything on the do list, I wasn’t!
Spry: What was on the list?
CN: The things I was doing to fight acne are pretty much the worst things you can do for rosacea. I feel like anytime our skin gets funny, our response is to wash it harder. The doctor told me that keeping your face clean is important, but to do it in a gentle way. And consistency is also important—no more “I just got sent this free product, so let’s try that!” She did give me a prescription to get it under control, but I didn’t need to use it for very long.
Spry: Have you found that certain things trigger your rosacea?
CN: Yes, and it’s all my favorite things: spicy foods, red wine and hot baths! But I didn’t give them up. I just became more mindful of them. If I have a photo shoot, or a wedding or birthday party coming up, I just pay attention to what I’m doing.
Spry: Have you had to change your fitness regimen?
CN: Exercise can be a trigger, but most of the exercise I do isn’t aerobic. I do more weight training and yoga. Even when I do the weight training, they have fans there and that really helps.
Spry: For any woman, a visible skin condition is stressful, but I can imagine it’s especially so for an actress.
CN: Definitely. If I’m nervous, my face can get red. Before I was diagnosed, it would sometimes break out while I was filming. And you can cover it somewhat with makeup, but what I find is it’s never good to wear a lot of base. You want your skin to be as clear as possible, and as normal as possible. You want to use makeup as an enhancement—not as spackle!
Spry: You’ve just been nominated for a Tony for Wit. I know your 2006 bout with breast cancer was very different from that of your character, who is dying of stage IV ovarian cancer. But did you draw on your own experience at all?
CN: No I really didn’t, I gotta say. My personal experience, and even my mother’s experience with cancer up to this point were pretty different. But I did draw on the experiences of other people I know who’ve had cancer, and also very much on two very close friends I had who died of AIDS. I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals. And also, strangely, there’s a point where my character is in excruciating pain, and for that I’d think about the pain of childbirth!
Spry: You also guest-starred on The Big C for two seasons. What do you think of the show’s portrayal of life with cancer?
CN: The thing about cancer nowadays is it comes in big packages and small packages. We’ve certainly come a long way from the ’70s when Susan Komen was diagnosed and you couldn’t even say the word “breast.” It was a big struggle to bring women’s cancers out of the shadows. Now cancer is so widespread that you can have something like The Big C, about a woman who is facing a terminal illness and whose life is not all somber. It definitely has its painful and sad moments. Life always has its sad moments, even at its most comedic times. When you take these topics out of the closet, and they get more varied you can see a much more complicated portrait of a person with cancer.
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Spry: Sex and the City addressed that, too, when Samantha had breast cancer.
CN: Yes, it was really important for Samantha to take off her wig and show she didn’t have any cares. And you know, that storyline came about because a surprising number of the female writers on the show had had cancer. As with all the things that worked so well on the show, those storylines were all drawn from real life. They had a rule in the writers’ room—anything they wrote had to have actually happened to one of them or a friend.
Spry: That’s amazing—some of the things that happened on the show were crazy!
CN: I know! You would think they were made up, but they actually happened!