Almost exactly three years ago from today I decided that I was going to take skincare very seriously and see how far I could take it. I wanted to see if I could look like a robot, with perfect smooth skin, or like I was wearing foundation.
Up until that point I was a staunch non-interventionist, I literally didn’t wash my face or use any products aside from sunscreen 3-4 times a year when I went to the beach. I had mild acne, which had subsided from pretty legit teenage acne, and I also had epic is-this-a-staph-infection-and-should-I-go-to-the-emergency-room cystic acne on my eyebrows, nose and jawline. I popped at least one pimple a day (or tried to), but even with that, by most standards of skin health I looked ~fine~.
For some reason, in the spring of 2015 something snapped and I decided that fine was no longer good enough and I wanted to have uncannily clear and healthy skin. So I did some research. My starting goal was to find out the top things to do for skin health—the most essential steps that dermatologists all agree on. Once I settled on those I began to drill down into all the little potions and routines and brands and so on, in order to develop a sold skincare routine that would clear my acne, and keep my skin healthy and wrinkle-free for as long as possible. After a few years, and many requests from friends to share my knowledge, I’m starting this blog to share the results of this endeavor with as many people as possible.
This post is my overarching manifesto for skin care, and the basics of how to build a solid routine. Subsequent posts will drill down into the details of each topic, but right now, I want to lay out the broad strokes of why you’d want to start a more serious skincare routine, what exactly a ‘routine’ entails, and how you go about setting one up that works for you.
So, why would you want to spend money and time taking care of the skin on your face? Your face is the thing people see when they look at you, and—if you’re like most people and want to look presentable by taking care of your hair and teeth, and not wearing tattered rags in public—having health skin is a big part of looking presentable, and most people want to look presentable.
The skin on your face is the most exposed area of skin along with the hands—it sees a lot of environmental stress, so it should stand to reason that you’d want to take steps to enhance the health of your skin, and protect it from damage.
Skincare is not dumb and not a waste of time (although it can be a waste of money). Most people brush their teeth and go to the dentist, see a therapist, exercise, eat carefully, and take other totally reasonable steps to maintain the health of their bodies and improve their lives. Taking care of your skin is no different.
And don’t even try me with the ‘b-but we got along just fine without niacinamide serums for thousands of years! Why should we bother with them now??’ bOKAY, we got along ‘just fine’ when women regularly died in childbirth and it took three months to get across the Atlantic Ocean, but a big part of what’s great about living in a stable society that makes progress and shares knowledge is that things generally tend to get better. Peddlers of the ‘human body is perfect and fine without intervention’ line are just trying to shame you for taking care of yourself.
A lot of people ask me what my ‘secret’ is. There is no secret, this shit takes commitment: time, and yes money (but possibly not as much as you might think). OK maybe I have one secret—I use google a lot. Any product I use or am considering using gets its full ingredients googled. This might sound daunting but after a while you will begin to learn the language and investigating new products will take you less time. (Also just copy and paste from the product’s website rather than reading off the back and typing it in.) This glossary from Japanese skincare brand DHC, is a great resource.
Like I said, this shit takes time—probably about 20 minutes per day I spend doing things to my face. I enjoy it, and I’ve noticed great results. I used to have cystic acne that was excruciatingly painful and lasted for months, and now I don’t. And I haven’t popped a pimple in so long I can’t remember. Also my skin looks great and that matters to me, so the time I spend is worth it. It’s a hobby, essentially. Lots of people engage in self-improvement hobbies, and this is one of mine.
Results do not happen overnight. Just like you wouldn’t go to the gym once and wonder why you weren’t jacked, or brush your teeth 3 times per month and wonder why your teeth are falling out, you don’t just slap on some product and expect to have flawless skin instantly. Skincare is kinda boring. Fun, but it moves very slowly and sometimes it can take years to see results. So if you’re looking for something fast paced and exciting, this is not that. If you want to take satisfaction in the slow slog towards better skin, keep reading.
Also, there is only so much you can do. Genetics play a huge role in our lives and the skin is no different. If you’re not Beyoncé you will probably never look like Beyoncé no matter how many sheet masks you do. But skincare is not about becoming someone else, it’s about taking steps to make sure that your skin is as cared-for as you want it to be. If you like the way your skin looks after starting a skincare routine, if it looks better than before, and it makes you happy, that is success.
Lastly, I am not a doctor and I will not pretend to be. Seriously go to the dermatologist every year. Even if you don’t have any issues, getting a cancer screening can save your life—Basal Cell Carcinoma kills one American every hour. On top of that, they can help you with other, less life-threatening skin issues, and even fun stuff like cosmetic procedures, if that’s what you’re into.
The key to skincare is to develop a routine, and stick with it, twice a day, or as close to twice a day as you can. (yes, sometimes I pass out without washing my face and the sun still hangs in the sky.) Having a routine is important for two reasons: first, consistency—there is no magic cream or serum or mask that will instantly give you the skin you want, just like exercise and diet, it’s a daily practice; and second, because I try to be as scientific as possible. Science is a method of inquiry where you make assertions (hypotheses), and test them using experiments. Being consistent is a good way to know if a product is working or not, and if you’re experiencing any negative effects, a good way to pinpoint what might be causing it. If you have a consistent routine, and you drop or add an element, and notice a change, it’s a good bet you know what the cause is. That’s hard to do if you’re thrashing around trying new things every week, as fun as that might be.
And notice I said as scientific as possible. With a personal skincare routine, the sample size is 1, there is no control group, and many other factors besides what you smoosh on your face every day can have an effect on the way your skin looks: diet, weather, hormones, medications, etc. And a lot of skin care claims made by brands are hard to verify, and are sometimes based on singular studies rather than a consensus. The human body is astonishingly complex and despite tons of progress, we’ve only just begun to understand it, so please do not take anything you read regarding skincare as 100% true. Be incredulous, google ingredients, and if you think I’ve gotten something wrong, please let me know, either in the comments or on twitter. I love being wrong, and I love getting yelled at on the internet because I love attention.
Alright, now on to The Routine. I think of the routine like the food pyramid, and I’m starting with the bottom foundation, and working up. I’m deliberately leaving brands and detail about my own routine out so you can just get a broad general sense of what’s out there—everyone is different and some brands and routines work great for some, while giving others hives. I’ll get more specific in subsequent posts.
Sunscreen—Just fucking wear sunscreen ok? Concerns about the toxicity of sunscreen are overblown and pale in comparison to the risks of sun exposure. The American cancer society estimates that 91,270 new melanomas will be diagnosed in 2018, and 9,320 people in the USA are expected to die from skin cancer in 2018. Find a sunscreen that you can wear every day and wear it every day. Even if it’s raining, even if you go outside for 10 minutes a day. UVA rays, the rays that cause genetic damage and aging DO pass through clouds and glass. (UVA B, the ones that cause burning, do not.) Wear sunscreen.
Cleansing—Wash your face twice a day, morning and night. Why you should be washing your face this often should be self-evident but washing your face accomplishes many things: removing dirt and dead skin cells that can clog pores and cause acne, removing any makeup, removing sunscreen, removing any food that may have gotten on your face while eating, and so on. Your face is one of the most exposed parts of your body so it deserves a good wash, just like your hands. Use cold or lukewarm water, otherwise you will strip your face of natural oils and over dry it.
Make sure you find a face wash that works for you. I prefer something gentle and creamy as opposed to a harsh acne wash or gel. Don’t use hand soap unless it’s an emergency, it will over dry.
Exfoliating—I would avoid any physical exfoliating ‘scrub’. It’s just too rough and can cause damage to your face in the long run. Instead, chemical exfoliators are your friends, namely Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) and Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA). AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid and tartaric acid, citric acid, and a few others. Glycolic acid is probably the most common. AHAs work on the surface of the skin to gently remove dead skin cells, stimulate collagen production, and help the skin retain moisture. Find a AHA product that is gentle for you to use once per day, in the morning.
BHA is also known as salicylic acid (aka willow bark, aka aspirin) and it’s commonly found in acne-fighting face washes and unlike AHA it is also oil-soluble and can help with skin redness. Most people find BHA a little too intense to use every day, especially in conjunction with AHA, so they can alternate or use BHA once or twice a week.
The key with starting any acid is to start small on a patch of skin to see if any irritation occurs, and then gradually increase frequency of use to your desired level.
Ok so I sort of lied about physical exfoliants, I do swear by gommage. Gommage is French for ‘scrub’ but it’s not a harsh scrub, but a gentle, tacky paste (kind of like rubber cement) that you smoosh on your face and let it partially dry and then roll off in little boogers. It’s one of my favorite skin care items and I use it about twice per week. I will go into great detail about gommage in a subsequent post, rest assured.
Hydration/Moisture—This is a big one, enough of a topic to cover 1,000 blog posts (they’re out there), but the core of it is to find a moisturizer that you can afford, that makes your skin feel good and does not cause irritation or acne (non-comedogenic). I would suggest trying out a bunch of different kinds until you settle on one you like. An aside: the term ‘non-comedogenic’ means that it will not clog your pores, but there is no enforcing structure for who gets to say this and who doesn’t, so take that labeling with a grain of salt and go with what works. You don’t have to go super fancy—some people swear by the stuff you can get at CVS.
Some general distinctions: Hydration comes from water, either applied topically, or from your bloodstream (drink water) and most of what lotions do is help your skin retain moisture in a few ways. One is through occlusion, where the product forms a physical barrier between the skin and the atmosphere that prevents moisture from evaporating away, petroleum jelly is a classic occlusive. Humectants are molecules that draw water into them both from deeper layers of skin, and the air, and when applied to the skin provide a more humid environment. Hyaluronic acid is a very popular humectant, as well as squalene, honey, urea, and aloe. Some moisturizers can also contain lubricants which condition the skin and make it feel smoother.
The term for something that can do all three is ‘emollients’, such as shea butter, dimethicone, cyclomethicone, vegetable oils, and alcohols like stearyl alcohol, and cetyl alcohol. Some humectants also have emollient properties, too.
Some peole puse the terms ‘moisturizer’ and ‘emollient’ interchangeably and there isn’t a ton of consistent information about what is what and I’m SURE I’ve gotten a few things wrong or over-generalized.
Vitamin A1, aka retinoids. Retinoids are converted into retinoic acid in the skin and stimulate cell turnover, stimulate collagen production, and thin the outermost layer of skin, a layer of dead skin cells called the stratum cornerum. Retinol was the first thing I added to my routine after face wash and SPF and it has totally transformed my face. If you get it through a dermatologist, prescription-strength retinol is stronger and works faster, but unless you’re being treated for a medical condition like acne, chances are your insurance won’t cover it and it’s expensive as fuck without a prescription.
Fortunately there are many over-the-counter retinoids that take a little while longer to work and are generally not as strong, but the end results are the same as the Rx stuff, you just have to be more patient.
Starting retinoid is not for the faint of heart. Your skin will get red and flake for the first few months. Hell, my skin still gets flaky if I use too much by accident. For this reason, you should start small at two to three times per week for a few weeks and then gradually increase to every day, as part of your PM routine. You can also use it in the morning, but I haven’t heard of anyone who does, and frankly it does not strike me as very necessary since a retinoid routine is more about building up enough in your skin to trigger changes in cell turnover and once you get to a certain point, it’s overkill and you might end up with irritation and flaky skin and get discouraged and give up all together.
Start slowly with retinoids, and do not expect to see results for at least six months. That said, after a year of using a retinoid, I truly felt like I had a new face, as if the material that covered the front of my face, that had clogged pores and excruciating cystic acne, was replaced with fresh android skin, like Jude Law A.I. (v underrated movie btw)
Vitamin B3 aka Niacinamide. You’ll see niacinamide in a variety of skincare products and there is good reason for that. Research shows that niacinamide is an anti-inflammatory, helps to control the skin’s oil production, reduces visibility of pores, evens out skin tone, and improve the skin’s ability to act as a barrier. You can either use it as a standalone, or as an ingredient in another product.
Vitamin C is a tough one. It’s a very ‘fragile’ molecule and oxidizes quickly, so you need to do some research to make sure that the manufacturer is formulating properly. L-Ascorbic acid is the most well-researched form of vitamin C, with results showing it to give similar results as vitamin B, promoting a more even skin tone, improving the skin’s ability to act as a barrier, improving hydration, and combating sun damage. Beyond concerns about oxidation, some studies have shown limited absorption when applied topically, so keep in mind that the best way to get vitamin C to the skin cells on your face is through food via the bloodstream. Fortunately, many foods are high in vitamin C, for instance literally any fruit or vegetable. This also brings up another issue that skin health is directly related to overall health. If you’re not sleeping enough, eating properly, etc. there is only so much you can do by smooshing creams and shit on your face.
Sheet masks are like dessert. Yeah, that’s what said. Just like cake and ice cream is awesome and you should eat them as much as you want, they should not be at the core of your diet. The same goes for sheet masks. People love to Instagram the shit out of their cronuts and sheet masks, but their salad and facewash, not so much. Sheet masks are the least essential element of your routine. That said, I love sheet masks. They can make my face look and feel great and have a lot of good shit packed into them. They also make great gifts! Just like cookies and cake!! Do you enjoy how far I’m taking this analogy??
Unless you’re doing a sheet mask every day, they should not be a cornerstone of your routine. If you find that there is an ingredient in a mask that you respond well too, try and find a serum or moisturizer that contains that ingredient, and use that every day.
There’s a lot of other shit out there, acids, oils, serums that claim to work like Botox, and so on. Some of them I use, some I ignore, but there’s no sense in getting into the nitty gritty of these right now until you’ve built up a solid routine of sunscreen, cleansing, exfoliation, hydration, and vitamins.
More soon. Thanks for reading.