Step away from the Sephora
Sorting through the myths & miracles of skincare culture
“I don’t wear foundation”.
Throughout high school, those four words had the power to send friends into shock, to buy my face credibility among members of that ever-cringy “make-up is a lie” crowd. I credited my early use of eye cream (age fifteen), my relatively youthful foray into clay masks, homemade sugar scrubs, and that one Neutrogena face wash which felt like cleansing with pure Vicks Vapo-rub for my generally smooth and clear teen face. I didn’t fear fringe bangs, nor going out with merely a pat of under-eye concealer and a few swipes of brown mascara.
Fast forward to my face on the brink of 25, and the pustule – I mean, plot – thickens. Those cute fine lines above each eyebrow have joined in the middle, and they seem very happy together. A smattering of blemishes have recently re-appeared on one cheek, then the other. Once more I feel as if my skin and I aren’t playing for the same team. However, I still manage to tuck that dreaded bottle of foundation away and give thanks – at least this acne isn’t as bad as last year’s.
For those who’ve had the distinct misfortune of acquiring acne and other natural, aesthetically uncool skin conditions during the rise of the multi-step skincare routine, the beauty industry has become an impossible puzzle of quizzes, contradictory “expert advice,” and prohibitively expensive potions. Each label reads like either the catalogue of an exotic herb garden, or the inventory of a chemistry cupboard. “Miraculous” new ingredients are discovered and marketed each day, the virtues of one and all ceaselessly touted by various dermatologists. The levels of pseudo-scientific cacophony present on a single drugstore shelf are enough to make anyone’s head spin. As a seasoned student of YouTube University (with honourary degrees from Google and DuckDuckGo), I tried to dig deeper. Where was the objective science? Where were the studies? Had the entire field of dermatology simply devolved into a marketing scam?
Enter Beauty Within, a channel upon which two bubbly Australians and a plethora of digital graphics break down the science behind the skin cycle and common epidermal complaints. Finally, I knew which ingredients could help me, and why! Finally, I had enough knowledge to see through buzzwords and hype when seeking solutions to my laments!
Unfortunately, I soon realized that Beauty Within, too, could not totally break free of the bullshit. While the science is solid, affiliate links and piles of costly product suggestions still confound the integrity of the information offered there. What’s more, most of the brands they championed were not available for purchase in Canada, let alone Regina. Scouring peer-reviewed studies, likewise, rarely yielded concrete information in exchange for the time it took to find, read, and verify the authority of each torturous paper’s results.
Stress, I’m told, can contribute heavily to congested skin, and my reflection seemed to agree. What had once been an annoying assortment of overlapping “problem areas” soon exploded into a resilient, whole-face invasion of clogged, infected, angry-looking acne, and I was in despair. Simultaneously kicking myself for being self-conscious and for not being able to stop the attack led to feelings of isolation, which soon slipped back into depression. With dull eyes one night, I clicked on a video with an intriguing clickbait-y title:
“You And Everyone You Know Are Moisturizing WRONG”.
Soon after, I was down the anti-consumerist skincare rabbit hole with a blunt, no-nonsense Canadian ex-pat named Olena Beley.
“This might piss a lot of people off,” I recall Beley intoning with regret during one Instagram Live, “but get rid of all the trendy products you wasted your hard-earned money on. They don’t work. They will make your acne worse.”
I was definitely pissed off. But after all the time, money, and tears I’d lost in the fight for a healthy epidermis, I truly had nothing left to lose. I packed away every product from Dr. Jaart, Peter Thomas Roth, Cerave, Dr. Dennis Gross, and Olay. I got the blessing to ditch my third round of dermatologist-prescribed antibiotics (which had done nothing but give me severe nausea), and even tucked the tubes of doctor-prescribed benzyl peroxide-adapalene solution into a drawer. Clearly, all of the exfoliating, treating, poking, and applying of potent products had irritated my skin (and gut) until both metaphorically cried uncle. According to Beley, it was time to stop aggressing and start healing my acid mantle.
The acid mantle is a thin, acidic film which coats the entire surface of one’s skin. When healthy, it acts as a barrier against bacteria, viruses, and other potential contaminants. With an average pH between 4.5 and 6, it would seem that we human beings are wrapped in a layer of slightly acidic flesh which must maintain a healthy pH in order to function. As it turns out, soap is precisely what one shouldn’t use to keep their face clean, for soap’s alkalinity can easily damage the delicate pH of humankind’s acid-coated flesh-suits. What’s worse, most facial cleansers don’t have an acidic pH at all – unless, of course, they contain potentially irritating exfoliating agents such as salicylic acid. How on earth have skin care brands shifted modern beauty culture so far away from real solutions without anyone noticing? How can my romantic partner possess his breathtaking, youthful complexion when he merely cleanses with water, and when I bought him his first moisturizer only last week? The answer, I surmised, was that he (like so many other non-make up wearers and/or skin care apathetics), had never launched chemical warfare on his naturally robust acid mantle. Were irony made of sebum in that moment, no pore would have been spared it’s greasy shame.
If I were to embrace a label now, it would be closer to “skinamilist” than self-proclaimed “skin care junkie.” I own one soap-free, acidic cleanser from Bioderma. I don’t dry my face after washing, but instead apply a low-ingredient humectant (to reduce moisture loss by drawing in moisture from the environment) like hyaluronic acid, squalane, or glycerin. Yes, skin care manufacturers got that one right. Then comes a moisturizer free of potentially irritating plant ingredients and alcohols – right onto my still-damp skin. No facial “mists” – expensive bottles of water with unnecessary, impressive-sounding ingredients, because without a humectant and an emollient lotion on top, water applied to the skin and allowed to dry actually increases dryness from trans-epidermal water loss (or TEWL). Thanks to this pared-down, more scientific approach, my acne and dryness has healed so dramatically that I don’t feel so embarrassed about teaching hordes of clear-skinned high-school students anymore.
And travellers, rejoice! This means we can save space in our liquid carry-ons, for in-flight masks, mists, and tools are not only more likely to cause skin dehydration in that dry cabin air, but can potentially increase skin’s susceptibility to all the stranger-bacteria blasting through the vents.
So, should we have skin care routines at all? Generally, yes. A soap-free cleanser, a humectant, a lotion, and a sunscreen are all one really needs for ideal hydration and cleanliness. We don’t need 12- step Korean kits, or three $90 serums – in fact, our skin doesn’t want most of the ones available today. We can swap scrubs for gentle exfoliation with damp cloths and mild acids. We can still occasionally throw on a good face mask for fun when we want to feel pampered, or find a good vitamin C to help prevent skin aging. But mostly, we can take ten steps back from the glowing backlit shelves of Sephora’s skincare aisles, and instead treat our largest organ with baby-gentleness as it protects us from infection and environmental harm.
I think, perhaps, the most dramatic factor in restoring my skin’s health was the ability to relax, and to trust in my small-but-mighty skin care crew to give me all the help I need. Rather than frantically seeking a product to fix what the last one had done, or freaking out when new spots appeared for no apparent reason, I can remind myself that skin is resilient to our unwitting attacks. Sometimes, it take months or years to see the effects of the damage we’ve caused. In my case, I’d sensitized my skin so thoroughly by prancing through meadows of masks, oils, and DIY scrubs that my once-strong skin gave in only after years into adulthood.
Good luck on your skin care journey, Beauty Insiders! As trends shift from K-pop inspired “glass skin”, to matte, and back again, take heart: our faces know how to take care of themselves. Saving the stress (and cash) which modern skin care trends demand is as simple as this: get out of your own way.