I’m not sure how it happened, but I just realized that I started this blog over 5 years ago. Now that I am an old hand at this beauty blogging thing (hah!) and to celebrate the start of the new decade (whoa!), I thought I’d do something I never planned on doing: a definitive(ish) list of my rules for skincare. Obviously, I am but a well-read dilettante: I am not a dermatologist, aesthetician nor a scientist, so please take this list with a hefty grain of salt. Frankly, this should apply to most advice and opinions on the internet, which actually brings us to the first and possibly most important rule.
Thou Shall Not Worship False Idols.
If this rule sounds more like a Biblical commandment, it’s because it might well be the most important piece of advice I can impart to anyone seeking skincare guidance online. I think most of us are aware that the majority of advice and opinion on the Internet, well, sucks. Yet when it comes to something as personal and serious as skincare, far too many of us are happy to place our fate in the hands of self-appointed gurus with a YouTube account and a camera.
The trouble with that blind trust is that skincare does not lend itself to definitive or simple answers. This isn’t actually true of many other things for which people seek answers online. There might be hundreds of recipes for roast chicken, but the general principles for making it are pretty much the same. There aren’t too many ways to fix a car’s engine, snake a drain, cross stitch, build a table or even set a broken arm or fly a plane (though I very much hope no one is learning how to do those last two things from YouTube videos). On the other hand, there are nearly as many opinions about skincare as there are experts. Plenty of respectable dermatologists think the only viable treatment for acne is years-long courses of antibiotics. No one can agree on whether physical exfoliants help refresh and rejuvenate the skin or rip it to lifeless shreds. For many, acids are the key to glowing, smooth skin. For others, they are the express train to inflammation city.
Opinions and skin-specific concerns aside, even much of skincare science can be ambiguous and confusing. A lot of things considered “skincare science” are based on limited and even misconstrued studies and while some skincare facts are pretty incontrovertible, it’s very easy to spin shoddy science (or its shoddy interpretation) into marketing. The brilliant Stephen Ko does a terrific job of explaining complex skincare science and pointing out the misinterpretations and confusion behind some generally accepted conventional knowledge. Reading his blog and Instagram posts makes it glaringly clear how easy it is to get skin science wrong.
Anyway, you get it. The point is that there are plenty of brilliant, passionate, well-informed people giving skincare advice (there are also plenty of opportunistic, fear-mongering, ill-informed dumbasses, but presumably you’re not listening to those guys), but none of them have the right answer for everyone. Pay attention to people’s reputations and credentials, but, more importantly, pay attention to your own skin. If acids dry you out and irritate your skin, then maybe acids aren’t for you. Just because someone is a dermatologist, an industry watchdog, an aesthetician or a chemist doesn’t mean that they have all the right answers. Because no one does.
Clean Your Face. At Night, Anyway.
You’ve heard this one from me before. Many, many times. Yet I do think that this rule requires a slight clarification. I continue to subscribe to a fervent belief that anyone who cares about the state of their skin must cleanse it every night. Notice that I say “cleanse” rather than “wash”. I won’t insist that your cleansing ritual involve water, but whatever method you choose better remove makeup, SPF and the day’s detritus from your skin and leave it free of pore-clogging or irritating residue (i.e. I hope you aren’t exclusively, or even primarily, cleansing with micellar water or wipes). On the other hand, I am quite a bit more agnostic about morning cleansing. I think it’s a good idea to cleanse your skin in the am if your nighttime routine involves strong actives (e.g. retinols), heavy creams and balms or sleeping masks. On the other hand, if you went to sleep with just a light layer of oil or light cream and didn’t sweat through the night, you might not need much beyond a few splashes of water. In fact, if your skin is feeling compromised, skipping a morning cleanse could help bring it to equilibrium.
Layering Skincare Should Not Be Complicated.
I get so many questions about layering skincare and, honestly, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. The basic rule is to go from lightest/thinnest to heaviest/most occlusive. And SPF is always last. So, by way of example, my standard routine would go like this: cleanser, toner/mist/essence, water serum, oil, cream, balm, SPF. If you are using an acid toner, that would always be your first step post-cleanser, followed by a hydrating toner or essence. The one exception to this rule is when a brand tells you to follow a different order. Brands like In Fiore and True Botanicals recommend that you use their oils before other products, including serums. Do as they suggest, unless you don’t want to. Because in the end, order of application doesn’t matter that much. I mean, don’t slather your face with Vaseline and then apply an expensive serum on top, because it will never actually get to your skin, but as long as you use common sense, the order in which you apply products won’t make all that much of a difference.
Not All Advice Is Created Equal.
I always get a little freaked out when I get DMs and messages asking me for advice on things like treating acne. It’s flattering, but as you may know if you follow me, I’m not an acne expert as I am lucky to have never had acne, ergo I’m simply not the right person to ask for advice. But more importantly, I’m not sure that asking an influencer for help with a serious skin condition like acne is ever a good idea. Now, there are plenty of folks I follow and adore who share their acne journey and the things that worked for them (and those that didn’t). Those people also tend to take pains to make it clear that the things that worked for them might not work for everyone. A smart influencer can be a terrific resource, but if you have real concerns about your skin, be it acne, eczema, rosacea, etc., I really think your best bet is to consult a professional. If you don’t have access to a good, trusted dermatologist, a well-trained, thoughtful aesthetician can be a tremendous resource.
By the way, there are plenty of brilliant influencers who do happen to be dermatologists or aestheticians, but while they can be an invaluable resource, you can’t expect them to give advice without a proper consultation and an in-depth understanding of your skin’s needs and quirks. I hope you don’t think me crass for mentioning it, but It’s also more than a little unfair to ask those people to provide such services to their many followers for free and purely out of the kindness of their hearts.
There Are No Magic Products.
I must admit, I feel a tad hypocritical about this one, because I too have been guilty of calling products magical. When you move past hyperbole, however, there are, in fact, no topical products that can do the sort of things we would consider magical – i.e. reversing the signs of aging, preventing it altogether or turning poor or average skin into supple, poreless glass skin ideal. Even the two products I always name check as having the greatest impact on skin’s health, retinol and SPF, have their limits. Ultimately, and perhaps unfairly, genetics are the biggest secret to great skin. Then there is environmental and lifestyle factors and, of course, money. Because let’s face it: the overwhelming majority of smooth-skinned celebrities and influencers (and some green beauty founders) may have great skincare routines, but they also have armies of the best aestheticians, dermatologists and plastic surgeons at their disposal. Don’t get me wrong: I expect my products to make a visible difference to my skin and plenty of them do. I just understand and appreciate their limitations.
Your Skincare Is Not Going to Kill You. Seriously.
Don’t worry: I am not going to cancel green/clean beauty in 2020. There has been a lot of pushback against the clean beauty movement and I understand the impetus for it, yet I absolutely believe that (honest and objective) green beauty is very much necessary. First, I believe in the power of natural ingredients. Don’t get me wrong, I love high-tech synthetics and absolutely want them in my skincare, but I also believe that high quality natural actives can do amazing things for the skin. And then there is the issue of safety. I do think that this is more of an American problem: Europe and Asia have extremely stringent regulation of cosmetics and cosmetic ingredients, but that simply isn’t the case in the US. The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate cosmetics that aren’t classified as drugs (e.g. SPF and prescription tretinoin), but even when it does get involved, it seems more inclined to address the concerns of corporate lobbies than the safety of consumers. A Reuters report from earlier this month showed that the FDA was aware and warned of the risks of asbestos contamination in talc for decades, yet did nothing to address the concerns. It took a cancer diagnosis and a multi-million dollar lawsuit to bring the issue to light (forgive my lawyerly bias, but this is why I am a fan of the tort law system despite its obvious flaws).
All that being said, it’s also absolutely clear that the potential risks and dangers of conventional cosmetics are exaggerated, overblown and mischaracterized to quite a ridiculous degree. When I first read No More Dirty Looks, it warned about potential contaminants in shoddily manufactured products. Today, the messaging around clean beauty makes it sound as if using an Estee Lauder moisturizer is about as safe as chugging antifreeze. This isn’t surprising. Fear is a profoundly powerful marketing tool and it helped build a multi-billion dollar industry.
Personally, I have learned to not only read labels, but also understand the manufacturing standards and company ethics behind the brands I use. I do get, however, that most consumers don’t have the time or desire to engage in this level of scrutiny and want a simple guarantee that the products they use are safe and effective. This is why retailers talk about “clean standards” and “forbidden lists”: it helps them sell product, but it also takes the guesswork out of the purchasing decisions. This is all well and good, but the flip side of this coin is an atmosphere of fear, guilt and dread around using conventional beauty products. People confess to using conventional antiperspirant as if they were confessing to murder. They react to the suggestion of using a chemical sunscreen as if they are being asked to jump out of a plane without a parachute.
I understand the “better safe than sorry” approach to purchasing decisions. You may choose to avoid parabens, even if there actually isn’t any real evidence of their danger simply because you aren’t comfortable using products that contain them. Hell, I myself try to avoid parabens, even if lately I have been feeling a little silly doing so. But please don’t drive yourself crazy with worry if you happen to forget your physical sunscreen and need to grab some Hawaiian Tropic at the drugstore. I can’t think of a single skincare product or cosmetic ingredient that can cause direct and immediate harm to your health – that is, of course, unless you are actually allergic to a particular ingredient. I understand having concerns about bioaccumulation, but while such concerns might have some basis when it comes to, say, a lotion you slather all over your body on a daily basis, I really don’t see the point of worrying about the sparkly eyeshadow you wear on special occasions. Skincare and makeup should bring you joy – don’t let them become a source of stress. Besides, all that stress and worry about lurking toxins are much worse for your health than a gallon of drugstore body lotion.