The week I turned 30, I took a look in the mirror and felt a longing to preserve what appeared before me. The bright eyes, the freckles, the marshmallowy softness.
I’m not saying I have perfect skin. I’ve long struggled with breakouts and large pores, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed dry patches mere inches away from those same big oil deposits.
But last year, after nearly two decades of a fickle and somewhat financially impulsive approach to skincare, I decided to make a small commitment: Develop a solid skincare routine. Use the same products every day and night. Wash my face thoroughly. Enjoy the “me-time.” Basically, grow the hell up and treat my skin better. And I wanted to create my skincare routine based on research, not just vapid claims from the beauty industry to “completely transform” my skin.
As I pressed on with my new routine, I kept notes about how my skin responded, because skincare is rooted in science, not aesthetics. And I realized that even as my skin started to clear up, soften, and just plain feel better, there was a lot that I would never be able to control. I realized that I — a fairly savvy consumer — had been fed a lot of skincare lies.
1. Don’t dump money on products that claim to transform your skin.
The most important lesson from my newfound skincare obsession was that there’s a huge difference between my complexion and the appearance of my skin. For example, my forehead doesn’t always have to look shiny, but I will always have oily skin. No cleanser can change that over time – it’s like thinking a vacuum cleaner can change the shape of your house. Also, you cannot shrink your pores. That “poreless” look on celebrities and Instagram models? Genetics and Facetune. Take comfort in the words of Dr. Bobby Buka on the plus side of pores: “Large pores (and the oil that comes with them) can counteract the physical toll of aging and wrinkling.”
All of this is to say, when you’re choosing products like cleansers and moisturizers, don’t choose based on the skin you’re hoping to have. Sounds basic, right? But for me, that meant choosing a cleanser that stayed away from claims like “increases radiance” or “improves skin’s natural defenses.”
2. Basic skincare doesn’t have to be expensive.
When I let go of these unsubstantiated expectations, it was surprisingly easy to find something that balanced my most basic needs, which is to remove dirt and excess oil without irritating dry patches.
I actually found it in a cleanser that cost $6.99 – one targeted at teenagers. I picked a nightly skin oil based on how I want my skin to feel after I’ve washed it, not how I want it to look a month from now. Same with my daily sunscreen. Get the idea? No matter how much it costs, a product will probably not magically change the makeup of your skin, so focus on the job you need it to do at the moment.
3. No, “every woman” does not need a toner and eye cream.
My everyday skincare products: sunscreen in the morning, cleanser at night (makeup wipes only when I’ve worn a very large amount), a 10-minute agave mask (literally just a teaspoon of agave on my face), and face oil. If I have significant breakouts, I will also use a spot treatment. But I also want to talk about what I don’t use.
I don’t use toner, although I was a huge fan of aggressive, drying toners in high school. Today, toners have become more diverse in their functions. Many are sold in spray bottle packaging, targeted as “refreshers.” But numerous dermatologists, including Toronto’s Dr. Renee A. Beach, say toner is unnecessary. Whether you call it a toner or a “refresher,” its primary purpose is still to remove excess dirt. If you’re using toner, you probably need a better cleanser, says Beach. If you like the “clean” and crisp feeling of a refresher mid-day, a spritz of cucumber water is way cheaper.
I also stopped using eye cream after a few weeks, which was hard. I am self-conscious about how dark my under-eyes are sometimes, but even “non-irritating” ones caused bad reactions without much noticeable difference. I think I was onto something: Dr. Fayne L. Frey, and many other professionals, have stated that not a single under-eye cream can reverse the effects of aging. While some can indeed improve appearances in the short-term, it’s much cheaper to use a home remedy, like a green tea bag or a cold spoon. The main takeaway here? You don’t need every skincare product under the sun. Start with a good moisturizer, cleanser, spot treatment, and sunscreen.
4. Water is not a cure-all for your skincare woes.
One “budget-friendly” tip you’ve probably heard is to drink more water. It’s the top “product” celebrities with perfect skin credit for their ageless appearances (spoiler: the real answer is “money”). Beyond skincare, water is the catch-all recommendation for oral health, energy, digestion, and weight-loss.
But hold up before you go out and buy a Mammoth Mug or a CamelBak: While hydration is important, the skin benefits are greatly exaggerated. According to the University of Virginia’s Dr. Mitchell Rosner, just as your body knows how to detox itself, it also knows how much water it needs. You can’t magically change your body chemistry by drinking tons of water; excess is simply peed out. No amount can change your skin’s complexion, either. New York-based derm Dr. Joshua Zeichner adds that there is no evidence that drinking fewer than eight glasses of water per day is harmful to your skin. As long as you’re not dehydrated, your skin is fine. And if you are dehydrated, you have bigger things to worry about.
And about that “eight glasses” figure: Amount recommendations are usually based on studies of athletes, not people sitting at desks and in classes all day. The idea that every person, regardless of size, age and health, requires eight glasses a day is as silly as believing that we all need to eat the exact same amount of food.
I already drink a ton of water because I’m an extremely physically active person. When I first started drinking a lot of water, my skin did clear up, and I thought it meant I was magically flushing all the dirt out of my skin. Chalk it up to confirmation bias: The next time I got my period, it was Breakout City once again.
5. You can’t get perfect skin by putting yourself in a bubble.
There’s a lot of tested and true skincare advice that is actually backed by dermatologists – and a lot of it conflicts with the condition known as “being a human.”
For example, touching your face can trigger breakouts. It will not, however, cause breakouts on its own. Your phone and your pillowcase are also big culprits in carrying germs that can trigger zits. And yes, even as my skin improved, the biggest concentrations of breakouts were along my jawline, where I sometimes touch, and my left cheek (I’m a reporter, so I talk on the phone for a living).
“Don’t touch your face,” “don’t wear foundation,” “don’t drink alcohol” – perfectly valid advice, but it’s also alarmist and impractical. Yes, these things can stress your skin out. But it’s also true that if these things stress your skin out, your skin was far from perfect to begin with.
This is where my love of spot treatment pays off; if you have oily or pimple-prone skin, it will be prone to such whether or not you touch your face. For me, Mario Badescu’s buffering lotion is an incredibly effective solution for a reactive approach. It’s one of the pricier items on my list, but this little bottle goes a long way and is effective, yet gentle.
After six months, I’ve found myself somewhere in between “skincare is one big lie” and “skincare is the most important routine you will ever have.”
There’s no universal product advice I could ever share, but the best routine advice I can share is:
- Simplify. Don’t buy products that are backups for other products.
- Stop overanalyzing every little imperfection.
- Don’t go to bed with a dirty face.
- Don’t fall for the “anti-aging” price tag.
There is enough proof out there from the pros that has convinced me that yes, we are oversold on too many products. But that doesn’t mean the cure is skincare nihilism. It’s important to clean up after yourself and treat your face nicely, and certain routines – like removing your makeup and adding oil – will help the appearance of your skin immensely.
Bree Rody is a full-time business journalist and part-time dance teacher based in Toronto. She covered Toronto City Hall during the Rob Ford era before transitioning to business journalism. Her areas of specialty include the influencer market, advertising, media buying, and technology. Follow her on Twitter.
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