Despite the fact that I am not a dermatologist and I do not, contrary to what some people think, have "perfect skin," I get asked a lot of questions about how I keep my face relatively clear. "What's the single most important product in your routine?" asked one person. "What can I use to get perfect skin like yours?" asked another. Weirdly enough, these are always the sort of questions I get: they're not about techniques or lifestyle habits, but rather, products. The belief that a tub of magical face cream or tube of expensive ointment can give you baby skin is still going strong. I blame hyperbolic marketing, "influencers" pimping products while neglecting to mention that they also receive regular facials, and--as mean as it sounds--general laziness.
I get it: skincare can be complicated. It would be so damn nice if there was just one product that could make everybody look like an airbrushed angel. Having dealt with random breakouts throughout my life and chronic hives for the last few years, I understand the temptation to pin all of your hopes on a wonder cream made from mermaid tears and unicorn piss. But the truth, at least for me, is that it you have to look beyond products and establish some good skincare habits to avoid intense reactions to new products.
Bear in mind that I am absolutely not an expert on skincare. I'm making this post because I've gotten so many questions about this topic over the past few years. I do not think these suggestions are revolutionary, and I do not have all of the answers. These are just responses I find myself giving constantly, so I figured I should write them down. With that said, my first suggestion is
1. The internet cannot replace experts.
If you're having a serious skin issue, please see a doctor or a dermatologist. I know it's expensive and can be very tedious, especially if you're dealing with an expert who won't listen to you. One of the reasons why I waited so long to see a doctor about my chronic hives was because I'd asked a dermatologist about the issue when it began, and I'd been brushed off. "Just take Benadryl," he said. "But what's causing it?" I asked. He just shrugged. "Take Benadryl. It'll go away."
Spoiler alert: it didn't go away. Two years later, I visited a different doctor, armed with a diary I'd kept chronicling my symptoms and an array of photos. She took me seriously, in part because she's not a douchebag, in part because I brought notes. We're still trying to figure out the root cause and to find the best course of treatment, but still: she gave me advice nobody on the internet could have.
2. That said, educate yourself.
A very dear friend of mine has gotten in to skincare this past year. Last weekend, he claimed that his skin was "freaking out" and he was going through a "major breakout." We were in a dark car, slash, he has Teflon skin and he panics when he gets so much as a clogged pore, so I didn't take him too seriously. But later, as we stood inside Sheetz at 3am waiting for our milkshakes and pizza, I noticed what he was talking about: there was a collection of tiny red bumps running down one side of his face.
"What have you been using?" I asked him. And he proceeded to read off a laundry list of products he'd been slapping on his face, masks and serums and lotions and potions loaded with physical and chemical exfoliants, potentially irritating essential oils, fragrance, and lord knows what else. "I'm going to try and clear it up with (insert the names of two or three masks)," he concluded. I told him that was probably a bad idea, because this looked like skin irritation, and he didn't he realize just how much he was exfoliating his face with this chemical and that one? Shouldn't he maybe try skipping the intense active ingredients for a night or two?
He just blinked at me.
As much as I love him, he is like many people who are new to skincare and have had generally good skin their entire life: he reads the little blurbs on the backs of the products describing what miracles it will bring, doesn't stop to think about the ingredients, and just slaps it on his face. This is something people really need to stop doing. Nobody is saying you've got to become an antioxidant encyclopedia, but before you put something on your face, please look up the ingredients. Figure out what they are, what they're supposed to do, and how they can interact with other ingredients or with your skin type.
3. So make Cosdna your best friend.
Cosdna is a skincare database that allows you to look up products or analyze ingredients lists to spot potential acne triggers or irritants. I often throw ingredients lists in to Cosdna because it puts everything in an easy-to-read list, provides clickable links for recognized ingredients so you can learn more, and helps me figure out what might be triggering any problems I'm facing.
Obviously, this is not a silver bullet that will instantly solve your skin problems. You have to put a bit of thought in to it. For instance: Cosdna lists "ethylhexyl palmitate" as a level 4 acne trigger, but my skin loves that ingredient; I know this because it's in so many of my staples. By contrast, capyrlic triglyceride doesn't have any numbers next to it, but I'm 95% sure that ingredient breaks me out because it's in so many products that have caused me issues. Still, it can help you figure out what ingredients might be causing you a problem, especially if you're new to skincare. And it's great for cross-referencing ingredients lists. Any time a new product breaks you out, compare the ingredients to your staples and other products that broke you out. Cosdna will make it easy to spot the potential cloggers that are blatantly absent from your staples.
Just a warning: Cosdna entries are supplied by its users, and sometimes, they mess up. When in doubt, click the "analyze cosmetics" link and copy and paste the ingredients list from the merchant's website.
Once you've picked out a few ingredients that pop up frequently in products that break you out, but are absent from your staples, you can very easily
4. Keep track of your likely triggers.
Despite some of the snarking on forums and blogs, no, I do not avoid lavender oil in skincare because Paula told me so. I avoid it because, when I used a product containing lavender oil, I noticed a lot of itching while I wore it and obvious redness after I removed it. Hence, I no longer use products that contain lavender oil. Similarly, I avoid large amounts of drying alcohol (usually listed as "alcohol denat") and am cautious about anything containing squalane (since squalane comes from a variety of sources and sometimes breaks me out). Once you're 95% sure that an ingredient causes you a problem, you can cross a lot of products off of your to-try list.
I know that it kind of sucks when a product is getting mad hype and you notice it contains one of your problem ingredients. I understand the desire to say, "Fuck it, so-and-so loves it and their skin is gorgeous, so I'm trying it anyway." But if you know that an ingredient doesn't like your face, you have to skip that product. It's not worth the pain or the pimples.
5. Be patient.
Remember that friend I mentioned earlier? He'll gladly try five or six new products a week, applying them directly to his skin with no worries. And for the most part, this is fine for him: he rarely breaks out, his skin isn't sensitive, and the fact that he isn't extremely dry or super oily means that most products have a low performance threshold for him. Basically, they have to feel nice and make his skin soft and glowy. Bully for him and those with similar skin, and I mean that sincerely.
But if you're like me and you deal with any sort of skincare issue (acne, sensitivity, rosacea, etc.), you really have to be more cautious. For me, this means the aforementioned ingredient scouring as well as patch testing. "Patch testing" is just what it sounds like: you apply a dab of the product to a small area and observe how your skin reacts. My area of choice is back by my ear, since that skin is easy to cover up if I have a reaction. If you're extremely sensitive-skinned, you may want to start on the skin on the inside of your elbow.
And patch test for a while! It can take your skin a while to respond. I personally patch test for about a week--and even then, this method isn't perfect. I've absolutely used a few products that were fine when I patch tested them, but that caused a strong reaction or a major breakout after several weeks of applying them all over my face. But patch testing has definitely prevented me from using a slew of stuff that could've caused real problems.
6. Consider other factors that might be impacting your skin.
Any time I have a reaction or a breakout, there's somebody who says, "Well, it must be because you wear makeup." I respect that opinion: makeup can cause breakouts, especially if it's loaded with ingredients your skin hates or you aren't removing it properly. But when skipping makeup for a month and using the blandest skincare routine possible didn't alleviate my hives in the slightest, I started getting irritated by the people who insisted I'd be hunky-dory if I just put down my lipstick.
Sure enough, when I showed my doctor photos of my hives, and described how frequently and randomly they occurred, she agreed that it was likely something internal causing the problem. Your skin is an organ, and it will absolutely react to what's going on inside your body and in the world around you. Is your skin looking flakier than usual and seemingly sucking the moisture from your foundation? You might be experiencing low humidity. Are you breaking out on your chin and jaw, despite the fact that you're on birth control and your hormones are totally in check? It's possible you're intolerant to dairy, which causes those sorts of breakouts for some people. Is your skin usually totally clear, but you're suddenly noticing a patch of pimples in a weird spot? Stress can trigger acne. Is your skin unusually itchy? You might just be allergic to that new laundry detergent.
In my case, the hives seem to be caused by either an allergy that's worsened over the years and/or an extreme vitamin deficiency. No topical product would have changed that.
7. Learn to respect the boring shit.
Without a doubt, my number one skincare tip is "wear sunscreen when you're outside or near windows for a long period of time." This is almost always met with a sigh. "Yeah, yeah," people say to me, "I get it, but what else can I use to keep me looking twenty-four forever? What's the miracle product?"
I mean...nothing, really, but your best bet to prevent the signs of premature aging (including wrinkles and hyper-pigmentation) and, more importantly, skin cancer is sunscreen. I know it's boring. I know you don't see immediate results that magically erase every line on your face. I know it's tedious. But in many cases, it's the boring stuff that works the best in the long run. Preventing the damage in the first place is more effective than trying to fix a problem later on.
I think this is especially important for those who refuse to spend even five minutes on a skincare routine. I've had several friends and family members ask me, "How do I keep my face from feeling so dry?", and when I tell them to get in to the habit of using a moisturizer after their shower, they pull a face. They don't want to do it every night. They want a quick fix that they can do, say, once a month when it gets to be a real problem. But if you want your skin to be healthy and happy, it deserves consistent care, even if it's just taking two minutes every day to apply sunscreen in the morning and moisturizer at night. Think of it like food: it'd be nice if eating healthy once a month would keep us thin, but the reality is that we need to eat well consistently to reap the benefits.
(PS: Before you think I'm harping, I am not one of those people who thinks you should wear SPF50 every day and reapply it at 15 minute intervals even if you sit in a dark room most of the time. It takes me 30 minutes to get to work at the crack of dawn, and then I'm stuck in rooms with no windows until 3pm, so I don't wear sunscreen to work. But if drive an hour a day and the light hits you through your car window, yeah, sunscreen on your face, neck, and hands will be helpful. The sun isn't relegated to summer days at the beach.)
8. Be realistic.
I love Instagram and beauty blogging, but sweet fuck, the filtered world we live in makes me want to drive around with a megaphone, shouting "EVERYBODY'S SKIN HAS TEXTURE." That's why I love websites like Celebrity Close-Up--not because I delight in mocking celebrities, but because I'm so thrilled to have concrete proof that the rich and famous are human, too. Yes, they get pimples! Yes, they have pores! Yes, their makeup can look dry when you get within two inches of their faces!
There's no denying that some people have "better" skin than others; you may have more wrinkles than your best friend and they may have more post-inflammatory pigmentation. A person who deals with painful cystic acne obviously carries a different emotional burden from somebody with a few clogged pores. But my point is that nobody is a living Barbie. We all have pores. We all have wrinkles. We all have bumps. All too often I see people fussing because an exfoliant didn't remove every single bump from their face, or because they have even the tiniest bit of redness on their cheeks even after dedicating themselves to a vigorous skincare regimen. Accepting your normalcy is key.
I say this as somebody who used to panic over a single pimple and still struggles to accept the fact that she doesn't look as perfect as airbrushed Instagram photos suggest I should be. And I know why this bothers you, too: we live in an HD world that demands perfection while highlighting every pore and nose hair. But the sooner we come to accept that we will never look like plastic, the better.