Anyone who knows me well knows that I go through seasonal obsessions. I decide to learn everything I can about a particular topic, and then I move on to the next topic.
This past season, my obsession was skincare science. (Who can say where these things come from? The prior season, it was native plants.) I spent untold hours reading articles, peer-reviewed papers, blogs, reviews, and ingredient dictionaries. I still don’t really understand chemistry, but I now have a decent grasp of the science behind what you put on your face.
So, buckle up: Here are the seven most important things I’ve learned.
1. Sunscreen every damn day.
Even in the winter. Even if you don’t like it. You have to wear sunscreen. It doesn’t matter if you use antioxidants and moisturizers and the whole shebang: If you don’t wear sunscreen, everything else you’re putting on your face has been rendered worthless.
There are two types of sunscreen: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens physically block the sun and are usually composed of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Chemical sunscreens absorb the sun and are also known as organic sunscreen. Both work; it depends on what your skin prefers.
SPF matters. Your daily SPF should be at least 30 (broad spectrum, protecting you against both UVA and UVB rays). Anything much over 50 isn’t really giving you additional protection, so don’t go crazy and think that SPF 150 will protect you from the sun’s rays for all eternity. Chill.
Finding an excellent sunscreen is The Great Quest for all skincare adventurers. It is very difficult, and you will fail many times along the way. Thankfully, there are many others walking this perilous path who have written great reviews; this is a nice place to start, and here is a very helpful overview about how to wear sunscreen well and why it matters.
Favorite sunscreens I’ve tried
- Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Liquid Daily Sunscreen, SPF 70 (I know that the 70 is overkill, but the composition is excellent and it layers beautifully)
- Clinique Pep-Start Daily UV Protector Broad Spectrum SPF 50
- Olay Complete Daily Defense All Day Moisturizer with Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin, SPF 30 (Olay needs to COOL ITS JETS with the product naming; my fingers are so tired from typing that)
2. If you’re over 20 and you’re not using a retinoid, you might as well just end it all now.
Just kidding. I only found out about retinoids last year! But they are the powerhouse ingredient of skincare. There’s, like, nothing they can’t do: even your tone, texture; reduce acne and sun damage; lessen wrinkles and fine lines, etc. As Into the Gloss says:
“The results are almost too good: With regular use, retinoids promise to improve skin texture, wrinkles, sun damage, visibly enlarged pores, acne, and blackheads. Science can’t prove that retinoids will make you a more likeable person, but doesn’t hurt to try for that, too.”
Before you go crazy, here are some basic rules of thumb:
- Start using retinoids gradually. Start using it just once a week until you build up a tolerance. Retinoids are known to cause irritation. I destroyed my moisture barrier by going crazy with retinoids, so don’t be like me. Go slow.
- Use a retinoid or retinol product at night. There’s some evidence to indicate that retinoids are rendered useless when exposed to sunlight.
- You only need a small amount. Slapping on more product doesn’t make it work better.
- Don’t give up! Retinoids take weeks, like 8-12 weeks or even longer, to start making a difference. The biggest mistake people make with retinoid is quitting too soon. Don’t be like those people. Fight the good fight.
Um, what are you waiting for?
Favorite retinoid products
- The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion. There’s really nowhere else you should look, IMHO, for a retinoid. This is the most potent, gentle, AND affordable thing on the market. I feel like I should buy it in bulk. I’ve been using this one for about 5 months now, and it’s a dream. Never caused me any irritation and my fine lines and skin texture have improved dramatically after months of faithful use. I’m in love and I don’t care who knows it!
- Differin. I didn’t have a bad reaction to Differin; I just preferred the texture of The Ordinary’s product, so that’s what I’m using. Differin is also cheap and now available in drugstores without a prescription. It’s strong (you only need a pea-sized amount for your whole face), and it may cause you to purge (i.e., break out even more) at first.
3. Don’t trust product claims: Read and understand ingredients.
Everyone is trying to sell you something. If there is anything Americans need to learn, it is this.
Companies will say literally anything to get you to buy stuff; they will promise you the moon and invisible pores in just one week.
Trust no one. Instead, school yourself on some skincare science and cosmetic ingredients.
This is very exhausting if you are not a chemist, but again, the internet is Full of Wonders. I’ve learned so much about what to look for and what to avoid after just a few hours of education. Resources below.
Semi-related caveat emptor: Don’t get sucked into the popular myth that all “natural” beauty products are better for your face. There ARE a lot of natural ingredients that are awesome for your skin, but a lot of “natural” cosmetics companies have poor formulations that are not well tested, not backed by research, and/or do next-to-nothing for your skin. Some natural products are downright damaging on your sweet little face (e.g., lemon, vinegar, essential oils, coconut oil if you’re acne prone, etc.). Step away from the pantry. Trust science and solid formulations. (There are some “natural” brands I love, like Yes To and Derma E, and there are also many natural brands that are just overpriced garbage.)
Don’t forget the primary lesson: Trust no one. “Natural beauty” companies are not charities: They also just want to sell you something (and look righteous while doing it).
- Paula’s Choice: Ingredients dictionary: Don’t recognize an ingredient? Look it up here! This is a fantastic place to get thorough, scientific, and yet understandable explanations for which ingredients are great and which will murder your precious epidermis.
- Beautypedia: Take some reviews with a grain of salt, but in general, this is a pretty trusty place to get science-based reviews of beauty products. This site is the brainchild of Paula Begoun, she of Paula’s Choice fame, who is worshipped (and sometimes decried) by skincare enthusiasts the world over.
- CosDNA: Don’t get scared about the Chinese. This is a crowd-sourced database where people can analyze the ingredients of a million cosmetics products. The system then flags common irritants or inadvisable ingredients.
4. Respect the pH of your face.
If, like me, you have a problem with breakouts and texture, and swing between dry and oily skin, balancing the pH of your face is crucial.
Your skin’s natural pH is about 5.5. Many popular cleansers and products, however, have pH levels that fluctuate in wild directions on either end of the scale (lemon, for example, has a pH of 2; many foaming cleansers have a pH of 9).
The most important components of this lesson are to choose the right cleanser and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Use cleansers with solid ingredients that have a pH between 4 and 6; 5 is ideal. Many popular cleansers are really harsh, which I was surprised to discover. Oil-based cleansers can’t be pH tested, and I love them. They’re super gentle and not stripping, so I heartily recommend them as well. Here’s a place to start to determine the pH of your cleanser, using the crowd-sourced genius of the web.
Favorite cleansers (all with good ingredients and low pH)
- Cosrx Low pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser
- CeraVe Foaming Facial Cleanser
- Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cleanser
- Trader Joe’s Facial Cleansing Oil
Fun fact: Drinking water is great, but it really doesn’t do much to hydrate your face. (At least, there’s little evidence that it makes a difference.) Instead, commit to high-powered hydrators and moisturizers every day. A common misconception is that people with oily skin don’t need moisturizers. They do; I do. Balance your skin’s overproduction of oil by keeping it balanced and moisturized. Every day!
- Hada Labo Gokujyun Hydrating Lotion. Miraculous stuff! It’s like a hydrating toner that turns into a super-light moisturizer. Incredibly affordable and immediately effective; I put this on my face twice a day, every day, and it’s helped me tremendously with hydration. The bottle will also probably last me a year.
- Benton Snail Bee High Content Steam Cream. I’m in love with this weird-smelling stuff packed with snail slime. Powerful ingredients, and you only need a tiny amount to cover your whole face with goodness. It’s the last step of my nightly routine.
- Glossier Priming Moisturizer. I’m not enamored with this moisturizer, but it’s been working well for me for the past few months. I imagine I’ll need something heavier in the winter, because it’s very light, but it delivers what it promises.
5. Exfoliate with acids instead of with bits of rock.
Exfoliation is a critical part of having a smooth, even complexion, but I had no idea that you could exfoliate chemically. Physical exfoliation—harsh scrubs that everyone used as a teen and still can’t put down, rotating face brushes—can work too, but you’re at a much higher risk of damaging your skin. Korean women, the ruling goddesses of skincare, rarely, if ever, use physical exfoliants and they have perfect skin, so I’m listening to them. Instead, be like a Korean goddess and exfoliate chemically, with acids!
There are two kinds of acids that are great for your face: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). I have worked both into my routine, but I am trying to help myself reintroduce them gradually, because they’re potent and I freaked my skin out a bit at first.
- Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid. When you start reading skincare blogs, this is THE most-mentioned holy grail product in the acids space. Everyone raves about it. My advice: Go slow! Don’t be like me. Start once a week and then increase use based on how your skin tolerates it.
- Derma E Overnight Peel (AHA). Solid ingredients and easy to use.
6. Up your antioxidant and vitamin game.
Your face needs vitamins too! Antioxidant-rich serums and moisturizers are an important step toward healthy, glowing skin. Vitamins and antioxidants can be a little tricky, because there are so many of them, and sometimes they don’t play well with others (especially the acids), but they have tons of benefits. I’ve worked a few favorites into my normal routine.
Favorite antioxidant serums
- Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum. I’ve done more reading about vitamin C than any other skincare product because vitamin C is (a) really great for your face, but (b) really difficult to get right in the formulation. The big problem is that it’s very unstable (i.e., it oxidizes, or goes bad, rapidly), and it often does not mix well with other products. That’s why people like this Mad Hippie serum, because it’s a more stable form of the vitamin, mixed with the super-beneficial ferulic and hyaluronic acids. Here’s an incredibly persuasive review of the stuff.
- Glossier Super Pure serum (niacinamide, or vitamin B3, and zinc). Helps with blemishes and congestion! Have been using this for a few months in my morning routine, and I think it’s helped keep breakouts at bay. Next, I’m going to try The Ordinary’s Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% because it’s a lot cheaper.
7. Listen to your skin.
Glowing reviews are seductive. We’ve all been there: rushing out to buy something a friend told you was amazing, only to be sorely disappointed when it doesn’t work for you (or causes a pizza-level breakout).
The primary thing I’ve learned in my skincare voyage is what works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. You may hate a lot of stuff that I love, and that’s OK. Every face is different!
Learn to love and respect the skin you have. Heed the messages it sends you.
And this, my friends, ends the skincare saga. For now.
Disclaimer: I was not paid or asked to say any of these nice things about these products. This is all from the goodness of my skincare-obsessed heart and depressed wallet.