I did a skincare misstep — one of those “I should know better” ones — and my forehead is painfully making me pay.
So I thought it was time to tell you what are some beloved skincare lessons I’ve learned over the years. — some of which I can’t seem to respect…
This is my personal collection of experiences and I’m not a dermatologist, chemist or facialist. I read and watch several of those experts and even they don’t agree on everything. I try to find a middle ground through all the information — not one that I want to be the truth, but the one that makes more sense according to what I’ve been through.
1. It all comes down to genetics
It’s just skin lottery. Some people go through their whole life with fantastic skin without doing anything to it — or worse, committing all the skincare “sins”: endorsing that apricot scrub and baby butt wipes and coffee grounds scrubs and lemon juice masks, and overpriced moisturisers with nothing but perfume in there…
The only thing that will come back to bite those people in the arse is probably sun damage.
– This basically means life is not fair and there are no absolute answers, just some guidelines which, for me, should be lead by science-based information.
– The only absolute truth may be: what works for some doesn’t work for others.
2. Formulas can make or break a product
It’s not all on that one ingredient. It’s the combination within the product.
It’s a bit like having flour, eggs, milk, butter and sugar.
You can make pancakes, you can make cake, you can make cookies, you can just make a mess.
So some products have similar ingredients but can have been poorly formulated, or geniously combined. You won’t know the whole recipe.
Reading labels and ingredients lists will only get you so far. It will get you closer than not knowing anything about ingredients, of course, but formula is queen.
(If you whip the egg whites you will get fluffier pancakes)
3. You can be sensitive to anything in a product
Not necessarily the star or active ingredient.
There are so many moving parts that can make or break a product for you: an ingredient (active or not), the concentration of that ingredient, the formulation, the amount you put, how sensitised is your skin from other products you may be using…
I spent a good while thinking my skin didn’t like niacinamide because of a serum I’d used. Later I tried a cream with a lesser concentration of niacinamide and I was fine. It must be the percentage, right? It could be — some concentrations are just too much for certain skins. But in my case, no: I tried another niacinamide serum with a similar concentration to the first one and I was fine and loving it. It had to do with the formula, the other ingredients in the mix. It was a greatly loved product, but it just wasn’t for me.
A good friend of mine breaks out from Shea Butter. Shea butter is an excellent occlusive, thoroughly researched and tested and altogether considered a great ingredient with no negative consequences for the skin. But my friend breaks out from it.
Does this make shea butter the devil? For my friend, yes. For most people, no.
4. Having a basic routine is key
Cleanse, hydrate, moisturise and, in the morning, SPF.
These are the basic steps for anyone, this is where you build from, and this is where you fall-back to, if need be.
If anything goes south with a new product on your line-up, this is where you go back to, stripping your routine to the core. It’s your base line.
So make sure you have tried and true and storm-proof products for you – knowing that sometimes skin changes and some things just stop working, of course.
Then, you can add the acids and treatment steps, which can be tailored to your needs and concerns… And these are also the steps where most people go overboard — More on that later.
The more comprehensive routine can go up to (and beyond) the Japanese and South Korean 10 step routine, and it has multiple combinations, but it’s something like this:
Cleanse (or double cleanse in the PM), Exfoliate (with an acid), several layers of Essence and Hydration, Treatment (serums with actives), Occlusive (moisturiser/oil), SPF in the morning.
5. Sometimes a flannel, sometimes my hands
I love to remove my cleanser with a very soft and warm washcloth, and it’s my go-to method.
But if my skin is more sensitive, I know the washcloth can be a bit too much.
I have options: I can remove the first cleanse with a washcloth and then do the second cleanse just by emulsifying and rinsing off by hand. And sometimes I use my hands in both cleanses.
Having nice cleansers does help, because then I don’t need one for each purpose. A good balm or oil that emulsifies has got most of my bases covered. And a non-drying foaming cleanser for oilier days.
6. Texture is a clue, but not a rule
Overall, you should go from thinnest to thickest consistency, water based first, oil based second. And most products are formulated to indicate what part of the routine they should be inserted in.
But it also depends on the product. For instance, some acids come in a cream form, and are made to be used as the last step of the routine, instead of being used before anything else.
7. You only have one face
There are many products that could address your skin concerns, many different approaches… many perfect-skin-influencer endorsed products…
It’s tempting to fill your cart, especially with brands like The Ordinary and The Inkey List and their single or minimal ingredient products.
. We either have more than one skin concern and end up buying all the products that supposedly target each one of those problems;
. OR we want to target one concern, but there are multiple ingredients that serve that purpose, so… we have to catch them all.
Take a step back. You only have one face. Try one product at a time. This will allow you to give it time to work — and see if it works for you — and not waste product.
So, before you “add to cart”, make sure you know where each product you’re planning on buying will fit in your routine — the new experiments, and the replacements.
8. Layering and mixing
Of course you can layer more than one product. Most products work fine regardless of brand. Just check out the consistency for a more effective layering: thinnest to thickest, water-based first, oil-based second.
– Getting one product, like a serum, that does multiple things is a safer option because the ingredients have been adjusted to work together. And it’s quicker for your routine.
But there are many one-ingredient products that layer just fine.
You should look up if a specific combination has your desired effect, since some ingredients boost each other (which may be what you want or too much), but they can also act as a buffer and dilute the effect (which, again, can be what you want or a wah-wah). But this also depends on formulation. Most do their jobs without interfering with the others, though.
I wouldn’t layer more than 2 treatment actives, especially in the morning and especially if they’re from brands like The Ordinary and The Inkey List, because they can pill.
Also, some actives can create light sensitivity, other combinations can be too sensitising for the skin to deal with so I don’t feel comfortable doing a lot of layering of harsher actives.
Mixing is perfectly fine – if you’re aware you’ll be using less of each product and that’s your goal.
I like to mix oil in my moisturiser to make it richer, or a hydrating toner with my moisturiser to make it thinner and more lightweight. Is it useful or wasteful? You decide.
9. One new product at a time
This is especially hard for skincare hoarders like myself.
If you introduce more than one product at once and then something goes wrong, you won’t be able to pinpoint which one is the culprit, or if it’s a combination of both.
And, spoiler alert, you won’t be able to pinpoint which product is doing wonders for your skin, either.
10. Start slow
We know ingredient concentration can play a huge part. Not all acids and retinoids are made equal. Some are so mild you feel like there’s nothing happening.
Not all brands are clear about the concentration of actives on their formulas, either (and as I said different people react differently), but they usually give you a guideline on how often you should use the product.
This doesn’t mean you should go all out right from the get-go. Especially with strong actives like retinoids, exfoliating acids, and vitamin C and its derivatives, and also with brands you’ve never tried.
Introduce the product slowly, even if it’s meant for daily use. Start once a week, and see how it goes. If it’s fine after a couple of weeks, make it twice a week and so on. Slowly increase the frequency over the next weeks, always giving your skin time to signal if it’s too much.
Some people can’t handle daily application of one specific acid, but that doesn’t mean they can’t take advantage of continued use through a more scarce application. Or maybe choose the same active but in a lower concentration. Slow and steady can win the race, and get you the same results.
— More doesn’t always mean better. More sometimes means now you’ll have an itchy burning forehead for a few days and not use actives for a good while because you thought your skin could handle it… Hubris is not the answer.
11. Manage your expectations
It takes a while for a treatment to start showing some results. Up to 3 to 6 months for things like hiper-pigmentation, anti-ageing and acne.
Cleansers and Hydrators and moisturisers show some immediate results, of course, because they have a simple more superficial function.
But visible long-lasting effects take more time. Don’t give up on a product just because it’s been a week and it didn’t do anything for you.
Also, assess if you will need help from a professional. Some things need more than what we can do at home. I’m talking from severe acne to fillers and aggressive peels and other clinical treatments. No cream will remove your wrinkles.
12. Don’t damage your skin barrier
With an acid, a temporary tingle is ok, a burn is not.
With any other product, even the tingle can be concerning.
If it’s burning and you’re not doing a chemical peel in a doctor’s office, it’s not “working” and you don’t have to “push through it”.
Wash it right off and find a new home for the product. You can give it a second chance within a few weeks when your skin barrier is restored and balanced again, but know it may just not be for you.
— Let the brand know of your reaction, so that they have data to inform their chemists. It may be just you, but it may be a pattern and something slipped.
When I’m left with a weird reaction like a rash, I wash with lukewarm to cold water, I cleanse with just my fingers to avoid further abrasion, I use a repairing fragrance-free kind of balm, take an anti-histamine, and keep my skin protected from the sun.
The same goes for those harsh side effects like dry flakey skin when you’re using Vitamin A products (retionids).
These are not “the sign that the product is working”. They can happen as a part of the retinisation process, but they don’t happen to everyone, and you can (and should) try to avoid those harsher consequences without losing efficacy of the product. Your skin will be too sensitised to continue the treatment anyway.
It’s never ok to compromise your skin barrier, because that’s causing actual damage. And you’ll just have to go back to the basics and wait for it to restore again, so it renders all your work useless. The most important thing is that your skin is handling the treatments.
You can either buffer the product, use it less frequently or switch to something a bit milder, that your skin can actually handle.
As usual, my advice is to work your way up, instead of jumping on the tretinoin bandwagon just because everyone is doing it…
13. Adapt the use to your goals
Stronger effects are usually achieved by applying the active directly on cleansed dry skin, or after the acid.
Milder and less harsh effects can be achieved by applying a buffering layer before the active.
Now you need to decide: where do you need each, if you do need both.
Personally I like to use hydrators and mild actives like niacinamide or a low concentration vitamin C right after cleansing, but I buffer my tretinoin with moisturiser.
14. Layering methods
If the brand says not to mix some of their products, don’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t mix those ingredients from other brands. It’s just a rule of thumb for that specific formula.
Make sure your skin is perfectly at ease with one active before adding another one.
For instance, if you’re using retinoids, be sure you have reached the desired frequency and your skin is stable with it for a few weeks before you add an acid, heavy vitamin C, or whatever.
And make sure you really need to layer all those actives, also.
— There is some information regarding some ingredients needing different pH levels to work, or needing either water or oil based formulas to work best, so some would technically not work well together. On the other hand, brands keep developing combinations of ingredients that in theory “shouldn’t” work together but have been stabilised.
Because we’re not chemists and there’s no easy way to access this kind of information, the easiest way to make two seemingly incompatible products to work in the same routine is to give time between steps so that the product has time to be absorbed and not be layered directly on top of another one that could render the first one less efficacious.
— Also, know that after using an acid, your skin’s pH is lower, and after hydrating toners it usually goes back to normal. This is useful to apply products that need different pH to work.
15. Alternatives to layering
Because not everyone will want to or can layer several actives in the same routine.
You can always alternate actives morning and night, but also have alternate nights with different actives.
Like: Monday Wednesday Friday Niacinamide, Tuesday Thursday Saturday Retinoids, Saturday just hydration.
But introduce one at a time, don’t forget…
16. Adapt to your skin’s needs
Sometimes there are changes due to the weather, stress levels, hormones, something you ate… Your skin needs consistency, but you also need to understand what it’s needing right now.
The most basic is the change in seasons: you’ll probably want to adapt for a more lightweight routine on a hotter or sweatier/oilier climate, and a richer one for the cold and dry times.
This can also translate for more anti-oxidant protection when it’s sunny, and more retinoids in the winter (when it’s dark and bleak, and you won’t have as much sun exposure).
But also don’t be afraid to adapt to other changes in your life. Immediate or long-term. Your concerns when you’re 20 are different from the ones when you’re 40.
17. No fragrance in my actives
Wether we like it or not, fragrance — “natural” or synthetic — brings no contribution to our skincare’s efficiency. It’s there to give you a sensorial experience that people associate with luxury. They smell good.
And it’s proven that, in different degrees, it may cause immediate or long-term sensitisation of the skin. A bit like with sun damage, you may not notice any immediate negative effects, but they’re happening and slowly degrading your skin’s defences and you can become reactive.
Actives like acids, vitamin C, retinoids, and even azelaic acid or niacinamide, are meant to penetrate deeply into the skin and cause a reaction, which can sensitise the skin (even if only at a microscopic level).
I personally don’t like the idea of a proven skin sensitiser that has no use in the formula except to smell good being pushed further down into my skin alongside with those actives, potentially aggravating my skin.
I do get my revenge adding some great-smelling cleansers when my skin is fine — which are not meant to sit on the skin —, and maybe moisturisers or SPF, which go on top of the other layers and are not meant to penetrate the skin as deeply.
I may open some exceptions, but I’ve come to realise that my skin is far calmer when I don’t use fragranced skincare. Some people say it’s joyless. I say having healthy skin gives me more joy.
And I still slather myself in Lush stuff from the chest down.
18. Price doesn’t always define quality
Some very basic ingredients are the foundation of many formulas. Glycerin and water are basic, but essencial. Mineral oil is not a sophisticated ingredient but it’s a perfectly decent occlusive if you’re not acne-prone.
I do discard, however, the overpriced product that has nothing but those basic ingredients, plus some weird ingredients with no research to back their efficacy, and a fancy logo.
Pretty packaging does not a skin care make.
19. SPF is non-negotiable
There’s no exceptions, there’s no “especially if”. SPF 50+, with broad spectrum protection, at all times.
With moderate to intense sun exposure, I do reapply every two hours at least.
If I’m staying inside but have big windows, I consider it intense sun exposure.
I do use factor 30 if I’m just staying indoors and/or it’s dark and overcast outside, but that’s it.
SPF all around. The recommended amount. Reapplication is key, at least before going out again.
Not all sun damage is immediate. Some of it can be deadly. And your skin’s ability to produce collagen and elastin will be debilitated.
Hyperpigmentation is so hard to remove, I prefer not to have it in the first place.
It doesn’t show when you’re young. But it will catch on to you eventually, miss Prune.
If you want a tan, get a self-tanner, get hang of a bronzer.
And do double cleanse at the end of the day because SPF is formulated to stick to your skin, so it will be harder to come off with just one cleanse.
— If you’re relying on your foundation for sun protection…
. most foundations have SPF 25 or under, which is insufficient;
. the recommended amount of 1,4 grams of product means your 30 ml foundation should last you way under a month with just one application per day;
. Nikkie Tutorials would be a Glossier girl compared to the level of coverage you will have to be sporting to get the actual protection;
. you still need to reapply… exactly.
… If only there were products formulated to go on under your makeup that did the sun protection without all the faff and expense, that you could then top up with a spray formula and powders…
20. Face masks are not a thing for me anymore
I’ve come to stop using face masks altogether. And I used to swear by some. I just don’t have the time for them, and if my skincare routine is good, I don’t feel I need them.
I can sometimes do a dedicated routine for a specific goal, like do a more abrasive exfoliation, followed by lots of hydration and a nice oil. But I just don’t reach for masks to do this.
21. Knowledge is a flowing thing
I rely on other people’s information to make the best informed decisions I can. So I will make mistakes, and change opinions, and that’s ok.
Some studies are a bit out of date, others are too new and lacking in more comprehensive data.
It’s an always evolving field, and it’s so profitable that some brands can get ahead of themselves just to stay relevant. Which may lead to some missteps.
Independent studies are sadly not a standard, but on the other hand companies don’t always invest in thorough research for themselves to further prove an ingredient’s effects.
For instance: vitamin C is thoroughly researched but some of its newest esthers and derivatives not so much. Are they actually better than the oldie L Ascorbic Acid? More stable but as effective? We can’t say for sure yet. We can try out the product and see how we get along, but don’t go for the blanket statements.
Research and development are so important, and I love when a brand invests in these areas instead of packaging and brand trips for influencers. But that’s not always the case.
Also, having a “Doctor” on the label doesn’t mean it’s automatically a flawless well researched brand. Some aren’t even real doctors. At least not doctors of skin or chemistry…
Anyway… things evolve, new information is always coming out, and we shouldn’t be afraid of changing our stance a bit.
Being open to learn new things is important and also be aware that we may be fed wrong information. Not intentionally, but it is bound to happen.
Brands are not out to get you, but they do want your money and often exaggerate their claims.
There are some people I like to hear talking about skincare from a scientific perspective: Caroline Hirons and her guests, Cyrille Laurent, Dr. Dray, Lab Muffin Beauty Science, and Kenna. They all have different approaches to what is an absolute no-no and must-must in their books. Just so you know.
22. Green, Clean and Whatever trend rant
Anecdotal experiences and distorted research results have created or evolved into trends that were then irresponsibly appropriated by brands that choose to ride the wave of fear to sell their products.
For instance, someone decided all parabens are bad, based on a study about one paraben. Like the mushrooms allegory: one mushroom is poisonous, others are good. But they decided all mushrooms were bad…
They then launched a campaign that was picked up by… people, and now brands are using far less tested preservatives on your products that are far more prone to cause irritation.
Some brands talk about “chemicals” as if they were squeezing grass directly onto a jar. They’re not.
Everything is a chemical — water is a chemical —, and everything is hopefully processed in labs to become skin-appropriate, and bio-available and all of that. Unless they’re being made in someone’s kitchen… which… no…
Very often, the “natural” option is far more aggressive for the skin than the synthetic one, which has been refined and tweaked.
Having the selling point of stating the obvious as a deliberate and new thing is punch-in-the-face-stupid: oh, a moisturiser that is sulfate-free?… wow!
— Why would a detergent, foaming agent, be put in a moisturiser in the first place?
Not acknowledging some people just may not get along with your products and putting the blame on the consumer, saying they did something wrong that goes against your made-up rules baffles me.
So… if a brand claims non-toxic nonsense and harmful suspicious shenanigans, it hugely deflates my attention.
If you break out from silicones, which is unusual but can happen, and need to look for a silicone-free formula, it’s fine. It’s not okay to say silicones should be banned from existence.
Green and clean should mean ethically sourced, backed with all the meaningful scientific papers, with recyclable packaging and reusable solutions, more investment in research and development and less in fear-mongering marketing.
Listen to your consumers, but don’t profit on their stupidability. Yeah. Stupid-ability. Ability to make stupider. It’s a word because I just made it up.
So this is it. At least this was all I could remember to write down. I hope it’s helpful.
Now it’s your turn to share with me what are your skincare lessons that you’ve learned over the years.