I believe that we all exist on a skincare spectrum. On one end we have the “do-littles.” These are people who don’t give much thought to taking care of their skin. Those that use whatever’s lying around. Those from the school of 18-in-1 shampoo/body wash/facial cleanser/surface degreaser/motor oil. On the other hand, we have the “do-the-mosts.” These are the skincare fans, mongers, collectors etc. If it’s new and shiny, they want it in their 20-step routine and they couldn’t tell you why but mind your own business, alright?
Both classes of people are often missing the same element in their skincare routine: intentionality. It’s my firm belief as both a dermatologist and a skincare enthusiast that there should be a purpose behind each practice, procedure and product that you choose for your skin, hair and nails. What’s more is that there should be thought behind the actual process of skincare beyond just what you’re buying. Achieving these goals may be difficult at times, so I’ve created this guide to making your approach to skincare more intentional.
Disclaimer before we start: the following applies to the use of over-the-counter consumer/cosmetic products. Any prescription treatments should be discussed separately with your own prescriber.
It may be tempting to just click “add to cart” any time a new product catches your eye. However, ask yourself these questions first:
Do I need it?
I’ve spoken many times before about the true must-haves of skincare. What everyone should have at minimum is a cleanser, moisturizer and sunscreen. These are the only true “needs” in a skincare routine. Beyond that, you may benefit from a product that addresses a particular concern. For instance: if you want an agent to treat hyperpigmentation or dehydration. That is a need you’re addressing, so I’d give that product a “yes.” The question you should be asking overall is “Does it serve a purpose?”
If I don’t need it, do I want it anyway?
Yes, this flies in the face of what I just told you but look at it this way: treating yourself to a product can make you feel good, thereby serving the purpose of providing a psychological benefit. I wouldn’t go crazy with this category, as using too many products can lead to irritation and other issues. However, it’s ok to just treat yourself to something nice sometimes… if it fits within your budget.
Does it fit in my budget?
Another great question to ask. I’ve seen many people on social media stating that they can’t put together an economical skincare routine. I would disagree – there are plenty of effective products at all price points from drugstore brands like CeraVe and Cetaphil or other budget-friendly options like The Ordinary. That said, you will have to decide what falls into your budget and how much you can spend per product. For skincare hobbyists, I suggest setting aside a set amount per month that you will allow as your “skincare budget” and try to stick to it.
Does it fit in my routine?
Ah yes, another question that people often ignore. Where is the product supposed to fit in your routine? For instance, is it a duplicate? I can’t think of a good reason to use 3 different hydrating toners, for example. If you find that you want to try a product, but it represents a duplicate in your routine, perhaps you should wait to finish your current product before purchasing. Another common scenario I see is people using multiple serums in order to get multiple actives into their routine. In this case, I’d encourage you to look for a standalone product formulated with all the desired actives if possible.
What’s the environmental impact?
An aspect of skincare consumption that’s often overlooked is just how much of an impact each product has on the environment. From ingredient sourcing, to packaging and transport, each step of the process has a carbon footprint. How can we decrease said footprint? First, minimize the amount of stuff you buy. Easy ways to do this are to go for larger sizes of products you know you will fully empty, trying out a sample before buying a new full-size product, and trying to empty the products you have before buying replacements. When evaluating the sustainability of a product, look for any info on the practices used to source the ingredients, and evaluate the packaging and shipping practices (are the components fully recyclable? What kind of shipping materials are used for your order?). Lastly, try to minimize the amount of online orders you’re placing by doing your best to purchase the products you need all at the same time from the same place rather than placing separate orders if possible.
OK so you purchased your products with intention, now how do you get the best out of them? You should be following these steps every morning and night.
Look at your skin!
This is an essential step of the skincare routine that many people miss. You should be looking at your skin and evaluating how it feels on a daily basis before using any products. This will help guide you through the skincare process. Have a new breakout? This might be the day to use a spot treatment or pimple patch. Is your skin drier or tighter than usual? Maybe go for a gentler cleanser or a richer moisturizer. Experiencing irritation? It could be helpful to skip your “actives” until you know what’s up.
Pay attention to the method.
So many of us go through the motions of caring for our skin absent-mindedly. Others throw caution to the wind and just do whatever the hell they want (remember all those people misusing The Ordinary Peeling Solution?). Either way, we should all be analyzing the methods and techniques that we use to care for our skin. The step to achieve this is reading the directions for each product as they go hand in hand with the formula. For instance, cleansers can be formulated to be applied to either wet or dry skin. Certain potentially caustic masks and treatments have directions to help prevent you from causing irritation. Other techniques pertain to the use or application of the product. Are you cleansing for long enough? Are you applying too much retinoid? Too little sunscreen? Being mindful about the actual PRACTICE of skincare will help you achieve optimal results.
Don’t change too many things at once.
While I know it may be tempting to do a complete skincare overhaul from time to time, try to resist. Why? Firstly, if something in your brand-spanking new routine doesn’t agree with your skin, you won’t know what it is. On the flip side, if something is working really well for you, you won’t be able to pinpoint the product or practice in question. Lastly, adding too many potentially harsh ingredients at once (think retinol, hydroxy acids and the like) may overwhelm your skin and cause irritation, so take it slow and be patient.
Watch (patiently) for results.
As you’re examining how your skin looks and feels every day, it might be difficult to see results. This is truer for “actives” like vitamin C or retinoids that have loftier endpoints like evening dyspigmentation or smoothing wrinkles than it is for something like a moisturizer that provides pretty instant results. So, when do we give up on a product? To fully understand this, we have to understand a little bit of cutaneous physiology.
OTC topicals will act mostly on the epidermis. The primary cells of the epidermis are called corneocytes. These corneocytes are born from stem cells at the deepest layer of the epidermis (the stratum basale) and transit upwards to the outermost layer (the stratum corneum) where they are eventually shed. It takes roughly 14 days for a corneocyte to transit from the stratum basale to the stratum corneum, and then another 14 days for that corneocyte to be shed so that’s 28 days of lag time to start with. We also need to keep in mind that it takes time to create the conditions necessary to see an observable change in the epidermis. It’s for this reason that I say you need to give any routine about 6 weeks before making a call on it. There likely will be a lot of exceptions to this, but it’s a good rule to start with.
Getting the most out of your skincare routine takes more than just buying stuff. You actually have to think, commit and have intention. I hope the approach above affords you an opportunity to reflect on your current practices for buying, using and practicing skincare. It is through acting with intentionality that you will find the best results.