Friday, September 15, 2017

Thoughts on skincare, aging, and indulgence

A recent move from Michigan to Texas (which is my excuse for the prolonged hiatus here) has me thinking a lot of about skincare, beginning with how I need to adjust my usual routine to suit the new climate I'm now living in. Thinking about my goals and preferences when it comes to looking after my skin leads to all sorts of other tangential pondering about skincare in general. For instance, my skin has actually been quite good since I arrived at my new (temporary) home, and yet I'm still motivated to use all sorts of products and to try new things.

And what exactly constitutes "good skin" anyway? Or "good enough" (if such a thing exists)? For instance, I haven't been breaking out much, to the extent that I was a bit surprised to get my period, since I hadn't had my usual harbinger of cystic chin acne this month. So less acne = good, for me, ok. The texture of my skin has also been pretty nice: soft and smooth, pores aren't too enlarged. So I guess those are also things that matter to me for some reason.

On the other hand, I've been noticing lines more, whether or not they are more pronounced than they used to be or it's just because I don't have other issues to distract me from them. In a particularly ridiculous moment, I found myself browsing Instagram for closeups of faces of women younger than me to confirm that the wrinkles under my eyes weren't abnormal.

Skincare is obviously a hobby and a fascination for me, but I don't approach it without a generous amount of ambivalence. When you start looking at skincare products and reading about skincare routines, you realize that if you adhere strictly to much of the advice out there, you'll discover that there is apparently not a single person on the planet whose face doesn't have a flaw to fix. Whatever happened to "normal" skin? We're too oily or too dry--or both. Too much redness or dark spots. Pores are too big or too much acne. Too flaky or too shiny or not shiny ("dewey") enough. Too saggy or not soft enough. Too light or too dark. Too dull and not bright enough. Too many lines or too much puffiness. It's endless. It can be really hard to conclude that your skin is just fine.

Even our old gurus, like Paula Begoun for instance, who used to say that "not everyone needs a moisturizer," are going to try to sell us all moisturizers (and eye creams and essences . . . ). I'm not immune to this. When I was younger, I never used moisturizer, and my skin felt fine. Now I moisturize with different products a couple of times a day. Sure, skin often gets drier as we age, but do I really need all that? Or have I just got used to it? My mother almost never moisturizes, and her skin is neither dry nor oily. Again, remember "normal" skin?

But I have all these products, and they're fun to use (most of the time) so I use them. The pleasure we derive from our beauty routines isn't a bad thing. It's no more frivolous to have this as a hobby than to tinker with cars or knit or play video games. But it's a slippery slope from hobby into luxury and self-care. These are not always bad things either. Getting myself ready for work in the morning could be considered a form of self-care, because I get to sit quietly for 20 or 30 minutes and carry out my routine and start the day in a less stressed and more focused state of mind. But I think there's a difference between that and feeling like my problems can be alleviated with a little consumerism and that if I've had a rough time I deserve to treat myself to a new purchase. (I've written about self-care and consumerism before, and also see this Buzzfeed article about self-care and influencers.)

I try not to judge people who collect things, whether they're Funko dolls or exfoliants. But outside of those people who have the disposable income to collect one of every enticing skincare product, there's definitely some worrying overconsumption happening. Again, I'm not immune or exempt from this--I am quite aware of how much perishable shit I own, because I had to pack it up and move it with me across the country (THREE backups of PC 2% BHA liquid? Really, bitch?). If you follow skincare enthusiasts (or collectors, as you could call them) on Instagram, however, you're likely to be confronted with #shelfies of dozens of products and to see their morning and evening routines consisting of 5-8 products each, which change significantly every day. Again, they're obviously having fun, but seeing that over and over can create the impression that a "proper" skincare routine requires a lot of purchasing.

There are also, of course, the trendy and exorbitantly-priced products and brands that tend to appear regularly in these photos alongside glowing reviews. I've found, nevertheless, that there's little correlation between effectiveness and price when it comes to skincare. Some expensive things are great, and some are terrible. Some cheap things are great, and some are terrible. But the self-care, "treat yourself" mentality suggests that you're doing it better if you buy something luxurious (i.e. pricey) than merely something that's effective and pleasant to use, but cheap. In reality, you can have beautiful, well-cared-for skin (according to whatever definition you choose) even if you only own a handful of affordable products. Say sunscreen, moisturizer, and a serum in the morning, and cleanser, exfoliant, and moisturizer in the evening. Or less. Maybe you don't need to moisturize!

Returning again to that definition of good skin, it's a tricky concept. Most skincare products seem designed to do one of two things: to make skin "clearer" (less red, smoother, smaller pores, fewer pimples) or to reverse/prevent aging (again with the pores, fewer lines, tighter skin, fewer dark spots, etc.). Obviously there is significant overlap between these categories. But I wonder, did you ever notice someone's pores before you got interested in skincare? Did you ever notice your own pores? All faces have pores of varying sizes! Try looking at images of beautiful celebrities that aren't airbrushed to death and allow yourself to feel some relief that porelessness is not an achievable (or desirable!) goal.

Natalie Portman, Hollywood Reporter, May 2015
Saffron Burrows in Mozart in the Jungle

Anti-aging rhetoric is even more insidious and polarizing. (Allure magazine recently made the choice to cut it out.) A lot of the things we try to "fix" with skincare are things that happen naturally and inevitably to our skin as we age. And there are a lot of factors that affect them other than which or how many skincare products you use: genetics, skin type, time spent in the sun, environment, stress, and so on. What's wrong with looking your age anyway? Part of the problem is that it's hard to know exactly what "looking your age" means, because we are now used to seeing celebrities in their 70s who look younger than Audrey Hepburn did when she died at 63, because of all the subtle (or not-so-subtle) clinical procedures they've had done. And increasing use of sunscreen, probably. There's also the gendered/sexist aspect of anti-aging pressure, which tells us that men look better with a few wrinkles and women don't. Women don't get to be rugged. So when I slather on the sunscreen every day, there's a part of me that feels shitty for buying into all of that (I could pretend I'm doing it solely to prevent skin cancer, but let's be real--plus that doesn't explain the rest of my skincare hoard).

So all this rambling thought leaves me wondering why exactly I enjoy playing around with skincare products as much as I do when the whole concept can be so fraught. I have to admit to myself that vanity is a part of it, but I don't think that explains it all, because if I really just wanted to look better, surely I'd learn to style my fucking hair already.

I've narrowed it down to two other things: science and control. I like that skincare is a kind of experiment I can perform on myself. I like learning about all the many ingredients out there and what they can and can't and might do. I'm a researcher by profession and by nature. I especially like debunking the bullshit claims that brands and their devotees make--that's really what got me interested in all of it in the first place (see, again, Paula Begoun).

But another motivation that's been increasingly evident for me is the desire to try to exert control over some aspect of my life. That's something most of us need, and if, like me, you've been on the academic (or any!) job market during in the last decade, you might feel it more than others. I can't control what I will be doing or where I will be living or how I will be living a year or even 6 months from now, most of the time, but maybe I can control what happens to my face. (Maybe I can't. But it's somehow gratifying to try.) This is different from my interest in makeup, which I see as more of a low-stakes, low-energy creative outlet.

Anyway, if you've managed to follow my stream of consciousness here, I'd love to hear your perspective. Do you even give a shit about skincare? (I don't assume that everyone who reads here does.) Why or why not? Are your feelings conflicted at all, like mine clearly are? If so, what is it that bothers you the most about the marketing and conversation and media that surrounds skincare? If you're 100% into the whole skincare thing, what is it about it that fascinates you?

To reference an outdated meme, [my] fave is problematic.

(I'm also open to suggestions for adjusting routines to hotter and/or dryer climates. Ahem.)


  1. That is so interesting! Yes, I just realized that I never, ever thought about pores before getting into skincare when I was close to 30.
    As for why I'm into skincare... I never did anything to my skin (never owned a sunscreen or moisturizer) until I was about 28, but not because my skin was perfect. Quite the opposite. I'd had "bad skin" (rosacea, mild acne) since I hit puberty, and I kind of accepted it. Like, "I have bad skin and will always have bad skin, nothing to be done with it." I first got into products because of "anti-aging" reasons (it's very, very hard to escape that conditioning as a woman), but then I discovered that my "bad skin" problems can be partially fixed. Nothing to be done with rosacea, but I now have knowledge how to make my skin smooth and break out less. That makes me truly love having a skincare routine! And I love the sensations of applying moisturizers or hydrating products onto my face, like my skin "drinks it up."
    Problems with skincare industry? Animal testing, I guess--it would be good to have some alternatives in the future, so that we would still have innovative products. And a small problem that gets under my skin is how unpleasant most sunscreens are.

    1. The sensory aspect of it, especially with moisturizers and some serums, is definitely part of the appeal for me too.

      And yes, animal testing! That's another whole mess I didn't include here. Eco-related concerns in general. Not just greenwashing, but the amount of packaging waste that accompanies skincare (which tends to be finished up more frequently than makeup) and the fact that most municipal recycling programs won't process cosmetic packaging.

  2. I so thoroughly enjoyed your article and feel so similarly about it as you! I've just turned 59 and there's nothing I can change about that number but try my best every day to look and feel my best and get to another birthday! Skincare is my passion (as it makeup) and thank god for scrunchies (yes i said it HA) cause I still don't take the time to style my wildly thick wavy hair everyday. And this whole obsession about sunscreen drives me NUTS! We need to be out in the sun 1/2 hour a day as it is actually GOOD for us and we NEED the Vitamin D (though I will slather on a layer once in a while under my spf'd foundation! What i HATE is that the industry leads you to believe you need to spend so much money to 'do it right' and I will NOT pay for Sunday Riley, Vitner's Daughter, Tata or Tacha SEE YA LATER! I prefer supporting smaller indie brands anyway and have recently gotten more into greener products in every area of my life. So write on and RITE ON. Love your blog and will now be following. Congrats on your move as I am embarking on one myself currently (Florida to Cali) Good luck to us both. Blessings diane

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! I've said before that sunscreen is my religion, but as you can see here, even believers sometimes have their doubts. And not everyone needs sunscreen as badly as I do. Good luck with your move too! Thanks!

  3. When I was buying loads of makeup under the influence of blogs and youtube, I was also buying loads of pricey skincare. It turns out then when I went on a makeup and skincare "fast" my skin dramatically improved. This could be because it coincided with rounding the hill of 30, admittedly, but I think we're just encouraged to have these complicated routines to "treat" ourselves because it makes big $$$$. My skin has never been better, and now all I use is a cleanser for sensitive skin (sometimes only once a day!), micellar cleanser to remove makeup (which I try to wear as infrequently as possible), a moisturizer with sunscreen in it SPF 30, and a scrub 2-3 times per week. These four products are all under $15 and vegan. I think my skin just rebelled at makeup and fragrances... even if I do wind up with some wrinkles I'd prefer that to getting any more acne scarring/enlarged pores! I'm a big-time advocate of simple routines these days. I think the product-pushing is getting people in a cycle of fix problem A with product that causes problem B, and so on...

    1. Yes, I totally agree: the more products you use, the more likely you are to react badly to one or to have ingredients that interact poorly. And if you're using a dozen things, it's all the more difficult to pinpoint the cause. There's nothing wrong with a simple routine!

  4. Thank you. I needed to read this. I've been collecting so much skincare in recent months and poo-pooing a lot of the claims but at the same time finding myself increasingly annoyed with the claims that are being made. And then annoyed that I know many of the results will not be met. Yet disappointed in the condition of my skin. All while being upset for having the products to begin with.

    I've always loved skincare but recently I forgot why I did (the self-spa aspect) and I've just been annoyed with frivolous or overstated claims.

    Thank you for the perspective and solid throats punch back to reality. Cheers!

    1. Yes, the claims are always so exaggerated and every product is completely unique and innovative . . . and I get that as much from consumers of the products as from the brands themselves! I wrote this as much to shake myself back to reality as anyone else, but I'm really glad you found it helpful too.

  5. With time I have discovered some aspects about my own skin that I hardly knew before. Frankly speaking, when I find something new about a skincare product I have already been using I get amazed thinking why not I noticed it.
    During the teenage days I did not moisturized the skin and still I looked okay. If today I don’t follow a healthy skin routine for a single day my face lacks the glow. With aging the speed of formation of new cells is reduced; I think this was the reason of the flawless skin during the teenage days.
    Being a beauty enthusiast I have tried a lot of cosmetics, only a handful of them fulfill the claims made and become successful in passing the test of being a high quality product. Over the time we all have got addicted to the cosmetics (especially tantalizing makeup products).
    Anyway, which is your favorite brand for purchasing some peppy makeup items?

  6. In the morning I give my skin a blast of nourishment (apply the moisturizing lotion after bath). Once I get ready for work I apply my sun protection. At work too sometime I moisturize. Coming back to home I cleanse (even use a face mask if my skin looks tired). All you can say - I have a little obsession for caring my skin.
    I had a similar experience but instead of the skin care it was my hair care products. I used to apply a conditioner that worked extremely well on my hair till I lived in a cold region of the country. I shifted to a city with scorching heat. I had a job of going from place to place. After some months I had an unstoppable hair fall. I went to the doctor who told me to bring the entire cosmetic I was using. He told me the conditioner was one of the products causing damage to my hair. Frankly I could not believe him! I stopped using it and there was a noticeable difference. As a far as skin care products I never had any troubles. You know my day starts and ends with skin care regimen!


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