tl;dr, this is a lot of information about how to take care of skin, and I made a big ol’ spreadsheet, The Skincare Matrix, that organizes all the main points.
If you just want to scroll to the most relevant section, the general order is:
- Why should I care?
- Who are you?
- Ingredients & formulations
- Figure out your skin type
- The Skincare Matrix
why should i care about my skin?
I wrote this because a bunch of my friends kept asking me for skin care advice. I’m assuming you are one of them (or an internet stranger) and clicked this because you have some skin concerns–acne, dryness, discoloration, or maybe you’re just seeking that elusive, lit-from-within glow.
But even if not, the skin is the body’s first line of defense. It is the armor that prevents millions and billions of microbes from infecting us and it is an incredible, self-repairing organ (yes, the skin is an organ). I don’t think enough people are as amazed as they should be that you can be injured or cut, and sometimes in as little as under a week, your skin can heal and repair itself. Think about this–you were exposed, broken, briefly torn apart! And then, the cells of your body duplicate, knit together, and close the open wound. This is a blessing, because it means our reality is not one where blood-borne illnesses are easy to contract.
Additionally, here’s my weird “hot take” on this , which is that skin care is approachable for everyone, and good for mental health and body positivity (I told you it was a weird take). Let me put it this way–for those of us with low self esteem, and especially when that is rooted somehow in our physical body, taking care of skin is a tiny step toward loving your physical self. Skincare is a physical wellness activity that has nothing to do with other more culturally loaded or potentially stressful metrics of physical health. You learn that you don’t have to hate your body or force it to change. Instead, you and your body become a team. You work with, not against your body to achieve good health. You learn that the best results actually come from treating your body gently, from letting slow, biological processes take their time. You learn that wellness is not an end goal or even a state of being–rather, health and wellness is a habit. Occasionally missing a step or a day or a week won’t matter in the grand scheme of things–and only committing for a day, no matter how thorough or intense, won’t help, either. I learned to stop making appearance-based goals, and instead focus on developing the routine, the habits. I learned that it’s a lot easier to do something when it feels good, and above all, YMMV–your mileage may vary. Not everything works for you, and what works for you may not work for others, so don’t always pay attention to other people.
That was the surprising result of implementing a skincare routine for me, that it taught me lessons I took with me when improving other aspects of my health. When it came to exercise, I took the approach of YMMV–I just hate running but for some reason it was my default exercise for so many years; now I do hot yoga 4 days a week instead. When it comes to healthy eating, I’m taking it slow after trying an extreme change (keto and meal prep) didn’t work. Just like phasing in stronger exfoliants to treat my cystic acne, I’m now gently phasing out the worst culprits (refined sugars) and phasing in healthier habits (cooking lunch at home).
While I’ll never claim that this will work the same way for everyone (YMMV after all!!), maybe it’s worth giving skin care a shot with that mentality.
ok, and who are you and why should I trust you to tell me about skin stuff?
Hey, I didn’t come up with this on my own, it was you all, my friends, that kept DM’ing me for advice. Actually, I thought this would be rather unnecessary because there’s already so much advice about skin care out there–so, this is my version of sending a lmgtfy link.
But, I think my biggest credential is that I won’t pretend I have any. Instead, I will backup everything I say with explicit references to journal articles and studies as well as reviews and anecdotal evidence. I will let you make the decision as to whether only gold-standard scientifically proven treatments are worth it, or whether the latest ingredient craze (bee venom! snail mucin!) has some potential (science is a slow and rigorous process and often can’t keep up with all the crazy things people are willing to try, after all). That said, the products, brands, and example routines in my skincare matrix document lean heavily on the gold standards, along with a few surprising products here and there that worked for me.
No-makeup selfie of the author
what treatments are scientifically proven?
The gold-standard acne treatment ingredients are a combination of salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, or Vitamin A and its derivatives (topical versions are usually retinol or tretinoin). Moisturizer ingredients typically include ceramides and glycerin which help maintiain skin moisture. Niacinamide, hyaluronic acid and vitamin C are some of the only proven vitamins that help with long-term skin health. Long-term health helps skin cells combat acne bacteria and other problems on their own.
That said, there are a lot of blurred lines in the skincare world. There are many botanical/natural ingredients which are not necessarily a “gold standard”, but are proven with some limited studies and have still demonstrated efficacy to some extent (snail mucin), or which do naturally contain some of the proven ingredients (rosehip oil, for example, can contain up to 0.04% natural tretinoin, comparable to the 0.1% of many standard synthetic products). (I use “botanical” to refer to all naturally derived, often whole ingredients, thought obviously snails aren’t plants.)
so why does formulation matter if only these ingredients are proven? Can’t I just use a bunch of salicylic acid to fix my acne?
The problem is that a lot of these ingredients–retinol, acids, even vitamin C and some cleansers–can be irritating and drying, or (in the case of liquid Vitamin C) unstable, oxidizing and losing efficacy every time you open the bottle. While salicylic acid will kill your acne bacteria, if you only use this one product and your skin becomes too dry and compromised, the overall health of your skin will degrade, opening the door to more bacteria and therefore more acne or other skin problems. This is the primary issue with skincare of the early 2000s–all those Neutrogena, Clean & Clear and Proactive products focused on killing the acne, and they did work. But in the process, they compromised overall skin health and just led to more acne and other skin conditions (fortunately, almost all of these brands have since changed a lot of their key products and formulations to stay competitive).
Good formulations deliver these powerful ingredients along with other soothing and hydrating ingredients to limit the irritation of the skin. That’s why not all products are created equal–and most importantly, not all products work the same on everyone. The same product may be fantastic for one person and terrible for another.
(a side note–you also have a lot of good bacteria on your skin, and some modern science/skincare trends even explore probiotic skincare, which I haven’t tried but am curious about. Bottom line, nuking everything with no plan for recovery is not the answer…)
Ok, so how do I figure out what works for me then? What if I’m lazy? There’s so much confusing stuff out there ahh….
Listen, I hear you. Unfortunately there’s not really a shortcut to finding out what works, all you can do is research ahead of time and maybe buy travel sizes to start. But there *are* some ingredients and products that are so simple and so gentle (and so affordable!) that they are a great place to begin.
First, figure out your skin type.
You also need to figure out what type of skin you have. I’m gonna oversimplify this and say, you either have oily or dry skin (and all types can get acne). If your face often feels tight and flakes, chaps, or cracks in the winter, then even if you have a lot of acne you probably have a dry skin type. If you often have a big shiny region on your forehead by 3PM and a lot of lotions feel too heavy, then even if you have no acne and maybe even the occasional dry/flaky patch or chapped lips, you probably have an oily skin type.
I don’t like the term “combination skin” because it’s often just dry skin people with acne who think that dry skin cannot get acne. There are some people out there with a dry, flaky U-zone and oily T-zone at the same time, but usually after taking care of the skin for a while, it becomes clear that you’re either one or the other. All skin should be cleansed and moisturized, so if neither of these is happening, all skin has the potential to get greasy and/or flaky and chapped, dependent on environmental factors. And all skin that is compromised can be vulnerable to bacterial infection, namely acne.
There are people with “normal” (but it’s literally the opposite of normal) or “balanced” skin, and if you won the genetic lottery and have this unicorn, balanced skin type and you’re not acne-prone, you probably don’t need to do much other than use a light cleanser and moisturizer. I have a friend with very clear balanced skin, and she basically showers regularly and that’s it.
Acne, at the end of the day, is not caused by the oils in our skin (known as sebum). Acne is caused by bacteria. The bacteria feed on the sebum and form a colony that inflames the skin and appears as a red bump, a pimple. So yes, the oil your skin produces is related to how much acne you have to an extent, but it’s really the bacteria that should be targeted, not your skin’s natural predisposition.
Life’s not fair, but there are pros to both dry and oily skin, believe it or not. Dry skin is usually (but not always) less acne-prone, since there is less sebum for the bacteria to feed on. Oily skin can have a slower aging process, because wrinkles are essentially caused by the depletion of oils and reduced elasticity in the skin as you age and are exposed to UV radiation. This also means your skin type can change as you grow and change (though anyone who’s gone through puberty likely knows this).
How do I treat my acne?
The most important thing is to build good habits. Start with the most basic steps–just clean and moisturize your face for a week and see how you feel. You can almost never go wrong with Cetaphil cleanser and moisturizer, which are both very affordable and very gentle. A good cleanser won’t strip your face of its natural oils, so you shouldn’t feel “squeaky clean” or dry afterward, just refreshed. Cetaphil moisturizer is lightweight but still hydrating, good for when you’re unsure exactly what your skin type is, or if you’re more in-between. At a bare minimum, these are highly unlikely to harm your skin and enable you to get in the habit of having a routine.
Then, you could add in niacinamide, the least irritating of the three proven topical vitamins for skin. Niacinamide, or Vitamin B5, has been shown to reduce acne over time, brighten hyperpigmentation, and contribute to overall long-term skin health. Hyaluronic acid, a great hydrating molecule that holds up to 1000x its weight in water, is the next one you could experiment with–very small molecules have been anecdotally said to sometimes cause redness, but most lower-end formulations do not have these anyway (yay for ur wallet). The name is confusing, but it’s not the same as alpha or beta hydroxy acids such as lactic acid or salicylic acid, which are exfoliants. Hyaluronic acid is much safer and a hydrating rather than exfoliating ingredient.
Vitamin C is often irritating and should be approached with caution–I started with Klair’s Vitamin C 5%, but you could try any low % Vitamin C product, and then ramp up to 15-20% if you don’t find it irritating or as your skin gets used to it. Vitamin C is an antioxidant and a brightener.
If you want to gently start treating acne after building up the skin’s natural moisture barrier, you can experiment with exfoliation. Exfoliants are the first truly dangerous and advanced ingredient, since very strong (high %) formulations could cause chemical burns when used improperly, and if used without sunscreen could lead to sunburn or accelerated UV degradation of the skin. If you’re really concerned about these potential side effects, you could even start with a physical exfoliator like the Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant, or physical/gentle enzyme one, like Tatcha’s Rice Polish powder. These remove dead skin cells by gently, physically scrubbing them away, rather than using a chemical to resurface the skin. The enzymes from rice and papaya in the Tatcha one are technically chemical, but still far gentler than other AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids, a class of less penetrative exfoliants).
If you have persistent cystic acne and you’ve made it this far, your skin is hopefully noticeably healthier and happier, but that cystic acne may still have not even budged. To really treat this outside of the doctor’s office, you need a coordinated attack of salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. All formulations of these ingredients will be at least mildly irritating, so you MUST moisturize and use sunscreen and take breaks between treatment. If you can, use spot-treatments to limit the effects all over your face, but sometimes a full attack is really necessary. For salicylic acid, I like products that control how much time the product is on your face–cleansers, for example, or wash-off masks. I often pair these with a benzoyl peroxide spot-treatment, but some good all-over benzoyl peroxide lotions exist (a benzoyl peroxide lotion is not actually a moisturizer, it just has a cream consistency; you still need to hydrate skin separately). I used either one or the other on a given day, in something like a Monday-Wednesday-Friday rotation, and took whole week-long breaks at a time to re-hydrate the skin, and that’s the only way I got rid of my pollution and travel-induced cystic acne.
Why not skip straight to the coordinated-attack-step first if you already know you have cystic acne? Because you need to build up your overall skin health for it to even handle these ingredients in the first place. Compromised skin that’s then drenched in BHAs will become further compromised and even more acne prone and then even harder to treat and recover. If you’ve already been trying to treat this condition without moisturizing, go back to the beginning and build up that healthy moisture barrier first.
I don’t really have acne, but I want fresh, glowing, smooth, poreless, “glass” skin! (Texture)
Niacinamide is your best friend, and it’s alllll about hydration. Moisturizing becomes not just 1 step, but three or more–toner, hyaluronic acid, more toner (so the HA soaks it up), lotion, and finally cream/sealant/oil. How heavy the last step is may depend on the season/climate and other factors. You can also try the Asian beauty 3-skin or 7-skin method, in which you apply a moisturizing toner three times, lightly patting it into the face. A lightweight AHA like The Ordinary 7% glycolic acid toner (this is not a moisturizing toner don’t apply it 3+ times pls) will clear the skin of any tiny whiteheads or bumps from sebum, and (if you know what you’re doing) occasional treatment with a stronger acid can help too.
Some “less proven” botanical/natural ingredients, snail mucin and birch sap, have also shown themselves to be quite promising, particularly as essence/toner ingredients.
Help I’m 3 many colors! (Complexion)
Redness is usually a side effect of irritation or sensitivity. Soothing ingredients like aloe vera (the same classic post-sunburn treatment) can be helpful, along with rose water and (again) niacinamide. Astringents, like an alcohol-free witch hazel toner, can also help, and has been anecdotally shown to improve the complexion of those with persistent all-over redness or rosacea, who buy Thayer’s Rose Water Witch Hazel toner in bulk (just read the Amazon product reviews). Tea tree oil could also work, but should be a very mild dilution if used all over the face–while “natural”, tea tree oil is still quite strong.
Hyperpigmentation or the formation of tiny dark spots which usually occurs after acne is temporary by nature. It can be improved, or the healing sped up, with AHAs, niacinamide, and Vitamin C. Use sunscreen as a preventative measure.
Sun spots, obviously, are caused by the sun, and are some of the hardest types of dark spots to get rid of. I have some and it has been a slow march of sporadic hydroquinone use, concentrated niacinamide-based brighteners, and AHAs to try and lighten them. (A 2% hydroquinone treatment is standard, but has questionable efficacy on darker skin tones). Short of lasers, the best method in this case is really just prevention. Find a good sunscreen and stick with it.
existence is futile and im marching toward death (Aging)
Listen, aging is a natural process that just happens. You can use sunscreen and retinols to protect your skin and maintain a high cell turnover rate, and prevention is the best method overall. But draw the line, please, at altering how you live your life (unless your life includes a tanning salon habit). Go to the beach, bask in the natural sun, wear your sunscreen and wear your skin-exposing swimsuit.
These healthy skin habits hopefully follow you for the rest of your life, but eventually, our hair greys, our skin becomes less elastic and more dry, wrinkles appear. How you take care of your skin will change, as it will likely trend more dry (but then you won’t get acne anymore!)
You should be in tune to those changes and take care of yourself, but I wish that we could wear these marks of time with pride, and that is the mentality I hope I have when I’m older. I struggle with this too; I’ve toyed with retinol and going to the dermatologist (both for anti/preventative-aging rather than acne) and even read about the weird new fad of “preventative botox”.
But I decided I’m more concerned with having more smile lines than scowl ones on my face, rather than trying to banish them altogether.
This long-ass post wasn’t enough! What do I use? Where do I find more information? What products have you used and recommend?
- Brands divided by skin type
- Most important steps divided by skin type
- Example routines (super lazy, lazy, advanced)
- Products I’ve used and liked
- Links to good stuff/sources/places to do your own research from around the internet