Skincare is a very personal and complex journey. I, for one, have very oily, sensitive, and acne prone skin that I have been fighting to manage my entire life. My journey started with my mom purchasing intense acne treatments like Clearasil and Clean & Clear. Then Miranda Cosgrove convinced me to try Neutrogena but even iCarly couldn’t solve my acne issue. The struggle was real and everyone could see. In recent years, my acne has become less violent (praise be) but my oily skin and regular pimples have still been consistent. After college, I graduated from drugstore skincare as I gravitated towards products that made my skincare feel more like a treat than a chore. Attractive packaging and strong branding caught my eye, but I still really had no understanding what the products were doing specifically beyond cleansing, toning, and moisturizing. And to be honest, I really had no idea what toning even meant. But then …
Thanks to some very informative, stylish, and funny YouTubers, during the last year I have gone through a Skincare Renaissance! Say ‘’bye bitch!” to the dark ages of skincare ignorance and hello to enlightened consumerism! I watched hundreds of videos and took pages of notes, so you don’t have to! Most of this content is meant to be informative and thorough and would be a lot to internalize in one sitting. I recommend copy>pasting sections especially the ingredient analysis sections into a note that you can add to and modify as you go on your skincare journey.
And now I’m going to walk you through the basics. We will start with a little biology lesson on the makeup of our skin that will gateway into a skin analysis and learning how to listen to our skin’s concerns. Next, we will go through the basic necessities of any skincare routine and discover new and exciting active ingredients to solve issues. And finally, we can talk about analyzing ingredients lists and tips on application, ending with a chat about consumerist culture and how certain brands and influencers have our backs and are committed to high standards, transparency, and education. Let’s dive in!
The Biology of Our Skin
Our skin is the largest organ of our body. It is also the part of us that we present to others on a daily basis to communicate and connect. Having a basic biological understanding of the makeup and function of our skin will help us when we get into our skincare routine and develop understanding on what each ingredient does for us. 🤓
Our skin consists of three layers…
1 \ Epidermis
The outermost layer of our skin which can be broken down further:
Corneum \ the outermost layer of the epidermis consisting of cells and oils that work like brick and mortar to regulate hydration and protect the body from UV rays and pollutants, this skin barrier can be damaged and result in many skin issues
Basale \ contains melanin producing cells that contribute to hyperpigmentation or scarring when skin is damaged. It also produces the new cells that move to the corneum and eventually shed off our body
2 \ Dermis
The middle layer of our skin contains:
Pores/follicles \ regulates hair growth
Sweat glands \ produce sweat
Sebaceous glands \ secrete oily mater called sebum
3 \ Hypodermis
The deepest layer that connects the upper layers to the rest of our body with fatty tissue.
Hopefully that wasn’t too painful! Now we have a visual in our mind of the layers of our skin and where each key element is located. Next, let’s look at our personal skin!
We all could probably spend a little more time paying attention to our skin’s needs. In this section, we will identify your skin type as well as any additional skin concerns you may have. First, let’s identify the main defining characteristic of your skin and get a taste for what you should keep in mind while developing a skincare routine with your skin type.
Do you need to reapply moisturizer throughout the day as your skin feels tight and flakey? If so you probably have dry skin. Focus on hydrating ingredients and very occlusive moisturizers which create a strong barrier that locks in hydration.
Do you feel like you need to wash your face half way through the day? Does your skin get very shiny? You probably have oily skin like me. On the bright side, apparently people with oily skin age noticeably slower. Hooray for shiny skin! You’ll want to balance that oil production while continuing to focus on hydration and moisturizers.
Do you have neither of these issues? You lucky SOB you probs have Normal type skin. You can just stick to the basics and be more adventurous with your products.
Do you have tight and flakey skin AND shiny skin (usually concentrated in the t-zone around your nose and mouth)? You’ve got combo skin. Make sure to concentrate products to zones that require them while using gentle balancing products in general.
Is your skin sensitive to touch, scents, and certain products you have tried in the past? You’ve got sensitive skin. This skin type can be in addition to any of the above. For example, I have Oily and Sensitive skin. When you have sensitive skin it is best to avoid fragrance and other harsh/irritating ingredients while also focusing on strengthening your skin barrier with gentle ingredients.
In addition to the above main skin types, you may have additional concerns. These concerns can come and go and your skincare routine should adjust with these changes. Let’s do a quick rundown with some best practices for treatment.
Acne Prone skin needs oil and sebum production to be balanced, but don’t you dare skimp on moisturizer! I’ve found my skin is less oily the more I moisturize.
Hyper Pigmentation comes from popping pimples. Ya gotta stop that. I use simple pimple patches to prevent myself from irritating them further and use treatments that calm and even skin tone. You can also look into Retinol to speed up your skin’s regenerative process to help sluff off those dark spots and discoloration. This is an amazing video that takes an in depth look at this topic.
Dullness & Textures in skin can be combated with exfoliants that will buff layers of dead skin away.
Ageing & Wrinkles are accelerated dramatically by the sun. Wear your SPF and moisturize! And maybe look into some anti-aging products?
A Damaged Skin Barrier usually goes hand in hand with sensitivity and redness. Balance and restore that skin, baby. Go for gentle. Go for calming. Go for naturally occurring ingredients in your skin.
Large Pores are genetic so there is really no shrinking to be done. You can, however, make them less noticeable by making sure they are squeaky clean with gentle cleansers and exfoliants which remove excess sebum that builds up in those pores.
One last thought on listening to your skin…
Environment and Lifestyle has a huge effect on your body and therefore your skin. Traveling, makeup, work outs, humidity, urban environment toxins, hormones, and diet all contribute to the happiness or sadness of your skin. I won’t go any further into this now, but I invite you to consider your life more holistically while you analyze and begin your skincare journey.
We should have a better understanding of our skin’s concerns at this point and now we get to the exciting part, building a skincare routine! The absolute bare minimum successful skin care regimen includes a: Cleanser, Moisturizer, and Sunscreen. That’s it. No ten step skincare routine necessary! There is a good chance that with the right basic products, you will see many of your skin concerns vanish before you even need to reach for additional treatments.
remove dirt, pollutants, excess oil, and sebum from your skin leaving it sparkling clean. Some cleansers can be harsh and overly stripping leaving your skin in desperate need of moisturization. I recommend gravitating towards gentle and nourishing cleansers that leave your skin balanced and healthy. When you are searching for the perfect cleanser, you will most likely come across two main kinds.
Oil cleansers are used before your standard liquid cleanser in a two step ‘double cleanse’ to remove makeup and/or SPF at the end of the day, before you use your liquid cleanser. They come in solid balm form and a liquid oil form. It’s a more sustainable and gentle alternative to makeup remover wipes and is a great addition when you’re needing a more robust cleanse.
Liquid cleansers typically come in a gel form and are the base of any skincare routine. I’ve always seen cleansers as the boring part of my routine. But other exciting options like foaming or milky/creamy cleansers are popping up left and right mainly from Korean brands. These trendy alternate forms are starting to become more and more popular over here in the states as we try to catch up to the k beauty world.
are products that form a barrier to protect your skin from the surrounding world while keeping hydration and moisture trapped in your skin. When looking at moisturizers, you typically want to reach for a gel moisturizer when you have more oily skin and a cream when you have dry skin. In more complex terms, these different moisturizers work because of the active ingredients that fall into three categories: humectants, emollients, and occlusives.
Humectants actively attract water/moisture into the skin. A danger with humectants is they can also do the opposite when you are in a very dry environment. Ex. glycerin, hyaluronic acid, aloe, honey, panthenol, lactic acid
Emollients are ingredients that lightly fill in cracks in the complexion retaining water and creating a softer complexion. Ex. Ceramides, qualane, jojoba oil, vitamin E
Occlusives are a heavy duty ingredient that form a protective barrier on top of the skin preventing Trans-epidermal Water Loss. They typically feel heavy as they don’t absorb into the skin. Ex. Shea butter, petroleum, beeswax
is the final of the three required steps of an essential skincare routine and it is arguably the most essential. It protects the wearer from UVA and UVB rays which can penetrate even the cloudiest of days. To protect against both of these rays you will want to find a Broad Spectrum also known as ‘PA++++’ if you are purchasing products from Japan or Korea. Once again, there are categories to choose from.
Physical sunscreens are inorganic/mineral sunscreens that sit on top of the skin and bounce the UV rays away. Highly effective and light on the skin but research has shown that these products negatively affect marine life.
Chemical sunscreens are organic and sink into the skin. They absorb UV rays and convert them into heat. This is your classic goopy white sunscreen. But of course our friends over in Korea have leveled up chemical sunscreens to the point that they really can compete with the lightness of a Physical sunscreen.
In this section, we will finally be addressing any of those additional concerns from your skin analysis with what I call Treatments. Toners, Serums, Essences, Masks, etc. fall under this category. Usually a treatment is a product that has specific active ingredients to combat a problem your skin is facing. You can find these ingredients in your Cleansers and Moisturizers. But from my research, when you are just starting out it is best to keep them separate so you can decide when you want to use an active and when you don’t.
The Holy Trinity
Vitamin A / Retinoids/Retinol is an ingredient used for anti-aging. Its greatest power is its ability to increase cell turnover, smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles, reducing dark spots/hyperpigmentation, and evening your complexion. This is key because as we age, our skin turns over cells more slowly. Bonus, it also kills acne causing bacteria but it can also be drying so make sure you’re moisturizing! Retinol is an over the counter product while Retinoids are more potent forms of Vitamin A which can only be purchased with a prescription. It is not necessary to use Vitamin A till 25 years of age because before then your skin is already turning over cells at full speed. Also, note the percentage of retinol in the product you are purchasing. When starting out, find retinols with very low concentrations around 0.5-1.0%.
Vitamin B3 / Niacinamide is naturally produced by our body to transform carbohydrates into energy and helps with all sorts of skin conditions including dullness, pore size appearance, and excess sebum production which causes acne.
Vitamin C / Ascorbic Acid is used to brighten and promote elastin & collagen production in the dermis layer. Derivatives include tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, ascorbyl glucoside, magnesium ascorbyl phosphate which are more gentile and are better alternatives for those with sensitive skin.
Alpha Hydroxy Acid / AHA are Fruit/milk-derived chemical exfoliants that are water-soluble and slough off excess dead skin cells, unclog pores (black heads & white heads), and even out skin tone.
Ex. glycolic acid (most potent), lactic acid (best for sensitive skin), tartaric acid, mandelic, and citric acid
Beta Hydroxy Acid / BHA / Salicylic Acid are chemical exfoliants that are oil-soluble. They control sebum production, smoothing and minimizing the look of enlarged pores.
Poly Hydroxy Acids / PHA is water soluble and gentle due to its large molecular size. It’s great for sensitive skin and weakened skin barriers.
Me Want More! Do you, do you want more?
Hyaluronic Acid / HA is a humectant that draws in moisture and plumps skin. Can cause opposite effects in very dry conditions lacking humidity.
Azelaic Acid calms inflammation, kills acne-causing bacteria, and treats post-acne marks
Benzoyl Peroxide is a powerful acne fighter best used on other less sensitive areas of the body like the back.
Etc. there are many MANY more good ingredients out there and more are being implemented every day. Matcha, Hemp, Oatmeal, Snail Secretion Filtrate, Centella Asiatica Leaf, Beet Root, Tea Tree. Just to name a few in the products I know and love!
There are certain ingredients to stay away from when you are on the skincare hunt, especially if you have sensitive skin.
Astringents have been marketed to teens to blast away pimples instantly for years. Alcohol, witch hazel, citric acid, and salicylic acid are all astringents that work overtime to kill pimples. However, astringents are hard on the skin and can be damaging to the skin barrier as well as extremely drying.
Essential Oils / Fragrances are ingredients added to skincare to make them smell amazing when applied to the skin. These fragrant components don’t do anything to benefit your skin and have potential unintended side effects like irritation and skin barrier damage.
Analyzing Ingredient Lists
I personally had a very harsh routine before my skincare renaissance this year. I used products with tons of astringents and fragrance and found that cutting those ingredients out of my routine or at least reducing them significantly had big positive effects on the calmness of my skin. One thing that has helped me immensely is using a resource like INCIdecoder to analyze the ingredient list. INCI highlights good ingredients and more importantly points out not so good ingredients from the products, breaks out the ingredients with the highest concentrations, and allows you to compare products side by side so you can easily make that decision between the two different cleansers you’ve been debating on buying.
Tips for Application
\ Applying products on damp skin helps better absorption. An exception is with Retinols which should always be applied on dry skin unless the manufacturer says otherwise.
\ After your cleanser, apply products from thinnest (watery) to thickest (creamy) always ending with your sunscreen.
\ Some of these active ingredients in treatments can be problematic when mixed with one another. I will not get into how to layer activities here but this is a great resource for obtaining that info.
\ You should be reapplying your sunscreen during the day especially if you are outside for prolonged periods of time!
\ Pilling occurs when your skincare doesn’t absorb into your skin resulting in flaky bits on your face. Give your skin an extra 10-30 seconds to allow the product to absorb
\ Monitor how your skin is doing for several weeks before adding any additional products. It takes time for results to appear.
Holding Yourself & Brands Accountable
With this newfound knowledge, you will definitely be making smarter, more informed purchases. Translation: you’ll be buying less products over time, saving money, and wasting less. Since you’re holding yourself to such high standards now, make sure you are doing the same with the brands you choose to support.
Stand by brands that are conscious about their environmental impact and are actively making moves to combat it. No company is perfect but there are definitely brands out there trying harder than others.
Look for brands that are transparent with their ingredient lists, gravitate towards ingredients that are non irritating and gentle, and are dedicated to sharing skincare knowledge with their customers.
Be proud to purchase products from brands that are 100% cruelty free. There are so many amazing cruelty free brands out there to support, I don’t think we have an excuse to do otherwise.
If you are looking for more polished production, look to Beauty Within for their talk-show like set up and deep dives into products and interviews with their creators by the sparkling hosts Rowina (dry skin) & Felicia (oily skin). They also have a heavy emphasis on k-beauty if you are interested in that.
Here are some apps to help track your skincare journey. I found them to be too tedious for my taste. However, I do think they are a resource worth checking out:
Skincare Routine \ Link
Trove Skin \ Link
And finally here are some brands that I love. They of course all check those Brand Accountability requirements I set for myself! But don’t go purchasing products just because I do. Find the products that best fit your skin’s needs.
Drugstore \ Versed