Lately my skin looks like it was forced to sit through a screening of The Irishman. It’s tired, dull, and just generally lacks that glow that normal, alive people seem to have. Dull skin is “skin that doesn’t reflect light and feels and looks sluggish,” says Renée Rouleau, celebrity esthetician and founder of her eponymous skin-care line. I enlisted both Rouleau and dermatologist Mona Gohara, MD, to explain just why dull skin happens and how to fix it.
As everyone diligently works through their skin-care routine once if not twice a day, the ultimate goal is to have a healthy glow. So dull skin is the exact opposite of that. “Dull skin usually comes from dead skin cells that are clinging on for dear life—evict those babies to bring back your glow,” says Dr. Gohara. “We shed 50 million dead skin cells a day, and they need an extra nudge, or else they will hang out on your body for a long, long time.” Eek. Keep scrolling for your dull skin prevention plan, plus how to reveal the dewy skin that you work so hard for.
Causes of dull skin
There could be several things making your skin duller than that one date you went on where the guy ordered Chardonnay. As Dr. Gohara touched on, dead skin is a biggie. This dead skin buildup gets worse the older you get, which goes to show that staying on top of your exfoliating regimen is crucial for healthy skin. “As the skin ages, everything tends to slow down including cell metabolism, blood circulation, oil production, and the natural exfoliating process of the skin,” Rouleau says.
Not moisturizing your skin properly or stripping it with harsh products (e.g., sulfate-based soaps and cleansers) can also contribute to a dull complexion, says Dr. Gohara. Lack of blood circulation can also contribute, Rouleau says. “It means that less nutrients and oxygen are being brought to the skin cells causing skin to look dull,” she says. This is where using gua sha or a jade roller can come in handy (or simply your hands) for a circulation-boosting facial massage.
How to combat dull skin
Now that you know why your skin is dull, here’s how to make it glow like it was blessed by Lizzo herself. For an easy, free tip, Rouleau says to hang your head upside down for three minutes a day. “If your skin doesn’t already have a natural pinkness, a long-term strategy is to hang your head upside down for three minutes per day. You can do this up against a wall in a handstand or during a downward dog in yoga, or simply by hanging your head over the side of your bed,” she says. “You should notice that after three minutes, a slight redness will appear on the skin and in the long run, it can make a big difference in getting and keeping an inner glow, to appear ‘lit from within.'” You can also practice deep breathing, which decreases stress and gets oxygenated blood to “flood your system.”
Both Rouleau and Dr. Gohara recommend regular exfoliation to brighten up your skin. Look for products with chemical exfoliants like alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) to do the job. Dr. Gohara recommends Glycolix Elite Treatment Pads ($42). I’m also partial to Kinship Insta Swipe AHA Pads ($22), which contain glycolic acid and Manuka honey. And Ole Henriksen Phat Glow Facial Mask ($49) uses PFAs—chemical exfoliants that are gentler than AHAs.
Additionally, be sure to choose a face cleanser that’s formulated without sulfates and is low-foaming. “Cleansing your skin in the morning and at night is essential for optimal skin health, but you need to pay attention to the type of cleanser you use,” Rouleau says. Surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, or ammonium laureth sulfate could be lurking in those products, and these ingredients can be drying and can leave your skin feeling tight. Dr. Gohara recommends using Dove Beauty Bar ($9) for a four-pack of gentle cleansers.
After you wash your face, be sure to pat—not rub—your face dry and use a cream moisturizer (rather than a lotion) to moisturize your complexion. “Creams are more hydrating as they are oil-based,” says Dr. Gohara. For a moisturizer, she likes Skinceuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2 ($128). Garnier SkinActive Water Rose 24H Moisture Cream ($15) is a drugstore option that contains rosewater and hyaluronic acid, and doesn’t leave skin feeling greasy. Dr. Gohara also recommends products with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid or ceramides. I’m partial to Stacked Skincare Hyaluronic Acid Hydrating Serum with Champaca Essence ($130) which also contains lactic acid.
Lastly, look for products that contain ingredients like peppermint and ginseng. These are vasodilators, which means that “when applied topically, they may dilate the blood vessels, allowing the skin to accommodate more nutrient-rich blood. With continued use, you should notice the skin looking brighter,” Rouleau says. Her Luxe Mint Cleansing Gel ($34) contains peppermint oil along with spearmint leaf oil and licorice root extract. I rarely use the word invigorating, but I can attest that this face wash is, indeed, invigorating.
Originally posted December 24, 2019; updated April 9, 2020
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