A few months ago, when K-Beauty queen Charlotte Cho told me that the concept of the 10-step skin-care regimen was, in effect, totally misunderstood, my jaw dropped straight onto the table. For the last few years, so many of us have been living by the more-is-more edict when it comes to what we put on our faces. My own nightly routine, for example, involves a micellar water, a cleanser, a toner, two serums, a facial oil, a moisturizer, and a sleeping mask… and that’s not including the actual electronic devices I use to help the products work harder. But as any dermatologist will tell you, there is a such thing as too much of a good thing, and your skin could wind up paying the price.
With so many powerful active ingredients on the market these days (ILYSM, retinol), it’s not exactly hard to slather on a whole lot of powerful stuff at once. So how can you tell if you’re overdoing it? “If you’re asking that question, your skin is probably burnt out,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ellen Marmur, founder of MM Skincare. “Your skin should feel like you just gave it a big hug, it should feel happy. It shouldn’t feel tight, squeaky, clean, dry, crinkly—it should feel supple and soft to the touch.” She notes that any sort of irritation or redness is a sign you’re doing too much. Another major giveaway? A shiny forehead, which is the first sign that your over-exfoliating and have likely compromised your skin barrier.
If you’re dealing with skin issues that frustrate you—like acne, blackheads, or rosacea—it can be tempting to want to pile on the products to get them to go away ASAP. “People think, ‘if I exfoliate more, I can get out those blackheads.’ But that’s not always true,” says Susan Cox, MD partnering dermatologist to Higher Education Skincare. “Sometimes, yes, you can. But you can also irritate your skin to the point that you can’t tolerate anything.”
While your products may work wonders for you on their own—or when used with the right routine—when you mix them with too much other stuff, the whole thing can backfire on you. “You can start using so many things that you can dry out your skin. You’re not sure what you’re putting on there, and you really haven’t read the ingredients so you don’t know what’s in there,” says Dr. Cox.
Certain product combinations can also leave your skin angry and irritated. “If you’re using vitamin C, vitamin E, glycolic acid, retinoic acid, scrubs, and toners all in the same day, you’re depleting your skin of every shred of lipids, and one of the most essential things for our skin is its natural lipids,” says Dr. Marmur, noting that you should instead be looking for things with a hearty dose of ceramides and humectants, like hyaluronic acid. Another option? Look for products that treat and enrich skin at the same time. For example the Body Shop Nicaraguan Coffee Intense Awakening Mask ($28) at once uses shea butter and sesame seed oil to soften skin along with coffee to exfoliate and invigorate it.
Because so many of us now have skin that regularly feels the way we do on a Thursday afternoon (read: burnt the eff out), it’s hardly a surprise that terms like “#skipcare” and “#skincarediet” have started to become common fixtures on our Instagram feeds. This involves crafting a routine that does more for your skin with fewer products, which can ultimately help you avoid burning out. But the first thing you should do is a full-on detox to reset your skin to its happiest—AKA its base level. “I like to minimize and simplify,” says Dr. Marmur. “Reduce the amount of cleansers, eliminate toners, don’t use any scrubs, focus on serums and moisturizers and healthy masks and then don’t use wipes, don’t use any alcohol face products, don’t use preservatives on your skin, that kind of stuff.”
Think of this “back to the basics” method as a way to wean your skin off of everything you’ve been doing to it and start totally fresh. And the most important thing? “See what works for you, and take good basic skin care,” says Dr. Cox. And when that means a shorter, less expensive routine, consider me convinced.
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