The Best Way To Care for Inflamed, Irritated Skin Might Just Be Skipping Skin Care Altogether

Photo: Getty Images/ Yana Iskayeva
This summer, I put my complexion through the wringer of "sweat, face wipe, repeat" until the textural changes on my face had become unignorable. I showed up to an overdue facial appointment with redness dotting my T-zone and expected to be put on an entirely new regimen. Instead, I was encouraged to do the exact opposite—to stop using skin care altogether for the sake of a "skin fast."

While the practice of taking an intentional, temporary break from one’s skin-care routine is nothing new, the concept has been gaining traction on social media of late—on TikTok, the term "skin fast" has more than 3.4 million views. The idea is that taking some time off from your products will give your skin a chance to reset itself. According to Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, the principle is similar to that behind lip gloss addiction: When you're constantly slathering balm on your lips, they can feel dry and itchy any time they don't have the product on them because they've acclimated to an artificial (and highly moisturized) environment. If that happens—to your lips and your skin—taking a break can allow things to return to their natural homeostasis.

For my own timeout from my regular routine, I ditched all of my usual products and simply washed my face once a day with an all-natural cleanser and applied sunscreen every morning—that was it. By letting my skin be, well, skin, my inflammation began to subside after a week—and a skin fast was to thank for it.

What is a skin fast?

The surface of the skin is covered in an ecosystem of (good!) bacteria that makes up the microbiome, and keeping this flora healthy is the single most important factor in overall skin health. Overdoing it on active ingredients can disrupt the delicate environment, leading to inflammatory skin conditions like acne, eczema, and rosacea as well as dryness and a weakened skin barrier.

Skin care is often marketed in a way that encourages using more products—which, when it comes to the microbiome, isn't necessarily a good thing. "If having a heavy skin-care routine was beneficial, I don’t think that 70 percent of women today would have sensitive skin,” skin scientist Elsa Jungman, PhD previously told Well+Good. “We’ve never used so many products, and our skin has never been worse.”

All of this is where skin fasting comes in. “When we are able to take a break, it allows our microbiome biodiversity to repopulate and reset itself,” says Emily Davis, a licensed holistic esthetician. “I don’t even want to call it a trend, because I feel like it’s us returning to our biology.”

The benefits of skin fasting

“The potential benefits of skin fasting can include allowing the skin's natural processes to restore and rebalance, reducing dependency on products, and simplifying skincare routines,” says Ife J. Rodney, MD, a board-certified. “It’s also easy to become overwhelmed and confused by the many brands available today, so fasting allows you to save money and focus on a simple plan.”While Dr. Rodney admits some of the benefits are anecdotal, she says that some people find taking a break also allows them to reduce dependency on active ingredients. When they resume using the products, they can be more effective after the skin has had time to breathe.

Who should (and shouldn’t) try a skin fast?

Despite the benefits that some people may experience from taking a break from their skin care, experts warn against the trend as a universally recommended practice. “While some people may find benefits from taking a break from their skin-care routine, it's crucial to consider individual skin types, concerns, and overall skin health. What works for one person may not work for another,” Dr. Rodney adds.

“In some cases, taking a skin fast can actually be detrimental,” says Dr. Zeichner. “It takes several weeks or even months to adjust to retinol; stopping it means that you will have to restart from scratch in the future.”

How to skin fast

All of that said, it's important to remember that it doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing approach. In fact, most dermatologists advise keeping the essentials, like a gentle cleanser and SPF, during a fast. Or, if you aren't ready to give up all of your serums, lay off some of the most active ones (think: retinoids and acids) and focus on products that restore hydration and help rebuild the skin barrier.

Because skin fasting is a personalized practice, Davis emphasizes it’s important to evaluate one’s unique skin needs and environment. For someone who lives near more pollution, a skin fast may look like cleansing in the evening but removing all other products, for example. If you have a skin condition or are following a regime with prescription ingredients, consult with a dermatologist on the best method for your skin.

And with any sort of skin fast you decide to do, commit to at least a week (or, even better, two weeks) to give your barrier a chance to reset.

What to do after you’ve completed a skin fast

So, you successfully complete the fast. Now what? Say hello to microbiome-friendly skin care, a term assigned to products that are designed to support the trillions of microorganisms living on the skin.

“Microbiome skin care focuses on nurturing a diverse and balanced microbiome through gentle and pH-balanced products, avoiding harsh ingredients, and supporting beneficial microorganisms,” says Dr. Rodney. “Prioritizing a healthy microbiome can contribute to improved skin health, hydration, and barrier function.”

Beyond that, Davis recommends taking a minimalist approach and reintroducing products slowly. Once the skin re-establishes its equilibrium, adding harsh treatments again can disrupt all the work you put in. By easing into a routine, you can streamline your product lineup and avoid irritation in the future.

Given the wide spectrum that the practice of skin fasting falls on, the key takeaways are for us beauty hoarders: freeing yourself from products every now and then may be just what your skin microbiome (and, as an added bonus, your wallet) needs.

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