Thursday, February 25, 2010

Life skills: How to take reasonably good care of your skin

One of the women who writes for this blog used to wash her face with deodorant soap.  When I saw her a few months ago, she told me I'd be so proud of her--she'd switched to body wash and a loofa!  I stared at her open mouthed and said, "On your face?!"  She was a case of under-maintenance.  The much more common issue I run into is over-maintenance--the ladies with 42 products lined up in their medicine cabinet, containing everything from salicylic acid to royal bee jelly.  The truth is, most people have no idea what to do with their skin.  We have no idea, because commercials are constantly telling us that we need this product to make it brighter, this product to make it softer, this to keep it from wrinkling, this to dry it out, this to make it moist, this to keep it from breaking out, and this to cover it up when it does break out.  Not surprisingly, in response to all this abuse, our skin freaks out.  And we, sighting those ugly pimples and flaking and shine, freak out with it.  It's time to stop the madness.  Below are some tips to take care of your skin like an old friend, not a misbehaving puppy.

This is not the hyper-technical, million-product skincare guide.  This is some basic information on how to take reasonably good care of your skin, while not letting any 3-step "regime" take over your life.  My expertise on this is only from experience (from working in the makeup and skincare industry and dealing with my own skin), so take it with a grain of salt.  Back in college, I worked as a makeup artist for a makeup/skincare company.  We attended regular trainings on skincare, and guided our customers in choosing the best skincare for them.  Ironically, during this time, I had the worst skin of my life.  Why?  Because every day I had to come to work with a full face of makeup on, not to mention using all of the company's skincare products that I later realized were too harsh for my skin. That brings me to my first tip of happy skin care:

1) Go easy on makeup.  Your breakouts are a cycle that is perpetuated by the makeup you put on to cover them up.  Makeup clogs your pores, creates breakouts, and then requires more makeup.  I understand that most of us don't want to go outside with big angry pimples on our face, but heavy foundation is not the answer.  Until your skin calms down, try a light concealer dotted on just the blemishes, and a light dusting of translucent powder to minimize shine.  This way, you're not clogging all your other pores and generating the next batch of breakouts while waiting for these to diminish.  Note that translucent powder is different than powder foundations, which are intended to give you coverage.  Translucent powder sits on the surface of your skin and absorbs oil.  Powder foundations create a thick layer, that can both over-dry your skin and clog your pores.  Blush can also be a culprit.  If your cheeks are breaking out, try washing your blush brush with shampoo, and, if that doesn't work, switching up blush brands, or skipping it for a few days.  And remember...

2) Try really hard to wash your face at night.  Whatever you're putting on your skin during the day, it will be clogging your pores by the time you go to bed.  This is even true if you don't wear much makeup.  Dirt, sweat, and sunscreen can all clog your pores.  Washing your skin (gently--see cleansers, below) at night is one of the easiest things you can do to take care of your skin.  I often skip this, and get breakouts as a result.  Also, make sure the moisturizer you use at night does not contain SPF.  Sunscreen is important, but is made from thick chemical and physical barriers that keep your skin from breathing.  I tend to only wash my face at night (especially in the winter), then just splash it with water in the morning.  Honestly, there's no real reason to wash your face twice a day unless you wake up really shiny--it's just a way for companies to sell more products, and will end up drying out your skin.  This brings me to the most important rule of reasonably good skin care...

3) Be gentle with your skin.  Don't fight a war on pimples.  Don't use more than 1 or 2 medicated products.  (One for maintenance, one for spot treatment.)  Any more than this, and instead of treating your breakouts, you'll be throwing your skin into a tailspin of freakout.  Your skin is a delicate, living organ.  It's meant to maintain its own balance, but modern pollution, makeup, et cetera means that it needs a little extra help.  Your skin is not static.  Meaning, it will respond to how you treat it.  If you try to keep it "squeaky clean," it will just produce more oil as a result.  If you treat it with harsh chemicals, it will protect itself by forming a layer of dead cells that will flake off.

Here are some recommendations for choosing products.

You need a gentle cleanser that leaves behind some of your skin's natural oil.  I prefer non-medicated cleansers, because I find medicated ones too drying to use on a regular basis.  I'm also lazy, so I like a cleanser that can take makeup off.  If you use a gentle foaming cleanser, you can wet your face and rub the cleanser right over your eyes, removing your makeup without oily solutions and cotton pads!  I'm particularly fond of an unfortunately expensive cleanser, MD skincare's all-in-one facial cleanser.  However, there are lots of other options at the drug store: neutrogena fresh foaming cleanserolay foaming face wash for sensitive skin, or aveeno ultra calming face wash.  Look for something that makes no lofty promises--your facewash should just get your skin clean.  Avoid anti-acne or anti-aging ingredients.  The first will over-dry your skin, the second will leave your pores clogged.

The next step is to moisturize your skin.  Don't skip this step, even if you have oily skin.  If you do, your skin will run into overdrive trying to replace the oil lost during cleansing.  Here, if you want something anti-aging or medicated, OK, but I prefer to treat in a separate step.  My lotion of choice contains one "active" ingredient, retinol, which I've found helped get rid of dry patches on my skin.  It's another unfortunately expensive product, Murad's skin perfecting lotion, for acne prone skin.  They sell a whole kit of acne products, but I would only recommend the whole line if you have very severe breakouts.  Again, this product is expensive, but there are plenty of alternatives.  I decided skincare was one worthwhile place for me to splurge, but it's not for everyone.  At the drug store, look for any basic product (probably oil free, for those of us who are acne prone) that doesn't make too many ridiculous claims.  I would say stay away from moisturizer with salycillic acid, which can overdry your skin if used every day.  I'm also wary of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), which are too irritating for most people.  If you want sunscreen, buy a separate moisturizer for day versus night.  I think Neutrogena oil-free moisturizer for combination skin is a nice product.

The last step is to treat any breakouts you might have, which is arguably the most confusing.  Most anti-acne products contain either Salicylic acid or Benzoyl Peroxide.  They have slightly different properties.  Salycillic acid is an exfoliant (hence, the acid part--fun fact, it's also the active ingredient in aspirin). Salicylic acid is good if you're prone to all-over breakouts and clogged pores.  It will help slough off your skin, to remove and prevent poor-clogging dead cells.  Benzoyl peroxide is slightly different.  It's a chemical that oxidizes within the pore, creating pore-clearing from within.  This oxygenation can also kill acne-causing bacteria, which are sensitive to oxygen.  Neither of these will actually be very effective for a whitehead, or a pimple at the surface of the skin.  Why?  Because at that point, the clogged pore is no longer the problem.  Rather, the clogged pore has caused an infection, which has caused your body to produce white blood cells (pus) creating inflammation.  Benzoyl peroxide won't be able to get into the pore, and therefore will have trouble working.  For these pimples, I recommend products containing sulfur, which has been clinically shown to actually kill bacteria, thereby removing the source of the infection.  These are newer on the market, but in my experience are the best "spot treatment" around.  To break it down, I would say salicylic acid is the best for preventing breakouts, benzoyl peroxide is the best for allover breakouts and blackheads, and sulfur is the best for an on-the-spot emergency.

All in all, treat your skin the way you would want to be treated.  Love it and it'll love you back.

Got skincare questions?  Post them in the comments and I'll try to answer them as best I can, or provide resources.

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