September 28, 2022

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Why you should ditch your excessive skincare habits

A few years ago, my bathroom cabinets would have made a minimalist wince. Little vials of vitamin C, tall essences and every kind of acid filled the shelves. I treated skincare like speed dating; chopping and changing when products failed to live up to expectation and swiping left when the next shiny thing in skincare came along.

I’m not alone, either. A staggering 78% of those quizzed by the Swedish beauty brand Foreo in a 2021 global survey said they’d expanded their skincare routine since the start of the pandemic. #Skincare was the top hashtag in beauty on Twitter in 2021, while the famed #skincareshelfie has now amassed over a million views on TikTok.

For all my diligence (I schooled up on acids, invested in at-home facial tools and got to grips with multi-masking), the luminous complexion I anticipated never arrived. A rash that no amount of moisturiser could manage spread from one side of my forehead right down to my chin; cleansers stung my face, while toners left it tight. Far from being in peak skin health, my complexion was looking worse than it ever had (see left image, below).

When I share this news with Stefanie Williams, dermatologist and founder of Eudelo skin clinic, she isn’t that surprised. ‘I often see patients who are overusing skincare,’ she confirms. ‘Most are over-moisturising (using too many moisturisers or lipid-rich formulas)or layering too many products, causing the skin to become ‘bumpy’ or congested with open or closed comedones (blackheads or whiteheads).’

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Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum is over-exfoliating. ‘This refers to the use of irritating ingredients such as retinoids (vitamin A derivatives that have been proven to increase cell turnover and minimise fine lines) or alpha hydroxy acids(AHAs), such as glycolic and lactic acid),’ adds Dr Williams. In excess, both can cause redness, dryness, itchy skin and, in severe cases, contact dermatitis – a rash that looks similar to eczema.

An explanation of why too many products can cause you issues begins with the stratum corneum. Essentially, it’s the glue that holds everything together and the outermost layer of skin, also known as your skin barrier. Made of lipids (fats) products can actually reduce effectiveness such as ceramides, it helps defend against daily aggressors (UV rays, infection and pollution.

‘When overusing active ingredients or constantly changing formulas, your epidermal barrier function becomes impaired and too much water evaporates from the skin, causing a lowered water content in the stratum corneum,’ explains Alexis Granite, consultant dermatologist for CeraVe. ‘As the skin dries out, little cracks appear in the barrier, which may let in irritants and germs that can cause dermatitis and worsen existing skin conditions[such as acne and rosacea].’ As per research published in the Journal Of Clinical And AestheticDermatology, erosion of the skin barrier is one of the biggest causes of skin issues for dermatologists.

Can this reduce products’ effectiveness?

If an enthusiastic approach to actives isn’t leaving your skin visibly irritated, it could be blunting their effectiveness due to the way certain ingredients interact. It’s ironic, really. While single-ingredient options such as hyaluronic acid and niacinamide were designed to make evidence-based ingredients more accessible to the likes of you and me, DIY skincare layering – using multiple single-ingredient formulas – can ultimately reduce effectiveness. Take vitamin C and AHAs; used simultaneously, the acids can destabilise the pH balance of vitamin C, which makes both useless and can cause irritation.

What’s the impact on the environment?

Consider, too, the impact these multistep routines are having on the environment, and the case for stripping them back becomes even stronger. ‘Two decades ago, brands launched product ranges seasonally– now it’s weekly,’ explains Millie Kendall, CEO of the British BeautyCouncil. Not only is increased production creating excess waste – the cosmetics industry produces an estimated 120 billion units of packaging globally every year, according to recycling company TerraCycle – it also feeds the belief that more steps, and therefore more products, are the solution.

As beauty platform Skoosh Skin reported, 77% of women in the UK buy up to 100 products a year, but use fewer than 10 items regularly. That equates to over 5kg of beauty and packaging waste in a lifetime, and a cost of over £180,000. I’m as guilty of this as the next person; it pains me to think how quickly I’ve abandoned formulas that weren’t working when, in reality, I never gave them the time or space to be effective.

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Here to help us scale back our bulging routines is the made-to-order movement. One brand leading the charge is Skin + Me, a personalised skincare service founded on the theme of excess. ‘I experienced the worst skin of my life in my mid-twenties,’ says co-founder Rachel Jones. ‘I got carried away trying every new skincare brand and product launch, and added so many steps, tools and ingredients that it became a constant process of trial and error, which caused sensitivity, clogged pores and breakouts.’ Jones launched Skin + Me in 2020 to provide an online consultation that offers active ingredients specifically for your skin’s needs; one formula that dispenses just the right amount of product every single time.

How to start a simple skincare routine

Step one, Dr Williams tells me, is to understand your skin’s needs. Get clear on
what you want to achieve, be that reducing breakouts, minimising the appearance of fine lines or fortifying your skin’s barrier. Then visit a qualified expert if skin concerns such as rosacea, sensitivity and acne persist. If you can’t do that, there are now online marketplaces such as Match2Me from Trinny London, where you receive product suggestions based on your concerns and skin type.

Next, start a simple but considered routine – then stick with it. ‘I’d start with products, rather than ingredients,’ adds DrGranite. ‘The essential building blocks include a cleanser, moisturiser and sunscreen. Then, in the evening, after cleansing, you can apply a retinoid.’ Note that if you are introducing the latter, it’s important to do so gradually to avoid irritation.

Want to add another step? You can, but do so one product at a time – waiting two to four weeks before introducing the next one. To fortify the skin barrier, Dr Williams also points to hyaluronic acid to help hydrate your skin and stabilise the epidermal barrier function without causing congestion.

What skincare products can you cut out?

Consider any superfluous steps. Do you really need a facial scrub and retinol? Perhaps not.‘If you’re already using a chemical exfoliant such as a retinoid, there’s usually no need to add a mechanical exfoliant such as a scrub,’ confirms Dr Williams. This could lead to over-exfoliating your skin and, you guessed it, an impaired skin barrier.

Another contentious topic: eye cream. It should be an additional consideration only if your eye area is a particular concern, confirms Dr Granite. And as for the toner? Skip it, apparently. ‘Most people really don’t need toner unless they have very oily skin,’ Dr Granite says.‘Toners can be quite stripping and if you have chosen a cleanser suitable for your skin type, it shouldn’t be necessary.’

What does a scaled-back routine look like?

For me, a simplified routine looks like a hardworking (albeit gentle) cleanser (CeraVe HydratingCleanser, £10), an antioxidant serum (SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic Antioxidant Serum) and an SPF and moisturiser (CeraVeFacial Moisturising Lotion SPF50,see right), with the addition of retinol (Murad Retinol YouthRenewal Night Cream, £70) in the evening:

Finally, if it ain’t broke? Don’t fix it. If your existing multistep routine is working for you, by all means, stick with it. Skin health looks different for everyone and what works for one person may not work for someone else. But if, like me, your multistep routine is delivering more grief than glow, there’s a strong case for stripping it back.