Here it is: there is no cream, wash, toner, serum, vibrating brush, or whatever that will help your skin. That’s the truth. Deal with it.
When I worked at cosmetic counters in department stores, I would always, always get people asking for the creams that really worked. Like we were co-conspirators; “don’t give me that fake shit you give to all the other customers,” they seemed to be saying, “you can trust me with the real deal.”
I always, always, always struggled with this aspect of the cosmetics industry. There are those who would like you to believe that all makeup and cosmetics is bullshit, and that’s just not true. If your goal is to paint your lips a different colour, makeup will accomplish this. If you want to achieve the illusion of thicker eyelashes, there are products that will do just that. But there is absolutely no product on earth that will reverse wrinkles, undo sun damage, permanently moisturize dry skin, or (most offensively of all) change or lighten your skin tone. Sorry not sorry.
I am lying a little bit. Let me back up. As a makeup artist, a big part of my job was dealing with people’s privately held beliefs, insecurities, fears, and hopes regarding makeup and cosmetics in general. There were people who put too much hope into buying a new product, convinced of its ability to change their entire life, and then there are people who approach makeup artists and cosmetics counters with the same enthusiasm that they approach car salesman and other purveyors of snake oil. It wears on you.
Skin care is a tricky place for a makeup artist. Unless you’ve also been trained as an aesthetician, you’re not really qualified to give advice or make recommendations. But as a makeup artist, you need the best canvas possible to appropriately do your job. I found myself becoming a kind of de facto facialist, dispensing what little knowledge I had to customers and clients to treat their various skin complaints.
The problem is this: there’s a commonly held belief that somewhere out there is a cream that will do exactly what it promises to do. “This is the one,” skin care companies are fond of saying. “We’ve finally perfected the technology.” And the assumption is that the previous creams that failed to work just didn’t have this new scientific breakthrough, and if you buy this one and apply it exactly as directed, you’ll achieve surgery-level results, and everyone will be jealous.
And if it didn’t work? Well, you probably didn’t follow the instructions properly. Remember a few weekends ago when you came home so drunk that you only half-assedly took off your makeup and accidentally applied the serum AFTER the moisturizer? That’s why the product isn’t working, is the implication. It’s your own fault. Not Oil of Olay’s.
The logic breakdown that occurs here just murders me. Let’s say this cream did exist. There is no fucking way that this cream would exist and remain an “underground” secret. If such a product existed, we’d all be using it. I would be FIRST in line to get whatever product is going to keep me in an acne-less version of the skin I had when I was sixteen, duh, I’m not made of stone.
Secondly, there’s a problem with a very basic understanding of the way skin works. The layer that can be treated externally is just that–an external layer. You cannot correct a problem that begins on the inside by exclusively treating the outside. If you have wrinkles, that is likely the result of a combination of genetics and sun damage; there is no cream that can be applied to your DNA. There are scalpels and lasers and injections. You cannot smoothe a wrinkle with serum.
Other solutions similarly have to start from within. There was one counter I worked at–let’s call it Blestee Blauder–renowned for their lines of wrinkle creams and serums. Women would approach the counter and ask which one was best for their particular brand of wrinkle. Nothing. The answer was none of them. You know what works? Water, sleep, leafy greens, and staying away from the sun and cigarettes. Everything that sucks the fun out of life will prevent wrinkles. The rest is just a glycerin mixture.
Allow me to display some of the classic double-talk that pervades the cosmetic industry: none of what I just said means you should stop using skin care products. What I’m proposing is to change the way you think about your skin care products. You have very basic needs that must be addressed: cleanliness, hygiene, and protection. Everything after that might be, literally, snake oil. Here is what you must actually do to appropriately take care of your skin.
1. Wash it. I mean, obviously. But you’re not washing it to fix a problem – a cream cleanser will not fix dry skin, for example. If you have dry skin, a cream cleanser is the most appropriate way to remove the oil that builds up while you sleep and go about your day. It also will remove pollution and other gross things that your skin cells get attached to as you move through this smoggy jungle planet we call home. You must keep the surface of your skin as clean as possible to allow for healthy skin cells, but the product only treats this problem for ten hours max. There will never be a face wash that treats acne so effectively it eliminates the need for itself. There will only ever be a face wash that keeps your oil and dirt levels under manageable control for a set amount of hours, no matter what Bleutrogena tries to tell you.
2. Tone it. Or don’t. Whatever. Toner is a disputed zone for me. I use toner every single morning and have found if I don’t use it, I break out. A toner, when used properly, removes the residue left by the cleanser and any dirt the cleanser failed to pick up. It’s an added level of clean, for sure, but I’ve always secretly suspected it to be bullshit. I mean, if you’re cleaning your face, and then using a toner to remove leftover cleanser from your face, shouldn’t you also need a toner to remove the leftover toner from your face? It seems like a who-polices-the-police sort problem to me, but for your epidermis. I suppose a good toner will leave behind something that’s actually beneficial for your pores? In any case, a toner has been proven to keep my skin more or less clear. So, take that information for what it’s worth.
3. Treat acne. Sure. Ok. Yes. I use an acne spot treatment. I have no idea if it works. It’s a mixture that’s as close to 100% salicylic acid as you’re allowed to buy over the counter. Sometimes it seems like it clears up the zit immediately and other times it does nothing for weeks. Again, I must stress–this has nothing to do with the zit cream itself. The effectiveness of the zit cream is determined by the zit itself. Typing zit is really satisfying, for some reason? Anyways, if the zit is mostly surface, a salicylic acid formula will be able to penetrate (heh) and break up the oil and gunk and reduce the appearance of the zit tout de suite. If it’s a deep motherfucker, you’re going to need to get like a drill or something down there. Extract it like you’re Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. It could be a sequel where his great-great-great-granddaughter works as a facialist and is consumed by their desire to profit from popping pus out of faces like her great-great-great-grandfather did with oil and dirt. That’s a freebie for you, film executives reading this. Zits are also, to get all Gwyneth on you, largely connected to the quality of foods we’re eating and liquids we’re drinking. For a while, I went through a breakfast cereal phase because it was easy (and nutritious! She said as she cashed her cheque from the cereal lobby), but the milk made me break out around my chin and jaw line. When I’m eating well and drinking water and working out, my skin is the best. When I’m drinking Slurpees and eating burgers and lazing in the park, my skin is the worst. My body is a judgmental dick like that, and yours might be too.
4. Serums? I do not use serums, really. I got one for free at Sephora, and sometimes I use it, sometimes I don’t. But actually it may surprise you to discover that I do believe in serums – I just can’t afford them. They are the most expensive out of all skin care products, allegedly because they deliver the most potent ingredients in precisely the right way. I have seen friends who have had extremely excellent responses to serums, but again, these are excellent SURFACE responses. Serums will improve the APPEARANCE of wrinkles or whatever they’re promising to do. If you stop using the serum, the APPEARANCE will get worse. It will deliver very potent ingredients in precisely the right way to the SURFACE of your skin, but it cannot change your actual skin. I feel like a broken record here.
5. Moisturize. I firmly believe in moisturizing, yes, this is not hypocritical of me, no. Moisturizing will not change anything about your skin. Let’s go back to dry skin as an example. If you have dry skin on your face, there is no moisturizer in the world that will change this – but there are moisturizers that will provide moisture and relieve dryness for a few hours, enough so that you can get on with your day until you repeat this whole process before going to sleep. Sometimes I talk to friends who don’t believe moisturizing does anything because their skin reverts back to its original state once the moisture wears off. To me, that’s like saying drinking water doesn’t do anything because you pee it out eventually and you have to keep drinking more to stay hydrated. It’s the exact same concept. Drinking water will keep you hydrated as long as you’re doing it; likewise, moisturizers will moisturize the skin as long as you’re continuously applying it.
A moisturizer is really good for one thing, and it’s not keeping your skin moisturized. A moisturizer should be a barrier between your skin and the rest of the world–makeup and sun, primarily. Applying a moisturizer with SPF 30 will block the sun on a normal day spent inside an office. Applying a moisturizer will provide a smooth surface for your makeup AND prevent your pores from soaking up too much of a heavy makeup cream consistency that tends to create acne or dullness. I do use a moisturizer with Vitamin E, but I have no idea if that really makes a difference or not. Moisturizer should be protective and preventative. Repeat this with me: use your daytime moisturizer as a barrier, not a balm. That’s a freebie for you, cosmetics marketing executives.
Your nighttime moisturizer? I don’t know. I use the same moisturizer day and night, but again, that has more to do with cheapness than with opinion. I think your skin has different needs while you sleep. I produce more oil when I sleep, like most people, so a lighter moisturizer might be in order; other people might experience drier skin, especially with artificial heating and air conditioning systems, so a thicker moisturizer would be in order. Again, it’s to TREAT a problem, not to CURE a problem.
6. Masks, Exfoliators, Clarisonics, etc. I exfoliate twice a week: Mondays and Thursdays. I use an exfoliater that’s quite minty and has some caffeine in it. It’s supposed to “perk up” the skin, but really, that’s a placebo effect caused by the minty smell. I use it on Mondays when I’m like “ugh I can’t believe this is a time of day I’m awake I hate everyone” because the minty smell puts me in a good mood; I have no idea why. When I first became a full-time freelancer I ran out and couldn’t afford to replace it for about four months. My skin did not change, but my Monday mood was markedly worse. Make of that what you will.
I use a mask twice a week. It’s a thick black peel-off mask that claims to be “brightening”. It does make my skin look more even – for about a day. I use this mask to remove a layer of dead skin and provide deeper exfoliation. It helps with the appearance of my skin, and it seems to be keeping my acne under control, but that will stop as soon as I stop using the mask for too long. I came to this product highly recommended by a friend, but didn’t buy it because it was too expensive; now I love it and dread the day I run out of it. It’s an integral part of my Sunday self-care routine and also it freaks my boyfriend right the fuck out when he’s around to see me peeling it off. Win-win-win.
I really want a Clarisonic thing. I don’t know why. I don’t really know what it does or why it’s different, but here’s something I do know: most runway makeup artists give models a facial massage before applying their makeup. By increasing the flow of blood in their faces, the skin appears healthier, plumper, glowier, all that weird good stuff that no makeup product can ever fake. I think vibrating face wash things have the same effect on your skin–it makes the blood circulate better and gives the appearance of health and vitality. So, I want it. But of course that could be some pseudo-science bullshit.
There are some things that are good for your skin that have absolutely nothing to do with skin care. They are:
1. Sweating. Sweating is the best thing for your skin. (GOOD – Ed.) (UGH – other Ed.)That seems so counterintuitive, I know, but really, nothing is as beneficial than getting yourself dripping in sweat. I would take a spin class and 10 minutes in the sauna over a facial any day. Follow it up with a cold shower and join me in bliss.
2. Water. Duh. Oh my god. Drink water. I’ve met people who say they don’t like the taste of water and when I am queen they will be first against the wall. Seriously, drink enough so that your pee is pale yellow and your skin will be great. Water, as we know, will transform your digestive system into mother-of-pearl and cause grown men to sink to their knees when you pass.
3. Green vegetables and other healthy-type foods. I don’t know, what else can I say about this? Your body likes vegetables. Your body hates a lot of more delicious things. If you feed your body things it doesn’t like, it will rebel like a snotty teenager and do the body equivalent of stealing your favorite purse and spilling Smirnoff Ice over it, and you’ll be like “why wasn’t I born an only child” only instead of your purse it will be your face and instead of Smirnoff Ice it will be zits and stuff.
4. Sunscreen. Wear it. You know why. Reapply it appropriately. Bye.
Here are some caveats:
If you have really bad cystic acne, there are definitely products that will help you. What worked for your friend will probably not work for you; you need a real dermatologist and you need a lot of trial and error, but there are chemicals out there that will blast that shit right out of your pores. Of course, until your hormones even out, you will be dependent on those products to keep it clear. Non-hormonal and hormonal treatments are available. I am not a doctor, I am just a beauty school dropout with an inflated sense of self. Go to a real doctor please.
I do know of a product that does legitimately prevent wrinkles. It also appeared to reduce the appearance of existing wrinkles quite drastically. The results I saw on friends and co-workers were nothing short of actual witchcraft. When I first started working at this counter, I was converted; a die-hard true believer, convinced I had found that Holy Grail.
HOWEVER. My turning point came when I was working alone at a counter and a woman approached to buy this magical product. She had read about it in a magazine and was prepared to spend several hundred dollars to own the complete package of serum, daytime moisturizer, and nighttime moisturizer. Right before I rang her up–a purchase that would have gotten me a substantial commission, I feel obliged to tell you–she stopped to tell me she was four months pregnant. “Do you think it’s safe for the baby?” she asked. I could not in good conscience tell her yes. The ingredients in this product could drill a hole through a car engine. To be less dramatic, the ingredients were about as dangerous as serious bleach-blonde hair dye, which pregnant women are generally warned against. I told her to ask her doctor before buying and she never came back.
I’m not saying this product is harmful enough to actually hurt a fetus! I’m saying I DID NOT KNOW. And when you DON’T KNOW, I think it’s generally safest to err on the side of, “if this product produces magical responses and there is no ingredient with less than seven syllables, you probably don’t want it around a fetus.” Right? I’M NOT A DOCTOR THOUGH. DO WHAT YOU WANT. YOUR BODY YOUR CHOICE. I’M JUST TELLING YOU THIS ANECDOTE BECAUSE IT WAS A BIG TURNING POINT FOR ME PERSONALLY.
A lot of what we consider to be good skin has nothing to do with actual good skin. Good skin is generally supposed to be clear, even, smooth, all that sort of conventional bullshit. There are elements at play with good skin that have nothing to do with your skin: lighting is a big one (another article on that forthcoming) and hormones are another. I hope I’ve opened your eyes to all the different ways the skin care industry is bullshit and that you still want to be friends. Drink a glass of water now. Bye.
Next up: In which we learn how to match foundation tones, and chat with makeup artists of color about their secrets and dreams.
Haley Mlotek is the publisher of WORN Fashion Journal. Her writing has appeared in WORN (obviously), as well as Hazlitt and The Hairpin. She believes in reading, writing, and red lipstick.
WORN Fashion Journal is a completely different kind of fashion magazine. An independent print publication based in Toronto, Canada, WORN discusses the histories, personal stories, cultures, and subcultures of fashion.