How many skincare products do you actually need?
Skin care has gotten out of hand. A casual scroll through my Instagram feed reveals shelfies featuring 52, 81, and even up to 107 skincare products. (Yes, I counted. I was curious.) Many of these products are “clean” and plenty of them are “eco-conscious.” Many of them use good-for-you ingredients in good-for-the-planet packaging.
But what, may I ask, is “clean” and “eco-conscious” about owning 107 skincare products?
Listen, I get it. Products are pretty! Taking pictures of them is fun! Buying them eases the existential ache in the pit of one’s stomach! But don’t let the overflowing shelfies pull one over on you: A 107-step skincare routine is not doing your skin or the earth any favors, no matter how “clean” or “eco-conscious” each individual item may be.
If you truly want to have a positive impact on your complexion and your planet, the solution is simple: Use less stuff.
The environmental aspect of this is probably pretty easy to grasp. Less stuff means less packing material, less packaging waste, less fuel for shipping and delivery, less clutter, fewer CO2 and VOC emissions, less garbage. Great! But get this: Dermatologists say paring down your skincare routine is just as great for your face.
“I am a firm believer that these complicated skincare routines do more harm than good,” says Amy Paik, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist with personalized dermatology platform Apostrophe.
Dr. Paik believes that 12-step, 10-step, and even 5-step routines present more problems than they solve—and create the illusion that you “need” more products. For instance, cleansing too often or cleansing with too-harsh ingredients strips the skin of its natural oils. (True story: You can even overdo it with plain old water.) This leads you to layer on serums and moisturizers and face oils…none of which would be necessary if the skin’s sebum was left alone in the first place.
“Skin that feels tight following cleansing could be a sign that it was stripped of its natural oils with nothing left to nourish itself,” agrees board-certified dermatologist Zenovia Gabriel, M.D., (known as Dr. Zenovia). She adds that you “can also experience acne from over-cleansing, as stripping all oils from your skin can trigger your body to make more, causing overproduction and potentially clogging pores.”
That overproduction of oil will likely inspire over-exfoliation. In fact, most “issues”—oily skin, dry skin, pimply skin, wrinkly skin—prompt over-exfoliation, since beauty enthusiasts tend to believe that any and all skin problems can be sloughed away. On the contrary, too much sloughing (say, more than once or twice a week) “breaks down the skin barrier,” explains Dr. Zenovia, “exposing your skin to a higher risk of sensitivity and sun damage” and causing inflammation. With the skin barrier acid-burned into oblivion, “your skin could have trouble retaining water, therefore drying out the skin,” she explains. “Do not exfoliate dry, flaky skin as you can make this worse.”
There are lots of skincare products meant to mitigate all of the above side effects: essences, toners, serums, moisturizers, oils, eye creams, masks, and more. They don’t necessarily help. “Layering products exposes the skin to an increasing number of potentially irritating and sensitizing ingredients,” Dr. Paik says. (On average, a woman’s daily beauty routine includes 515 different synthetic chemicals, according to HuffPost.) Dr. Zenovia adds that as the number of products in your routine grows, so does your risk of inflammation. “Check to be sure you are only layering ingredients that pair well together,” she says. “For example, vitamin C and retinol used together can be way too harsh for most skin types.”
In fact, you might want to skip the vitamin C serum. “While there are several studies demonstrating its benefit, the dirty secret is that the active, beneficial form of vitamin C is very hard to stabilize, [so] consequently, [many] vitamin C products provide little actual benefit,” Dr. Paik says. Instead, they add to the skin’s chemical burden, thanks to the 20-plus other ingredients in those product formulations, including fragrance. “Fragrance represents one of the most common causes of allergic contact dermatitis,” according to the dermatologist, and it’s in almost everything.
Experts agree that the skin only needs three to four products—and sometimes zero skincare products—to thrive.
“Our skin knows what to do—we just need to learn how to support, rather than force and suppress, healthy functioning,” Angela Peck, the holistic aesthetician behind Wholistic Skin + Care, tells HelloGiggles. She points out that optimally functioning skin effectively cleanses, moisturizes, exfoliates, and heals itself. “A healthy lifestyle” encourages these processes, and skincare products should provide secondary support when needed.
Dr. Paik confirms that your skin only needs a few basic skincare products.
“It needs a cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen.” Dr. Zenovia endorses a fourth category as well, which she calls “treatment.” This is meant to target specific, individual concerns (perhaps a spot treatment for acne-prone skin). These four products can theoretically address all of your skin’s needs.
There’s no need to be rigid with your regimen, though. “I teach my clients to get to know each and every product so that they can intuitively decide what’s best for their skin,” Peck says. If you’re wearing makeup, she notes, cleansing is necessary at the end of the night. “But if not, and you’ve been supporting a healthy microbiome, a cleanser isn’t needed every day.”
The same goes for moisturizer. Facialist Kate Kerr told ELLE UK that only an estimated 15% of the population requires moisturizer—for most, the skin’s natural oil gets the job done. As board-certified dermatologist Zein Obagi, M.D., told Refinery29, skin may go through a “withdrawal” period when you first remove moisturizer from your routine. “[It] may feel dry and irritable,” he explains, but “when patients come back in about five weeks, they thank me. It wakes up the skin and gets the cells to start working in harmony.”
“The one item everyone should have in their skincare regimen is sunscreen, SPF 30 minimum, and it should be applied daily,” Dr. Zenovia says. Peck suggests a “zinc oxide-based sunscreen, with as few other ingredients as possible added.”
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“I recommend to my clients that they take off at least one to two nights a week from their skincare routine, preferably even one full day,” the aesthetician adds. “[A] facial massage [is] especially helpful during this time as well, to encourage lymphatic drainage and support our body’s natural detoxification processes.”
On that facial massage tip, remember that skin support doesn’t have to come in the form of bottled skincare products. “Some of the hand-held, at-home LED light devices like LightStim, if you use them correctly, can stimulate your fibroblasts and grow collagen from them,” Dr. Zenovia says. “It can help with both acne and with aging”—all without a single ingredient touching down on your precious skin cells.
A three- to four-product set-up might not make for the most impressive shelfie…
…but it will make for a routine that’s genuinely clean, eco-conscious, and effective. And I wouldn’t trade that for all the skincare products on Instagram.
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