The Truth about Skin Care

One of the first perceptions about skin care is that it is expensive. With the holiday season coming up, you might be frustrated at the pay to play nature of the skincare game. While having extra dollars can certainly help, it’s the habits that matter a lot more in terms of actually making an impact on your skin.

It may surprise you to hear this, but the stuff that really matters when it comes to skincare, is typically free or low cost. Skincare is more than just picking and choosing what you put on your skin. That might sound like great news to you, but the flip side of it is that you can’t buy your way out of neglecting your skin care; there are no shortcuts and cheats when it comes to having healthy skin. If you take a longer view - in 10 years, in 20 years - the stuff that will alter how your skin looks in the future is not the brand or the price of the cream that you slathered on, but it’s the daily habits and lifestyles of your everyday life, that are going to make a difference. Understandably, this isn’t convincing for many people - who lather thousands of dollars every year on their skin - but it’s nonetheless true. Expensive creams and lotions will often feel better (this is where a lot of marketing and research is going) than a sticky sunscreen that leaves a shade of white on the skin, but it is the sunscreen that you can credit for your skin quality 10 years later.

Free Tier

The free stuff in life is often the most demanding. In a way, throwing money at a problem is an attempt to bypass the demanding part. Unfortunately, this rarely works well - there are plenty of examples of wealthy and intelligent people who nonetheless fall prey to lifestyle issues. Taking care of your skin is no exception. It requires knowledge, but it also requires dedication and discipline until it becomes habit. Advertisers always want to convince you that taking care of your skin is as easy as opening your wallet (and you have incentive to believe them too). Unfortunately, it’s almost completely untrue. There is no magical product that can solve all of your skin concerns, and as we’ve discussed in the past, there is almost no correlation between the price of a non-prescription skincare product and its efficacy. If you follow all the free tier tips rigorously, you won’t need to break your wallet or worry about looking older than your neighbors.

Bathing habits: Improving your bathing habits will give you huge returns for how your skin looks and feels - almost immediately. This is especially important in the winter time. Many people are more tempted to use a nice hot bath as a way to warm up the body, only to get annoyed by how dry their skin feels afterwards. Long hot baths feel good - they destress you, warm your body up, and removes the grimy feeling of oil and dirt from your skin, but you have to protect your skin at the same time to fight the drying effects of bathing. This is especially true if dry skin is a problem for you. Contact with water, and especially hot water, removes sebum, which acts as a natural moisturizer for the skin.

  • Lower the temperature. Hot water quickly removes the protective sebum from the skin. If your skin is red after a bath or shower, you need to lower the temperature.
  • Reduce your total time in hot water whether you are bathing or showering.
  • Opt for showers instead. Showers are much more gentle on the skin.
  • Keep a moisturizer in the bathroom, accessible. Instead of rubbing yourself dry, gently pat down your skin after a shower or bath. While the skin is still moist, apply a moisturizer to seal in the skin’s moisture.
  • You may also want to change your shower heads from time to time as they can harbor potentially harmful microbes1.

Diet/exercise: All of the stuff that falls under "lifestyle" will affect your skin both in the short-term and in the long-term. Exercise and diet are critical not just for general health, but specifically for your skin as well. Sugar sag or glycation is again being reviewed in the context of aging skin, and we are even seeing evidence of links to specific conditions like acne2.

Sleep/stress: Another big one that we too often put to the wayside. Most of us (that are not in our teens) agree that sleep is important, right up until you approach your "scheduled bedtime" and then decide that checking email or finishing another episode on netflix is more important.

Pollution, alcohol, smoking: If you pollute your body, your skin will suffer as well. Not all of these are within your control, but much of it is. Start with bathing habits; these are a low hanging fruit. The other lifestyle things are not easy - it’s way easier if putting out an extra fifty dollars means that you don’t have to worry about lifestyle. That’s why we all fall for the marketers; we desperately want to believe them. Unfortunately, the truth is free, but not easy.

Cheap Tier

The boundaries between free and cheap are blurry. Moisturizers, sun protection, and cleansing are all a part of the cheap tier insofar as they involve rather basic products like moisturizers, sunscreens, and cleansers/soaps. They do not need to cost you an arm and a leg.

Sun protection: Sun protection is wide-reaching. It encompasses many free things - like staying in the shade, wearing protective clothing. In fact, it starts with simply avoiding the sun during the mid-afternoon. Sunscreens are only one more tool to help protect your skin from the sun. It is, of course, one of the most convenient and pragmatic tools, since staying out of the sun entirely or even covering up excessively all the time is prohibitively inconvenient and impractical.

  • The first thing people worry about is, "which product?" The answer is, "one you will use regularly." It doesn’t matter how effective a product is, if you don’t use it.
  • Quality matters, but only if you use it in the first place. In practice, this means you should buy a product that you like (not terrible smelling or with awful texture) and isn’t so expensive that you are tempted to "save it for a special occasion."
  • Choose a product that offers broad spectrum protection (UVA and UVB).
  • Choose a product with at least SPF 15 and preferably SPF 30.

Moisturizers: Moisturizing is similar in that applying moisturizers are only one more way to protect the skin. Just as important are things like bathing habits mentioned above, and wearing appropriate clothing to protect your skin from exposure. Timing also matters. If you apply a moisturizer at random times during the day, you aren’t making it the most effective. What if you wash your hands a few minutes after applying your moisturizer at work? You waste it. Apply moisturizer after you wash your hands, or before you go to sleep when they are going to stay on the skin and do its work.

Cleansers: Avoid harsh soaps. Traditional bar soaps are powerful cleansers that can remove dirt and grime very effectively. However, bar soaps have a big drawback. It’s a cleanser that is also very harsh on the skin. Opt for liquid cleansers instead. Liquid cleansers will do the job well enough for almost all practical purposes, and the exceptions will be largely limited to industrial or job-related washing.

Bottom line: Skincare doesn’t need to break your wallet. It is, however, a part of your lifestyle, and your skin in 10 years will be a reflection not of how much you paid out of your wallet, but how much attention you paid to your skin. If you get all of the lifestyle and basic skincare right, your skin will thank you later.