Backstage at a fall fashion show. (Photo: Courtesy of CNP Montrose)
If I’m honest, I’ve never really understood what the word “normal” means when it comes to skin care. When a good amount of us have dry, oily, or even acne-prone skin, where does “normal” fall between the three? Does someone with normal skin not have an occasional breakout, or problem areas, or blackheads? If so, that ain’t me.
But I will say that when using the right cleanser (my current obsession is Soap & Glory Face Soap and Clarity Vitamin C Facial Wash—it’s a giant bottle of clarifying and hydrating goodness that paired with my Clarisonic Mia 3 gets every ounce of makeup off my skin), and maybe after a light application of sheer foundation or tinted moisturizer, I might be able to fake a flawless complexion on my face. From the neck down? Now, that’s a different story.
Where do I begin? When anyone tells you acne doesn’t just hit you in your teens, believe them. My twenty-something acne comes in the form of little tiny bumps across my back and chest. I know what you’re thinking: that’s just temporary, right? Wrong. Because of my deep skin tone—I’m half African American and half Puerto Rican—my breakouts leave behind pesky dark spots better known in the Latina community as manchas.
Then there’s my sensitive skin. I have the hardest time shaving because no matter what shaving cream, gels, lotions, oils I try, I always manage to break out and find myself scratching violently. I’ve gotten to the point where I’d almost prefer to bare a little hair (TMI?) than to risk the red bumps and again, the hyperpigmentation, that ensues from my breakouts.
But what might be the most frustrating of my skin issues is my eczema. On the opposite end of the oily situation I’ve got going on with my adult acne, I suffer from chronic dry skin in the creases of my arms, behind my knees and in whatever other random areas where my skin chooses to misbehave. As a beauty editor, I’m inundated with the best-of-the-best hydrating creams, serums, and oils but I’m still looking for the cure.
What I have found to be helpful is something that I’m not necessarily proud of. I’m also not sure whether I’m punishing or rewarding my skin by doing this, but I will say that it seems to be working in my favor. What’s the secret technique? Giving up my skin care altogether. That’s right—no lotion, no oil, no eczema cream, no acne treatment, no shaving. Nothing. Somehow, I’ve convinced myself that letting my skin breathe and just do what it does is the quickest fix to getting myself back on track. When do I know it’s time to pick back up on my skin care regimen? When my skin—all of it—starts to feel drier than ever.
Before I decided to share my story, I thought it was important to talk to an expert just to confirm whether I was onto something with my anti-skin care theory. So I tapped dermatologist and author of Simple Skin Beauty Ellen Marmur, M.D. for her expert opinion. Here’s what she had to say:
Lyndsay: I quit my skin care because I have eczema and find that when my rashes start to crop up, it’s best that I use nothing at all to give my skin some time to neutralize. Is this something that is common in your patients with eczema or similar skin disorders?
Dr. Marmur: One of the biggest issues for people with sensitive skin (and that means you, because of the eczema), is that you never know which ingredients in your products are going to irritate your skin. Keeping things super simple is the key! And protecting your skin barrier with moisturizer is the perfect solution. I recommend minimizing soaps and cleansers, keeping a minimalist but smart routine, focusing on moisturizer and low-fragrance products.
Lyndsay: That reminds me of another odd fact. I’ve tried every type of soap you can think of but still can’t quite get the body soap thing right. Super hydrating and sensitive-skin soaps tend to activate my eczema after a few uses. And contrary to everything I’ve been told, antibacterial soap is the only cleanser that works for me when I’m experiencing a breakout—but even thatafter a few showers becomes over-drying. I find myself keeping multiple bars of soap in the tub to swap out depending on the day. Any idea why I’m experiencing this?
Dr. Marmur: That is actually fascinating. Eczema is notoriously fickle so you might need to have a rotation of products as long as you are wise enough to read your skin and change things as needed. Eczema is often super infected with otherwise benign bacteria or yeast. This might be why you benefit from the stronger cleansers for a while. When in doubt go for neutral, pH-balanced for skin (slightly acidic) products and moisturize a ton—like five times a day.
Model backstage at a fall fashion show; Courtesy of CNP Montrose
Lyndsay: I find that oils and super hydrating creams trigger my eczema, and even notice that I break out more in the summer than the winter, which is the reverse of what most people with eczema experience. Help!
Dr. Marmur: Well, not all oils are created equal. Nor are super hydrating creams. Fragrance is a hidden culprit in some of these products. And not all breakouts are acne. Many bumps are from dry skin, especially on the chest, chin and forehead. They tend to feel more rough than greasy. You are the perfect type of patient who needs to have a good relationship with your derm so you can see her consistently enough that you both know your skin and can troubleshoot intelligently. Otherwise, what works one day may worsen things the next and it becomes a vicious cycle. It’s not easy!
Lyndsay: My husband prides himself on having smooth, flawless skin (as he should) and has never had a breakout, but also never uses body lotion, a facial moisturizer, or SPF. He also uses those fragrant men’s body washes, which I would expect to have a drying effect on his skin. I will admit that my theory to quit my skin care cold turkey came from his less-is-more attitude. How are men and women’s skin different?
Dr. Marmur: They tend to have thicker skin (literally if not figuratively!) and have fewer hormone-related skin fluctuations. Is there a reason why he can get away with this? He won the skin lottery! It is not a guy thing.
Lyndsay: In other cases, people with acne, oily, dry, or sensitive skin are tempted to try the less-is-more skin care regimen to clear up bad breakouts or prevent product buildup. Do you recommend this for these skin types?
Dr. Marmur: Yes, I am a big fan of simple skin care. How they should go about it? Before you quit your skin care cold, assemble your core, simple routine with a mild cleanser like Dove Beauty Bar (to use only when needed), a moisturizer, and a sunscreen.
Lyndsay: Is it a bad idea to switch up on products frequently?
Dr. Marmur: I recommend starting your skin care routine with a mild, hydrating cleanser, plus invest in several nice moisturizers. For example, I recommend Strivectin-SD for Sensitive Skin for your face and Previse Hydro Balm Moisturizer for your hands. Finally, have your go-to sunscreen. I like Elta MD UV Daily Broad Spectrum Tinted Moisturizer SPF 40!
Lyndsay: Many people stray from getting facials because they find that their skin breaks out afterwards. What do you say to them?
Dr. Marmur: I’ve only had a few good facials in my life (the best were at Marmur Medical, of course!). It is so dependent on the facialist—some of whom are truly knowledgeable and amazing, others, not so much. Usually, the post-facial breakout is from the many new layers of fragrant products that they put on. Request they use only fragrant-free, simple products and never let them pierce your skin with extractions (it’s illegal in some states!).
I learned a lot from Dr. Marmur. Did you? Talk to me about your skin concerns in the comments below—even if it’s just to let me know that I’m not alone in this confused skin #struggle.
By Lyndsay Green