Building a routine

is overrated

Holy cats, y’all, I started writing this a lifetime ago but then somehow completely forgot this newsletter even existed because I’ve spent several days hopped up on decongestants due to my absolute asshole sinuses. Reminder: it might feel great to run the hot shower water directly onto your throbbing aching face, but it eventually results in a relief map of broken capillaries.


So now you have the essential steps to take care of your skin (cleanse, exfoliate, moisturize, protect) and hopefully you’ve picked out some products and are settling into the vaunted Routine. Which honestly, is a word I don’t like because it just implies a very rigid structure with set, mandatory steps. (Also implied: tap dance, vaudeville, Who’s On First, etc.) But I will concede that it’s a good thing to have a daily habit, née routine, of washing your face and putting on SPF. Everything else is negotiable - with the caveat that, as mentioned in a previous newsletter, consistency is key if you want results.

You can stop with just these steps, honestly. And you absolutely SHOULD stop at this very basic, all-purpose level if you’re finding it hard to keep it up every day as it is. Again I refer to the nutrition analogy: the best “diet” is the one you’ll stick to. Maybe some people out there can voluntarily live the rest of their lives without ever eating bread again so that they can keep wearing their jeans from high school, but the rest of us value hot buttered toast over the siren song of vintage acid-washed denim. Similarly, you may value the extra 5 minutes and mental effort that a more involved routine requires more than you value a dazzling dewy complexion (or the attempt thereof.)

Know your limits, I guess is what I’m saying. If you’re perfectly happy with what you’re doing and the results you’re getting, and adding to it just seems like more than you can/want to deal with? Then you’re good. You’re covered. Do not feel obligated to self-care to the fullest, because “self-care” in our culture has become more tyrannical than the unforgiving cut of Guess jeans circa 1985. (Yes, I have a self-care rant cocked and ready to go at a moment’s notice. Failing to care for yourself via spa treatments and other elaborate beauty-based rituals is ANOTHER way you’re not being a woman the right way, didn’t you know? It’s endless, these bullshit standards we get thrown at us.) (Also, for the young people: Guess jeans were made for stick figures with no hips and no butt and that was before denim had any stretch to it, that’s what I mean by unforgiving. Junior high was hell.)

But most of you are here not only to get your basics down, but to explore some more advanced level stuff. So we’ll get into it. First, though, let’s talk about Putting It All Together.

Some pitfalls

So while you’re out there hunting down the perfect SPF and/or experimenting with the many moisturizers available to you, you’re gonna want to keep your eye out for - well, let’s call them aggravators. There are some common ways to go wrong when pulling together a routine. You’re going to avoid most of that if you’ve paid attention and have the solid grounding I have attempted to provide here. But there are still pitfalls.

Fragrance is the big one. You might have noticed that my recommendations tend to be fragrance-free, with a handful of exceptions. That’s because most good-smelling stuff in cosmetics/skincare is just there to smell good, with no other purpose. And while that may seem harmless enough and/or very pleasurable to you, fragrance can be very bad for your skin. Sometimes you can see it immediately (breakouts, rashes, burning, dryness, etc) but many of us don’t have any immediate reaction and think a scented product is just fine. And maybe it will be just fine! But also maybe not, is the thing. And also there is such a thing as damage you can’t see until years later.

I Am Not A Scientist but apparently fragrance is created by a volatile chemical reaction that releases scent, and that reaction causes inflammation in your skin even if you don’t see or feel it. (Inflammation = bad.) Also, many fragrances - I think mostly just the synthetic ones? don’t quote me, I already said I’m not a scientist - just naturally cause free radical damage, the same way that pollution and UV do. It’s the kind of damage that breaks down collagen, which most of us don’t want. (Basically: Free radicals = bad.) So no matter what, fragrance is (apparently) always an assault on your skin cells.

Dermatologists can really GO OFF on fragrance in skincare, because they tend to see people with chronic skin conditions who are by definition more sensitive and vulnerable to irritation. Derms also see the negative results caused by fragrance and other irritants in their offices every day. Just dermatitis 24-7, that’s their life, everyone is sensitized and cranky, and insisting on a strictly fragrance-free lifestyle seems a reasonable solution to them. And side note here: if you have sensitive skin, you should probably be as strict about fragrance as your average dermatologist.

But not everyone is such a purist. Some people will even insist there’s nothing wrong with fragrance, that your skin will let you know if it’s not good for you but if it doesn’t act up, then there is nothing to worry about. This is a common point of philosophical (and even scientifical!) difference in the Skincare World.

Personally, I try to go with the moderation approach, but I am pretty extra-cautious about fragrance. Partly because I don’t want my fucking face smelling like a rose garden, I have enough headaches in this life, thank you very much. But also because while I don’t think fragrance is the devil (for me, at least), I DO think it’s not something that should be a regular staple in my skincare. I tend to think of it like cigarettes: just because most of us don’t immediately get lung cancer from smoking, that doesn’t mean cigarettes aren’t bad for you. Or go back to the nutrition analogy: I still want hot buttered toast in my life, but eating a stack of it with every meal is, we can all agree, not the best thing for gut health. So I’ll tolerate fragrance in a product I won’t leave on long (cleansers, masks, wash-off treatments, special occassions) or if it’s the only product I like or can afford (most SPF has fragrance, and if the only one I’ll gladly use has a drop of lavender oil in it, it’s worth the risk.) Like, a serving of mild fragrance once a day is not the end of my world.

IMPORTANT: It is entirely possible to develop a sensitivity to fragrance at any point in your life. Decreasing your exposure to it is just sensible, and thinking you’re immune forever is a dumb attitude. Please don’t be blasé about it.

ALSO IMPORTANT: Synthetic/artificial fragrance is more risky than “natural” fragrance, because it usually has tons more chemicals in it - and the more chemicals involved, the more chance of irritation - but don’t be fooled into thinking natural=better. It is not. It is just marginally less bad. it is the filtered cigarette of this analogy.

A FINAL FRAGRANCE NOTE: Unscented is not the same as fragrance-free. Unscented just means it doesn’t smell - but they may have put a fragrance agent in there to neutralize/mask a naturally not-great smell. Fragrance-free is what you should look for.

Labels lie. Does it say it’s for sensitive skin? Don’t you believe it. There are other lies and meaningless misleading bullshittery to be found on labels, I could/should do a whole newsletter on what they are. But the “for sensitive skin” is the lyingest liar of them all and 9 out of 10 times, I take a single glance at the ingredients and hiss, Thou liest, thou jesting monkey, thou! and fling the offal into the sea. Metaphorically. Never blindly trust, my friends. Marketing is the modern Prospero: master of illusion.

Hidden exfoliants is another thing to be careful of when choosing a product. Often a lotion or serum or whatever will list a common exfoliant on the ingredient list - or sometimes right there on the front label - without ever calling itself an exfoliator. There’s nothing wrong with using multiple exfoliators at low levels in different products all in the same routine, if your skin can handle it. But be aware that it’s in there because if you have a problem, that may be causing it.

There are some things that you kind of can’t go overboard on, like antioxidants, ceramides, humectants - they can be in every product you use and it’s great. But there are other things that will irritate or dry out your skin if you get too much, and exfoliants are high on the list of things I see people using too much/too often. Dermatologists have reported in the last few years that they see wayyyyyy more dermatitis, sensitized skin, and just all-around irritation from people coming into their offices, and I’m sure it’s because in addition to lots of fragranced products, lots of people are piling all kinds of good stuff on their faces - but in the case of exfoliants, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

Okay, what else? Oh, look at the length of ingredient list. Does it have like 40 ingredients? That’s not a good sign. There’s no rule of exactly how many ingredients a product should have, but when the list takes up a lot of acreage, it’s a bit of a red flag. A well-formulated product doesn’t need a novel’s worth of ingredients, and that many different chemicals all slapped onto your face at once is, in a word, overload. I mean, don’t stress and obsess over this, just be aware that if it the ingredients list looks like a CVS receipt, maybe don’t be so eager to try that product.

The Sequence of Events

One thing people ask about a lot is what order products should go in, and honestly it’s not nearly as important as you might think. Here is the general rule:

  • Always cleanse first.

  • Always SPF last

  • If nighttime, end with moisturizer/occlusive

Everything else is whenever the fuck you want to put it on, honest to god.

Lots of people want a toner after cleansing specifically to prep their skin to better absorb the products that will follow. That’s fine! You can do that. You don’t have to, though! Side note on toner: Only use it if it serves an actual function that you can name. As for not-so-valid functions? Don’t use it to wipe off whatever the cleanser missed. Just get a better cleanser. Also using it to re-balance the pH of your skin after cleansing is unnecessary if you’re using a cleanser with a proper pH. Which you should definitely use a cleanser with a good pH. And hey, “I just like it!” is a perfectly valid reason to use a (non-harmful) toner. If you like a toner, use a toner. I never have - not because I have any problem with them but just because I can’t be arsed.

Anyway, order. It’s basically all about what works for you, texture-wise, and in that sense going thin to thick tends to work best. You might notice that you get pilling when you put on Product A after Product B - so change the order, see if that fixes it. The truth is, it’s all going to make its way into your epidermis. It may take a little longer to get where it’s going if you put it on top of your moisturizer, but it’ll get there eventually.

Personally, I like to put my liquid BHA on right after cleansing. If I’m not using my BHA liquid, I like to put on actives first. (Actives basically means anything that immediately goes to work on your skin cells and stays working for a while - vitamin c, benzoyl peroxide, exfoliators, etc.) Then if I’m spot-treating a zit, I do that right away. Then I just glop on anything else before moisturizer without paying much attention to what order it’s in. I’m all, “This serum! That serum! Blam, blam! What you got, medicine cabinet, let’s go!” There’s always the eternal question when using a facial oil: before or after moisturizer? I like it before, personally, for the sake of my pillow case. But that’s just a preference.

And I’ll reiterate again: SPF uber alles. Well okay, SPF goes under makeup - but makeup is the only thing that should go over SPF, and only after you’ve waited a good 15 minutes, as previously mentioned.

Odds n Ends

Here are a few things to know.

There are a lot of myths around interactions - things like “vitamin C and retinoids should never be used together”, that sort of thing. (That is a false one, btw, turns out those two ingredients actually enhance each other’s performance. Science!) Pretty much everything mixes just fine. As far as I can tell, the only product you have to be wary of - outside of prescription products, anyway - is benzoyl peroxide. I think it interacts badly with Vitamin C? Anyway, it’s a wild card, so just read the label to look for warnings. In fact, there’s the exception to the “everything mixes just fine” motto: if a company says not to use two of its products together, trust them.

When To Believe
If a product says it shouldn’t be used around the eyes, believe it. That instruction either means it was tested for use around the eyes and caused problems, or that it was never tested and they have no idea if it’ll make your eyeballs swell up in your head. “Do not use around eyes” means inside the orbital bone.

Wait Time
Frankly I don’t have the patience to wait 5-20 minutes between steps for something to sink in, so I don’t. Why would you wait, you may ask? Gel products often need a couple of minutes to dry down if you don’t want them to pill, for instance, or some serums can be sticky for the first few minutes. That doesn’t make them bad products, just give them the time they need to sit nicely with everything else. (Or be like me and never use them if you can help it.) Also, BHA is allegedly supposed to sit undisturbed on your skin for at least 15 minutes in order to work its best. I learned this after using it for like 10 years, never waiting even 5 seconds before moving on to the next product - because why would I? It’s not on the label. So I spent a month enforcing a wait time and guess what? No difference. So I consider that one a myth, or at least a YMMV situation. I don’t wait, the product works fine, sheesh why do people always complicate things.

The Moist Factor
Damp skin absorbs better/faster than dry skin. (That’s damp, not wet.) This is just something to keep in mind, because if you’re using a product that has the potential to be irritating - like retinoids, exfoliants, Vitamin C (for some people), and so on - that irritation potential goes way up if you put it on damp skin. Damp skin is also hydrated skin, all saturated in water, so putting lotion on damp skin seals in that moisture. That’s why you shouldn’t wait too long after getting out of the shower before slapping the lotion on, see. Works better.

Choosing a Treatment

Okay! So maybe you want to level up? Go beyond the good skin basics? Possibly you have a specific concern you would like to address that is not being solved with the cleanse, exfoliate, moisturize, SPF routine in place. That’s where serums and toners and essences and ampoules and all the other various names for potions come into play! This is the fun stuff.

It’s involved and I can talk about all of them individually, but here is a quick cheat sheet I will now type out off the top of my head, so it will not be complete.

Please understand this is nowhere near exhaustive or comprehensive. It is literally whatever pops into my head when I think of these things, okay, I am now engaging in free association before your very eyes.

Hyperpigmentation, post-inflammatory: Vitamin C, AHA, BHA, SPF
Hyperpigmentation, general discoloration: Vitamin C, AHA, alpha arbutin, SPF
Hyperpigmentation, melasma: hydroquinone, tranexamic acid, SPF
Fine lines: Retinol, peptides, bachuchiol, SPF
Blackheads/clogged pores: BHA, SPF
Acne: BHA, benzoyl peroxide, adapalene, a dermatologist, SPF
Dehydrated skin: Natural moisturizing factors, humectants, ceramides, niacinamide, SPF
Rosacea: a dermatologist, SPF
Texture: AHA, microneedling (NOT at home, please!), SPF
Dullness: AHA, Vitamin C, alpha arbutin, SPF
Sagging: Retinol, peptides, bachuchiol, SPF
Redness: Azelaic acid, licorice, SPF
Eye bags: Caffeine, cold, sleep, SPF
Dark eye circles: it’s complicated (also concealer and a prayer and SPF)
Uneven skin tone: Vitamin C, alpha arbutin, AHA, SPF
Extreme dryness: humectants, lactic acid, argan oil, SPF
Extreme oiliness: Niacinamide, salicylic acid, SPF
Sensitized skin: Centella asiatica, allantoin, colloidal oatmeal, SPF
Broken capillaries: Nothing topical works, I have to go get lasers and shit, it’s so upsetting, DAMN YOU LIFETIME OF ALLERGIES

Okay I’m wrapping this up because how the hell did it get so long. I will do an open thread tomorrow where you can ask any questions, okay? About any product I’ve recommended or that you’re trying or considering buying, or skin problem you might be having, or just whatever. I feel like we should do some regular group check-ins and skincare chats.

My apologies if this is rambling and hard to follow, I blame the sudafed. But hopefully it tells you some helpful things. And in the next installment I’ll blather about…I dunno, I’ll wait and see what you have to say in the open thread, how’s that?

In the meantime, my Lisa Eldridge lipsticks came this morning so I need to go stare at them for a while. Also I have a real hankering for buttered toast now.