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A Fevered Dictation
Your skin type, determined by oil imbalance is generally not too difficult to identify, as long as you look at the structure of your skin, and don't allow dehydration to confuse things. But even more important than the surface of your skin, is its thickness. Since the purpose of skincare is to minimize damage, rather than cause it, knowing your skin's resistance is crucial, even more than its oil output. Most women can discern the difference between dry and oily, but it's ultimately the thickness of your skin determines its overall quality, as well as the efficacy of products. The same active ingredient, say, 10% glycolic acid, may burn thin, intolerant skin while making a barely noticeable impact on thick, resistant skin.
What's is your skin's resistance?
The skin is made up of layer upon layer of cells, but most of the living tissue, buried beneath a protective millefeuille of dead cells (stratum corneum, at left), never comes in contact with your skincare. The epidermis' main function is to prevent water loss and keep out pathogens, but there are outlets to the external world: hair follicles lubricated by sebaceous glands, where dead skin cells and bacteria may congregate. The thickness and composition of your skin varies considerably, from the soles of your feet to your eyelids, and it follows that there is variation from person to person, too. For some, the epidermis is quite thick, and it's a struggle to clear the skin of all that extra skin no matter how much you exfoliate, while others are thin-skinned and highly reactive, unable to bear the presence of anything harsh. For the lack of any other terminology, let us call this the skin's RESISTANCE, as it plays an important role in congestion, acne, sensitivity, aging, and dehydration. Down below, bordering the dermis, lies the basal layer, where skin cells multiply, differentiate, die, surface to the stratum corneum, and finally slough off, a process that takes on average four weeks. This is your skin's REGENERATION rate. The higher it is, the quicker your skin bounces back from damage. Since it's not so superficial, pretty much the only way to assess your skin's regenerative properties is by observing it under duress: does a large, inflamed pimple heal in a day, all by itself, or does it drag on forever, leaving behind a scar that take even longer to fade? Alternatively, nails are rooted the basal layer, so the speed of their growth will provide some indication.
Both your skin's resistance and its regeneration rate are predetermined by genetics, but both diminish significantly with age. It seems that fate is cruel, and we chase the skin we were born with, i.e. that of a baby. That ideal skin not only regenerates rapidly, but is also quite thin, a translucency that allows inner radiance to shine through. Beauty is fragile, however; skin like that is necessarily intolerant, irritated by the slightest provocation, as baby skincare easily testifies.
To recreate it, there is exfoliation. This is purely a superficial measure; with the exception of tretinoin (which are drugs, not cosmetics), there's little you can do to encourage regeneration, as skincare doesn't penetrate deep enough to affect the deepest layers. Instead, there's controlled destruction, which mimics the appearance of rapidly regenerating, fresh and healthy skin by destroying the top layers. Then the skin heals, stimulating new growth. Exfoliation is the most viable solution for a myriad of complaints. Pretty much any product that claims to make you glow, and actually delivers on its promise, performs its magic through exfoliation‐exposing, not adding. Exfoliation also clears away the excess dead skin cells, which can get trapped in pores, causing congestion (blackheads and whiteheads) and, if infected by bacteria, acne. But the chance is slim that you'll be rid of blackheads entirely. It also helps smooth out fine lines, and if dehydration is a major issue, exfoliation also boosts the efficacy of your moisturizer, since there is less of a barrier. And yet, you are causing deliberate harm to your skin. Such is the widespread inefficacy of skincare, at giving you the perfect skin you want, that a rough cloth rubbed over massage with a heavy emulsion (hello, Liz Earle) works better for most complexions than Crème de la Mer.
Cleansers are mostly surfactants (it doesn't necessarily have to lather, that's a detergent), moisturizers are silicones, humectants, oil, and water, but exfoliants have real range. There's a rough divide between chemical and physical exfoliants, but it's easy to get lost, and you want exactly the right degree and method that your skin requires, as it's best not to play too loose with anything designed to damage your skin, albeit very topically. Introduce an exfoliant slowly, just once a week, and accompanied by a good sunscreen. A powerful scrub should be used at maximum three times a week, a gentle one can be daily. The more aggressively you exfoliate, the more aggressively you should soothe, calm, and nourish, so that your skin heals properly from the damage. For the sake of discussion let's simplify into four categories, independent from your oil-determined skin type, to aid in narrowing the most eligible candidates. They are not distinct from each other (or even, "official"); if a scrub suits you better than glycolic acid, it's the results that atter.
Aspirin also comes in powdered form, the readier for masking.
If your skin is THICK, with a HIGH REGENERATION rate, you're suffering from a superfluity of dead skin cells. Throw hormones, dehydration (toughens skin), excess oil (glues it all together), and P. acnes bacteria into the mix, and you've got full-blown acne. It's best not to aggravate active infections with a scrub, as if rubbing salt into a wound; when your immune system is provoked, treat your skin like it's sensitive, even if it's tough enough for St. Ives. Instead, you've got both AHAs and BHAs at your disposal, both of which dissolve keratinized dead cells, but salicylic acid is generally preferred, for its ability to disinfect and penetrate into pores, though nowhere near as effective as an oral antibiotic. Salicylic acid is so standard that it's in everything from the costliest dermatological serum to your humble Clean & Clear, but the simplest and most powerful option may be the aspirin mask. If your skin is not so congested, but merely dull and flaky (congestion is really flaky skin with some oil thrown into the mix), glycolic and lactic acid are better overall exfoliants. Hydroxy acids are outrageously inexpensive, so unless you've got a specific cocktail in mind, it's not worth paying for Peter Thomas Roth or Dermalogica, when Alpha Hydrox offers a 12% AHA Soufflé ($16)*. I also think aggressive hydration, since it loosens up the stratum corneum, really helps with exfoliation (and vice versa).
Funny how often I recommend diaper cream.
It's surprising how much changes, even with the same HIGH REGENERATION, if your skin is THIN. Here you find skin so fragile, so intolerant, that it can't go near hot water and cold wind; 12% glycolic acid is asking for a chemical burn. Whereas thick skin is absolutely impervious, and the struggle is keeping up with it, thin skin can be irritated even by the particles of pigment in foundation. Depending on your level of sensitivity, exfoliation is generally not appropriate for your skin, as you want to preserve what little you have. This is highly problematic if flakes or congestion are involved—salicylic acid isn't too rough if you must clear out a pimple—a good massage with a cleansing emulsion softens the skin, then very, very gently lift away dead skin with muslin or cotton wool. For acne, treat it like a rash, with something healing, like Weleda Baby Calendula Diaper Care Cream ($11), also handy for contact dermatitis and allergic reactions. Overall, this skin condition is marked by avoidance, sticking to a nervously probed range of inert ingredients. If you've got rosacea, a tendency to pigmentation, or a family history of cancer, then extra precautions are necessary. Thin skin will also ages more rapidly, so that solicitude is a necessity.
Quality vitamin C is very expensive, like cashmere: Skinceuticals C E + Ferulic ($138)
Someone with THICK skin, with LOW REGENERATION, has quite sluggish, easily congested skin. It requires thorough exfoliation, but with a softer touch. There's no cause for alarm, but if you damage your skin, it won't bounce back so readily, and the focus should be on healing as much as on exfoliating. Skincare products will also take longer before you can claim results. If you prefer a chemical method, then choose a lower dosage, or prefer the milder lactic acid (see below). A mechanical exfoliant, as it's a physical sensation, is easier to gauge. There's a load of great scrubs out there, but I actually prefer a textured cloth, whether it's incredibly popular Liz Earle Cleanse & Polish ($23.50) or a viscose cloth from the Asian market ($0.99), because you get so much more control over fabric than random scrubby bits. Alternatively, it wouldn't hurt to try a vitamin C serum or tretinoin*;it might help stimulate the skin. Both are expensive, because of the difficulty of stabilising them, but their effects are clinically proven. Even on resistant skin, tretinoin is extremely irritating and does not require any other exfoliant.
Lactic and salicylic acids in an attractive cream base.
THIN skin, with a LOW REGENERATION rate, should be treated as gingerly as possible. It doesn't recover easily from damage. It's fragile and reactive and needs to avoid irritants, but still benefits (at least superficially) from some mild, non-abrasive exfoliation. The trick is to find something with a buffer—hopefully you are not too oily—plenty of lubrication, or a gentle enzymatic action, like YSL's Natural Action Exfoliator ($44) or those queer almond-meal cleansers from Dr. Hauschka or Jurlique, which purportedly absorb loosening flakes without disturbing the others. If you're not too intolerant, lactic acid might be good for you—Dermalogica Gentle Cream Exfoliant ($36)* requires no rubbing or pulling—or you may be fine with a gentle scrub or a hot-cloth cleanser (remember, these categories are not discrete, but represent a whole range of possibilities). It's best not to exfoliate frequently, and follow with a nourishing, calming mask. Another good idea is a moisturizer high in peptides, as they have healing properties (I've not tried anything with peptides that I know of, save the infamous Boots, which was underwhelming).
From the days of one-cold-cream-fits-all, skincare has differentiated considerably. Skincare companies were quick to respond to consumer demands, and accommodate them with "acne-prone", "mature", and "sensitive" ranges, but in actuality lumping acne treatments with greasy teenagers (purity!) and gilding the bitter aging pill with luxury. No wonder people get confused. Imagine: "I'm 38 but I get blackheads all the time, and yet they're pushing heavy wrinkle creams on me." Whereas if you're looking at your skin's structure, it's much easier to target the proper skincare, "My regeneration rate has slowed, but I still get congestion. I guess I could use a gentle but persistent exfoliation and maybe some vitamin C for a boost of radiance. I don't think it'll sensitize me too much, as my skin is somewhat tougher." It's not fool proof, but at least there's improved accuracy.
* As I have intolerant skin, I have to recommend reference products for these particular actives. Sorry about that. I have tried everything else, however. : )
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