Despite all the advertisements to the contrary, skin truly needs the barest minimum. You may love your eye creams, toners, face masks, and other beauty products, says Dr. Ellen Marmur, author of Simple Skin Beauty, but they're unnecessary luxuries.
They sure are fun to buy and lovely to use, and all the jars and bottles look pretty in your bathroom, but these cosmetic options are far from essential. If they're not in your budget and you don't have the time for a twenty-minute face mask or an added step in your nightly regimen, then skip them -- and don't feel guilty about it. When it comes to cleansing, moisturizing, and protecting, these three things won't do anything more for your skin than your three essentials. If you want to treat yourself to a special skin care purchase or an at-home facial, go for it. I don't blame you, and I do it too. But please don't be tricked into thinking you need it.
If you're going to cancel one item from your shopping list, this is the one. It's just as effective, and far more efficient, to multitask with your regular moisturizer and daytime SPF. Yes, it feels nice, but, no, it is not a necessity. In actuality, it's simply redundant. The skin around your eyes is more delicate, but unless you are massaging a thick balm on the rest of your face, the moisturizer you use on your face and neck has the same formulation and many of the same ingredients that you get in any eye cream. The same moisturizing ingredients can treat the fine lines and dryness around your eyes just as well as they take care of the same issues anywhere else on your face.
What about puffiness or dark circles? I'll tackle both those issues in chapter 8, "Skin SOS," but suffice it to say that an eye cream isn't going to eliminate them. Dark circles are due primarily to your anatomy, while puffiness is often a sign of water retention inside your body (often from lack of sleep). A cool compress or cold, damp chamomile tea bags will calm puffiness better than a special eye cream, although they are both temporary cures. If you are bothered by puffiness around your eyes, make sure your regular moisturizer contains anti-inflammatory ingredients such as chamomile, cucumber, or aloe vera (which would be found in an eye cream as well).
In a classic comedy bit, Jerry Seinfield speculates about why women need all those truckloads of cotton balls. How can they possibly use so many, and for what possible purpose? The answer: toner. How many cotton balls and bottles of astringent did we go through in high school and college, anyway? Toner is meant to remove residual makeup and oil from the skin. But since most cleansers these days do that just fine, toner is an unnecessary added step. Gentle, soothing alcohol-free toners (they usually contain moisturizing or anti-inflammatory substances like rosewater or cucumber) are totally superfluous if you use a moisturizer. (However, I do prefer them, even to makeup remover, to take off any extra bits of eye makeup or concealer because the consistency is so watery.) An alcohol-based astringent toner (similar to the antiseptic version we all remember as teenagers) usually contains ingredients such as witch hazel or salicylic acid to get rid of oil. For those who are addicted to washing their faces in the morning, a quick swipe of toner instead may be just the right remedy. These are great for combination skin conditions, to eliminate oil from one area of the face (rather than all over). For the most part, I, like Seinfeld, don't have much use for cotton balls.
I relish the thought of giving myself an at-home facial, relaxing in front of the TV wearing some kind of blue or green face mask. The odds of this happening (with four kids, a crazy schedule, and a husband who would laugh himself silly) are slim to none. But so are the chances that a mask -- whether it be one for moisturizing or a clay mask to "soak up" oil -- can do something really transformative or long-lasting to my skin. Can a mask super-moisturize your face and seal the hydration in? Yes, but only until it's rinsed off. Truthfully, masks are like ChapStick for your face -- an occlusive film over the surface that provides a nice, temporary fix. For someone with sensitive or rosacea skin, a mask packed with anti-inflammatory ingredients (such as aloe vera, allantoin, and chamomile) and humectants will feel wonderful and soothe the skin, but only while it's on the face. Again, it's always important to read the label, especially if your skin is feeling sensitive. Fruit acids or menthol, which are commonly found in masks, could cause irritation.
If a mask has active ingredients, such as anti-inflammatories or antioxidants, they might be better absorbed into the skin because of the occlusive barrier of the mask. But that's a big "if," since those ingredients would have to be lipophilic (oil-loving and compatible with skin) and microscopic enough to penetrate pores in the first place. By the same principle of occlusion, I sometimes treat eczema on the body by applying a steroid cream, then putting plastic wrap over it to provide an occlusive barrier so the cream doesn't evaporate or wipe off. This also provides a slight pressure that pushes the medication onto the skin. It's similar to slathering on a rich foot cream and then covering the feet with cotton socks -- although, unlike a medicine, the moisturizing effect wears off the minute you wash your skin.
Clay masks don't actually absorb or "soak up" oil, and they can't really "purify" and "detoxify" your pores either. A mask with kaolin (a mineral-rich clay), sea mud, or even charcoal does provide a gentle way of exfoliating by coating the skin like an adhesive. When it dries and is rinsed off, the mask theoretically pulls off some dead cells, debris, and oil with it. It's the same concept as rolling a lint brush over the surface of a sweater. Pore strips work the same way, and they're terrific. Sometimes a clay mask contains active ingredients like sulfur, which is a natural antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, or tea tree oil, a natural antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. But a treatment like this won't be more effective than a salicylic acid exfoliant and diligent nightly cleansing. A clay mask can reduce the oil you have right now, but unfortunately it's just going to build up again in no time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ellen Marmur, MD, author of Simple Skin Beauty: Every Woman's Guide to a Lifetime of Healthy, Gorgeous Skin (Copyright © 2009 by Dr. Ellen Marmur), is the Chief of Dermatologic and Cosmetic Surgery at The Mount Sinai Medical center in New York City and specializes in skin cancer surgery, cosmetic surgery, and women's health dermatology. She lives in Manhattan with her family.
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