Thoughts on skincare, aging, and indulgence


A recent move from Michigan to Texas (which is my excuse for the prolonged hiatus here) has me thinking a lot of about skincare, beginning with how I need to adjust my usual routine to suit the new climate I'm now living in. Thinking about my goals and preferences when it comes to looking after my skin leads to all sorts of other tangential pondering about skincare in general. For instance, my skin has actually been quite good since I arrived at my new (temporary) home, and yet I'm still motivated to use all sorts of products and to try new things.

And what exactly constitutes "good skin" anyway? Or "good enough" (if such a thing exists)? For instance, I haven't been breaking out much, to the extent that I was a bit surprised to get my period, since I hadn't had my usual harbinger of cystic chin acne this month. So less acne = good, for me, ok. The texture of my skin has also been pretty nice: soft and smooth, pores aren't too enlarged. So I guess those are also things that matter to me for some reason.

On the other hand, I've been noticing lines more, whether or not they are more pronounced than they used to be or it's just because I don't have other issues to distract me from them. In a particularly ridiculous moment, I found myself browsing Instagram for closeups of faces of women younger than me to confirm that the wrinkles under my eyes weren't abnormal.

Skincare is obviously a hobby and a fascination for me, but I don't approach it without a generous amount of ambivalence. When you start looking at skincare products and reading about skincare routines, you realize that if you adhere strictly to much of the advice out there, you'll discover that there is apparently not a single person on the planet whose face doesn't have a flaw to fix. Whatever happened to "normal" skin? We're too oily or too dry--or both. Too much redness or dark spots. Pores are too big or too much acne. Too flaky or too shiny or not shiny ("dewey") enough. Too saggy or not soft enough. Too light or too dark. Too dull and not bright enough. Too many lines or too much puffiness. It's endless. It can be really hard to conclude that your skin is just fine.

Even our old gurus, like Paula Begoun for instance, who used to say that "not everyone needs a moisturizer," are going to try to sell us all moisturizers (and eye creams and essences . . . ). I'm not immune to this. When I was younger, I never used moisturizer, and my skin felt fine. Now I moisturize with different products a couple of times a day. Sure, skin often gets drier as we age, but do I really need all that? Or have I just got used to it? My mother almost never moisturizes, and her skin is neither dry nor oily. Again, remember "normal" skin?

But I have all these products, and they're fun to use (most of the time) so I use them. The pleasure we derive from our beauty routines isn't a bad thing. It's no more frivolous to have this as a hobby than to tinker with cars or knit or play video games. But it's a slippery slope from hobby into luxury and self-care. These are not always bad things either. Getting myself ready for work in the morning could be considered a form of self-care, because I get to sit quietly for 20 or 30 minutes and carry out my routine and start the day in a less stressed and more focused state of mind. But I think there's a difference between that and feeling like my problems can be alleviated with a little consumerism and that if I've had a rough time I deserve to treat myself to a new purchase. (I've written about self-care and consumerism before, and also see this Buzzfeed article about self-care and influencers.)

I try not to judge people who collect things, whether they're Funko dolls or exfoliants. But outside of those people who have the disposable income to collect one of every enticing skincare product, there's definitely some worrying overconsumption happening. Again, I'm not immune or exempt from this--I am quite aware of how much perishable shit I own, because I had to pack it up and move it with me across the country (THREE backups of PC 2% BHA liquid? Really, bitch?). If you follow skincare enthusiasts (or collectors, as you could call them) on Instagram, however, you're likely to be confronted with #shelfies of dozens of products and to see their morning and evening routines consisting of 5-8 products each, which change significantly every day. Again, they're obviously having fun, but seeing that over and over can create the impression that a "proper" skincare routine requires a lot of purchasing.

There are also, of course, the trendy and exorbitantly-priced products and brands that tend to appear regularly in these photos alongside glowing reviews. I've found, nevertheless, that there's little correlation between effectiveness and price when it comes to skincare. Some expensive things are great, and some are terrible. Some cheap things are great, and some are terrible. But the self-care, "treat yourself" mentality suggests that you're doing it better if you buy something luxurious (i.e. pricey) than merely something that's effective and pleasant to use, but cheap. In reality, you can have beautiful, well-cared-for skin (according to whatever definition you choose) even if you only own a handful of affordable products. Say sunscreen, moisturizer, and a serum in the morning, and cleanser, exfoliant, and moisturizer in the evening. Or less. Maybe you don't need to moisturize!

Returning again to that definition of good skin, it's a tricky concept. Most skincare products seem designed to do one of two things: to make skin "clearer" (less red, smoother, smaller pores, fewer pimples) or to reverse/prevent aging (again with the pores, fewer lines, tighter skin, fewer dark spots, etc.). Obviously there is significant overlap between these categories. But I wonder, did you ever notice someone's pores before you got interested in skincare? Did you ever notice your own pores? All faces have pores of varying sizes! Try looking at images of beautiful celebrities that aren't airbrushed to death and allow yourself to feel some relief that porelessness is not an achievable (or desirable!) goal.

Natalie Portman, Hollywood Reporter, May 2015
Saffron Burrows in Mozart in the Jungle

Anti-aging rhetoric is even more insidious and polarizing. (Allure magazine recently made the choice to cut it out.) A lot of the things we try to "fix" with skincare are things that happen naturally and inevitably to our skin as we age. And there are a lot of factors that affect them other than which or how many skincare products you use: genetics, skin type, time spent in the sun, environment, stress, and so on. What's wrong with looking your age anyway? Part of the problem is that it's hard to know exactly what "looking your age" means, because we are now used to seeing celebrities in their 70s who look younger than Audrey Hepburn did when she died at 63, because of all the subtle (or not-so-subtle) clinical procedures they've had done. And increasing use of sunscreen, probably. There's also the gendered/sexist aspect of anti-aging pressure, which tells us that men look better with a few wrinkles and women don't. Women don't get to be rugged. So when I slather on the sunscreen every day, there's a part of me that feels shitty for buying into all of that (I could pretend I'm doing it solely to prevent skin cancer, but let's be real--plus that doesn't explain the rest of my skincare hoard).

So all this rambling thought leaves me wondering why exactly I enjoy playing around with skincare products as much as I do when the whole concept can be so fraught. I have to admit to myself that vanity is a part of it, but I don't think that explains it all, because if I really just wanted to look better, surely I'd learn to style my fucking hair already.

I've narrowed it down to two other things: science and control. I like that skincare is a kind of experiment I can perform on myself. I like learning about all the many ingredients out there and what they can and can't and might do. I'm a researcher by profession and by nature. I especially like debunking the bullshit claims that brands and their devotees make--that's really what got me interested in all of it in the first place (see, again, Paula Begoun).

But another motivation that's been increasingly evident for me is the desire to try to exert control over some aspect of my life. That's something most of us need, and if, like me, you've been on the academic (or any!) job market during in the last decade, you might feel it more than others. I can't control what I will be doing or where I will be living or how I will be living a year or even 6 months from now, most of the time, but maybe I can control what happens to my face. (Maybe I can't. But it's somehow gratifying to try.) This is different from my interest in makeup, which I see as more of a low-stakes, low-energy creative outlet.

Anyway, if you've managed to follow my stream of consciousness here, I'd love to hear your perspective. Do you even give a shit about skincare? (I don't assume that everyone who reads here does.) Why or why not? Are your feelings conflicted at all, like mine clearly are? If so, what is it that bothers you the most about the marketing and conversation and media that surrounds skincare? If you're 100% into the whole skincare thing, what is it about it that fascinates you?

To reference an outdated meme, [my] fave is problematic.

(I'm also open to suggestions for adjusting routines to hotter and/or dryer climates. Ahem.)

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