Double cleansing, essences, toners, serums, moisturizers, oils, gua chas and jade rollers. Could our love for beauty get us closer to the edge – and could skin fasting be the answer for all the craziness?
Once upon a time there was a skin care routine with ten steps. Remove your eye makeup with a specific product. Clean your face twice, with two different textures, saying goodbye to any traces of makeup, toxins and impurities. Exfoliate, apply a toner and follow with an essence. Overlay a serum or an ampoule, practice #selfcare with a sheet mask, care for the eye contour with a particular cream and hydrate the skin with a moisturizer, gel or facial oil. And never, never neglected sun protection. Steering away from the fairy tales and love stories, and in part influenced by K-beauty, this extensive routine means reality for many of us. If you add the gadgets with lights and massage features, the beauty tolls, and the most complex treatments out there, it’s possible that Carrie Bradshaw will show up in the mirror while you finish your tenth step. “I couldn’t help but wonder: when it comes to our skin care routines, is more really more?” With the growing importance of sustainability, and the pressure of having the latest products perfectly aligned in a shelfie becoming more and more overwhelming, some started to adopt a more skinimalist approach, questioning their consumption habits and the necessity of having a routine that is so complex. Some found the solution in the no-buy beauty movement, a current that encourages consumers to cut on non-essential products and refrain from buying new items for a certain period of time. Others placed their bets on skip-care, a method that excludes the unnecessary products from a skin care routine and favors the use of those with multiple benefits for the skin – in other words, layering less products without having to sacrifice the results. Between not buying, reducing and rethinking, minimalist started paying off: in August 2019, statistics from the Mintel group showed that 28% of women in the UK had reduced the number of products in their routines, with 54% of millennials between the ages of 20 e 29 confirming a bigger simplification. Slowly but surely, the idea of going back to a cleanse, hydrate and protect approach didn’t sound so strange, crazy, bizarre – and when the virus that changed our lives made us all stay home, changing priorities and perceptions, some started questioning if taking a break and embracing skin fasting would be such an outrageous idea.
In 2011, Japanese skincare brand Mirai Clinical introduced the term skin fasting to the world. Put it simply, this fast implies taking a break from your skin care routine for a certain period of time – and even though there is no scientific evidence to support this idea, the theory that was spread over the years is that skin fasting gives the skin an opportunity to repair and rejuvenate itself, instead of relying on a number of products to do that. The said benefits don’t end there: by not applying any products, the skin is capable of normalizing and regulating its own natural protective barrier (some believe that this barrier is weakened by excessive product application) an do a complete reset. But theory and practice are two very different things. “This is where we have to get a little bit more specific,” says Olena Beley, a skin coach whose mission is to help women manifest clear skin without pills, diets or dumb/expensive stuff. “Nobody says what it really is, specifically, because it depends on the person. So, it's taking a break from your products, but it can be one product for some amount of time, or it could be your entire skincare routine.” In a time when she was more experimental with her skincare (“It was like throwing spaghetti at a wall and trying to see what stuck, you know what I mean?), Olena decided to try it for herself. “I was in that phase once upon a time in my life where I literally only used water on my skin, just water. And that's not really fully fasting, if we were fully fasting, we would probably be doing nothing. But if we were fully fasting and doing nothing, that would kind of get us into ‘caveman regimen’ territory [a regimen where one doesn’t wash the face or apply any type of product on the skin],” she adds. “My opinion on this is: unless you live in a vacuum, where there is nothing, and unless your skin is somehow like plastic, and not alive, then it makes no sense. Because our skin is alive, it's always resurfacing, it's always creating its own sebum. When we're out there, in the world, our skin faces pollution and sun damage. Our skin faces so much that for us to take a total fast... I would never do it to my skin personally, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone else, honestly. I'm like, it's a nightmare!” When I confess to Olena that I would never consider eliminating all products from my skin care routine, the skin coach mentions that considering a skincare fast largely depends on two skin myths. “The first myth, I think, is that people think that you can get used to your skincare products, and then they stop magically working, and that is simply untrue. Our skin is constantly generating. So, your skin is not the same skin it was four weeks ago,” says Olena. “As your skin is alive and is always working for you and protecting you and regenerating, while dealing with all the circumstances out there, and it includes your products. If it's alive and it's dealing with your products, your products will always work, and especially when we're talking about actives, because that's really the products that work, work. So, they're always going to work. You can use the same product for ten years.” And the second myth? “Many people think that your skin is a detox organ, or that it detoxes, or that it needs time to detox. Your skin is not your butt, I like to say, meaning that we detox through the kidney and the liver, and that's where the majority of the toxins are eliminated. To give our skin a break so it can detox? From what? It doesn't store toxins, it doesn't hold on to things in the pores, that's not how it works. If we eliminate those myths then you start wondering, ‘Wait. Do we really need to fast? Does this make any sense?’”
Even though taking a full break from a skin care routine is a “no” for Olena, the skin coach believes that eliminating some products may have its benefits. “Nowadays there are so many products on the market that many people are actually overdoing it with a lot of these things. There are so many new companies out there who are just like, ’Here is some retinol, and here are some acids, and a bunch of vitamins.’ Many people end up layering too many of these kinds of products, irritating their skin, inflaming it further.” In her opinion, the idea of skin fasting ends up coming up when we hit and extreme – in this case, the extreme of overdoing it – and decide to “hit the opposite extreme of doing nothing, or doing way, way, way, less.” Does going from one extreme to the other cause any damage to the skin? “No, actually. If you're really overdoing it, now is the time to take a break,” clarifies the skin coach, referring that often the signs are dehydration, redness and flakiness. “Side effects are not necessary in skincare, that's a sign of something being off balance. And our skin, again, is an organ, so we can't go willy-nilly and just be like, ‘Here's everything, I didn't do any research, I don't know how much of this I should be using, I don't know how to moisturize, or maybe I should skip a moisturizer’. It's like [sigh]. It can create a big problem,” says Olena, confirming the importance of not eliminating gentle cleansing, moisturizing and sunscreen from our skin care routines. Instead, the skin coach recommends fasting from actives – that is, the ingredients that the FDA has approved for a particular function, like salicylic acid, known to decongest pores, or Retinoids, known to anti-age the skin and prevent wrinkles. As Olena explains, this is the step where most people tend to overdo it. “Most people have no idea how sensitive their skin is until they use the skincare that doesn't suit their skin for a little too long, and then they're like, ‘Oh, there's something wrong with me skin, it must be my hormones or my diet’, but they've been overdoing that step,” she says. “It's really important to listen to our skin and adjust to actives slowly. Many people, they think that more is more with skincare, but it's actually the opposite, less is more, and we have to train our skin to adjust to new ingredients.”
From skin myths to YouTube recommendations and shelfies all over the Internet, Olena insists on the importance of listening to our skin, of knowing our skin, of recognizing what’s best for our skin – a territory that comes with the ability to distinguish good information and bad information, to question if what’s in from of us is a myth, a trend, or something that actually works. “I think that a lot of us actually have much lower self-esteem than we realize, and what ends up happening is we stop trusting our own intuition, common sense, even. People look at somebody over there that has more followers, or maybe they have a Doctor before their name, some kind of certification, and they think, ‘Oh, I thought that I was doing everything well, but this person says something else is true’”, the skin coach says. “And then they start doubting what they've been doing and start thinking, ‘Maybe I do need a 17 step K-beauty routine, or a jade roller, or skin fasting. Oh, this person is skin fasting, I must skin fast too.’ We forget to think critically and think for ourselves and use our common sense to care for ourselves the best way we know how.” Even though the skin is a common organ to us all, it’s important to understand that everyone is different – and that one’s fairy tale may be another’s nightmare. “I think people with acne-prone skin probably shouldn't be fasting. They really need cleansing, cleansing is very important, but with a gentle cleanser, I don't mean over cleansing,” says Olena, denoting the importance of context and nuance when talking about skin care. “Acne-prone skin benefits from chemical exfoliation, regular chemical exfoliation. That is an extra step that somebody else may not need, but an acne-prone skin person would. If we want to keep the clogging away, or at bay, or prevent the clogging, then it is important to maintain a routine that has some actives in it. Whatever their routine is, I think it's important that they do not fast.” On the other hand, and in her opinion, “people with the most expensive routines would benefit the most from fasting”. “I worked with a client that had a thousand dollars routine. And the thing is that her products were laden with oils and butters. Yes, there were some actives in there, but they were badly formulated, and so she ended up just clogging her skin, created some discoloration,” Olena shares. “We eliminated all of it, replaced it with less expensive products, and it was a fast, in a manner of speaking, but from badly formulated products.” Could this be the kind of fast that we should consider, instead of taking a break from our moisturizer? “Totally. Because with skincare, I think what is missing from the conversation, the common narrative around skincare, is the importance of ingredients together, not just one ingredient. Because we look for, ‘Oh, this has a retinol, I'm going to slather it on my face.’ But what about the rest of the ingredients supporting that retinol?”, the skin coach questions. “It could be that there's a bunch of oils in there, that are just going to clog your skin. It could have an irritant in there, that together with the retinol is going to irritate your skin like crazy, cause flaking, potentially an allergy or rosacea down the road. If we don't look at the full context, we are missing key information, and then our ability to choose for ourselves is diminished. I think it's not really fasting from products; it's fasting from badly formulated products.” Between the fasts and fads, the best treatment we can give our skin is taking care of it, with the balance it needs to be the happiest version of itself. “I was watching this dating show earlier called ‘Dating Around’ on Netflix, and to me skincare is a little bit like that, people treat it as though they are dating around, as opposed to getting into a committed relationship with a routine that you love, that loves you, and that is compatible with your skin,” says Olena. “It's like the long game you're playing with skincare. (...) Skincare is there to literally care for our skin, support our skin, balance our skin, keep our skin happy. Once we find that right balance, we don't have to cheat on our skincare routine and look for other lovers on the side or switch it up all the time.” The world (and love) may be strange, crazy, bizarre, but some stories still have a happy ending.
*Originally published on Vogue Portugal's The Madness Issue.