It’s so easy to just get caught up in the minutiae of life. To think that in everything you do, you need to go all out, or you may as well not try.
Budding earth conservationists try to become vegan and use plastic straws, and when they slip up – even through no fault of their own – they go back to eating 5 burgers a week and going through disposable waste just as fast as they did before. Students sit down at their desk to study for a final exam, and when they’re distracted by their phone for just a minute, they say “oh well – the damage is done” and continue on scrolling on Instagram for another hour.
Now, I’m all for giving yourself ultimatums for making short bursts of productivity and meeting important deadlines. You can achieve a lot when you set your mind to a seemingly out-of-reach goal. But when it comes to long-term lifestyle changes, we all need to become a little more accepting of gradual progress and learn to focus on the low hanging fruit we can improve on to see the most results. People beat down others when they aren’t ‘trying hard enough’, as if partial success were a failure. You need to break past that pressure and prove to yourself the power of incremental improvement. As James Clear puts it, don’t underestimate the power of tiny gains.
The same goes for skincare.
I think some people are stuck with this mental image of an incredibly elaborate and expensive skincare routine, with gorgeous products, and perfect execution of every single rule and guideline. And when they think they can’t ever possibly meet those expectations, rather than fail, they instead just don’t try to take care of their skin at all.
I’d like to convince you otherwise. Most people’s skin doesn’t need perfection – it just wants the worst habits, irritants, and poor treatment to be taken out of the equation. There are a small handful of key products and techniques that are the biggest offenders which every beginner can easily tweak and see a huge difference to their skin. They’re not only easy but either cheap or totally free and account for the majority of the skin issues people come to me with. And who knows, it might be all you need to get your skin looking incredible.
Mistake #1: Over-cleansing
I don’t know what meeting there was where every head of every major popular skincare company got together and decided to make the most poorly formulated cleansers ever, but I sure wish I was there to give them a piece of my mind.
There are two ways to over-cleanse: using a cleanser that’s too strong, and washing your face too often.
Believe it or not, our skin knows exactly what it’s doing when it gives us natural oils! For the most part, they’re beneficial and necessary. They keep the skin pliable and maintain water levels by blocking the evaporation of water from the lower layers. As cleanser is overused, it starts to dissolve the essential elements of the skin barrier like fatty acids, urea and ceramides and causes dehydration (lack of water in the cells) and subtle irritation. On the surface, you’ll notice tightness, redness, aggravated acne, new fine lines, and dull-looking skin.
Surfactants are the ingredients in face washes that give it grease-fighting abilities. The two big strong surfactants are sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate. For most people, pretty much either of these ingredients is too strong. Instead, you can choose something containing a few gentle surfactants like cocamidopropyl betaine, sodium lauryl sarcosinate, or sodium cocoyl isethionate. And even for oil factories like me, you might be surprised how much you might enjoy using a gentle cleanser. It could even be that your skin is ramping up the oil production to try and counteract over-cleansing damage you’ve done in the past. When treated right, you could end up having far more normal or even dry skin than you realise!
Too-frequent cleansing introduces cleansing agents when your skin hasn’t had enough time to produce natural oils as a buffer, so there’ll be nothing to wash away except all the deep-down goodies you should be protecting instead.
Solution?: There are two options: choose a gentler cleanser, and/or wash your face less often.
A gentler cleanser pretty much means something creamy and boring like Cetaphil or Cerave that contain far fewer unnecessary cleansing agents, but lucky for you and your wallets, these products are also pleasantly affordable! To test how your current cleanser holds up if you wash your skin and then let it dry with no other products, in 5 minutes there should be no signs of tightness or a papery feeling – and don’t even get me started on squeaky clean. If your skin feels normal and comfortable that’s a sign that there’s still a tiny bit of oil left behind where it’s needed.
I’d also like to break the news that you may not need to wash your face in the morning. Think about it – all you’ve done is slept since then! Unless you use very heavy nighttime products, give a water-only rinse in the morning time a go and reduce your cleansing routine to once a day. Also, don’t add in an unnecessary step by washing your face after the gym – as long as you’re not dripping with sweat, you’re fine to just get on with your day.
Mistake #2: Being too rough
Whether it’s a bad habit learned from exposure to unrealistic movie acting or out of sheer laziness, this is definitely one of the topmost commonly practised skin sins. People all over the world start tugging and rubbing at their face from a young age, presumably in the hopes of making it cleaner and smoother. Well, I’m here to clarify that your skin should barely move during your routine. The biggest offenders are when you’re removing makeup and cleansing, especially when using something like hot water and a washcloth. Overzealousness creates both visible and invisible irritation. You can immediately see reactions like redness, but there are also more long-term risks such as broken blood vessels and more inflamed acne. The invisible irritation is equally frightening, being the cause for the inflammatory response which stresses the skin and actually costs you precious collagen and elastin. If you’re a serial offender, you’ll see a loss of firmness and pliability in the next few years.
Solution: Be more gentle! Do it without giving up your skin’s cleanliness by choosing better products and taking more time.
If, for example, your makeup isn’t being fully removed by your cleanser (it probably isn’t), instead of grabbing a makeup wipe and dragging your eye from side to side or scrubbing harder with your hands, you need to use a separate oil-based cleansing product before your regular face wash. This will melt down and dilute the makeup so it can wash away easily – no rubbing required. Also, don’t rush it. Giving yourself even 2 more minutes to do your skincare routine will really relax you mentally and physically, and let you enjoy the process that much more. You should be applying all your products with a light hand and gliding motion, touching your skin as little as possible.
Mistake #3: Mistaking sebaceous filaments for blackheads
If I were to say that blackheads are one of the most common skin problems, you’d probably believe me. But I’d be lying. What I’d say around 90% of people think are ‘blackheads’ all over their nose, inner cheeks and chin are likely to be sebaceous filaments. These are harmless collections of waxes, oils, skin cells and hair in each pore of the oilier areas of the face. They are a grey or light yellow colour and provide that familiar snake-like extrusion when squeezed. Why are they so common? It’s because they always come back! No matter what you do, sebaceous filaments will fill up the pores again as they are a totally normal result of how our skin works. Contrarily, blackheads are an anomaly where a pore actually becomes blocked, the material inside enlarged and hardened, and oxidises to a very dark colour on top. They’re a lot less common than you probably think.
The real issue isn’t in confusing these two common problems, but rather the brand-endorsed and wholly unhelpful nuking of your poor pores with the wrong products. Stop picking and squeezing and using pore strips and peel-off masks on your sebaceous filaments. As I said, they’ll just come right back in a few days, causing you unnecessary distress, and this harsh treatment will also lead to the aforementioned irritation if you’re not careful.
Solution: Accept that these sebaceous filaments are here to stay, and you can only minimise but likely never remove them. If you’d like to see less of them if only temporarily, try products designed to absorb and minimise oil and waxy deposits, such clay-based masks, oil cleansers, and BHAs for their sebaceous-filament minimising power. I’ve already gone in-depth about everything to do with identifying and treating sebaceous filaments using these products yourself at home.
Mistake #4: Not wearing sunscreen
Long gone are the days of equating a tan with health, yet I’d guess that most of the people I know don’t wear sunscreen regularly. I think this particular bad habit is a combination of ignorance, leftover fears of being ‘uncool’ and memories of greasy, thick zinc sticks from our childhood.
Skipping sunscreen each morning seems so easy and harmless until you learn about UVA rays. This invisible spectrum of sunlight is present during all daylight hours no matter where you are in the world. They pass through dense cloud cover and glass with ease. While they won’t burn your skin like UVB rays, this makes them all the more dangerous. And because you can’t see or feel it, it has no immediate effects, and it’s present everywhere inside and outside every day, there’s a huge risk for overexposure. UVA exposure leads to cellular damage and mutations that are the catalyst for skin cancers. An aesthetically, UVA damage leads to more wrinkles and worse uneven pigmentation, including darker hypo-pigmentation from acne! It’s been shown that these and other sun-damage related conditions are the largest factors in what makes you look older than your age.
Solution: Use sunscreen on your exposed areas every morning (the face, the chest, and backs of hands especially). It’s so easy and takes quite literally an extra 15 seconds on top of your other steps. So when people tell me they can’t be bothered to use sunscreen, I know that what they actually mean is that they don’t like the feeling of sunscreen. There have been truly incredible improvements to sun protection formulas in the past few years and now you’re able to get all the same and better benefits with none of the cosmetic downsides. Good sunscreens, especially Asian beauty formulas, are clear, scent-free, and lightweight.
Just avoiding these common pitfalls means you’re treating your skin better than the majority people out there. You should be able to implement each of these tips immediately and start seeing and feeling an instant difference. And for many, this is all you’ll need to get things back on track – you’ll be surprised how many of your skin troubles will start clearing up on their own once you’ve got a handle on these super basic concepts. By simply adjusting what you’re doing most wrong, you’re getting 80% of the results with 20% of the effort. It’s not true that you need to know everything about skincare and to be able to afford all new products before you try. Everybody starts somewhere!
Then, when it works and you’d like to learn more about what to do next with your newly improved skin, you can check out these resources on everything skin-related, from detailed acne care guides to mindset and motivation advice for building your first routine.
About Skin Careless
I’m a young Australian currently living in the south of Japan who started passion project and skincare resource Skin Careless over two years ago as a way to share how skincare can actually be mastered, through everything I’d personally learned in my own struggles with my problematic skin. Skin Careless has a wealth of information for everyone from total beginners to skincare enthusiasts looking to improve any aspect of their skin and attitude towards it: grasping the science, learning about their skin type, making better product choices, or working on their lifestyle and habits. I’ve helped empower thousands of people to create a routine that works for them. When I’m not at work or at home on my laptop still working away, I love to spend my spare time and energy on travel, learning languages, experiencing good food and improving my photography.