The Skincare Series:
1. Skincare 101

In makeup, the skin is our canvas: the more beautiful the skin at the start, the more beautiful the final result will be. No one doubts this, but the problem is getting better skin. We all realize that the multi-billion dollar skincare industry is rife with dishonesty. Most of us have been seduced by that beautiful model with flawless skin into paying way too much for products that did nothing for us. You give up, heart broken, only to try again in a few months or a year when your frustration with your skin is too much to bear. Talk about the classic loser cycle!

I've been there, and I have escaped. I've discovered skincare products that work and are also affordable. One of my transfans is a very sweet doctor of dermatology. I'll call him Dr. Davey to protect his anonymity. He loves my look but thought I could do better and has been very gently encouraging me to try. I began to read more about the science of skincare and follow a few of his suggestions. I deliberately did not mention this to anyone because I wanted to see if people would notice. And they have! My SheHubby has been blown away by the improvement in my skin, and she is not the only one. My skin is definitely brighter and tighter, with more smoothness and fewer wrinkles. And I am only at the beginning of my journey. I am confident my skin will continue to improve, and I expect to discover new products and techniques to help even more. Meanwhile, I thought I would share my discoveries with you.

Before we get started, I want to say a few things. It's essential to have realistic expectations. There are some things that medicine still can't fix. I have severe acne scars on my neck. I hate that, but they will probably be with me for life. They can be improved but not eliminated. On the other hand, I've discovered that many skin issues, such as the effects of aging and weather damage, can be reversed to a surprising degree! One thing is certain: the earlier you begin to take care of your skin, the better off you will be.

While I've received a lot of advice and guidance from my sweetie Dr. Davey, this is a DIY journey, at least so far. It's imperative to remember that skincare is incredibly personal. We are all different. Especially if you have sensitive skin, the DIY route might not be your best option. If you take the information here and combine it with your own good sense, monitoring your reactions and progress as you go, I am sure you will have a good result. If you just buy everything I mention or blindly copy my personal skincare routine, you might end up worse off than you are today!

The Skin Threshold

There's a limit to how much of anything a person's skin can take. This limit is different for everyone, but once you pass it, your skin will fight back. It's critical to pay attention to your skin. If your skin becomes irritated, back off. It's easy to get excited by the results of a process and want to repeat it more often than you should. Take it slow.

As a general rule, light-colored people with dry skin tend to have the lowest skin thresholds. Oily skin and people with bronze-ebony skin tones tend to have higher skin thresholds. You probably already have some idea of how your skin reacts to products. If you already know you react badly to many different skin products, consider consulting a dermatologist. If you already have a skin condition, such as dermatitis or eczema, this series of articles is not for you.

It's also important to realize that each product you use brings you closer to your skin threshold. This is another reason not to get too excited and try everything at once. Finally, fragrances are notorious for increasing the probability of skin irritation. If you are using a moisturizer or other skin product with a scent, try to find an alternative.

Step 1: Skin Cleansing

Step one in any skincare routine is keeping your skin clean. Morning and evening, you should wash your face with a good skin cleanser. My Dr. Davey recommends Cetaphil's "Daily Facial Cleanser." You can get an 8 oz bottle for less than $10 and a 16 oz bottle for less than $15.

I'm getting ahead of the story here, but if you have acne issues and enlarged pores, consider using something that contains salicylic acid. I was using a relatively expensive product from Skinceuticals. I have now switched to Dr. Davey's recommendation, Neutrogena's "Oil-Free Acne Fighting Fash Wash." At less than $10, it works just as well as the $40 Skinceuticals product. Use some caution here since salicylic acid can be irritating. (I write more about acids in the articles that follow). Since you apply it and then wash it off, it's less likely to irritate in this application. And it does help with both acne and some types of enlarged pores. Dead skin cells can accumulate on pores and make them appear larger. I have found that over the two months that I have been using this product, my pores have shrunk. But, reality-check: some types of enlarged pores, particularly the icepick pores, are genetic, and the only real solution to problems like that is to have laser treatments.

Step 2: Sunscreen

The best sunscreen is a hat or an umbrella. Dermatologists always refer to sunscreen as the basis of skincare. As we all know, the sun's white light contains multiple frequencies of light, both visible and invisible. The two that interest us are ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB).

UVB is more dangerous than UVA. UVB causes sunburn (remember UVB, where B is for BURN) and is primarily responsible for all the nasty skin cancers. Sunscreens do an outstanding job of blocking UVB. Bronze-ebony skin contains a lot more melanin, which protects you against skin cancers caused by UVB. However, the protection is not perfect. Most doctors recommend sunscreen even if you are lucky enough to have bronze-ebony skin.

UVA rays tan our skin. They also play a role in skin cancers. UVA penetrates deeply into our skin and is the most significant cause of aging skin (remember the A in UVA stands for AGING). MELANIN DOES NOT PROTECT AGAINST UVA. UVA is the equal opportunity ager for all skin types. In fact, bronze-ebony skin types have a higher risk of hyperpigmentation from exposure to UVA. The bad news here is that sunscreens do not protect as well against UVA as they do against UVB.

Sunscreens list an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) on their labels. This reflects how much time it takes for you to get a sunburn. Remember that only UVB rays cause sunburn, so SPF tells us nothing about UVA protection. SPF factors are usually explained as how much longer it will take before you get a sunburn wearing sunscreen. For example: you know you get a sunburn if you stay in the sun for one hour. But, so the argument goes, wearing an SPF-15 sunscreen will let you stay in the sun for 15-hours before developing a sunburn.

But of course, this is just silly. There is more sun at higher altitudes than lower altitudes. There is more sun at noon than there is at 9 in the morning. Some people sweat more than others and will need more frequent reapplications of sunscreen to get that 15-hour protection. And, of course, there is the little detail that companies sometimes make mistakes and sometimes cheat. So SPF ratings should be taken, at best, as general guides.

And how much protection can we expect for UVA? I know none of us want skin cancer, but we also want to stay as pretty as we can. How do we rate a sunscreen's UVA protection?

The usual advice is to buy a sunscreen that advertises "broad spectrum" protection. For those of us in the U.S., the bad news here is that American sunscreens are particularly bad at blocking UVA. The sunscreen ingredients allowed by the FDA all block UVB well but only zinc oxide and avobenzone protect against UVA rays. And since there is so much emphasis on SPF factors, American companies add UVB filters to drive up the SPF number, but this actually ends up limiting the product's ability to protect against UVA.

The situation is better in Europe. Europe requires that a sunscreens UVA protection must be (at minimum) one-third as strong as its UVB protection. They also cap the allowed SPF values on labels at "50+", which prevents the UVB filter pile-on characteristic of American sunscreens. Most American sunscreens would not be allowed to be sold in Europe. They would probably also not be allowed to place the "broad spectrum" indicator on their labels.

Another gotcha with American sunscreens is that the SPF numbers are determined using unrealistically heavy coatings. Much, much thicker than even the most devoted sunscreen user would use.

There are currently two types of sunscreens: physical and chemical blockers. Physical blockers are ingredients like zinc oxide, which you probably remember as that yucky white cream our moms spread all over us as children. Things are better now as they use micro-particles, but they can still add an unpleasant color to your skin. Physical blockers like zinc oxide coat the skin and work immediately. Chemical blockers require a bit of time to 'soak-in' to the skin - at least 20-30 minutes.

There are a gazillion myths about these two types of sunscreens. The first myth is how they work. You usually read that physical sunscreens reflect the light while chemical sunscreens convert the light to heat and radiate it. The truth is that they work the same. A physical sunscreen like zinc oxide indeed reflects light, but only about 10% of it. The rest of the screening effect comes from the zinc oxide absorbing the light rays and releasing them as heat. I mention this myth in particular because some people think that heat makes hyperpigmentation worse. But there's really a microscopic difference in heat generated, so that's no reason to prefer one over the other.

This myth about chemical blockers being worse for hyperpigmentation than physical blockers is making the situation worse for bronze-ebony skin types. There are two problems here: since the physical sunscreens are white, they show up much more on darker-toned skin. That looks bad, so people don't want to wear them, which leads to more hyperpigmentation. The other problem with this advice is that the recent chemical filters for sunscreen are actually really good at blocking UVA and preventing hyperpigmentation!

Sunscreen summary and recommendations

So that's a lot, but it's an important subject. I don't have a recommendation for a sunscreen at the present time. My sweetie baby Dr. Davie recommends an SPF of at least 30, but he is not an American. It is hard to find a sunscreen with an SPF that low in the USA! I have used products from two highly regarded companies: La Roche-Posay and Neutrogena. La Roche-Posay's SPF-50 "Shaka Fluid" with "Cell-Ox" protection looks interesting.

Here is my personal list of requirements for sunscreen:

  1. SPF of at least 50
  2. Labeled as "Broad Spectrum."
  3. Contains either avobenzone or zinc oxide (or both).
  4. It has no fragrance.
  5. Is pleasant to wear.

Do not disregard that last requirement. No matter how protective the sunscreen is, if it feels awful, I will probably forget to put it on.

Application and a final rant

You need to apply a fair amount of sunscreen. The usual recommendation is 5-grams for the face and neck, which is basically the amount that would fit into a kitchen teaspoon. Of course, you will need more for arms and any other skin showing. Apply at least twice a day. More if you are in the sun and sweat a lot. And wear a hat.

And may I rant a bit? I notice a lot of consumer foundations include sunscreen protection. This is one of the most insidious scams around. Besides the fact that I do not trust any makeup companies "SPF" ratings, if you were to put 5-grams of foundation on your face, you would look like you just escaped from the circus! Meanwhile, if you use less than the recommended 5-grams, you are absolutely not getting the advertised SPF!

Step 3: Moisturizers

Moisturizers are crucially important, but this is yet another area where marketing is out of control. First of all, moisturizers do not add moisture. They prevent it from leaving. How many commercials have you seen telling you how much this-or-that companies product "adds" needed moisture to your face? This is a complete lie. All moisturizers contain stuff like paraffin (candle wax) or beeswax, or something equivalent. The point of these ingredients is to coat the skin with a barrier to keep moisture inside your skin from leaving.

You can divide moisturizers into three (or four) groups, and this is based entirely on price, not on how they work. There are the super low-priced ones like Vaseline, Cetaphil makes a low-end one or something like Ponds Cold Cream (which is still my favorite makeup remover). These are really inexpensive and form a fantastic moisture barrier. In fact, the moisture barrier is so good that if you have a laser procedure or other facial issue, using one of these can promote healing much better than more expensive moisturizers and they are all well under $10.

While these products have their uses and work the same or better than their more expensive cousins, they are inelegant. I don't care how moisturized my skin is, I don't want to walk around town with a coat of vaseline on my face, and I'm sure you don't either! For just a little more money ($20-$30) you can get a good moisture barrier and elegance too! In this range, I like the La Roche-Posay moisturizers for daily wear. Some come with broad-spectrum SPF ratings, so you can slather on a nice coating of moisturizer and get your sunscreen in the bargain. That's what I do most of the time.

I currently avoid moisturizers with ingredients such as retinol. This is because I add retinol as a separate step and then use moisturizer. If the moisturizer also has retinol, I run the risk of going over my skin threshold.

I do use a different moisturizer under makeup and for clients. As you know, it's crucial to moisturize before makeup! I really love Lait Crème Concentré from Embryolisse. Several of the pro-makeup people I work with love this product, and that's how I discovered it. It's a bit runnier than a lot of moisturizers, and that has some advantages for makeup. Since it's thinner, you can apply a much more delicate layer to the face. The product's liquidity also makes it easy to apply with a brush, which is useful if you have a client who doesn't like their face to be touched. It costs $28, which is a very reasonable price. I usually go for the New York Edition. I can never resist buying that one because it is so cute.

But if you want, you can spend more money on moisturizers. For example, for $100 or more, you can get creams with all kinds of additives, such as hyaluronic acid, that make absolutely no sense to put on your face. If you are really desperate to dig a hole in your purse, buy La Mer. You can get 2 oz. for $345, but why not go all the way and get 8.4 oz for $1,290! The active ingredients are still paraffin and beeswax, but you get to pay a lot more for them this way.

That's it for now. Part 2 introduces the basics of acids, so you can understand how and what to expect and look for! I hope this article helps keep you beautiful and leaves more money in that gorgeous purse. If you have comments or quesitons, please send the nice ones to me! To do that, you can