A Beauty-Critical Content Charcuterie!

Welcome to the inaugural Beauty-Critical Content Charcuterie: A snack-able spread of observations, ideas, and thought-starters that have taken over my mind! A sampling of stories I’m dying to write but don’t have the time to really write! The text equivalent of a photo-dump!

Today’s Beauty-Critical Content Charcuterie is brought to you by my book. (Did you hear I’m writing a book?) I’m a few months shy of my deadline, so I’m taking that time off from everything else. No new articles, no social media, only the occasional newsletter.

Normally, I sit on ideas like these until I have the time to fully explore them in an essay or investigation, but 1) I won’t have that time for a while and 2) I have an unhealthy obsession with being the first to say something as well as an 3) aching need for acknowledgement and credit. Ugh. I’m working on it. Until I achieve self-actualization, please enjoy these bite-sized beauty industry critiques, which are really more stream-of-conscious ramblings than sourced and cited research. Read ’em, share ’em, tag me 😉

Snack On: Supportive Skincare

The people are fed up with clean skincare. (Perhaps because “clean skincare” is a marketing term that means nothing.) Mark my words — which many already have without acknowledgement! yeah, I’m a little bitter about it, why do you ask?? — supportive skincare will be the next evolution of the natural/clean/sustainable movement.

Supportive skincare is based on the science of supporting the skin’s inherent functions rather than the science of manipulating the skin’s appearance. (These sound bites brought to you from the “Mission” section of my personal website from 2018.) Most modern skincare attempts to overwrite these natural functions, which disempowers the skin and creates a dependency on products… not to mention, keeps you in the consumer cycle. “Clean” skincare is no exception; it simply replaces those brightening/smoothing/anti-aging/exfoliating products with supposedly “cleaner” formulations that do the same thing.

Supportive skincare does the opposite. It replaces products with the skin itself. The skin has built-in mechanisms to self-cleanse, self-moisturize, self-exfoliate, self-heal, and self-protect. Supportive skincare allows these inherent functions to do the heavy lifting and supports them when needed.

That support might come in the form of topicals (for instance, my sebum production has been slow ever since I finished a round of Accutane 10 years ago, so I support my skin with jojoba oil, which is a close chemical match to human sebum). It can come in the form of diet and lifestyle practices (for example, the skin barrier requires a daily dose of Omega-3 fatty acids in order to function, cells require certain minerals in addition to water to maintain hydration, exercising produces internal antioxidants, getting enough sleep allows for self-exfoliation, lymphatic drainage promotes cellular cleansing). It can come in the form of mindfulness (practices like meditation and Breathwork can actually strengthen a compromised skin barrier… and are free!).

Supportive skincare doesn’t see skin “issues” as symptoms to be erased; it sees them as communications from one’s inner and outer environments — the point is to listen to them, to attempt to understand what the skin is saying, and to give it the support it’s asking for. (The hormonal cysts on your jawline are there to tell you that your hormones need attention! Instead of punishing them with a resurfacing peel, start exploring your hormonal health.)

Supportive skincare doesn’t care about the “clean” factor of ingredients — it doesn’t even care about the scientific evidence behind how ingredients behave — if that information doesn’t take the scientific evidence behind how the skin behaves into account. (For example, charcoal is a “clean” and natural ingredient that, as one very famous skincare brand recently posted on Instagram, “acts like a magnet to absorb oil and sebum and remove deeper impurities.” That’s all true! The problem is that presenting the science of how charcoal works without factoring in the science of the skin causes issues. Oil and sebum are integral to the skin barrier, and absorbing them and other “impurities,” like dead skin cells — which are also important! — isn’t actually good for the skin. It just sounds good, because marketing has misinformed us and made us believe that oil and sebum and “impurities” [uh, what are those, anyway??] are bad. They’re not! They’re necessary! Charcoal is a clean, natural, and scientifically proven ingredient, yes — but it harms the skin’s ability to self-moisturize and thus, self-protect and self-heal. And anyway, charcoal isn’t an intelligent material. It can’t pick and choose “bad” “impurities” to absorb while leaving “good” stuff behind. It absorbs it all; “it all” being your skin barrier.)

Adopting a skin-supportive approach makes for routines and rituals that are better for your skin (which mostly wants to be left alone, thanks), better for your being (there are mind-and-body benefits to skin-supportive practices like sleep and exercise), better for your mental health (both in that it includes stress-reducing practices and in that it shifts the focus from skin aesthetic to skin health — there’s no pressure to change your face), and better for the planet (who needs plastic bottles full of hyaluronic acid and ceramides when the skin produces them on its own?).

This is, of course, a very brief overview of a complex topic — trust me, you do not know complex skincare until you try to understand the cascade of chemical reactions involved in the creation of the skin’s Natural Moisturizing Factors — but expect to see more brands and aestheticians tout “supportive skincare” soon. Joke’s on them! Truly supportive skincare requires very little intervention in the form of products or professional facials.

One last thing on “supportive skincare”: The concept is nothing new! It is the most ancient and sacred way to take care of your skin and your self. I find that so many people connect with this approach after they hear about it because it’s deeply intuitive. Seeing it put into words only affirms the wisdom we already carry within us— wisdom that’s been buried under layers of capitalism and colonialism, wisdom that’s been forgotten by many and largely left out of the mainstream beauty space, wisdom that’s now coming to light in a major way.(Plus it’s backed by science, which is nice for all you spiritual skeptics.)

Add Some: Ancient Ingredients

More evidence that my little supportive skincare philosophy is about to merge onto the main highway: The industry’s newest skincare ingredients are also the oldest. Symbiome’s products use fermented plant oils from the Amazon to model the microbial diversity of our ancestors’ skin microbiomes (which used to produce vitamins A, D, E, and K and antioxidant CoQ10 all on their own, back when human beings lived in accordance with nature, before we started attempting to control nature… separation from nature has truly been the worst thing for our skin 😩). Whimsy Official just released a serum modeled after human sebum, the skin’s built-in moisturizer.

While these are great examples of skin-supportive products — and if you’re in the market for topical support, I highly recommend both!! — what’s more exciting to me is the ethos behind them: Just by existing, they inspire a certain sense of wonder for the skin and all that it can do on its own. Like, the marketing of the product almost negates the need for the product… i.e., if sebum is such an incredible moisturizer that brands are formulating serums to mimic it, do you even need that sebum-inspired serum if your own sebum production is on point? (No.)

Spread On: Slugging

While we’re on the subject of skincare products you do not need… My God, can we stop it with the slugging already? You don’t need to “slug” if you have a skin barrier. For the blessedly unaware, “slugging” is an older skincare trend from Reddit that’s experiencing something of a renaissance thanks to Instagram and TikTok. It involves coating the surface of the skin in thick layers of occlusive goo — mostly, petroleum jelly or mineral oil — in order to seal in hydration and promote healing.

Ahem. THIS IS WHAT YOUR SKIN BARRIER DOES.

It’s far more effective (and sustainable!) to focus on long-term barrier support (which does not require a slimy sludge of petrochemicals that creates an inhospitable environment for the microbiome, thankfully). If you find yourself thinking, “I don’t know, I feel like my skin would benefit from some slugging”, let that be a sign: Your skin barrier is probably compromised. Build it up and let it do the slugging for you. (And because I know I’ll get questions: No, slugging does not strengthen your skin barrier — it creates a faux barrier with external products. Slugging cuts off communication between your skin and its environment — a channel that needs to remain open in order for the skin to effectively moisturize, exfoliate, and heal itself.)

Sprinkle A Little: Yoni Wisdom

OK, I’m gonna say it: Treat your face like your vagina. (Or a vagina, if you’re not a vagina-owner.) Seriously. Let’s do a side-by-side of vagina facts and face facts.

On vaginas, per Healthline: “The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists points out that your vagina cleans itself and keeps itself healthy by maintaining the correct pH balance and cleaning itself with natural secretions.” Sound familiar? The skin does that, too, via the pH-balanced acid mantle and the natural secretions of sweat and sebum!

Back to vaginas: “Your vagina contains a lot of ‘good’ bacteria. These bacteria maintain the ideal pH balance in your vagina, which is slightly acidic. The acidic pH makes it hard for ‘bad’ bacteria to infect your vagina. When you use soaps, sprays, or gels — and yes, even water — to wash inside your vagina, you disrupt the bacterial balance. This can result in bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection, and other irritation.” Weird — same for skin. Welcome to the wonder of the microbiome.

Once more, vaginas: “Washing your vagina can also affect your vagina’s ability to clean itself. So if you want a clean vagina, leave it alone to clean itself!” Guess what? The skin is the same!!

So if experts agree that washing the vagina can cause issues because the vagina already self-cleanses, maintains an ideal pH, and features a delicate balance of beneficial bacteria to keep it safe… what does that say about how we should treat our skin, which does all of that, too?!

OBVIOUSLY, I know that the vagina and the face have some very distinct differences. Namely, that faces face the outside world, get covered in makeup and SPF and environmental pollutants and dust/dirt/grime, and a little cleansing with water or rose water or oil or honey (my fave) might be necessary every so often. This comparison is simply to say: Your skin is just as self-sufficient as your vagina. Give it a little credit. Let it do its thing. Products can hurt more than they help.

Garnish With: Anti-Exposure

I’m convinced the only honest and not-shame-y way to address “anti-aging” is to rebrand it with the technically correct term “anti-exposure.” As I wrote in this piece, the things we consider signs of premature “aging” — fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, loss of collagen, sagging, dullness, et al — are more often signs of environmental exposure. Studies even suggest that up to 85% of “aging” is the result of exposure and NOT ACTUAL AGING!

Dr. Loretta Ciraldo is a great resource for this. (The dermatologist was among the first to study the sun’s effects on the skin at Harvard.) Based on her research, there are four main types of exposure: pollution, light, climate, and irritants… irritants being “ingredients meant to improve the skin’s condition” that “can lead instead to redness, flaking, rough texture, and sensitivity.” She notes tretinoin, SLS, SLES, fragrance, hydroquinone, kojic acid, and propylene glycol, among others, as ingredients that can “worsen” signs of aging. Go check your anti-aging arsenal. Do it. I guarantee some of these ingredients are in there — tretinoin is the #1 anti-aging prescription in the nation — meaning your anti-aging regimen is, in fact, “aging” you. Fun!

Most of the shit we put on our faces “ages” us, actually. A healthy skin barrier + a diverse skin microbiome provide a not-insignificant amount of protection from all forms of environmental exposure, but the overwhelming majority of beauty products — anti-aging or not — weaken the barrier and disrupt the microbiome, exacerbating exposure. It makes me think of some of the top-recommended ingredients in the skincare space… exfoliating acids, retinol, benzoyl peroxide. All of these increase sun sensitivity and thus, exposure/“aging.” Of course, the fix is to be more diligent about sunscreen, but it’s not always as simple as that. A quick Google of “best sunscreens” pulls up products that feature denatured alcohol (a big barrier-stripper), fragrance (one of Dr. Loretta’s irritant-agers), and orange peel oil (which causes photosensitivity). (This is the best skin-supportive sunscreen if you’re in the market for one.)

I really don’t mean to dig on products, though; even water impacts the good ol’ barrier & biome. Point being: Interfering with our faces heightens our risk of exposure and preserving the barrier is as close as it gets to preserving “youth.” (On that note: Eat your antioxidants! Research shows that ingesting your vitamin C is more effective than slathering it on your skin, plus you bypass that whole barrier-disrupting thing.)

Personally, I would add the typical Western diet and lifestyle to Dr. Loretta’s list of exposures, too. Sugar, gluten, alcohol, dairy, and unsustainable levels of stress = inflammation, hormonal shifts, oxidative stress, and nutrient deficiencies = gut microbiome imbalance; skin barrier degradation; dehydration; lipid peroxidation; and impaired production of collagen, hyaluronic acid, and other components of healthy skin = aging.

So if “aging” is actually exposure, and “anti-aging” products can cause more exposure, why was “anti-aging” positioned as “anti-aging” and not “anti-exposure” in the first place??

I think it’s a mix of things. Obviously, education. Anti-aging was a category long before the science of skin exposure emerged; and it does make sense — the longer you live, the more exposure you experience, and there is that 15% of age-related aging to consider. This is a great example of how science is always evolving and how false information so often becomes foundational, especially in dermatology. (For instance: Textbooks written in the 1970s and used for decades after taught soon-to-be-derms that diet had no bearing on the skin whatsoever. Today, we know that’s not true… although some older derms [including mine from years ago!] still stubbornly refuse to acknowledge this connection. There are the “bad” diet influences, like the above references to sugar and alcohol, but there are also the “good” influences! The skin barrier needs Omega fatty acids in order to function optimally, but it can’t synthesize Omegas on its own, so in this case, diet is a key way to support your skin. [Add nuts, seeds, and salmon to your grocery list.])

“Anti-exposure” also isn’t a great way to sell products, since one of the pillars of exposure is… well, products.

But the big one, I’m convinced, is that environmental exposure is external and impersonal and aging is internal and very personal — and as any marketer will tell you, getting personal moves product. Psychologically, blaming aging begets shame and fear, two very effective motivators. (Society already has major issues with aging, aside from the physical effects — read this story and follow @thenapministry for more on how grind culture and productivity-as-worth factor into our fear of getting older.) Then, the existence of “anti-aging” products and procedures suggests that one can anti-age with enough time/money/effort. And if you theoretically can anti-age (you can’t) and you don’t (which you won’t), your shame and fear get amplified. You spiral. You pour in more time/money/effort, because there’s always a new device/surgery/injectable/miracle ingredient to try, and maybe you’re aging because you haven’t tried hard enough to stop it. I mean, Jennifers Lopez & Aniston are doing it!! It can be done, right? Shame + fear + (false) hope for a solution = a thriving industry.

Basically, it’s all bullshit. Here’s a better “anti-aging” routine for you:

Step 1: Protect your barrier.

Step 2: Minimize your products.

Step 3: Get politically involved in solving our planet’s pollution problem.

Step 4: Start thinking of “anti-aging” as “anti-exposure” and watch your shame dissipate.

You read it here first!

Jessica DeFino is a beauty reporter covering natural, holistic, sustainable skincare. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Vogue, Allure, & more.

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