As our at-home skincare regimes become more complex and the ingredients we use more potent, so the risk of doing harm instead of good increases. "I see many patients experimenting with multi-step routines," says the dermatologist Dr Alexis Granite. "They use a number of different products and aggressive actives that, ultimately, can cause irritation." Happily, the beauty industry has responded proactively, with innovations designed to support the skin’s innate function rather than beat it into submission.
This holistic approach harnesses simplified formulas to strengthen protectiveness and combat sensitivity, giving your skin a much-needed fresh start.
Create the right culture
A term taken from ecology and applied to our beauty regimes, ‘rewilding’ refers to the concept of nurturing the skin’s natural microbiome, which comprises bacteria and other micro-organisms (also known as skin flora).
"Your skin is an extraordinary ecosystem," says the Ren founder Rob Calcraft, whose new venture, Cultured, is among the brands experimenting with rewilding. "Like the warp and weft of fabric, the microbiome is intrinsically entwined with every element of our skin’s biological actions, making it central to dermal health."
When the microbiome is thriving, skin looks and feels healthier. However, it can become imbalanced by a poor diet, stress, pollution, UV light and even products such as soap (the microbiome needs a pH of about five, but most soaps are pH 10). Any of these factors can result in a lack of diversity in micro-organisms, leading to irritation, dullness, breakouts or flare-ups of conditions such as rosacea.
There is a strong correlation between gut and skin health—the biomes in each communicate as part of the body’s immune response and, in both cases, taking a daily supplement such in the way of probiotic drinks can help boost our natural defences. As with the gut, probiotic-rich formulations support the skin microbiome, while prebiotics, a food source for bacteria, are increasingly found in serums (try Lancôme Génifique Yeux). Research into the role of postbiotics, the by-product of micro-organisms, is still in its infancy but likely to play an important role in our understanding of how to look after skin flora. For now, those prone to sensitivity or irritation should try the organic-skincare brand Esse’s game-changing range, which marries key biotics with ingredients including hyaluronic acid to bring back biodiversity to the skin.
Build your barrier
If there is one fundamental that is often taken for granted while we scrub and slough our way to a smoother surface, it’s the skin’s outermost layer, usually known as the barrier.
"A healthy skin barrier is essential to retaining moisture and protecting against environmental stressors such as UV rays and pollution," says Dr Alexis Granite. She warns that a barrage of potent active ingredients and elaborate skincare regimes can dislodge the lipid ‘glue’ that holds together skin cells, resulting in dryness, redness and irritation.
While ceramides are nothing new, they are now back in the spotlight thanks to their barrier rebuilding properties. "Ceramides are fats that occur naturally within the skin, keeping cells strong and connected," says Granite. "They help to reinforce the skin barrier and boost hydration levels." A new wave of skincare uses synthetic ceramides that are almost identical in composition to the lipids lost from the skin, locking in moisture and improving elasticity for a plumper, smoother complexion.
Give your skin a break
When skin becomes overly sensitive, the first thing a dermatologist will recommend is stripping back your routine to the very basics. Hence the concept of ‘skin fasting’, which involves cutting out certain active ingredients for a complete reset.
"The benefit of simplifying your skincare regime is to give the barrier—your body’s first line of defence—time to return to its natural homeostasis, while allowing it to repair and rejuvenate itself," says the consultant dermatologist Dr Zainab Laftah.This could involve limiting your use of particular products to once or twice a week or, in more severe cases, steering clear of actives for several weeks to enable the barrier to recover.
Even during periods of fasting, however, you should retain the basic building blocks of skincare, especially if your skin is at the dry end of the spectrum. "Cleansers are essential for reducing the build-up of dead skin cells, oil, pollution and dirt, all of which have the potential to lead to blocked pores and inflammatory acne," explains Laftah. "Sunscreens are also an important step in your daily routine."
Forward-thinking brands such as Innisfree are making skin fasting easier by focusing on a pared-back list of nourishing ingredients, eschewing actives altogether. Others are developing one-step products that reduce regime complexity: try L'occtaine's Immortelle Divine Cream, which addresses multiple issues and enhances the skin’s ability to repair itself.
One small swap
For many years, the gold standard for resurfacing and smoothing the skin has been chemical exfoliation using AHAs and BHAs (typically glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids) to achieve a glowing complexion. These have many potential benefits, but can easily cause irritation if overused, and are unsuitable for those with rosacea and eczema.
Today, dermatologists and brands are exploring the use of enzymes, usually derived from fruits such as pineapple, papaya and pumpkin, as an alternative tool for skin resurfacing. These work by breaking down the protein that binds skin cells together, which accelerates the cell-renewal process in order to reduce congestion naturally. They do not penetrate as deeply as acid exfoliators, making them far more appropriate for regular use—particularly by individuals with sensitive or dry skin – but they still offer the same promise of a smooth, radiant complexion.
Made to measure
While it may be tempting to reach for concentrated products on the assumption that they will be more effective, using a lower-strength option more consistently can generate better short and long term results, as the skin is able to tolerate the actives and there is a lower risk of irritation.
An easy way to approach this is with single-measure doses in the form of pods, ampoules, pre-soaked pads or capsules that take the guesswork out of how much you should be applying. Clinique's Fresh Pressed 7-Day System With Pure Vitamin C, for example, gives you the exact amount of product you need for the face. A further benefit of single doses is that volatile ingredients such as vitamin C are kept stable until they touch the surface of your skin, meaning that their potency is retained for longer.
This piece originally appeared in Harper's Bazaar UK in May 2022