This is not a feel-good post about how I finally learned to accept my love handles or my stretch marks. This is literally a post about my skin, and how, through trial and error, I have found solutions to skin issues that have plagued me for as long as I can remember. For the first time in my life, I can honestly say I love my skin, but it took a long time to learn the lessons that have made a difference for me. While I hope these lessons might help someone else, please note, I am not a doctor, dermatologist, or esthetician, and my lessons come from personal experience, not professional knowledge.
Lesson #1: K.I.S.S.able Skin
The first and most impactful lesson I learned about my skin came somewhat by accident. In high school, I had terrible acne. My dermatologist (ironically named Dr. Whitehead) put me on a rotation of prescription-strength Salicylic Acid and Benzoyl Peroxide, and he even recommended I go to the tanning bed a few times a month! I lost a lot of my favorite tops to bleach stains, and I remember my face always hurt, but it never cleared up. By my junior year of college, my new dermatologist talked me into trying Accutane. Shortly afterward, my face cleared up, but it had nothing to do with the Accutane. It turns out, I’m terrible at remembering to take a pill every day, but because Accutane makes skin so sensitive, my doctor had instructed me to only use simple cleansers without acne-fighting ingredients, and THIS change was what made all the difference. I stopped taking the Accutane, I stopped buying acne clearing products, and I switched to a “keep it simple, stupid” rule when it came to my face. While I do get a random pimple every now and then, my major struggles with acne disappeared, and I’ve had clear skin ever since.
Lesson #2: Oils Are My Best Friends
I’m not exactly sure where I got the idea, but somehow, I had it in my head for a long time that oily hair and skin were bad, and products to combat oil were the best solution. It took me too long to learn that oily hair and skin were a sign that my skin needed more hydration, and it took me even longer to find the best ways to hydrate my skin.
For most of my life, I struggled with oily hair and embarrassing dandruff. My solution was to wash my hair every day, and I tried every dandruff shampoo on the market without success. In my young adult life, I was exposed to the idea that I shouldn’t wash my hair every day, but it took years of trying and giving up before I successfully retrained my hair. It’s naturally very dark and appears oily quickly, so I struggled to go more than a day without washing. When I finally did get past that second-day mark, it became much easier to extend to 3 or 4 days, but not having to wash my hair every day wasn’t the prize. Not washing my hair every day resulted in hair that was less oily and a scalp that was less dry and flakey because my natural oils were finally allowed to do their thing and hydrate my skin.
Once I realized why my scalp felt better, I started experimenting with solutions to my biggest issue: extremely dry, sensitive skin. Growing up in northern climates, I was no stranger to skin that got so dry it cracked and bled. And here in Louisiana, my seasonal allergies affect my eyes and skin, so it’s not uncommon for my back and stomach to look like I was attacked by a cat because I’m so itchy all of the time. Unfortunately, I’ve always had a love/(mostly) hate relationship with lotion. In the winter, I hate standing in the cold air to slather on lotion. In the summer, the lotion never dries. My dermatologists always recommended super thick lotions, but I don’t like the way they feel, and lighter lotions never moisturized enough. Body washes that claimed to moisturize never did much either. When I had the light-bulb moment about my body’s natural oils, I wondered if oil-based products might help my skin. I switched to oil-based body wash and replaced my lotion with body oil, and my only wish is that I didn’t figure this out years ago. I found that the oil-based body washes didn’t dry out my skin like other body washes had and that body oils felt better and dried more quickly than lotion. My skin looks healthier, and stays soft and moisturized all day long, it, and even the skin on my elbows is smooth.
Having fully embraced the power of oils, my last switched was to a cleansing oil for make-up remover. While I still use a gentle face cleanser afterward, I have found that cleansing oils do a much better job of removing makeup without leaving me feeling dried out or slimy the way that wipes and micellar water do.
Lesson #3: Exfoliation Isn’t Just for Dirt
Commercials for exfoliating washes always seem to include animations of the exfoliating particles washing away dead skin and dirt, but exfoliation has been key in addressing other issues for me as well. On top of super dry, sensitive skin, I’ve also always struggled with keratosis and in-grown hairs. Using a body polish once a week helps reduce the frequency with which I battle both of these issues. Additionally, it always leaves my skin feeling soft, and when I use it before shaving, it always results in a closer shave. While there are some concerns about physical exfoliators scratching the skin, I find they are less irritating than chemical exfoliators. I also use an exfoliating face wash once or twice a week, but I find using it more often irritated my skin.
Lesson #4: Embrace the Paleness (and Protect It)
When I was in high school, all the popular girls worked at the tanning salons, and an advertisement for one of the salons assured women that “fat looks better tan.” I longed for beautiful sun-kissed skin, but my Irish skin is reflectively white. I hated how pale I was, but I was also terrified of getting skin cancer, so I’d put on the lowest-protection SPF I could find (usually 4 or 8). Inevitably, I’d either burn or spend all day in the sun with nothing to show for it. As I got older, I became more worried about protecting my skin than looking beautiful, but I still longed for a gorgeous tan. When my youngest ended up with sun blisters after being outside on a cool, overcast day, I realized just how easy it was to get skin damage, and I stopped worry about that tan altogether. Now I make sure my Irish-skinned family is ghost-white with zinc-based sunscreen before we do anything outdoors, and sunscreen application is part of everyone’s morning routine. I’m more than happy to be compared to Casper if it means my skin is healthy and safe.
Lesson #5: Serums are the Fountain of Youth
I may have finally discovered solutions to skin issues that have plagued me for most of my life, but aging has come with new skin-related struggles. During the cold-snap this winter, I found that my daily SPF moisturizer just wasn’t doing enough for my face. I also notice the lines in my forehead were getting deeper and the bags under my eyes were getting darker. I decided it was time to hop on the serum train. After doing some research online, I decided to start with a retinol and hyaluronic acid, since they seemed to be the solutions to my most bothersome signs of aging, but I figured I’d eventually add in an eye cream and a Vitamin C serum as well. After reading a number of product reviews, I found a retinol cream that reviewers claimed worked without being overly irritating, and then I bought the hyaluronic acid serum from the same brand. It’s only been a few weeks, but I’m not even sure I’m going to need the eye cream or the Vitamin C. My wrinkles are visibly reduced, as are some acne scars, and my skin is glowing.
Bonus Lesson: Water is the Best Moisturizer.
We all know we should stay hydrated, but sometimes drinking enough water can be a challenge. All the external products in the world can’t help skin that isn’t hydrated from the inside out. If I notice my skin feeling dry or sensitive, I definitely rely on my favorite skin-care products, but I also make myself drink a glass of water.