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Today we're talking about how to reap the skin-transforming benefits of powerful active ingredients whilst keeping your skin happy and healthy. Gone are the days of pummelling our faces with the strongest formulas possible, and here are the days of calm, irritation-free skin...
I get the appeal of mixing and matching different ingredients, but more isn't always more! I personally have the approach of typically only using one standalone active per routine, though sometimes I will use the gentlest possible versions of two actives together. It's not a daily thing for me though! If you truly believe your skin needs a multi-pronged attack to tackle specific issues (as opposed to day-to-day maintenance), I recommend removing the guesswork by finding a multi-active formula. It means you don't have to use multiple steps (and worry about if the ingredients are compatible, what order to apply them in and whether it will be too much for your skin) and you know they're formulated to work together. Skincare shouldn't be an eat-as-much-as-you-like world buffet, it should be a carefully curated, coherent set menu...
If your skin isn't hydrated, truly nothing else will work as effectively, and you could end up using stronger and stronger actives (opening up the potential for irritation) to compensate. Imagine you're trying to paint a wall that's not been plastered and that's completely bumpy and uneven; you could use the best quality paint in the world, an incredible decorator could be applying it, but at the end of the day - your wall isn't going to look good! Firstly you might be misidentifying issues; for example, I used to think my skin was oily, so I'd use no moisturiser and matte foundation. My skin looked worse at 19 than it does now at 30! My skin was painfully dehydrated and I was just emphasising the issue with that dry, thick foundation. Before I started using retinoids, I began with a much more hydrating, replenishing routine, and without the help of any actives: my skin looked smoother, healthier and far more radiant. If I'd just started applying my retinoid within the context of my old routine, I'm sure I'd have seen a visible difference, but the results are so much better on hydrated skin.
You could follow all the advice out there (from myself and others) to patch test, start low and go slow etc. but for some people their skin just doesn't agree with using pure-form Vitamin C and retinoids daily (which are the gold-standard, collagen-boosting, well-ageing heroes). And that's ok! Don't try to force your skin into potentially sensitising territory. If pure Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid) doesn't work for your skin, why not try a gentler and more stable derivative? If Vitamin C isn't doing it for you, then niacinamide could serve your brightening needs and pycnogenol adds that antioxidant boost you want. If retinol is causing you dryness and irritation, you can still reap brilliant benefits with an ester form of the ingredient. And, whilst daily use is considered ideal, you can use these ingredients every other day and still see fantastic results; you could focus on hydration or barrier support on your 'off' days or use a skin-friendly active that may still help with your collagen supplies like a peptide.
I blame skincare marketing for this one! There are so many 'daily exfoliants' on the market, some from brands I love, and many are brilliant products... just not for every single day! I guess they need to shift as many units as possible. Of course there will be exceptions, but generally if you feel the need to exfoliate daily, I think you should consider if some other part of your routine is going wrong. I exfoliate a couple of times a week; I have dry skin but my retinoid already increases skin cell turnover and I keep my skin nourished and hydrated so it doesn't need that aggressive exfoliation. I don't think daily exfoliation is good for your skin barrier and I think there are other ingredients you could be using for better skin in the long term, rather than just relying on this instant gratification.
I know skincare marketing wants you to jump on every new trend and each hyped-up patented formula they launch, but the truth is: you probably don't need it. Could you maybe benefit from them? Sure. But I do think you have to focus on a handful of actives that tackle your primary concerns. We only have one face and I recommend focusing in on the top 2-5 ingredients that will tackle specific concerns you have and tune out the rest of the 'noise'. Something existing doesn't mean you need it. It just creates confusion and damaged skin barriers; consider what you're trying to address, do your research and only use the best ingredients to deal with those concerns.
A routine shouldn't be 'active x' followed by 'active y' followed by 'active z': focus on one active per routine and ensure lots of hydrating ingredients like glycerin are included in your routine alongside them. Plus fatty-rich moisturisers with ingredients like ceramides, which are proven to improve barrier function.
How do you use actives in your routine?