Throughout my skincare journey (since my teenage years and now into my 30s), I have found that there are 5 factors that have made the biggest transformation to my skin’s look and heath. It has taken me more than a decade to identify them but don’t have to take you that long. Check out the list below and hopefully it will help prioritize your efforts among the many things you can try to make a difference to your skin:
#1: Only touch your face with clean hands (or tools)
This may sound simple, but it is one of those overlooked factors that can make or break one’s facial skin as I learnt my lesson very early on.
As a teenager, I was one of the lucky few who did not suffer from major acne issues even without any skin care - I washed my face with water 2 times a day and used zero products. I did, however, have several small zits that kept showing up on the same area in my forehead. As such, the only possible explanation to me was my habit of touching my forehead unconsciously while thinking, which many people seem to have.
I always knew that one’s hands can carry a lot of bacteria and dirt, but I guess I didn’t see the problem big enough back then to make a dedicated effort to stop the habit. It took one horrible spread of those zits that made me decide that I must get rid of that habit once and for all. Soon after that, the forehead zits quickly disappeared and "miraculously" never come back again.
That one and only habitual change made such a profound impact in my skin health that it remains the #1 principle of my skin care until today. I am extremely aware and careful of what can touch my face and how clean the object is, whether it' s fingers, tools, towels, pillows, or…lips (yes, no kiss on the cheek please!). After all, there is no point in doing skincare if what you do is spreading bacteria and dirt on your face with your hands or tools.
Simply reviewing your skincare process steps from start to finish to ensure clean practice may be the only game changer you need. For example:
- Nowadays, the only time I let my fingers touch my face is during my skincare routine and only immediately after washing my hands
- I don’t use a towel to dry my face anymore
- I don’t keep my skincare products in the bathroom (other than my cleansers) out of germs and bacteria concern
- I try to avoid jar packaging products
- I sanitize the outside of my skincare bottles with alcohol occasionally, as they are the first things my fingers will touch before going on my face.
#2: Wear sunscreen everyday
Although I didn’t suffer from major acne issues, I used to have a lot of freckles on my face which was uncommon for a teenager growing up in Southeast Asia. I was told that it was due to genetics (I have very light-color hair and eyes. My mom is similar, and she has a lot of freckles and dark spots compared to others in her age group), and I just had to live with it.
After finishing high school, I came to the US for my college which was located in the Midwest. It was my first time experiencing a snowy winter and a climate so dry that using a moisturizer became a necessity. I remembered picking my first ever skincare product from Walmart in 2008: the Olay Complete All Day SPF 15 Facial Moisturizer, with the goal of keeping my face… moisturized all day.
What I didn’t expect was that: within a year of daily usage even with such low SPF and reduced sun exposure, the majority of my existing freckles were almost erased and my skin looked much brighter than before. That summer I came back to Asia, my family and friends were shocked at the transformation. That’s how I discovered the life changing aspect of sun protection and became quite obsessed with it.
Nowadays, I will not leave my house during the day without sunscreen (in reality, I wear sunscreen even when I am not leaving my house). I can only wish I used sunscreen earlier, but it was never too late to start: a decade long of facial sunscreen has helped keep new freckles and dark spots at bay on my face despite my genetic “deficiency”.
It’s a stark difference between my face and my body skin though - since I don’t take care of my body skin the same way, I end up developing a lot of freckles and dark spots on my body as I grow older, which once again proves the power of sunscreen.
#3: Double Cleanse your face
As I leveled up my sunscreen into something with higher protection than my Olay SPF 15 days, I started seeing my pore get clogged and occasionally had pimples on my face. I quickly learnt that my one-step foaming cleanser was not adequate even if I didn’t wear makeup on top of my sunscreen. I started incorporating an oil cleanser that was the #1 seller but did not see the results I wanted - I actually saw even more pimples showing up on my face.
I switched to using one of those makeup remover wipes as the 1st step instead. However, I felt that they made my skin really dry and did not help stop the occasional pimples despite feeling like my face was really cleaned (more on that later). So I decided to try oil cleanser again. This time, I picked a different brand, a lighter oil cleanser and tried to spend more time during the emulsifying step to make sure all oil residue was gone.
That one adjustment was what I had been missing, and the rest is just history. Nowadays, I cannot go to bed without having completed my double cleansing process. It's the only technique that can ensure my skin is completely cleaned but still remaining moist, the feeling of which is an unrivaled luxury I can afford.
#4: Understand the basic science behind skincare
As you can tell by now, all of the above discoveries were somewhat accidental and requiring personal trial & error to see what worked or not. Like many people, I used to purchase most of my products based on brand reputation and reviews from the internet. However, I felt like it wasn’t a fool proof method and wanted a more methodological or scientific approach to skincare. That’s how my interest in skincare research started to grow.
I won’t go into too much details in this post, but overall there are 3 concepts that you should get familiar with to take your skincare into the next level and avoid wasting money on trying many products based on hype: Ingredients, PH level and Moisture Barrier. For ingredients safety check, CosDNA is a useful website you may want to look up. I also find Reddit SkincareAddiction sub to be great resource for many skin care topics thanks to its extremely knowledgeable community.
As I learnt about these concepts, I could see the reason why those makeup remover wipes dried out my face and made it more sensitive due to it being abrasive to my moisture barrier. I know which product I should avoid trying regardless of the rave reviews, because my skin just doesn’t tolerate product with alcohol and (sadly) fatty alcohol high on the ingredient lists. Alternatively, I won’t bother testing out a toner or cleanser with high PH level no matter how popular they are.
This knowledge completely changed how i navigate the crazy skincare products market and make less mistakes along my journey that would otherwise set my skin progress back to years in the past.
#5 Incorporate an active (BHA/AHA/PHA, Vitamin C, or Retinol)
As I gained more understanding on the science behind skincare, I felt confident enough to start incorporating actives in my routine with the goal of promoting collagen production and prevent aging. I first started with BHA as a chemical exfoliation about 6 years ago and gradually added Vitamin C (LLA) on my routine and eventually Retinol.
The transformation, as many people using actives can tell and show you, is very drastic. I always got complements of how clear my skin looked before, but actives really brought it to a new level. That complete smoothness, poreless look, and the glow are simply unparalleled and difficult to achieve without this add-on. Other than staying wrinkle free till now, what I am happy most about using actives is seeing my skin become less sensitive overtime and feel better about my skin as I age.
Using actives, however, comes with its inconvenience. To maximize their effectiveness, wait time should be built in between steps to allow actives to work its magic in the right PH level. For example, I usually wait for 10 mins after applying BHA and before moving to the next step. The same is done for my Vitamin C in the morning.
The wait, combined with my nearly 10-step Korean skin care routine and the fact that you should only touch your face with clean fingers, made my skin care a time-consuming and inconvenient process. I ended up washing my hands many times throughout my routine if I needed to do something in between or just chose not doing anything at all (imagine not touching a phone, computer, TV remote, cup of water or even my spouse during this time of the day).
Nevertheless, I would not want to give up my multi-step skincare routine (or resort to Skipcare as you may say). I know skincare works and will make the difference among people who do vs don’t in the long term from first hand experience.
For the past several years, I started dreaming of a device that can help complete my skincare routine even as I lay in bed at night or prepare breakfast in the morning. That lazy thought is how the idea of SONATAP was born. SONATAP is the world’s first portable device designed specifically for multi-step skincare practitioners – The device can hold up to 6 different skincare products inside its body, let you select and dispense each product into an attached applicator/massage head and apply your products onto your face completely finger-free. This will allow you to carry on other activities while completing your skincare routine from start to finish. As sci-fi as it sounds, this is becoming a reality in 2020.
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