I get asked “what do you use on your skin?” quite often, whether it’s on the chair at my dentist office or while getting my picture taken at the DMV. No matter how many times I get this question from a stranger, I still stutter.
Most people expect to get just the name of a recommended product within the span of our quick conversation. Yet, I am always afraid of pointing people to a product without explaining the involved process, as it may be doing them more harm than good (For example, a great chemical exfoliation product could wreck someone’s skin if not accompanied by good care of the skin barrier).
To me, skincare is about process rather than product. When you have the right process, you can find so many products options that can fit into that process to achieve your ultimate goal. The reversal won’t work the same – you might already be using the best products on the market and still don’t see the difference (check out some potential pointers in my post "5 Skincare Game-Changers You Should Know Before Turning 30" and you may find out the answer)
My skincare process can be described as a hybrid between Korean and Western’s routine by many readers. I cherry picked what I considered the best part of both worlds given my dry skin and its own concerns to build a customized routine for myself:
- The Korean steps: double cleansing, toner, serum, moisturizer, sunscreen every day and sheet mask occasionally => for basic care and supplementing some level of antioxidant to achieve a clean, hydrated and wrinkle-free skin.
- The Western steps: incorporating a chemical exfoliation, a Vitamin C serum, a Retinol treatment weekly and Vaseline/Aquaphor/similar ointment when needed => for acne treatment and promoting collagen production to achieve clear, firm and thicker skin.
There is a great overlap in terms of steps between Korean or Western skincare, so I admit the grouping above is not 100% accurately named.
Korean or Western or not, the true reason for me to have a multi-step skincare routine is to simply provide a well-rounded diet for my skin through multiple products ingredients.
I am a big believer in the skin food theory, meaning skincare is about supplementing nutrition to your skin in terms of providing it with a variety of beneficial ingredients. Just as there is no single food that is enough to sustain a healthy body, there is no single ingredient that can keep one’s skin at its best.
You may ask: Rather than using multiple products and going through multiple steps, can I just use one product that already has multiple beneficial ingredients in it? This is also what many products are advertised and claimed to be nowadays.
Here is the reason why that may not be as practical as it sounds:
1. You may not get enough of the good stuff.
A single product that tries to feature too many beneficial ingredients altogether can only contain a limited % of each ingredient presented in the mix (typically < 2%). As such, you don’t get very high concentration of certain ingredients that may be the most beneficial for your skin type (a desirable of 10%-15% Vitamin C for examples).
Certain beneficial ingredients also shouldn’t be mixed together in high concentration in one single product, as they are supposed to be used in different times – For instance, using both 2% Salicylic Acid (BHA) and 2% Retinol in the same night can be too harsh for the skin but using each ingredient/product on different nights can provide optimal results.
2. You may risk getting allergy and not knowing which is causing it.
Just because peanut is generally considered good for health doesn’t mean anyone can eat it. Similarly, a generally beneficial ingredient to the skin like niacinamide can still cause different reactions among individuals. When you use a single product that tries to mix up many potent ingredients together, the risk of allergy is higher and the chance of discovering what truly causing it is lower.
3. You may be paying more for a product texture rather than its effectiveness.
It’s no secret that marketers are still aiming to make more all-purpose or multi-tasking products, some featuring multiple beneficial ingredients in high concentration, in order to claim it’s the only thing you need. The added cost of creating such a product is figuring out a formulation with wearable texture, as most skincare products also need certain amount of filler ingredients to help with application and absorption.
You can achieve similar results with strategic use of multiple products instead, often for cheaper due to the large number of available options in the market. This explains the rise of inexpensive skincare brands like The Ordinary, effective but product texture is left to be desired.
4. Difficult to achieve optimal hydration if you have dry skin.
Building up hydration requires layering products with different textures from thin to thick (watery to creamy), which will allow the skin to absorb and seal off moisture during the process. A Korean routine which calls for the use of a toner, essence, lotion or emulsion, serum, and cream in that order is therefore especially effective for people with dry skin. When you use just a single product, it’s nearly impossible to achieve the same lasting hydration effect even with multiple layers or re-application.
Those are the reasons why I have stopped looking for that one single "miracle" product or an all-size-fits-all solution. I believe the best approach for everyone should be a customized and multi-step skincare process that can supplement your skin with a variety of ingredients it loves and at the optimal concentration it can tolerate.
Given the importance of having a well-rounded skincare routine, it is a puzzle to me that the Beauty Industry is only focusing on releasing new skincare products without creating any tooling to help make skincare process more convenient. Taking the Food Industry for example, there have been many kitchen tools invented over the course of the history to make cooking process of the same healthy ingredients more convenient and efficient overtime.
Having a multi-step skincare process can be more time consuming indeed. But instead of providing a real solution to the issue, some industry trendsetters are saying that we should just skip-care (only to ultimately tell us to buy the next skincare product claimed to be all-you-need-in-one-bottle). This is the reason why I created SONATAP device, out of my frustration with the current lack of skincare tools in the market.