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The Sturdy Gal’s Short List Of Skin Care To-Dos

Skin care can be confusing. In part, the industry wants us to stay confused so we continue to buy. In part, scientists are out there searching for the pot of gold. We are left bewildered by faraway cries of, “Gold, gold!” as they run from rainbow to rainbow, lab coats flapping.

Not surprisingly, High WASP women traditionally follow skin care regimes according to archetype. This used to be simpler. Grandes Dames bought Christian Dior, or Elizabeth Arden, silver-lidded jars from the department store where they shopped. My mother was on Team Saks, consumer loyalty to be taken as seriously as Pepsi vs. Coke. Artsy Cousins loved Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap, purchased in a health store where it sat next to brewer’s yeast. Sturdy Gals used Ivory Soap, some sort of moisturizing lotion, and witch hazel.

These days the Grande Dame has been known to buy a pound of Creme de la Mer in one go. To wash with fragrant cleansing oils from Japan. Artsy Cousins will make their own remedies, or hunt down obscure African nut butters. Sturdy Gals are simple folk. We just want products that work. Maybe smell good. OK, maybe help us look young and beautiful. Because let’s face it. Few are all that sturdy when it comes to skin care and the promise of youth in a jar.

Ever since science entered the picture, we have had to at least try to find skin care products that speak biology, not Faerie. I have hated biology since I was 14. All those impossible-to-remember-or-understand words. I much prefer fairy tales. But I digress. Research is required. On websites that use words like mitochondria, and glycation. You may want to pour yourself some Lapsang Souchong, and sit for a while. Here is what we uncover.

The first step in good skin care, for all ages, is to deal with your skin’s oil production capabilities, or lack thereof. This is fairly straightforward to assess, although not always easy to handle. You may have acne. You may break out occasionally. (You may think you will be done with breakouts by your early 20’s. You will most likely be wrong.) But breakouts are their own science and I will leave it to ProActiv and dermatologists to advise.

You may have dry skin. Moisture is good, apparently. Keeps your skin safe from irritation and infection, and allows the upper layer to protect the lower layers. Who knew? However, when you’re young, unless you chap or chafe, unless you live in Arizona with relative humidity of -40%, or in cold winters of wind and heaters, you don’t really need moisturizers. As you age, make sure that whatever you use to prevent wrinkles or spots or sagging includes moisturizing ingredients. This isn’t hard. The skin care industry likes to moisturize us. It’s a known technology.

So it appears that this billion dollar business actually lives or dies by aging. Or, to be more specific, the prevention of age effects. Unfortunately, skin aging is just part of regular aging, made more acute by sun exposure, and the fact that our skin is on our outsides, battered and abraded by the exigencies of life. Since we haven’t yet understood regular aging, we haven’t completely understood skin aging either.

We do know that what’s good for your body and soul is good for your skin. Exercise, eat vegetables, don’t smoke, keep your weight at a healthy level. Wear sunscreen often. No blue glass, no scent, no silver lid required. I hear that answer, but I knew it already, and I want more.

In fact, there are a few products of proven value, and a whole bunch more that you can experiment with. Great, right? Done, right? But no. Enter science, once again. Chemicals may be dangerous. Yes. The task of finding good skin care involves understanding which ingredients have been proven to work as claimed, which ingredients perhaps work as claimed, and which ingredients may, in fact, be harmful. Damn biology, and its nasty little friend, chemistry.

A Brief Summary Of Skin And Aging Biology (only for you guys, only for you)

Skin has three layers:

  • The top one (epidermis) is to protect, the next one (dermis) holds the structure of collagen and elastic, the bottom one consists primarily of fat. Wrinkles happen in the middle layer, coloration in the top.
  • To have any effect, products must penetrate the top layer.
  • Active molecules have to be little. Applying collagen, for example, does nothing.

Aging involves:

  • Slowdown of new cell growth and old cell elimination,
  • Degeneration of the collagen and elastin that sustains skin’s structure
  • Changes in pigmentation as, um, pigment stuff clumps up. (I just can’t get any more biological than that.)

Skincare Efforts Proven To Work (In As Much Non-Scientific English As Possible, To The Best Of My Understanding. That Was A Disclaimer.)

Clean Carefully. Soap takes off too many lipids (fatty stuff you need), exposing skin to, well, the world. Find something gentler. Cetaphil, if you don’t mind non-plant based formulas. If you want plant-based, you’ve got to experiment and watch out for irritation.

Take Dead Skin Cells Off The Top Layer
. Exfoliate with chemistry or physics. If your skin can tolerate AHAs and BHAs, they are the most effective. If your skin is irritated by these products, use a physical exfoliation product. A gentle one. With smooth particles. Those rough ones will rip the heck out of your skin.

Protect And Keep Moisture In Top Layer. Use moisturizing ingredients, occlusive ones for really dry skin (that means they make a film), or ones that attract water, like hyaluronic acid, glycerin or dimethicone, for the rest of us.

Renew Collagen, Retinoic acid, i.e. Retin A, has been proven to make us grow collagen faster. (It also makes that critical middle layer thicker). Retinol, which is commercially available from Roc, Neutrogena, you name it, also works, without prescription but less effectively. Copper peptides and vitamin C have been shown to help skin to produce collagen, copper peptides also help heal and reduce inflammation, Vitamin C is also an anti-oxidant. Were we to move beyond routine skin care to the world of dermatologists, we would undergo laser therapy and deep peels. Just be clear that dermatological interventions work via what they call controlled tissue injuries. Eek. I may do it anyway.

Reduce Dark Patches. We have known how to help fade dark patches for some time. Hydroquinone works, but there has been enough concern about its safety that prescription is now required for concentrations over 4%. Companies are trying out arbutin, a related compound, in hopes of finding a less worrisome replacement. Beauty roulette.

Experimental Skin Care

Prevent Free Radicals From Rampaging Through Your Skin. Free radicals are implicated in aging overall. We find a different anti-oxidant, to combat free radicals, advertised every time we turn around. Q-10, Idebedone, Alpha Lipoic Acid, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and so on. It appears, however, that little proof of topical anti-oxidant effectiveness exists. We know they are good for us if we eat them. We suspect they are good for us if we put them on our skin. So anti-oxidize away. Just be clear, you’re experimenting.

Prevent Degradation Of Collagen And Elastin. Some theorize that just growing new collagen and elastin isn’t good enough. We need to prevent the stuff we’ve got from falling apart. To this end, skin care companies are researching, and in come cases offering, topical tropoelastin, Ethocyn, and topical matrix metalloproteinases inhibitors. Yikes. I told you this stuff was biology.

Temporary Fixes, Because Why The Heck Not?

  • Spackling Wrinkles. You can fill your wrinkles in with silicon. And why not, I ask? No reason. But it’s temporary. On the other hand, so is life.
  • Distract With Mirrors. Some ingredients reflect light and ostensibly blur the look of wrinkles. OK. I’m always up for fun at makeup counters. My kind of research.
  • Plumping The Shriveled. Hyaluronic acid, and other water-binding compounds, can have a temporary plumping effect. Sounds good.
  • Tightening Sagginess. Some ingredients have a temporary tightening effect. See life.

Skincare Chemicals Proven To Be Harmful
Here’s the thing. I see no evidence that skincare ingredients currently offered have been proven harmful. Not the the way the Western scientific community defines proof, or harm, for that matter. The Western community is more upset about the use of botanicals that may be ineffective or cause irritation and allergic reaction. However, alarms are now sounding about many compounds, parabens in particular. And as we know from history, smoke, when hovering around the heat of commerce, often means fire.

Stuff You Maybe Hadn’t Thought Of (I Certainly Hadn’t)
Turns out that packaging may be more important than a host of other things we pay attention to. Active ingredients become inactive very quickly. Jars are bad, little pumps are good. Clear containers are bad, opaque good.

The Most Important Part Of This Post, Otherwise Known As, So What Do I Do Now?
You have a few choices. As long as you are wearing sunscreen or hats, exercising, and eating well, I believe that skin care falls into the do-whatever-makes-you feel-best-category. Especially if you are under 30. That said, if what makes you feel best is trying to act on current science, I present:

The Sturdy Gal’s Short List Of Skin Care To-Dos.

  • Find a non-soap cleanser at a happy juncture of price, ingredients, feel, and scent.
  • Pick an exfoliation strategy. Minimal for the young, more intentional for the older. Chemical, or physical, your choice.
  • Use moisturizer with an anti-oxidant that doesn’t irritate your skin. Or a copper peptide cream.
  • Rotate Vitamin C serums and/or Retinol for collagen support to see what you can tolerate. Make sure the packaging protects from oxygen and light.
  • Choose between Retinol, peptides, Vitamin C, and any other anti-oxidant cluster. Pick 2 only. Using too many different ingredients at the same time is risky business.
  • If you want to avoid scary chemicals, you should sample several different natural product lines. Everyone has different skin, and botanicals can be unpredictable.
  • Find a sunscreen you will actually wear. 45 SPF doesn’t work if it’s in your drawer.

Of course, if you are truly Sturdy, feel free to ignore everything I just said. Nothing wrong with Dove soap and some Aveeno after to avoid that too squeaky feeling.

Finally, if you really want to optimize (any engineers out there?), I recommend that you take a peek at the three websites I relied on for my research. Paula Begoun’s Beautypedia, available for a minimal subscription fee, takes the Western stance. Science is all. She excoriates many skin care products for complete ineffectiveness or appalling over-pricing. Well worth the read. But, and it’s a big but, she pays no never mind to questions of toxicity. For that information, you need to go to Skin Deep. They focus on ingredient safety. Cross reference, if you will. Take your list of products and go see what these sites say about them. Rinse, lather, repeat.

The third resource, Smart Skin Care, provides the background against which to understand Beautypedia and Skin Deep. But it’s just full of biology. Biology and that little sot, chemistry. Some of you are good at that. If you see something I missed, let me know. Unfortunately, you’ll have to use English or it may take me a long time to understand what you say. Everything I say here is as true as I can make it.

Note: This post was at a reader’s request. Months ago.
Image: .snow’s photostream on Flickr

48 Responses

  1. I needed this. I can fry a french fry on my T-Zone without breaking a sweat. Great post.

  2. I cleaned out my makeup etc drawer in the bathroom last week and was surprised at how many jars and bottles of face fixes I have purchased over time. In my mind, if I buy it, it will work. Not so, I guess. I'm left wondering why I purchased and why couldn't I make that part of my daily beauty ritual. Diet books tragically fall into the same mindset.

  3. My grandmother had beautiful skin –spotless and relatively unwrinkled, even in old age. She never wore any cream or make-up. As far as I know, her secret was to cleanse well –and not with soap, simply with water –and to stay out of the sun as much as possible. Easier in those days. Much simpler, too. :)

  4. I was just reading yesterday about a gal that gave up all product except Dove soap for 30 days! She had been using 30 different product, make-up included on a daily basis and gave it all up! Now followed up with this, oh missy, I am in need of a revamp in this department I am afraid! Wonderful insight as always!

  5. Thanks for all the research! I think you'd define me as a Sturdy Gal. I use Nivea blue tub and swear by it. The occasional warm olive oil mask. And gentle cleansing wipes. (Or soap if I'm feeling really grubby.)

    I like to think that plenty of water, good diet and sleep will sort the rest out. I'm definitely in denial, though.

  6. Didn't know that packaging mattered! I had a phase where I was searching for the right stuff, not anymore. I do stay out of the sun though, put on a little moisturizer when needed and exfoliate, other than that I actualize my philosophy: mind over matter, and what you focus on grows. Meaning if I can get my muscles to relax by thinking and imagining "relax", I should be able to get all my cells to reproduce themselves in perfect health and youth. And it doesn't cost my anything, hahah!

  7. I am really trying to make an effort to prevent wrinkles and sun damage. I'm off to google copper peptide cream! :) Thanks!

  8. I am with Mouse, have just emailed this to my husband to print out. This is divine on so many levels. Thank you for looking into everything

  9. I don't mind biology, and dad was a chemical engineer (I liked chem too) – so after decades of only half listening to the din of NEW! IMPROVED! skin care allll the time, and the (wrong) belief that oily skin means using drying ingredients…

    THIS is my current simple and CHEAP regimen:

    – clean with extra virgin olive oil from the grocery store (morning or night, a bit extra for makeup removal…I use a non-bismuth oxychloride mineral foundation BTW)
    – Paula's Choice BHA gel
    – moisturize/sunscreen with oil-free Clone of Olay


    Can you say CHEAP…and immune to the constant attention-whore screams of the skin care industry?

    The main effect of this (besides being cheap and easy) is: less oiliness, and breakouts are now rare. I made the mistake of overdrying for a long time.

    (I haven't messed with retinol or anything particularly collagenating, so I may not look like a spring chicken – but as a fall chicken, I usually pass for a summer one.)

  10. These days anything with fragrance or artificial colorings breaks me out in a hive-like rash (that, oddly enough, doesn't itch – but it looks awful). And, in winter I've begun to develop eczema on my elbows. Not to despair, though, because I've found a cure for that – Oil of Olay has a very basic dye-and-fragrance free moisturizer for my face and a plain, simple lye soap made by the Amish for the rest of me. I kid you not – the lye soap is doing WONDERS for my dry skin and the eczema on my elbows is clearing up.

  11. Thank you for doing all that research (Because I certainly wouldn't ever have even thought of doing so). I'm just now starting to get to the age of, "Oh. My. God. That's a wrinkle! Where did that wrinkle come from?" So I will be taking heed of these suggestions…

  12. This is terrific! Thanks for the research and the summarization (is that a word?). I've heard that if you lose weight, your skin will sag and you'll get wrinkles, so you should consider adding cake (and perhaps, cookies) to your list ;-)

  13. Oh my LPC it's Biology #101!!
    I am glad that there is not a test today, I need to reread the notes and study.
    I personally would love to find "youth in a jar" my collagen is definitely on strike here in the Bungalow and the Hostess is slightly miffed.
    I am trying to keep my regime simple and not spend $$$ on products that promise but don't deliver…it's an ongoing experiment in biology…I am going back to your notes now…

  14. Consider cake and cookies added. Or at least chocolate in all its forms. I have to tell you all, I breathed a GIANT sigh of relief upon finishing this. It's hard to wade through science when it's still in process. I have nothing but respect for those of you in scientific fields, nothing but respect.

  15. Great "To-Do List." I'd add:

    — Hydrate from the inside out with loads of water or herbal teas (and yes, you'll be hitting the bathroom more frequently)

    And as an "Highly Recommended" I'd say:

    — Anti-inflammatory foods/edibles, products or techniques rock: add them to your life

    For me, the latter means fish oil + scientifically-identified fruits/veg + an organic mineral foundation + acupuncture.

    The only thing that really costs is the acupuncture, and by simplifying one's skincare regimen one can put the money there. [There's actually cosmetic acupuncture that targets wrinkles etc, too!]

  16. "You can fill your wrinkles in with silicon. And why not, I ask? No reason. But it's temporary. On the other hand, so is life."

    You are terribly terribly wise. And funny.

  17. Oddly enough, though I'm a scientist myself I suspect that many of these "scientific formulations" are really just a lot of smoke and mirrors. Not much will actually penetrate the top layer of your skin unless you severely abrade it, which of course is not desireable unless you want to look like a burn victim. The best thing really is preventing your skin from getting damaged in the first place: lock in moisture by not using soaps (I use the oil cleansing method and swear by it — a mixture of Vitamin E, calendula, and jojoba oils), protect it from sun damage, and don't smoke. As you mentioned, eating healthy and maintaining an optimal weight are also important, as is getting enough sleep and drinking enough water.

    For exfoliation, I use a 50/50 mixture of powdered kelp and powdered green tea. It works great as either a mask or a scrub, is completely non-drying, feels great and smells natural. Oh, and it costs less than a penny per application. I'll save the science for when I'm at work.

  18. Wow, an **intelligent** post on skin care! You really did your research. Thank you so much for sharing your information.

    Who knew that science and humor could go together so well? :-)

  19. Peonies, wisdom is maybe just when you decide not to cry about it all any more. Someone, Audi, Tricia and Vix, thank you for the additional information and practices. Class f, you live in Wisconsin. No fair. Natural sunscreen. Family Manager, thank you so much. I am glad that some humor remained despite my battles with scientific terminology.

  20. Great post! I loved it and appreciate the information. Yes, our skin is very near the same age and I have developed an interest in trying to slow the clock down.

    Margaret, Virginia

  21. I am so fair and freckled, so I'm pretty vigilant with my skincare. Moisturizer with sunscreen, etc. The dermatologist gave me Renova which I like, but also, more cheaply, Olay's new Pro X products work really well.
    Great and informative post!

  22. Let me see…to spackle in the wrinkles I use smashbox photo finish.

    From the age of 23 – 43 I used the Principle secret line. From 43-46 used Strivectin. I recently changed to Olay Regenerist.

    As long as you moisturize and exfoliate, that's the best you can do at my age. Other than a face lift.

  23. Lots of great info. Mostly do what's best for your skin. Treat it well early. If you didn't, you have to be a bit more aggressive to combat the pigmentation and wrinkles. Lifestyle plays a bigger role than you can imagine. Our skin is the largest organ of the body. It shows everything! As an esthetician I agree with all your advice. Especially 1. Protect yourself from the sun . 2. Eat right and not too much. 3. Get lots of fresh air and exercise. 4. Get a good nights sleep and 4. avoid too much stress.

    That's a lot of information you processed. Thanks.


  24. Ummm, thanks. I'm glad you did this. Have you quit your day job?

    xo, Tish

    (I hope you picked up your tiny cadeau chez moi. After all this research on your part I feel as if I owe you something more substantial. Shall I tell you my favorite products from the leading French dermatologist?)

    Merci encore.


  25. What an awesome post. I'm quite impressed with all the work you've done. I have to say, no matter what creams, lotions and what not I try, I ALWAYS stick with Dove for washing my face. It has to be the pink bar too.

  26. You know when you crack open an egg? On the inside of the shell is a fine white film.
    My mom uses that as a cheap, natural facial mask, whenever she's cooking with eggs.

    She has beautiful skin for a woman in her 60s.
    She swears by Jurlique. She also drinks tons of water, eats two fresh oranges every day and stays out of the sun.

    I swear by Clinique. Both of us have very simple beauty routines, but used consistently.

    Applying the same old moisturizer every day — even a relatively cheap one — is better than switching between tons of expensive new products or forgetting to do it sometimes.

    Because of this comment, Lisa, I've posted a photo of my mom on my blog!

  27. Your mom is beautiful Joyce. You too. Sher and Maureen, the Olay line is highly rated. Gardener's thanks for the expert info. Tish, um, it quit me…yes, thanks for the award, I have been snowed under skin care. Pearls, Anon, thank you.

  28. Fantastic post!!! I am a skin care fanatic. Today I spent a few hours reading about Guerlain and Givenchy skincare. I am always on the lookout for the next holy grail/miracle product. I have been in the market for a serum even though the one I am using is working fine. I just always am in hope that there is something better.

  29. Wonderful post and thank you for researching all this – you certinly did STUDY for us! My mother always drummed into me from around 16 years of age… 'Cleanse, Tone and Moisturise' and never go to bed with your make-up on! Think I would also have to add, as you said, a sunscreen nowadays. And I also think that paying a lot of money does not always mean that you will get a better product. I swear by a wonderful serum from Boots (pharmacy in the High Street in UK) – it's fabulous.
    p.s. love your new profile pic. btw.

  30. Loved this! So funny, I write about beauty and interview lots of different dermatologists, skin care gurus, those with all kinds of high tech new products etc. Everyone has a different opinion, but in the end, it's simply about finding the regime that makes your skin look good. Sleep helps too!

  31. Loved this post, and agree that paying a lot of money doesn't necessarily buy a better product, even though I admit I spend a lot of money on my skincare stuff. Your posts, and my own process of weeding and reclaiming have made me see that I am more of a grande dame than I would have admitted in youth. And your links only support my addiction to La Mer, Darphin and Leonor Greyl, as well as staying out of the sun.

  32. Thanks Semi. BTW, they say toning isn't such a good idea, if there's alcohol in the toner. Just FYI. Mardel, oh no, I may have to go investigate those two brands…Mary Jo, I should have gotten your opinion on this.

  33. You must have spent hours digging up all this information for us. Thank you.

    My dermatologist recommended Dove and Cetaphil plus a good sun screen and emphasized drinking lots of water. That's just about my whole beauty routine.


  34. I have always been a big fan of Dove. My mother used it all her life and for all the working outside that she's done her skin is in pretty good shape.
    When I was newly engaged I splurged on "good" skin care products. I stumbled across a line called Clientel that is for more mature skin but I needed the extra TLC for my skin after years of just using what I could afford at Wal-Mart. I use their eye cream, a moisturizer and they gave tons of samples every time I came in so I can get away with buying just a little ever so often. I love it and get mistaken for about 8 years younger than I am on a regular basis. SWEET!

  35. This post belongs in a magazine, be it printed or online. It is that good. Isn't it amazing what/how we do the skincare???? It would make a fabulous dissertation topic IMHO, regimes as they vary by cultural background and budgetary issues.

    If only we had not been so arrogant in our younger days: "Moisturizer? Moi? Non, non, non."

    Smiles at you Miss LPC.

  36. So helpful; thanks for this series.

    I've had to ditch my prior Retin A / salicylic acid protocol while pregnant & have been fumbling around for decent, non-toxic replacement products. I've stumbled upon a few good ones (for example, the DDF glycolic acid products work well for fair / sun-damage-prone me), but I'm going to check out that Skin Deep site too.

  37. I think every woman must to be worry about the smoothness of their skin.Because the woman have a natural attractive point and to have a great skin show a good security in themselves.Specially when have a meeting very important.Actually i had one in costa rica investment opportunities, was great.

  38. You have articulated the dilemma all aging women face in a very accurate and delightful post! As much as you loathe biology, you captured the heart of aging skin and skin care science perfectly. I truly enjoyed reading this masterpiece!! XO Candy

  39. Hi Lisa (and readers): Do you have any experience with the Clarisonic facial brush? I’ve heard good reviews but it seems a bit pricy… just wondering if you think it’s worth the investment. I tend to get breakouts sometimes.

    1. Danielle – Deja Pseu at Une Femme D’un Certain Age raves about the Clarisonic. I’m on the verge of buying one myself. Skin comes in right after exercise and diet, in my opinion.

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