I remember being bombarded with ads as a teenager that touted the skin-fixing benefits of products like Oxy-10, Clearasil and Sea Breeze. All contained a combination of harsh ingredients including alcohol, benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, salicylic acid. The guiding ethos seemed to be: the harsher the ingredient, the better suited the product to rid your skin of oil and bacteria. Sea Breeze boasted that “the tingle” was a clear sign the product was working and going deep to heal.
Today, these products feel like a relic of the 80’s, but the truth is the mentality surrounding them still remains: squeaky clean equals healthy and happy skin. It’s an unfortunate message because the fact is it couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of us are operating under the assumption that we need to clean, I mean really clean, our face to keep it healthy. And in the over-cleansing we are actually perpetuating the problems we are trying to fix.
To understand how too much cleansing can be too much for our skin, let’s first look at how our skin functions. The very top layer of our skin skin, the Stratum Corneum or Barrier Function, is by all intents and purposes the guard at the gate. It is comprised of corneocytes and lipids that form an impenetrable layer that prevent water from leaving the skin and the bad guys from coming in. Directly on top of the Stratum Corneum is the Acid Mantle, a slick film that is made up of sweat, oil (or sebum) and healthy bacteria, making it both a physical and chemical barrier. The acid mantle keeps our skin balanced through its delicately designed sebum and a neutral pH of 5.5. Fortunately for us, we have these two points of defense on the topmost layer of skin that are intelligently designed to keep skin, and us, healthy and beautiful.
Today we might not be grabbing the same products of my youth, but there is still a proliferation of products that are oil-free, contain drying ingredients such as alcohol or AHAs (which do have their place in moderation) or are specifically engineered to eliminate oil. What makes this challenging for skin care is that the oil component of our acid mantle is actually the good guy. If we use products that strip our skin of oil, and by consequence the good, healthy bacteria, and disrupt our pH level, we are leaving our skin vulnerable to infection and inflammation and creating an environment that perpetuates dryness.
When our skin can’t protect itself acne and bacteria can run rampant. And ironically, when our skin becomes dry, our body creates more oil to make up for the lack. In many cases, those of us who are experiencing oily skin are actually dealing with the side effects of dry skin. In addition, our Barrier Function, the corneocytes and lipids combo, is itself sensitive to over cleansing and the use of harsh ingredients such as solvents, detergents and chemicals, all of which can all decrease the number of existing lipids. When our lipid level declines, dryness, redness, increased sensitivity take over. So really, it’s a double whammy. When we use products that strip our skin of oils we disrupt the delicate balance of our acid mantle, leaving us susceptible to infection and dryness, as well as diminish the number of lipids in our barrier function, causing our skin to lose water, leading to more dryness and increased permeability.
What is the answer? My guiding philosophy for skin-care (and soul-care, in fact) is to nourish and support. In choosing products that support the skin’s natural functions and allow it to thrive, we make space for the magic of our body’s intuitive knowing. In part two of this article we will discuss how to choose products that support the healthy functioning of your skin. Hint: Oils and mists are a big part.
Melanie Herring is a holisting aesthetician located in Brooklyn, NY.