If you've spent anytime in the beauty or makeup space in the past few years, you know very well that skincare — from donut-glazed skin to glass skin — has taken center stage.
Where 2015 gave us cut creases, bold King Kylie lips, and overdone brows, 2023 kept things focused on the basics: "clean" skin, barely-there brows, and the advent of the Drunk Elephant-obsessed youths.
Now, I'm all for taking care of my skin as it is rather than covering it up with makeup, but the skincare industry has gotten a little out of hand. Everywhere I turn, a new celebrity has a skincare line, I'm being told I need more and more products in my rotation to stay forever young (retinol! vitamin C! preventative botox!), and I feel I'm actually getting sold more products than I was in 2016, where I clutched on to the same Anastasia dip brow for years and years (IYKYK).
That being said, I felt seen when I came across this video by skincare TikToker Natalie O'Neill (@natalie_oneillll). In the video, she promotes "skincare minimalism" and highlights all the things skincare brands get wrong while trying to sell us products.
@natalie_oneillll / Via tiktok.com
To begin the video, a creator shows a multi-step routine using hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and vitamin C. They explain, "If you use hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and vitamin C, you'll 1) hydrate your skin, 2) control your oil, and 3) brighten your skin," in this order. But Natalie stitched the video with a bit of warning.
She said, "I feel like the biggest lie we're sold in skincare is that 1 + 1 = 2." Then, showing an old photo of her irritated skin, she explained, "There was a time where my skin looked like this, and I feel like this kind of video, the one that I stitched, is the type of overly simplistic methodology we've been sold about skincare."
Natalie explained that she used to use so many different products because she believed it was necessary to reap all of the benefits in her skincare routine, which is frequently pushed to us in step-by-step routines. She said, "I used to use so many actives because I thought if I used this, this, this, and this, I will get all the benefits of those things. In reality, skincare isn't this plus, this plus this, equals this. That's not how it works. At all... All you want to do with skincare is help it to do the stuff that it already knows how to do."
Natalie noted that this "1+1=2" attitude in skincare leads to people misusing products, like mixing two different active ingredients that shouldn't be used together. She said, "The problem that videos like this have created is a bunch of people using loads of actives and they've been sold on those actives because they all do great things. But no company is going to write on the packaging, 'If you use this product with all these other things, it's probably going to fuck up your skin barrier,' cause that's the reality of skincare."
Natalie explained, "To get my skin from that photo to what you see now, I just used one active. I stopped using vitamin C, I stopped using salicylic acid, and I just use retinoid. Everything else is a hydrating serum, a barrier serum, or an SPF."
Natalie is not the only one preaching for simpler skincare routines. Chloe Narushchen, a medical esthetician from California, posted a video saying, "As a living, working, breathing esthetician, let me tell you that right now probably 60% of the clients I've had over the past year have given themselves skin conditions because they're using SO much skincare from these brands and it's literally hurting their skin."
She added, "You don't need 10 steps. I don't use 10 steps."
Chloe told BuzzFeed that she most commonly sees people overusing and misunderstanding how to use exfoliators, such as retinoids, AHAs like glycolic acid, and BHAs like salicylic acid. She said, "What people don’t understand is to correct the skin you need to use active ingredients, but if the barrier is broken, the skin will be too irritated by the actives to allow for any correction to take place. When we heal the skin barrier, we can actually apply more active ingredients."
And if you're wondering what "actives" are and how they work, Tegan DeLuc, an esthetician from Chicago, helped me understand actives and the complications they can cause if not utilized properly.
Tegan informed me that due to their properties, some actives should not be mixed in order to avoid drying the skin or over-exfoliating, which causes harm to the skin's protective layer. For example, she said, "Some actives you never want to mix are retinol and vitamin C, or retinol and AHAs/BHAs."
Retinols stimulate cell turnover and collagen formation, but they can also cause skin dryness and irritation. As a result, combining an acid (such as vitamin C or AHAs/BHAs) with retinols can aggravate already sensitive skin further.
Tegan clarified that this doesn't mean that all actives can't be mixed together, but it's important to be cautious. "If someone were to use, say, hyaluronic acid and salicylic acid together, they could still get both benefits from the ingredients."
Tegan also mentioned that it's important to read instructions on products so they're used correctly and at the right time in your routine. "For example, vitamin C is best used in the morning because it absorbs damage from UV rays," she told BuzzFeed. And she said retinoids are better used at night, because they can break down when exposed to UV rays.
If you're trying to build a skincare routine, or feel completely lost on what to do, both estheticians agreed with Natalie and recommend minimalist skincare routines. Tegan said, "My recommendation to anyone trying to build a skincare routine would be to start small. Everyone can benefit from a good cleanser and a moisturizing SPF. Once you are consistent with a routine, then you can consider adding a toner and active to start targeting skin concerns, if you have any."
Tegan and Chloe both advised caution when purchasing skincare, because even if a product works on paper, it may not necessarily work for you in practice. Tegan told BuzzFeed, "Brands will sell you effective products that work, but of course they will try to upsell the entire skincare line to make more money. Sometimes all you need is one product from the line to target your specific skin concern. Using all of them may cause damage to the skin, especially if not given the proper knowledge on how to use them correctly."
Chloe reiterated that in skincare, greater attention should be made on restoring the skin barrier before using actives. She said, "The skin barrier is very hard to understand for clients because it’s this imaginary forcefield made of good bacteria and good oil — two things people aren’t used to wanting on their skin."
Natalie, creator of the skincare minimalism video, confirmed this sentiment from her own experience, telling BuzzFeed, "For me, simplicity always seems to outperform overcomplicated routines and I think it's hard to find a dermatologist who'd disagree with the principle. Modern day skincare marketing makes us feel like we need to be using lots of actives, when in reality we may only really need one or two to tackle our top concerns."
And if you do need to use an active ingredient, aside from speaking with a professional, Tegan advises to first identify your primary skin concern and target one active. She said, "If it’s discoloration, then you may want vitamin C, niacinamide, or azelaic acid for dark spots. If it's acne, you might need salicylic acid. It's important to pay attention to products and make sure they have the right active ingredient you need."
Despite the attractive formulas and fixes being marketed to us every day, overall, both estheticians agreed that Natalie's idea of "skincare minimalism," aka more minimal skincare routines (not the 10-step routines sold on our social media feeds), is actually the right way to approach skincare in order to avoid damaging your skin.
For more skincare advice and expertise, you can keep up with all three women on social media: