I love chemicals — specifically artificial, man-made chemicals — smeared all over my face. I like to imagine that these chemicals were whipped together in a lab, simmering and bubbling in test tubes and beakers, waiting to be emulsified into a lightly scented cream, later packaged for my consumption. I want to glow and look young forever, and protect my delicate epidermis from any earthly element.
If you keep up with my writing, you can tell that I compartmentalize my health. While I’ve spoken in-depth about the skin serving as a reflection of internal health, this consciousness does not prevent me from finding the most potent topical treatments that exist. (Last night, my feet were marinating in a Korean foot peel where microscopic fruit acids chomped away at my callouses.)
But then I read words in Adina Grigore’s (the mastermind behind Brooklyn skin-care brand, S.W. Basics) book Skin Cleanse that caused my brain to short circuit: "We’ve been spending years and years shifting our conversation about food ... Yet somehow this idea still has not crossed over into our conversation about skin care."
Fuck, she’s right — as much as I can preach the benefits of healthy gut flora, I don’t hesitate to have an aesthetician prod my pores with lancets before slathering on unidentifiable astringents. If you also consider retinol as essential as kale, then we have a lot in common.
"Many of my clients have spent a huge part of their adult lives educating themselves about how to eat the 'right way.' They know to avoid processed foods, they try to buy local and organic, and they try to eat lots of vegetables. But when it comes to their skin care, they use the absolute worst — and they use a lot of them. When I dare to bring up the fact that maybe they aren’t using the healthiest products they could be, they are usually not happy to receive this information. Not even a little."
NOT EVEN A LITTLE. I concur with Grigore’s patients, because I also felt nauseous at the suggestion that my seven-step skin-care routine was gratuitous. Cleanser, mask, facial spray, anti-aging serum, moisturizer, oil, eye cream ... these are all products I layer onto my face every night. I’m not consistent with my selection of brands either, so my ingredient intake is through the roof.
No wonder my formerly silky skin has been so pissed at me lately. Ironically, my first experience with pimples occurred at the beginning of my job as a beauty writer, where virtually every formula is accessible. My daily routine involves so many potions that I can’t tell what is working or making me breakout.
In her book, Grigore touches on an interesting concept called “skin shame," essentially identifying our fear of dullness, aging, and sun damage that marketing companies instill in us. This fear compels us to overcompensate with an arsenal of products. I totally do that, and secretly enjoy becoming a victim to marketing schemes.
So — what the hell — I accepted Adina Grigore’s Skin Cleanse challenge of a full 24-hours sans products. (However, I did use soap and deodorant because, ew ....) I chose a snowy, barefaced weekend spent indoors, where I only left my apartment to do laundry or go to the gym. For good measure, I also resisted the temptation of pepperoni pizza, and I consumed fairly healthy meals.
The Skin Cleanse author recommends cleansing with only water, and allowing the skin to clean itself by expelling and eliminating waste toxins through sweat and a friendly ecosystem of healthy bacteria. In the morning, I massaged my face with warm water in the shower, and kept my medicine cabinet shut after toweling dry. This was arguably the hardest part of my cleanse.
Shockingly enough, my face did not feel dry or tight like I expected — like after using a traditional cleanser. This comfortable level of moisture was maintained throughout the day, and I had no desire to reach for an oil-blotting sheet.
Before bed, I noticed that the formerly angry, greasy pimples on my forehead had calmed into tiny dry, tan lumps. I can’t wait to pick at you, I thought, before slapping myself back to reality.
After 24-hours, my skin felt so good that I kept the cleanse going — and 48 hours later the pimples were gone, but I noticed a slight dullness at the end of the day, like I needed to exfoliate. Oil was beginning to build up slightly on my T-Zone, and I knew that my addiction would resurface.
Post challenge, cleansing and moisturizing with a single recommended oil-blend (a vial-ed mix of avocado, geranium, turmeric, and coffee oil) was the last straw for my forehead, where it screamed, "FUCK YOU, I WANT CREAMS!!" before bubbling into an island of painful eyebrow pimples. Under normal circumstances, I would start planning my eulogy, but purging my routine meant I could isolate which product was causing my breakout — the only product.
I resisted the urge to gargle with salicylic acid and returned to using only water as a cleanser. This pimple experience was the weirdest of my life — normally skin mountains live a long, flourishing life on my face, thriving and reproducing. The breakout subsided after just one more product-free day.
At this point, three days into my cleanse, it was fair to deduce that I didn’t actually need the eight products in my multistep routine. You were right, Adina. My skin was relatively clear without them, but … I wanted them. Similar to how a dog still salivates over a Snickers bar despite his dog friend warning, “Yo, don’t eat that. Remember what happened to Kenny?” Skin-care products are my chocolate.
I referred to the top drawer of my dresser — which is dedicated to beauty products — with a crazed hunger in my eyes, searching for three minimalist formulas with ingredient lists I could pronounce. I selected the Omorovicza Cleansing Milk, Caudale Premier Cru The Elixir, and By Terry Cellularose Baume D’Eau.
It’s been nearly one week of a consistently streamlined, three-product routine, and I do not have one pimple. My skin is luminous, soft, supple, and most importantly — it glows. Only when I relapse with unnecessary additions to my routine does my skin break out. My oil balance is also in check, proving Adina Grigore’s theory that oiliness is actually your skin’s response to an irritating product — overactive sebaceous glands create oil to protect the skin. I’m even wearing less makeup now, and enjoying the appearance of a more radiant complexion without foundation.
So what did I learn after my cleanse? As a beauty addict, I need to stop compartmentalizing my health and educate myself on my skin’s natural capabilities, instead of focusing purely on the science behind my products. The "delicate epidermis" I referred to earlier is actually pretty tough. Thanks to the mini-crash course in dermatology in Skin Cleanse, I can appreciate the way my skin regenerates itself, guards my body against heat and bacteria, produces antibodies to fight infection, serves as a window to what is going on inside my body, and allows the sensation of touch (ooh yeah) without the help of my Sephora Beauty Insider points.
No, I didn’t replace every product with all-natural DIY alternatives, because that just sounds like a really annoying and time-consuming thing to do. I’m still a product junkie deep down, but maybe I’ll resist the temptation to return to my million-step routine.
Follow Courtney on Twitter and Instagram @courtneypizza