The Fallacy of “Gentle” Skin Care

Have you ever looked at a baby or small child and marveled at how perfect their skin is? Clear, evenly toned, smooth, and practically poreless. Baby skin is the closest you can get to perfection without Photoshop.

When you think about a baby’s skin, it does seem logical that less is more. Little kids have beautiful skin without doing a thing. Doesn’t it make you wonder: maybe your skin suffers because you’re trying too hard? Maybe all that work you put into your skin is actually making it worse. Perhaps if you just left your face alone, like most children do, then your skin would look amazing.

If these ideas have ever crossed your mind, you’re not alone. This gentle, minimalist, no-fuss approach to skin care has certainly gained a foothold in recent years. Brands like Simple capitalize on that idea with vague mottos such as “natural beauty comes from goodness.” Other brands labeled as natural or organic, such as Alba and Juice Beauty, cater to the sentiment that chemicals from plants are somehow “kinder” to skin than chemicals mixed in a lab. No matter what the specific advertising tact is, these companies are riding on the underlying assumption that kindness to skin = better skin.

Now I’d like to tell why this idea is not technically correct. Is there some truth to the idea that you can overdo your skincare? Certainly. Are there some products that can actually damage your skin when used too often? Of course. But does kinder always equal better? Not really. Read on.

Aging is inevitable

Even if you treated your skin perfectly since birth, your skin as an adult would still look and feel different than your skin as a child. Children have smooth, blemish-free skin largely because they haven’t yet been subjected to skin’s biggest enemy: aging. Skin naturally loses elasticity as we age and as we accumulate damage from sun exposure. This is a normal, natural, and inevitable process. Every single one of us also encounters something called puberty which makes radical, irreversible changes to our skin. The hormonal cascade of puberty automatically turns on sebaceous glands and coarsens skin texture. This gives us the oily, rough, blemished skin of adolescence that lingers on into adulthood. Most people start skincare regimens in their tweens not because they had a compulsion to start washing their face, but because their face started needing more attention.

We can’t defy the aging process by ignoring it. We need to pay attention to our skin and adjust our care of it throughout each phase of our life.

Your natural skin barrier and skin products are enemies

Have you ever seen an ad for a cleanser that “cleanses without stripping your natural oils” or “cleanses while keeping your skin barrier intact”?

This would be a great idea—if it really worked. Your skin does naturally protect itself with the acid mantle, which is a slightly acidic film on the skin that defends against bacteria and other outside contaminants. This acid mantle is secreted by the sebaceous glands and regenerates approximately every 14 hours. In short, the acid mantle is a great protectant that your skin makes for you. You wouldn’t want to mess with that, right?

Right. Except that any product you use on your skin already alters the acid mantle and has the potential to seep into and clog your pores. Do you use sunscreen everyday? What about makeup? Moisturizer?  Well, your skin can only naturally exfoliate its own chemicals. If you were a caveman that and never washed your skin (but you also didn’t use any “products”), you would probably sweat enough, or jump in a lake enough, or get rained on enough, that those dead skin cells would naturally flake off. But if you’re using skin products, then by the end of the day that sunscreen or moisturizer or makeup has mixed with all your dead skin cells and become impacted into your pores. Cleansers aren’t smart. They can’t play favorites and choose to clean off the oil from your makeup while leaving the oil from your sebaceous glands alone. A “gentle” cleanser just means that it cleans less overall. It’s like using an old vacuum cleaner with poor suction. It may not suck up the edge of your comforter, but it also won’t clean up all the mud you tracked in last week. A gentle cleanser can leave some of your acid mantle intact, but it also leaves other contaminants festering in your pores.

So if you ever put something on your skin that your skin didn’t make itself, your skin won’t be able to get rid of it. This means that gentle cleansers are only appropriate for no-makeup, no-product, no-dirt days.

Skin problems accumulate over time

You may be reading this after going through years of skin problems. Persistent acne, hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, sun spots—you name it. Can you really expect that after years of acne, insufficient cleansing, slathering on pore-clogging skin products, or sleeping in your makeup…that your skin is going to be reversed to its perfect prepubescent state by “leaving it alone”? Of course not! In fact, I’ve discovered the opposite. The older skin is or the longer it has been problematic, the more care and attention it needs. This means that the skin care regimen of a forty year old, or an adult with acne, or someone with seborrheic dermatitis, is not “gentle” or “simple” at all compared to that of a fresh-faced twelve year old.

Have you been ripped off by the promises of “gentle” or “simple” skin care products? Tell us your story in the comments below!

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