Fiddy apologies for the text-heavy, picture-light nature of this post. Fiddy’s tablet is currently on strike. Her terrible tablet photography will be back to enliven Fifty Shades of Snail posts very soon.
Skincare can be confusing and overwhelming. This gets worse when you step (metaphorically) out of the familiar aisles of CVS and into the vast and varied world of Asian skincare products, and/or if you’re kind of new to Intermediate and Advanced Skincare Concepts. There’s a reason so many of us call Asian cosmetics the rabbit hole. Once you start the tumble down, it can be hard to stop, hard to know where to go…and hard to keep a firm grip on your wallet. But you’re not necessarily doomed to a future of five-page credit card statements and cabinets bursting with shelves of products that you haven’t gotten around to opening yet and that probably won’t work when you finally do.
I cut out a lot of impulse skincare purchasing and got a lot smarter about my products after I started a skincare log. I talked about keeping skincare records a long time ago, but this is less labor-intensive. Here’s a step-by-step tutorial for a simple, single-doc log that might change your skincare life.
Keeping track of your skincare progress
1. Start your log
Open up a new doc or text file or create a note in your usual note-taking app–whichever works best for you. I prefer Evernote. Use whatever you’re most comfortable with.
The first things to record are your current morning and evening skincare routines. List each product you use. Also jot down exactly what you expect the product to do for you. (For examples of what different product types do, take a look at my routine.)
Articulating your expectations for each product will help you identify any redundancy in your routine. While it’s sometimes useful to have multiple steps that all target the same thing using the same mechanism (I stacked niacinamide for ages, since it’s most effective in amounts that aren’t commonly found in single products), at other times it can be pointless and a waste of money. Speaking of wasting money, when you don’t really know what a product is supposed to do for you, that’s often a sign that you didn’t buy it because you needed it, but maybe for other, less practical reasons. (Here is where I’m not going to talk about Hello Kitty Hada Labo lotion and Avengers sheet masks.) Just being able to recognize those kinds of purchases has helped me avoid falling for them as often! “As often,” Fiddy said. Not “altogether.” She gazed towards her drawers full of random sheet masks and sighed.
If you already have a stash of new products in reserve, list those separately after your routine. Again, note the purpose of each product. When you empty one of your existing products, you’ll know which new one you can slot in to replace it and won’t end up spending extra on stuff you don’t need (yet).
2. Start your log
Now you’re ready to make your first entry! From this point on, begin every new line/entry in your log with the date. This will make any future troubleshooting or analysis much easier.
Your first entry should establish a starting point. For this one, describe the current condition of your skin, any problems you’re having, how long you’ve been having them, and your skincare goals. Don’t worry about the quality of your writing. I sure don’t. This is just a private diary for your skin!
3. Make a note when anything changes
After your first entry, you’ll use your log to record any changes you notice in your skin–positive and negative–and any changes to your routine. Some positive changes might be:
- Breakouts clearing up
- Skin tone looking more even
- Fine lines and wrinkles appearing less prominent
- Hyperpigmentation fading
- Skin becoming more balanced (less dry or oily)
- Textural improvements
Of course, you’ll definitely want to note any negative changes, things like:
- New or worsened breakouts
- Irritation or allergic reactions
- Increased dryness
- Increased oiliness
- Unusual sensitivity
- Textural changes for the worse
Noting changes to your routine, meanwhile, means making an entry when you start or stop using a product. Most makeup counts, too. Rule of thumb: if you’re putting it on a part of your face where you also put skincare, then put it in the log.
Let your log grow naturally with time. If you feel inclined, there are a ton of ways to branch out and document other aspects of your skincare life, like taking progress pictures, recording ingredient lists, keeping research notes, using spreadsheets for…spreadsheet-y things, and so on, but your day-to-day log should be chronological and in a single document. That’s because having the ability to scroll straight up to look at your most recent changes gives you a powerful tool for learning what works for your skin and what doesn’t.
Evaluating your skincare routine
Sometimes it’s hard, over a long period of time, to tell if something’s really working for me or if I’m using it out of habit. If you feel that way, you can use your skin log to discover what parts of your routine are working and what parts might not be.
It’s pretty simple. Remember how you wrote down your skin condition and concerns at the top? Look at those again, pick one particular issue, and then look at your routine. Since you wrote down the purpose of each product, you should be able to figure out which one is your primary weapon against that issue. Now make a point to check in once in a while and specifically look for improvements in the problem you’ve chosen. With these check-ins, you should record your results even if you didn’t see any. If you haven’t noted any change after a couple of months or one container of product, then (unless we’re talking vitamin C or retinoids, which take longer to show their full effects) it’s probably safe to say that the product isn’t working for you and it’s time to consider replacing it with something else. Since you’re not doing anything different to your skin when you do this, you can assess multiple issues or products simultaneously.
You can also use your log, even when you first start it, to figure out what the missing pieces of your routine are. Compare the skin issues you’ve listed to the product expectations you wrote down. Is there a match in your products for each issue? If not, then you know which issue to target when it’s time to add a new product to your routine. That can reduce expensive flailing by quite a lot.
Both of those are nice ways to get extra information out of your log, but the real point of keeping one is yet to come. I’m putting you through a lot of text, but keep reading!
Troubleshooting your skin (and identifying your HGs!)
I spend a lot of time answering questions in certain skincare- and Asian cosmetics-focused online communities. Over and over, I see questions from people experiencing a sudden breakout or other skin problem, with no idea why and no clue where to start investigating. I came up with the idea of a skincare log as a way of seeing whether keeping track of everything in one place would help. And since I am my own (and only) full-time, up-for-anything guinea pig, I tested it out on myself. My ongoing, single-participant study demonstrates the promise of skincare logging for more quickly isolating the causes of skin problems.
The Case of the Mysterious Bumpy Face Rash
Around the middle of this summer, right when the weather here started to heat up, my face sprouted a weird, bumpy rash. I was pretty alarmed, since, you know, OBSESSED WITH SKIN HERE. The bumps first showed up on my jawline. I freaked out, scrolled up in my log to the last thing I’d introduced, and immediately blamed the rash on the Laneige-from-Target BB cushion I’d been using to play around with jawline contour. (Those cushions run dark compared to most Korean brands I’ve tried. It was the only use I could get out of the “light” shade, which I’d impulse bought when I saw it in the beauty department.) Blaming the cushion made sense, since the rash was on the same part of my face where I used it. So I tossed the cushion into the cupboard under the sink and hoped for the best.
Instead of going away, the rash spread down my chest and up my cheeks. Cold sheet masks would flatten the bumps temporarily, but they kept coming back.
(It wasn’t that terrible-looking. The bumps were very small. You’d only notice them if you were squinting really closely at my face from a certain angle and in a certain light, and only a few people in my life are allowed to get that close to me or do such weird contortions when they look at me. But I could feel the bumps, I knew they were there, and I wanted them gone.)
So I kept scrolling up and eliminating new products until I reached a point where I knew none of the products I had left could be responsible. They were all things I’d been using for months without problems, weren’t expired, and showed no signs of being contaminated or spoiled. The rash stayed.
It might sound like my scroll-up-and-eliminate system failed me here, but it actually didn’t. Taking a systematic approach to figuring out the cause of the rash helped me think about it more critically. This led to my Aww shit! moment:
What triggered my realization was looking at the dates of particularly bad flare-ups. They always happened when the weather was extra hot. That reminded me of my occasional bouts with dyshydrotic eczema on my hands. I only get The Bumps On My Hands under very specific conditions: using overly heavy hand creams in hot weather. Once I made the connection, it was easy to figure out the problem. Mystery solved. These days, I only use heavy creams on cooler nights and stick to lighter layers on very warm ones. I haven’t had a problem since, and the overhead fan hasn’t murdered my skin’s hydration levels overnight like I feared it would.
I promise my other two examples won’t take as long-winded an explanation as that one did.
The Case of the Vanished Closed Comedone
Closed comedones are those little flesh-colored bumps you get when you have a clogged pore that’s closed up under your skin, rather than open the way a standard whitehead or blackhead are. My first month of PocketDerm completely eradicated 99% of my closed comedones, but there was one stubborn little jerk on my cheek that not only wouldn’t go away, but actually defiantly refused to change size.
And then, very recently, it shrank to less than half its original size within one day.
I’m not going to let a minor miracle like that go uninvestigated, so back to my log I went. I live a very exciting life. I’m like the Dick Tracy of my face.
I screwed up and forgot to note that I’d started the Graymelin propolis ampoule as soon as the mailman dropped it off (I’ve fixed it now, in case you were worried). I’ve been dying to try that ever since I saw it on a friend’s Instagram, and I couldn’t help myself. But that’s beside the point.
Here’s the thing. Normally, I wouldn’t think that a product I’d started the night before (or the same freaking day!) could produce such a visible and immediate effect, but both the Mizon AHA and the Graymelin Propolis 80 Energy Ampoule happened to be perfect suspects. AHA chemical exfoliants are the typical OTC recommendation for closed comedones, since they accelerate the removal of the uppermost layers of dead skin cells, allowing trapped clogs to surface and heal. Meanwhile, many people find propolis effective for treating breakouts and inflammation, and willow bark extract is anti-inflammatory and can be good for pimples, too.
Obviously, I can’t declare both of those products HGs based on one event that could very well be a coincidence. What identifying them as potentially responsible does is remind me to keep an eye out for more opportunities to isolate them, test them, and see whether either of them can replicate those results. That gets me a step closer to knowing for sure whether they work for me and whether they work better for me than other products I’ve used.
The Case of the Awesome Morning Skin
Over the last few months of skincare blogging, I’ve accidentally developed a kind of creepy hyper-awareness of the state of my skin on a day-to-day basis. This is not normal, but it does make it easy for me to spot even subtle changes, like changes in texture. That can be a curse if I start stressing over the tiniest loss of elasticity on a very arid day. Then again, it can also be a blessing, because I get real happy over small things.
The point of the screenshot above is what I wrote on 9/18: that my skin was very plump and bouncy first thing in the morning, right after cleansing, before the rest of my routine. I’m used to my skincare products giving me the plumpness and the bounce as I apply them, so it was pretty exciting to see that result without having done anything to create it.
Looking back at the previous few days, I don’t think a scrub instead of acids could produce that effect, but I had also started testing the COSRX Ultimate Nourishing Rice Overnight Spa Mask. With its claims to produce soft skin with the smooth bounce of a Korean rice cake, the mask seemed like a possible cause. So I kept testing it while also paying special attention to the way my skin felt on mornings after I’d used something else the night before. So far, it looks like the rice mask is the real deal for delivering the bounce.
Again, this process is a way of ruling out coincidence and determining which products really work for me. Judging on texture and finish alone, I would have said that the COSRX Ultimate Moisturizing Honey Overnight Mask is my favorite, but the morning-after results of the honey mask aren’t anything like those of the rice.
And now I’m done with my examples and ready to admit what my ultimate point is.
My ultimate point is that YMMV. Your skin is different from everyone else’s skin in some way. It responds best to different ingredients than someone else’s skin would. It may react poorly to things that are legitimate holy grails for others. The only way you can really figure out what’s best for your skin is by figuring out your own skin, day by day. Keep a running list of products you’ve had to stop using because they caused problems; compare their ingredients. Do the same with products that have given you exceptionally good results. As time goes on, you’ll get better and better at picking the things that really work for you, and that means getting better results while wasting less money on failed products.
How do you keep track of your skincare successes and failures?
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