Sorry, guys! I was planning to write a Post-Turkey Panic Shopping guide this weekend, but there’s a topic that’s been stuck in my mind for a while now, and the only way I’m gonna purge that clog is to talk about it, so that’s what you’re getting from me tonight.
I read a couple of skincare forums, where I sometimes see people express distrust of skincare as a whole, usually due to their personal disappointment in a particular “proven” ingredient or “hyped” product. And it’s totally understandable. For those of us who value our personal appearance, skin problems can be extremely frustrating and anxiety-inducing. Our faces are typically the first things the world sees of us, and when we’re not happy with our faces, it’s easy to feel down, discouraged, desperate. Desperation often leads to certain forums. There, people learn about things like actives proven to address certain issues–AHAs for superficial textural problems and active breakouts, for example, and BHAs for pore issues–and often end up trying, with high hopes, a product that they’ve researched and determined to be correctly formulated. What could go wrong, right? It’s been proven to be effective!
Thing is, even with “proven” ingredients in “proven” formulations, it’s not always that simple.
One complaint I’ve heard more than once is that all skincare must be a scam, because if the proven ingredients and formulations were really “proven to be effective,” then they would work for everyone the same way. If they don’t–and nothing works for everyone, let alone the same way every time–then the products must be snake oil made of lies.
That oversimplification isn’t helpful to anyone, especially not those who are working towards their own version of the most effective routine and their own healthiest skin. That’s because there is absolutely nothing simple, straightforward, or universal about the human body. Physicians of all medical specialties often find themselves prescribing a medication to a patient only to discover that that medication doesn’t work for that particular patient or causes undesirable side effectssuch as nausea, vomiting, explosive diarrhea, spontaneous combustion, sudden death, or occasional mild shortness of breath. Going back to the drawing board to try a different medication, sometimes several different ones, is not at all uncommon.
All the medications prescribed have been proven to work for the conditions doctors prescribe them to treat, and for the most part, all those medication choices are objectively valid. But at the individual level, some will work, some won’t, and some will do the thing they’re supposed to but may also do unwanted things they’re not supposed to do. There are medications that are lifesavers for some and killers for others. The reason why is so simple. Every single person’s body is a little bit different and responds a little bit differently to the substances it encounters.
Let’s take it back to my AHA and BHA example. AHA products formulated at appropriate concentrations and pH levels have been proven to improve skin appearance by accelerating the removal of the outermost layer of dead skin cells. BHA products formulated at appropriate concentrations and pH levels have been proven to penetrate the sebum in pores to loosen clogs of dead skin cells there, leading to clearer pores. But. Any given AHA or BHA product may not work for a particular person, for so many different reasons:
- Something in that product irritates the person’s skin, so that even if the exfoliants work effectively, the overall result is not what the person wants
- That particular person produces more sebum, clogs, or dead skin cells than that particular acid product can effectively address
- Something about that person’s skin chemistry (or skincare routine) interacts negatively with that product, reducing its effectiveness
Not a complete list, but you get the point.
On the flip side, I bet a lot of us know that person who had some kind of cosmetic or medical issue that no amount of medical or scientifically validated treatment could fix, who turned to a more “alternative” treatment and suddenly experienced improvement. You know what? I’m not going to invalidate their experience as placebo effect. In my opinion, there’s a definite possibility that something about whatever they did just happened to work very well with their individual body functions–it may not be something reproducible in the population at large and it may not be something I’d care to explore for myself, but if it works for them, who am I to say I’m sure that that’s impossible? In the same vein, if something that works for someone else didn’t work for me, I’m not going to assume that they were lying or exaggerating. For better or for worse, everyone is different.
Ultimately, sometimes the “proven” actives aren’t the answer, and sometimes the more “alternative” concepts may prove themselves beneficial. Keeping an open mind is the best way to enable yourself to benefit from both.
I’ve talked about the limitations of scientific research in cosmetic skincare before, and I’ve talked about YMMV before, but this goes beyond both of those earlier posts, I think. It’s not just about keeping an open mind, but about managing your expectations.
Definitely do your research. Definitely understand which ingredients’ claims have been substantiated, and what limitations they have, so that you can identify the products that are most likely to give you the results you want. But be aware that likely does not equal guaranteed, and understand that trial and error is just a part of the process.
Here’s my YMMV story: At the beginning of my skincare journey, I picked up a pair of very well regarded chemical exfoliants from a niche but very well regarded skincare brand with a reputation for doing things the sciencey way. I used those exfoliants for a long time. 6+ months, probably. And they were okay, I suppose. They didn’t do anything terrible to my skin. But they didn’t produce any particularly noticeable results, either. Then I switched to a different brand’s chemical exfoliants out of curiosity. The new products, though objectively weaker than the ones I’d used before (higher pH, lower concentration), worked much more effectively and much more rapidly on my skin. Why? I’ve no idea. It’s just YMMV, and I’m just glad I found the things that work for me.
Pick up a product hoping for results but not expecting miracles–skincare isn’t in the business of miracles, not unless you take marketing claims and advertising copy seriously. The good stuff is out there. Thing is, it needs you to find it for yourself. Being ingredient-aware and keeping track of the products you’ve tried will help. What will help even more is recognizing that patience and an open mind are the things most likely to get your skin to where you want it to be. There are very few things that can produce real and lasting results overnight–even the proven actives often take weeks or even months to show visible improvements. Know what to expect, and you’ll be much happier as you work on building your own best skincare routine.
What are your YMMV stories? What “proven” actives didn’t work for you, and what “gimmick” ingredients did? I wanna hear all about them in the comments!