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The School of UnLearning: Skin

Rethinking Skincare

Trusting the wisdom of nature

By Denise Cartwright

Skincare is more advanced than ever, so why is our skin getting worse? More and more people are suffering from inflammatory conditions like acne and rosacea despite our varied and increasingly complex skincare regimens. Up to 1 in 3 Americans are affected by skin disease and spending related to it is now among the fastest growing of any medical condition. What gives?

The New School

We’ve learned a lot about the skin in the last decade, yet many skincare products on the market don’t hold up to the newest science. Increasing rates of acne, eczema, and other inflammatory skin diseases may be the result of daily use of oil-stripping, bacteria-killing skincare products.

No Scrubs

Evidence increasingly shows that inflammation is closely associated with a wide range of diseases, from allergies to diabetes, and skin conditions are no exception. Mounting research suggests that chronic inflammation could even be a “unifying theory of disease.” Reducing it could play an important role in promoting the skin’s health, but the most common skincare products, like sudsing cleansers and exfoliants, often actually increase inflammation in the skin.

Squeaky’s Freaky

The outdated belief that oil is bad for our skin has led to an obsession with being “squeaky clean.” Most people in the United States wash with a sudsing, oil-removing soap or detergent-based cleanser at least once a day. This strips your skin of its naturally produced, oil-based “shield,” leaving it inflamed and unprotected and creating your reliance on synthetic moisturizers and creams to replace what was stripped. Once the skin’s protective barrier has been compromised, unwanted agents like allergens and irritants can penetrate the skin and aggravate symptoms associated with inflammatory diseases like acne and eczema.


The skin barrier is teeming with natural colonies of bacteria and fungi which work directly with your immune system to regulate, clean, and regenerate the skin. Your skin relies on its microbiome, or flora, but unfortunately that’s what we’re washing off our bodies each day when we use soapy cleansers. Don’t get us wrong, hand-washing (the whole 20 seconds!) is an integral part of basic hygiene as well as combating the spread of disease. But daily head-to-toe soap use is wreaking havoc on our bodies – and our biomes.

The Dirt on Soap

Regular soap bathing has only been the norm for the last century, becoming ubiquitous with the rise of mass marketing in the early 1900s. Some of the first major advertising campaigns were led by companies like Proctor and Gamble, who used soap ads in magazines and daytime radio shows (the origin of the “soap opera”) to persuade American wives that a daily, full-body soap cleanse was necessary for a happy marriage. Their advertisements worked: bathing with soap was normalized and it became a foundation for the beauty industry as we know it today.

In 2016, soap was the highest grossing health and beauty care product sold in the United States, followed right behind by skincare products developed to deal with the dryness, itchiness, and irritation left behind by all that soap. But our skin didn’t evolve to require soap to stay clean, and the repercussions of this invasive, inflammatory cleansing technique are literally written on the body.

In just the last few years, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Time, Vogue, and NPR have all reported on research which continues to show the importance of oil and bacteria in the skin’s healthy life cycle. Your body knows how to find equilibrium, and we think the best approach to healthy skin is fostering that natural balance.


Your largest organ is also a complex and resilient one. Skincare products should work to assist — not override — its natural regenerative systems. They should leave no trace on the skin’s living ecosystems and natural moisture barrier. They should be sustainably sourced and created — without the use of unethical advertising or misleading claims. They should work to prevent skin disease proactively, rather than treating the symptoms reactively.

The skin is a complex, dynamic network of living cells which evolved over millions of years to heal and regenerate itself. It’s time to rethink the foundations of its care and reinvest in the wisdom of nature.

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