Unf*ck Your Skincare Routine
The Great Bathing Debate has revealed we’ve all got a hot take on this viral topic - but there’s a lot of misinformation out there and even more missing information yet to be addressed. That's why we’re taking you back to school to start rethinking skincare.
Lesson 1: Stop Trying to Make Soap Happen
Just about everyone has an opinion on showering.
What do the experts say? There are actual benefits to showering less.
There’s no doubt that handwashing with soap is an important part of stopping the spread of disease, but over-cleansing our bodies is pushing our skin into constant crisis mode by stripping away its moisture and eliminating healthy, helpful bacteria.
For most of humanity's existence, people used natural ingredients found in their environment to cleanse their bodies - things like clay and oils, or even just water and friction. 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. Rates of inflammatory skin diseases have been fast on the rise since we adopted the daily soap bath only a century ago, yet the market remains flooded with aggressive cleansers and exfoliants that chronically inflame the skin and compromise its delicate microbiome, or flora.
So, how did the daily scrub become the norm? Great PR.
Over a century of aggressive, wide-reaching advertising has convinced the public that using soap isn’t just the best way to clean, but the only way to get clean. Decade after decade, countless paper ads, billboards, industry produced radio shows called “soap operas,” and commercials have positioned soap as the end-all cure-all (Proctor & Gamble’s Duz soap proudly claimed “Duz does Everything!”). Leveraging sexist tropes and anxieties, alarmist ads claimed that failing to clean the right way with the right soap was sure to spell disaster - with shameful consequences for the whole family.
Hard-working hubbies not getting their promotions? It’s because their wives don’t buy the right soap! Can’t keep a man interested? Must be her aging complexion suffering from the wrong soap!
Another dubious advertising claim: soap is the very mark of civilization. According to countless advertisers, soap has the ability to not only clean, but uplift people of color from unkempt savagery, even going so far as to whiten their skin. To this day, advertisements show Black skin being ‘washed’ white and Black features, like natural hair, needing to be ‘tamed,’ or ‘civilized.’ Again and again, soap advertisements enforce a white racial identity as a preferable, neutral default. In doing so, they directly contributed to the spread and legitimization of deeply harmful, racist rhetoric that deems people of color unclean, undesirable, and Other.
Through fear, shame, racism and misogyny, Big Beauty has wedged itself into our cultural definitions of cleanliness, morality, and womanhood - and they did it to make a buck.
It’s time to come clean on our own terms and reject shame and stigma in favor of science and thoughtfulness. Doing so allows us to stop viewing our bodies as something to hide or fix and instead acknowledge their incredible, resilient magic - something to be cared for and celebrated.
Lesson 2: Modern Acne is No Accident
Despite supposed advances in skincare, global rates of skin disease increased by more than 45% between 1990 and 2017. Chronic inflammation leads to skin disease and disruption of the natural moisture barrier may be one of its main causes. The moisture barrier — one of the skin’s greatest weapons — is a naturally produced, oil-based shield that rests atop the skin. It’s responsible for protecting the body from moisture loss and pathogenic bacteria, and it helps keep the skin near the slightly acidic pH in which it thrives.
The natural moisture barrier is also home to much of the skin’s microbiome, or flora: the natural colonies of microorganisms now recognized as a vital system in maintaining skin’s health. These microbes work directly with the immune system to regulate, clean, and regenerate the skin. Research consistently shows that bacterial diversity and homeostasis, or balance, is the key to healthy skin - rather than an abundance of any one particular strain. This phenomenon is replicated throughout nature where high biodiversity leads to a more robust and sustainable ecosystem.
Unfortunately, most people in the United States wash with a sudsing, oil-removing soap or detergent-based cleanser at least once a day. Drying and flora-stripping routines also create reliance on synthetic moisturizers, creams, and toners to replace what’s been washed away. Once the skin’s protective barrier has been compromised, unwanted agents like allergens and irritants can easily penetrate the skin and aggravate symptoms associated with inflammatory diseases.
In just the last few years, Time, Vogue, NPR, The Atlantic, and The New York Times have all reported on research which continues to show the importance of oil and bacteria in the skin’s healthy life cycle. The body knows how to find equilibrium and the best approach to healthy skin is fostering that natural balance.
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he skin already exfoliates itself continuously through a process called desquamation, a process which only slows around age 50. Chemical peels may create a temporary improvement in the skin’s appearance, but the long-term effects of these inflammatory exfoliation treatments remain unknown. Considering the link between inflammation and skin disease, repeated, aggressive exfoliation doesn't hold promise as an effective long-term solution for inflammatory conditions.
Lesson 3: Let Your (Vaginal) Flora Thrive
Speaking of harsh measures, it's time to talk about vaginal health.
Like the skin, the vagina has its own unique microbiome which can impact anything from reproductive health and birth outcomes to susceptibility to STIs (sexually transmitted infections). Taking care of its flora also calls for a more hands-off approach - not that you'd know it looking at the market today.
Alongside the rise of soap use came a new obsession with 'feminine hygiene' - by way of antiseptic cleansers and douches, like Lysol. Yes, that Lysol. Used for intravaginal cleansing and as a contraceptive (albeit, not an effective one),
Gaining popularity in the late 19th century, the vaginal hygiene market has grown to a billion dollar industry today. Marketing douches, wipes, creams, powders and more, the industry has taken advantage of sexist claims, insecurities, and a lack of accurate and comprehensive education around vaginal health.
The truth: the vagina doesn't need soaps, detergents, or the like to clean itself. Furthermore, serious concerns about vaginal odor (often perfectly healthy and normal) should be addressed with a doctor, not the health and beauty aisle.
Teenage girls and Black women, in particular, have been targeted for advertising of these products, leveraging a lack of reproductive education and perpetuating anti-Black myths about body odor and vaginal health. All this, even after concerns were raised of certain intimate products' potentially toxic ingredients. Currently, 'consumer healthcare' brand Johnson & Johnson faces more than 25,000 lawsuits regarding their talc powder products and claims it has caused cancers of the ovaries, uterus, and lungs.
While douching has fallen out of favor, scented tampons, pads, liners, and wipes are easily found at any supermarket as well as special 'feminine soaps.' But, all soap essentially works in the same way (that's what makes it soap!) and the vagina simply doesn't require it to stay healthy. Remember, they've been around a lot longer than soap has!
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Lesson 4: Welcome Home(ostasis)
A large body of research about the problem of inflammatory skin disease has developed over the last several years and though there is still a lot to learn about the skin, its microbiome, and the products we apply to it, one thing is certain — our skin is smart.
It has evolved over millennia with the help of its flora and the best way to help it might be to get out of its way. Current studies reveal that sudsing cleansers and exfoliants create inflammation and destroy the skin’s inherent ecosystems — systems that work to naturally provide many of the healing benefits that so many skincare products claim to possess.
The skin is a continually self-renewing organ and - having an optimal bacterial composition - a self-cleaning one, too. In fact, many of our modern skincare products, collectively containing over 10,000 mostly under-studied, largely under-regulated synthetic chemicals (some of which could be absorbed into the bloodstream), are not only potentially harmful to our skin, our bodies, and the planet — they’re simply unnecessary.
The body’s largest organ is also a 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.