Gentle skin care is the regime du jour. Does that mean less is more? Or creams and serums galore?
It is a woman’s duty to use all the means in her power to beautify and preserve her complexion,” wrote the Irish dancer Lola Montez in her delightful 1858 guidebook, The Arts of Beauty. How closely, but misguidedly, have I followed this advice! From the time I’ve been able to roam the drugstore unsupervised, I have been engaged in a battle for beauty. In my youthful zeal for perfect skin, I leaned upon scrubs and heavy-duty toners, most of which chafed and stung— to my great satisfaction. When acne came for me in college, I armed myself with prescription-grade gels and capsules that blitzed my spots and made my skin flake. A fair price to pay, I reasoned. Recent decades featured laser treatments and powerhouse potions I one-click purchased as I brewed my morning coffee.
But amid the ambient noise about skin sensitivity, I began to wonder: Might it be time to start easing up? Not long ago, an obsession with so-called clean beauty had us all fretting about how our potions might be polluting our insides. Now skin sensitivity—the new gluten intolerance!—has us setting our sights on the surface. A new crop of ultra-gentle, if not ultra-simple, products caters to those prone to itching, stinging, and inflammation—or who, like me, just want something soothing after a lifetime of chasing the burn.
Skin sensitivity isn’t an official medical diagnosis, though anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of women say that they suffer from it, and women are stepping forward in droves to claim the delicate mantle of the moment. Lila Moss’s sensitive skin played into makeup artist Fara Homidi’s inspiration for the model’s walk down the runway in barely-there makeup for Chloé’s fall 2023 show. Zendaya, Sofia Richie, and Euphoria star Sydney Sweeney are all sensitive-identifying, while Marisa Tomei one-upped the lot when she told Vogue she has a “sensitive system.” We are all, it appears, snowflakes, each special in our own way.
Our skin can become sensitive due to an array of triggers—cosmetic ingredients, pollution, extreme UVs, or TikTok-inspired DIY bathroom-sink chemical peels. The damage is to the skin barrier; when defenseless, our outermost layer stands no chance against irritants. “Imagine a sheet with a high thread count versus a lower thread count, or a canvas bag versus a plastic CVS bag,” says Manhattan plastic surgeon Lara Devgan, MD, giving me a crash course on the states of skin barriers, and the myriad ways we can wreak havoc on them.
Welsh-born aesthetician Sofie Pavitt, a former designer for Tory Burch, once took regular trips to Korea and learned everything she could about 10-step cleansing routines. It was all so elaborate and thrilling! But now, Pavitt says, “I take a more minimalist approach,” borne out in her newly launched skin care line—a supertight edit of a mere three products. Pavitt’s Manhattan atelier resembles a therapy office. “I specialize in problematic skin,” she advises. “I talk to my clients about their diet and lifestyle, and we’ll work on a home routine.” I start using her products—a gel face wash that takes its time to form suds and a light exfoliant serum—and they have a gateway effect.
Over the coming days, I set off on a tender bender. Ren Clean Skincare’s Evercalm Overnight Recovery Balm melts on my fingers. I dig into the tinted balms that anchor Bobbi Brown’s “clean no-makeup” line Jones Road. I slather on French pharmacist Natacha Bonjout’s Le Balm, a solution that smells faintly of roses and comes in an ivory tin that looks like a chubby macaron. Every time I apply a dollop of Biography’s Long June, a silky chamomile and camellia-seed-packed oil formulation, my face feels as though it’s sipping a mug of herbal tea. I put in a preorder for Lesse’s moisturizer, whose key ingredient is Kakadu plum extract, known to be a potent yet gentle source of vitamin C.
It all feels divine, and smugly salubrious—but am I going overboard? The dermatologist Shereene Idriss, MD, tells me that not everyone needs so radical a refresh. “I just feel like it’s overkill to limit yourself from products that might bring you better results overall,” she warns.
A dose of wisdom comes from celebrity makeup artist Gucci Westman, who recently posted a picture of herself that revealed thumbprint-size red splotches. “I think it started from using overly aggressive active products,” the 53-year-old tells me. Her cult line, Westman Atelier, is geared for the needs of people with skin sensitivities; its latest Skin Activator serum has 12 ingredients said to strengthen the moisture barrier. I confide that after a lifetime of product promiscuity, it’s doubtful I could ever land on a one-serum solution. The profusion of gentle giants on my bathroom counter has been way too tempting, and I’ve been pouncing on every vial and tube in sight. “It’s okay to be curious,” Westman tells me, saying she too can weaken in the face of possibility. “There is a chance that I might launch something else.”
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