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Fashionista Beauty Helpline: Should I 'Feel' My Skin-Care Products Working?

We asked the experts.
Photo: Imaxtree

Photo: Imaxtree

Beauty editors and writers are used to getting late-night (or early-morning, or literally 24-hours-a-day) texts with zero context and burning questions. No, we don't mean of the "U up?" variety. These inquiries are about skin freak-outs, product recommendations and makeup mishaps... and we've seen 'em all. With that in mind, we welcome you to our series, "Fashionista Beauty Helpline," where we address the beauty questions we get asked most frequently — and run them by experts who really know their stuff.

The beauty editor's "U up?"

The beauty editor's "U up?"

"It burned like a motherf*cker," reads one Sephora customer's review of The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution… accompanied by five shining stars.

"I have sensitive, acne-prone skin and it stings for about two minutes upon application," reads another, this one about Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial 25% AHA + 2% BHA Mask. "This is by far the best facial I have ever tried!"

"I ended up getting some burn spots." (Five stars.)

"The stinging is a little scary." (Five stars.)

"It scared me so much the first time I used it, I washed it off immediately." (That one still earned four stars.)

This might not register as anything out of the ordinary at first. Generations of beauty enthusiasts have grown up hearing that beauty is pain, being told to feel the burn, craving something that hurts so good. We've internalized these catchphrases — which originally referred to piercings, abs and love, respectively — to the point that pain isn't just something to tolerate. It's something to validate. If it's powerful enough to hurt, it's powerful enough to work. Right?

Not exactly. According to every trained professional Fashionista consulted for this story — three doctors, two beauty brand owners and one holistic aesthetician — skin-care should feel good. Or, at the very least, it shouldn't feel bad.

"Skin care should never cause any discomfort," Dr. Barbara Sturm, the founder of the skin-care line of the same name, tells Fashionista (while she is not a dermatologist, she is an orthopedist and does work extensively in skin care). Dr. Neil Sadick, a board-certified dermatologist with Sadick Dermatology in Manhattan, plainly states, "You should not feel your skin care working."

But the fact is, many do feel their products "working," especially lately. As acids and at-home peels reach peak popularity — and I say "peak," because recent concerns about over-exfoliating foreshadow a fall — the skin-care-obsessed have grown accustomed to cleansers, toners, exfoliators and masks spiked with AHAs, BHAs and PHAs, among other sensitizing ingredients (retinol, benzoyl peroxide). Redditors, influencers and even beauty editors boast routines that incorporate acids twice a day, every day; swearing that stinging is a sign of success.

"I do feel a slight sting, a feeling I actually kind of love," Deven Hopp, the former Beauty Director of Byrdie and current brand director of clean skin-care company Versed, revealed in a feature on Biologique Recherche's famed acid exfoliant, Lotion P50. "You really feel like it's working." An Into the Gloss article promoted the same product by saying, "Stinging and redness is par for the course."

"This is a dangerous myth in the beauty community," Dr. Sturm says. Besides the fact that it's permeated the top tier of industry experts — those meant to educate the public on safe skin care — the "feel it working" myth has some serious physical consequences.

"Sometimes you might feel an acid working, but this is usually a negative thing," Dr. Amy Taub, a board-certified dermatologist with ADV Dermatology, tells Fashionista. She says "a little tingle" is probably fine, but stinging, burning or feeling raw indicates you've gone too far.

"Exfoliation is meant to renew a layer of skin that is technically not alive," the dermatologist explains. "This layer is already in line to be ejected from the surface of the skin and exfoliation speeds this process up. Speeding up this process may help to reduce pore blockages or sluggish skin, but if there is too much exfoliation, you will start getting into the living skin — and that is when you start getting redness, peeling and a raw or stinging sensation. This is not to be pursued."

To recap: If it a product burns or stings post-application, you have exfoliated living skin cells, not dead ones. Which explains why can it hurt so damn much.

"MY SKIN LOOKS GOOD, THOUGH!!!!" you may be tempted to shout in defense of your favorite peel-y, slough-y skin-care products. And I hear you. But I'd also ask: What's your definition of "good?"

"One of the telltale signs of over-exfoliation is that the skin looks 'plastic,' 'shiny' or 'waxy,' which means it reflects light easily, as the outermost protective cell layer is gone and all the young, proliferating cells are exposed to the environment," Dr. Sadick says. "That is obviously a bad thing, as not only are you sabotaging the young cells by exposing them to environmental triggers, but you are also at great risk for serious infections and epidermal damage."

"This look is incorrectly associated with a 'glow,' which it is not," adds Dr. Sturm. "It is the sign of injury."

According to Angela Peck, a holistic aesthetician and skin-care educator, injuring the skin in this way triggers a repair response that floods the top layer of cells with nutrients. "Your skin is the first line of defense, and when you prematurely remove these 'dead' skin cells, it sends a signal to the body that there’s an invasion in process," she says.

Peck notes that skin will look great after intense exfoliation… but only because it's received "a shot of beneficial nutrients to help protect the body." This "an emergency response" that will "deplete this nutrient reserve over time." After a fleeting period of rosy-cheeked, light-reflecting loveliness, skin can revert back to looking dry, dull or waxy.

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So, how did the beauty community arrive at a point where this painful process is considered "pretty" in the first place?

It could be argued that Biologique Lotion P50 1970 started it all. Its unprecedented popularity spawned countless copycats, all chasing the face-eating feeling of the original product's mix of acids and phenol — an ingredient Cornell University calls "corrosive" and "toxic." The inclusion of phenol makes this the "masochist's" choice of exfoliant, according to Into the Gloss, which tells readers that though Lotion P50 1970 is "the toughest, roughest, OG version," it is still "good for any skin type." But many experts would assert that on the contrary, phenol is not good for any skin type — it's not good for skin, period, unless you are already dead, in which case phenol is great, because it is actual, literal embalming fluid. (Though the substance is now banned in Europe, U.S. residents are free to use as much phenol on their faces as they please.)

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Another theory is straightforward capitalism. The customer feels a product "working," translates that to believing the purchase is justified, and buys more. Because said product has burned off the top layer of skin, though, cells have trouble holding onto moisture, prompting the need for hyaluronic acid serums and ceramide-filled moisturizers. Over-exfoliation has also damaged the barrier, leaving skin prone to breakouts and hyperpigmentation, but that's OK: Just add a vitamin C serum and more acids, ad infinitum. The skin suffers, but the skin-care economy thrives.

Then there's the influence of Instagram — and the filtered, Facetuned, poreless idea of perfection it's popularized — to consider. "If you're only [exposed to] people who are doing a lot of exfoliation for their skin, you'll come to accept that as the healthy, flawless ideal," says Peck.

Or, perhaps it’s simply a hallmark of the industrious-but-impatient American spirit; the skin-care equivalent of the country's bigger-is-better, more-is-more philosophy.

"This 'feel it working' concept is the great dividing line between Eastern and Western philosophies towards skin-care," Victoria Tsai, the Tawaiinese-American founder of Tatcha, a skin-care brand inspired by Japanese beauty rituals, tells Fashionista. "In the East, they respect the skin as an organ and care deeply about gentle strength. They want the same efficacy, but know that if they disrupt the skin's balance, it causes long-term harm."

For Tsai and many other Eastern beauty buffs, "respecting the organ" means recognizing that the takes care of its basic needs on its own. "Your skin has a natural desquamation function, which is the process by which you shed skin cells," she says. Desquamation typically takes place every 28 days, although aging and external factors, like light pollution and environmental aggressors, can slow it down. This is where exfoliation comes into play.

"When used properly, at the right intervals and at the right concentrations, exfoliants can help support the rate of desquamation in your skin and thus the rate your skin naturally exfoliates," Tsai explains.

The right amount of exfoliation will vary from person to person, but the goal, really, is to nudge the skin toward a 28-day cycle. Because desquamation is staggered (meaning, not every cell on your face is renewing and shedding at the same time), dermatologists maintain that exfoliating once or twice a week works best for most. "I would recommend starting with an exfoliant once a week," Dr. Taub suggests.

To be clear, the use of acids is not a bad thing. "They can be phenomenal in skin-care because they are also naturally occurring in your skin, like lactic acid," Tsai says. But there are other, less painful methods of exfoliation, too. Natural enzymes are a favorite of both Dr. Sturm and Tsai. "They specifically target dead skin cells and don't disrupt the life, health or function of living skin," Dr. Sturm says.

Tatcha's The Rice Polish works in much the same way. "We call our enzyme powders 'polishing' because we want people to think of their skin as a jewel," explains Tsai. "Treat your skin as you would any jewel — polish it to enhance it, not scratch it." Most Tatcha products also include low concentrations of lactic acid, known for its ability to both loosen dead skin cells and add moisture.

Depending on the health of your skin, you may not need to indulge in acids and peels at all. "If your skin is sensitive or you have any pre-existing conditions such as rosacea, you would be better off avoiding these products altogether," adds Dr. Sadick.

Peck prefers facial massage to exfoliation, since it boosts circulation and supports natural desquamation. "Circulation slows as we get older, and circulation is important for repairing as well as bring nutrients and oxygen to the skin," the aesthetician explains. "When we have enough of this happening, optimal skin functioning occurs, and healthy cell turnover is just one of these effects." 

If you're starting to get the, er, burning feeling you've been over-exfoliating — some signs include "shiny skin, flaky skin, tightness, breakouts and puffiness due to a natural inflammatory reactions," says Dr. Sadick — dermatologists say to give the acids and the enzymes a break and focus on barrier repair, instead.

"First and foremost, give yourself at least a week to return to a semi-normal state," advises Dr. Sadick. "Your best bet is to arm yourself with cleansers and moisturizers that are formulated for extra-sensitive skin and keep the routine super simple. Products containing vitamin E and hyaluronic acid can help restore hydration and repair the damaged skin barrier, accelerating the time it takes to heal."

Don't expect to reap the rewards of an acid-free routine overnight, though. Over-exfoliated skin has likely developed a dependency on exfoliation, kind of like a drug, so symptoms of withdrawal are common. (That's why skin-care enthusiasts often complain that pimples pop up when they skip a day of acids.) The solution, Peck says, is to resist the urge to exfoliate for a little while, so your skin can learn to "function on its own again, which is what it should be doing in the first place."

"It gets ugly at first as the skin goes through the process of losing its dependency on the products that it was relying on for a lot of its functioning," the aesthetician warns. But the end result is worth it — if only because your skin-care routine is significantly less expensive. And less time-consuming. "I used to think that my skin needed acids a few times a week, because it'd feel rough and dry without them," Peck shares. "I barely even think about exfoliation now. My skin does it on its own now that it's supported."

If you do decide to reintroduce acids and peels later on, go slow. If it stings, stop.

As Tsai says, "The 'feel the burn' philosophy that we grew up with might work for abs and glutes, but not for the skin."

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