When it comes to skincare, we tend to believe that more is better. I’ve been guilty of it for many years (unfortunately for my skin), and it’s hard to shake off that mindset.
In my early 20s, when I was still battling cystic acne, I was using an extensive array of skincare products. None of them helped my skin, to say the least. To make matters worse, my skin was looking dull and old no matter how many expensive products I tried.
Now, in my 30s, I use only a handful of natural skincare products and dare I say, my skin is looking more youthful and glowing than ever. Even those lines around my mouth that I had 10 years ago disappeared.
How did I do it? I simplified my skincare radically, but in a smart way. When I finally stopped fighting my own skin and started listening to it, it was leading me toward gentle, natural and minimal skincare. Like it was saying: Just trust me on this. Today, I want to show you how to easily embrace a low or zero waste skincare routine, while keeping your skin looking its best.
Are we giving skincare too much credit?
With so many “amazing” skincare ingredients packaged in plastic, a zero waste approach to skincare might feel like you are missing out on the opportunity to have beautiful skin. Yes, your skin needs a lot of different substances to be healthy and glowing, that much is true.
But there’s a catch. Saying that a substance A is necessary for beautiful skin doesn’t translate into skin benefits of a skincare product with the substance A.
See the difference? Your skin cells are able to utilize many of these wonder substances only in the deep layers of your skin, where skincare products can’t penetrate.
For example, collagen plumps the skin, but collagen in creams is way too big to enter the deeper layers of your skin. Collagen creams can only help to temporarily keep some moisture on the surface of your skin. Even if collagen could penetrate into the deep dermis layer, it would still be useless. Collagen simply needs to be built within the skin to make it elastic and youthful. For that, it requires amino acids, enzymes, cofactors like vitamin C, all of which the skin acquires from your diet.
Focusing on providing your skin with everything it needs from the inside will go a much longer way than a skincare product.
Sure, there are some ingredients proven to work, like retinols or vitamin C. However, we get so caught up in the benefits of an individual ingredient that we forget one simple thing. Our skin needs to be healthy before we really reap those benefits.
What do I mean?
For example, benefits of exfoliation (or retinols) depend upon your skin’s ability to repair itself afterwards and reestablish the correct pH, which is essential for healthy and glowing skin.
If your skin is too alkaline, or its skin barrier impaired, exfoliation will only lead to irritated and dry skin, because a damaged skin barrier causes too much water loss from the skin. I will explain these terms momentarily.
Retinol (vitamin A) is an effective skincare ingredient, but won’t give you desired results unless your skin is healthy on its own.
So how do we make the skin healthy again?
By letting all the essential processes within your skin to take place with gentle, simple and natural skincare suited for your skin.
How your skin can maintain itself
There are two important concepts we need to keep in mind when creating a skincare routine: skin barrier and acid mantle. Both are well established in dermatology.
The top layer of your skin, called stratum corneum, makes up the skin barrier. It consists of dead skin cells (corneocytes), held together by a matrix of lipids (that acts like a glue). This robust structure is what makes the skin so impermeable to many substances (hence the name skin barrier).
The skin barrier also helps to keep your skin naturally moisturized and healthy. For that, it provides both water and oils.
Natural Moisturizing Factors (NMFs) are small molecules inside corneocytes, including amino acids, lactic acid, urea, glucose and mineral ions. These molecules hold the moisture in the uppermost layers of your skin, which gives it a smooth and supple appearance1.
They are also indirectly responsible for the correct rate of natural exfoliation2 (desquamation). NMFs are made in corneocytes during the epidermal differentiation of these cells3.
To complete the picture, your skin also secretes a mixture of oily substances — sebum. Sebum prevents the water from evaporating from your skin, making it naturally moisturized. When mixed with sweat, sebum creates the acid mantle — a thin, protective layer on the top of your skin. This thin veil protects your skin from harmful bacteria and fungi, toxins, pollutants, and oxidative damage (hugely important for clear skin). It also makes the skin surface slightly acidic (ph ~5.5), which affects many crucial processes in your skin, including:
- Natural exfoliation process (desquamation).
- Breaking down excess sebum in the skin
- Activation of enzymes responsible for the creation of epidermal lipids
- Skin repair after a mechanical or chemical damage (acne scars, for example)
- Immune defence against the bad bacteria and other pathogens
What all of this does is keeping your skin smooth, clear and glowing naturally. Frequent washing and exfoliating can disrupt the integrity of the skin barrier and make your skin too alkaline.
In fact, daily use of alkaline products over many years gradually wears off your skin and its ability to regenerate a new acid mantle4. This makes your skin chronically alkaline, disrupting all the beneficial processes that depend upon the acidic pH.
It has also been shown that the acne bacteria Propionibacterium acnes grows much better when the skin is alkaline5.
Bottom line is, doing less with your skin care can be actually doing a big favour to your skin.
When such minimal skincare is done right, you could be providing your skin with only what it needs, and nothing else. You will then easily avoid damaging ingredients that often find their way into our skincare products.
Zero/low waste skincare routine that supports healthy and glowing skin — the basics
How to reduce the usage of your current skincare products, while caring for your skin:
- Don’t wash your skin in the morning. This is not just to save on the products, but your skin will be more able to retain its moisture.
- Don’t exfoliate more than 2x per week. Allow enough time for your skin to recover in between exfoliating sessions (48-72 hours). Plus, you will be reducing your products usage.
- Don’t wash your skin after a workout (if it’s in the middle of the day) or use cleansing wipes. Try just splashing lukewarm water on your face.
- Keep your skincare in a cool and dark place to prolong the shelf life (I keep most of mine in the fridge). This makes it stay active for longer (especially oils, retinols and vitamin C are sensitive to heat and oxidative damage).
How to replace your cleanser
Oil cleansing provides a deep and gentle cleanse that isn’t disruptive to your skin’s pH. Oils can be truly amazing for your skin if you choose the right oil, start slow, and let your skin adjust. I can’t emphasize this enough.
If you have unproblematic skin, jojoba oil is the best (I use it myself). Coconut oil is the obvious choice for zero waste (oils like jojoba usually come in a glass bottle with a plastic lid).
If you have acne prone skin, choose an oil high in linoleic acid and a low comedogenicity rating (like grapeseed or hemp seed oil).
Oh, and don’t stress yourself with making all the oil blends. You need just one good oil to do the job. I recommend doing a patch test with the new oil, then using the chosen oil instead of your moisturizer for several days in the evening. This way, you can check for any reactions and let your skin adjust to the oil.
I especially love using oils for removing makeup because makeup is generally oil-based and dissolves easily in oils.
What you need:
- An oil of your choice
- A soft washcloth
Here are the simple oil cleansing steps:
- Apply a small teaspoon (or less) of oil onto your face and massage very gently until the makeup dissolves (about 15-30 seconds)
- Put a soft wet washcloth over your face and gently wipe off the makeup and oil
- Apply another tsp of oil and massage gently onto your face (for 30-60 seconds)
- Put the clean side of the warm wet washcloth over your face and press lightly onto your skin to remove the excess oil. Gently wipe off if needed. A small amount of residual oil is ok.
Start with step 3 if you are not wearing any makeup.
How to replace your exfoliant
Option 1. Clay mask method
Clay is one of the best natural ways to cleanse and purify the skin. It is particularly beneficial for balancing oily and combination skin, as well as eliminating blackheads and congested pores.
My personal favourite is french green clay, rich in trace minerals such as calcium, magnesium, silica, phosphorous, copper, and zinc. Zinc is fabulous for your skin whether you apply it on your skin, or take internally.
Choose green or bentonite clay if your skin is oily or combination, and pink or white clay if it is on the dry, sensitive side.
Mix a tbsp of clay powder with enough water to make a paste. After applying it on your face, relax for about 10 min. Before it has fully dried (it shouldn’t be flaking), wash it off in lukewarm water while using your fingers to gently massage it into your skin. This provides a gentle mechanical exfoliation.
Option 2. Ground oats method:
If your skin is very sensitive, I would do this method, which is gentler than a clay mask.
Oats are simply amazing for the skin: very gentle, nourishing and so versatile. When mixed with water for 5-10 minutes, they release anti-inflammatory and antioxidant substances called avenanthramides, which are very soothing to the skin.
Wet your face first, then take a tbsp of oat flour and start gently massaging your face. I always grind regular oats in a coffee grinder to get flour, but you can also buy oat flour.
The oats will soften after 10-15 seconds, providing you with gentle, yet effective exfoliation. When you are done, you can leave the oats on your skin for 5-10 minutes as a mask, too. Rinse with water and you are done.
Your skin will be super soft, promise!
How to replace your toner
The job of a toner is to rebalance your skin’s natural pH and bring back some moisture after cleansing. Since you won’t be disrupting your skin’s pH anymore, you may not need one.
If you still want a boost of moisture in your skincare routine, I recommend rose water. It is a completely natural product made from a distillation process of rose petals (usually Rosa damascena, or Damask Rose). It hydrates the skin, rebalances its natural pH and acts calming and anti-inflammatory. You can make your own rose water or hydrosols, which will work great!
You may have seen many DIYs with apple cider vinegar. It can be a good option for those with oily, yet dehydrated and alkaline skin. Apple cider vinegar is quite acidic, so if you want to use it, just make sure you dilute it in water by at least 1:3 ratio.
How to replace your moisturizer
Moisturizers are generally mixtures of oil (or waxes) and water, and for a good reason — your skin needs both to look good. Oils prevent the applied moisture from evaporating from your skin.
To avoid buying a moisturizer, you can buy a water-rich and an oil-rich product separately, both of which can be zero waste products. In fact, this is exactly what I have been doing for over 6 years with great success! Plus, I also avoid any pore-clogging ingredients in many moisturizers that break me out.
Just remember to stick to one simple rule: Apply a water-rich product first, let it absorb, then apply a thin layer of oil to lock that moisture into your skin. As water and oil don’t mix, applying a water-based product first lets your skin easily absorb that moisture (without much oil to block its passage).
For your water-rich product, you can use fresh aloe leaves (the BEST!), or a gentle toner like rose water. Aloe leaves contain a plethora of antioxidants including beta-carotene, vitamin C, and E that can help improve the skin’s natural firmness and keep the skin hydrated. It allows the skin to heal quickly and naturally with minimal scarring. It really is nature’s best moisturizer when paired with a thin layer of oil.
For your oil-based product, use an oil suited for your skin (the same you chose for the oil cleansing method or a different one). You can also use butters like shea butter if your skin is extra dry.
- More skincare doesn’t mean better skin — your skin looks the best when it’s healthy on its own
- Your skin can maintain itself — skin barrier and acid mantle keep your skin clear, moisturized and healthy
- Using gentle and minimal skincare doesn’t disrupt the skin’s pH and the processes that depend upon it, nor it disrupts the integrity of the skin barrier, which may lead to increased water loss from your skin
- Reduce the usage of products by using your skincare less frequently, and skipping washing in the morning
- Switch to oil cleansing, using aloe vera plus an oil as your moisturizer, gentle DIY exfoliation methods with clay or ground oats.
Remember, do the transitions gradually, and listen to your skin. I really hope you enjoy your new radiance soon!
In radiant skin health,
Image credit: Aiony Haust — thank you.
Sara Sumic, MSc, is a scientist, mom, and a Croatian gal living in Norway. She started Healthy Skin Glows to share science-based skincare tips as a former acne sufferer of many years. She is passionate about teaching women how to heal their skin from the inside out, and help them have radiant and clear skin they can feel confident in.
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