What Is Skinimalism?

Posted on

The newest trend in skincare is scaling back. But is it at odds with a beauty industry that believes more is more?


Before the pandemic, my skincare routine could be summed up in two words: the most. My morning and night routines were a minimum of 10 steps each, and that’s not including the masks and devices I would use or the facials I would get. My enthusiasm extended into the first months of quarantine, when I found myself with even more time to stare at my face in the mirror and rub creams all over it. But then something changed. Chalk it up to ennui or maybe just fatigue, but one day I couldn’t do it anymore. I found myself wondering, Do I really need all this stuff?

I’m not the only one. “I’m a minimalist now, but I used to use a lot of different products,” actress Melanie Griffith told me. “I don’t even remember what they were, because I would change all the time.” We may both be converts to skincare minimalism (or ­#skinimalism, as it’s trending on social media), but we arrived there in different ways. For me it was malaise; for Griffith it was discovering Augustinus Bader’s Rich Cream. Now her routine comes down to cleansing, toning, and slathering on the luxurious cream, which is packed with a proprietary healing complex.

People like Griffith, who find one thing that works for them and stick with it, are not ideal consumers as far as the beauty-­industrial complex is concerned. To make money, companies have to convince us we need more products. They’re doing a great job. According to retail forecasting company Euromonitor, the luxury skincare market made more than $8.5 billion in 2020, and the mass skincare market 50 percent more—$12.5 billion—in the United States alone. That’s during a ­pandemic that dramatically changed our shopping habits.

Most people use skincare products to have ­healthier-looking skin, and, according to doctors, that isn’t automatically achieved by using more stuff. “You get reduced efficacy, like the law of diminishing returns,” says dermatologist Michelle Henry. Instead of getting caught up in how many products you’re using, she advises that you keep it simple.

Becoming a skincare minimalist doesn’t mean never touching your face again. “There are ways to cut out steps, but I don’t want people to think it’s wash and go,” says dermatologist Dendy Engelman. “We need to still be mindful of proper skincare.” No matter how simple or elaborate your routine is, it has to have four steps to be effective: cleanse, treat, moisturize, protect. Protecting with sunscreen should always be its own step, because moisturizers with an SPF are often misleading about how much protection they provide. “There have been studies that show that when people use a moisturizer with SPF 30, they’d actually have to apply seven times the amount of moisturizer to get the advertised protection,” Engelman says.

Combination products often overpromise and underdeliver. The more active ingredients in a product, the less likely they are to be effective, like Bachelor contestants vying for attention. At best, too many ingredients can be confusing; at worst, they may actually fight one another. “There are a few science-proven ingredients that we know benefit long-term aging,” says dermatologist Corey ­Hartman—namely, antioxidants and retinol, which, along with sunscreen, form what he calls the holy trinity of skincare. Using antioxidants in the morning and retinol at night as your treat step, he says, is enough for nearly everyone.

In general, use what your skin needs in the moment. “I call it intuitive skincare—giving your skin what will be most effective at the time,” Henry says. If it’s dry, give it moisture; if it’s irritated, calm it down. This is especially important if you’re a fan of in-office procedures, such as peels or lasers. Let the professionals do the heavy lifting; when you’re at home, use gentle products that support skin health.

But let’s get real: For many of us there is more to skincare than just how it makes us look. For some people skincare “is essential time for yourself,” says aesthetician Vicki Morav. “Those few minutes are like meditation.” Simplification for its own sake is something she advises against; instead she recommends a rotating roster of products depending on the season.

So is the best skincare routine minimal, maximal, or somewhere in between? It depends on what you will actually do regularly. “Consistency is more important than steps. If you can’t do it every day, it’s a waste of your money and time,” Henry says. Right now my minimal skincare routine is about all I can bring myself to do. Will I feel that way forever? Probably not, but even if my regimen does balloon back to excess, it will be my choice, not the beauty industry’s.