Skin Care is self care

Katsushika, Hokusai, Artist. Goyu. Japan Tōkaidō, 1804. Photograph.

When you mention to someone you’ve started paying attention to your skin care you’re normally met with one of two outcomes. The first is mutual joy, the shared look of excitement that occurs whenever two people who are into something find each other. The second is less positive: it expresses itself as a joking dismissal and elicits comments with the underlying theme of suggesting I am vain for undertaking such an endeavour. 

I cannot entirely discount the notion that there is some vanity at play. We live in a world of appearances, after all. And so it’s worth exploring the suggestion that skin care is a vain, and therefore bad, thing. This is easy to dismiss, although is nonetheless curious in its prevalence as a line of thought in contemporary society. 

Policing other’s bodies, appearance, and aesthetics has long been a tactic of oppression by the majority (those who see themselves as The Normal, and therefore the guardians, gatekeepers and defenders of what is, and what is not, normal1People greatly overestimate the extent to which they are part of ‘the normal’ similar to, I wager, how everyone imagines themselves to be a part of the middle class, no matter what their level of income actually is) and a way of mandating the spread of traditional norms and power structures. 

History is rife with examples of both how invasive this practice is, and how fragile the cloak of normalcy is. Even recently, some idiots thought those who identify as female should not wear pants. I can only assume the fear is that pants-wearing is a slippery slope to basic human rights. And certainly, we see special vitriol anytime someone who identifies as a man expresses themselves in a way that is traditionally coded as feminine (such as with makeup, longer hair or fashion). Never mind, of course, that much of what we consider as masculine is recent historically speaking: for much of history, dudes had bangin’ flowin’ locks, often as a way of expressing their valour, masculinity and nobility. Rather than recognising the ephemeral nature of all trends and norms, and despite general uplift in social attitudes, the majority still seeks to enforce rigid norms around gender, expression and even self care. It is worth noting that much of the above is culturally relative, suggesting there are very few universal ideas of what The Normal is. 

Skin care is seen, especially through the west’s rigid gender norms, as something the exclusive domain of those who identify as female, like make up, crinolines and all the other stereotypical things I could list.2As I understand it, skin care in parts of Asia has been more accepted across the gender spectrum In fact, it is quite telling that many seem to have conflated skin care with makeup itself, and lumped them into a mental category called something like “frivolous lady interests.” 

I come close to belabouring the point because we cannot fully unpack the implicit—and even at times explicit—“vanity is bad” argument without understanding the gender norms at play. These gender norms contribute to stubbornly persistent suggestions that it is somehow wrong, shameful, or frivolous to care about anything superficial, like one’s physical appearance or presentation. Pleasingly, this toxicity is getting less and less each year but I wager it will probably outlast us all. 

Comments like these, though, really fail to understand the heart of why I, and many others, find skincare a pleasant and essential part of one’s self care and not merely vain frippery. 

The mandatory personal history segment: I have always been interested in the topic of skin care. Growing up quite poor meant I didn’t have many options to dabble, but nonetheless I wet my feet in cheaper staples like cetaphil. As I grew up and had increasing amounts of disposable income, I, like so many, fell under the loving  thrall of noted Australian skin care brand, Aesop, a dalliance that continues to this day and may never be fully extinguished. 

When the novel coronavirus era dawned, and especially during the period of frequent lockdowns, I succumbed to the universal and urgent need to find a new hobby, something to fill the anxious hours that might otherwise be spent watching the world churn. While some picked bread baking or wine drinking, I explored skin care. I watched hours daily of youtube content. Such was my overindulgence that the thought of watching someone on youtube review a sponsored product makes me break out in a cold, dreadful sweat. I read every blog, twitter and reddit post I could find on the subject. And although there has been a subsequent explosion of content matching the rise of skin care’s popularity, there was already heaps of stuff there when I began my exploration. l

And then, as night follows day, and with that new interest enthusiasm, I spent an inordinate amount of money acquiring various skin care products. In one year I probably bought at least several years supply of some skin care components. I have scaled back my spending these days, I promise. Ah, but wait until I start writing about fountain pens…    

The appeals of skin care are broad: it was calming in the context of bizarre days to have something orderly and methodical. It has a meditative element, at times. The process is perhaps like the structure of a symphony: starting with a lively cleanser that serves as the allegro, followed by the adagio, the calming gentle step of an essence or toner. Then comes the exciting multifunctional serum or treatment, a rousing scherzo if ever there was one. And to end, the fitting coda of a lovely moisturiser, dabbed gently into the skin. 

The weakness of the modern ostensibly secular age is that we are bereft of rituals and therefore we suffer for want of the calming structure they can provide us. Skin care gives us something that is at once calming and life affirming that nonetheless requires discipline and attention. Like the best things in life, skin care is not only take, it is also give. During the formless times of the past few years, I’ve found this balance to be a real balm.3Pun intended, oh, how pleased I was to type that

I suspect part of me would continue with my now carefully honed skin care approach had it not delivered any noticeable benefits to my skin’s health and happiness. Pleasingly, I continue to observe the benefits of care and attention, especially those over a long period. Skin care, a point deliberately ignored by those in the business pushing products, is not a quick game with overnight results. Indeed, some of the best results of skin care—those granted by constant use of protective products like antioxidants and sunscreen—are successful only in the absence of damage to the skin. 

My skin feels happier these days. Happier than perhaps it has ever been. It feels nice to the touch, is not dry or angry or oily. It is a joyous feeling to have one’s largest organ in a comfortable place. Of course, I still get pimples and have bags under my eyes and days where I was a might too enthusiastic with say an exfoliating lotion and go a little red and flaky. These things rather than sources of frustration are welcome reminders that I am a human and that aiming for perfection is a foolish goal that only gives suffering. 

Each day I practise my skin care, I create a valuable source of comfort. The daily rituals that remind us that we exist, we are changing, and that we are worthy of sedulous care and attention. I care for my skin because it is life affirming to do so. 

If you’ve dismissed skin care as something not for you, allow me to suggest you reconsider that stance—from the simple to the involved, there is a ritual waiting for you. 

As an endnote, here is my highly abridged guide to skin care, featuring zero product recommendations. Cleanse, hydrate, treat, moisturise (and in the day time, protect.)

For the treat step, I extol the value of the evidenced-backed ABC approach:

  • Vitamin A: powerful retinols that encourage the skin to turn over quicker (fighting that natural slow down of these processes as one ages). Use carefully and sparingly as your skin adjusts, and of almost transformative value to your skin. 
  • Vitamin B: the quiet hero, niacinamide. Unlike the other two powerhouses on the list, niacinamide is a gentle hero who gives a host of benefits without consequence. 
  • Vitamin C: a popular and potent antioxidant that helps shields against the slings and arrows of daily life while brightening and balancing one’s skin. Lovely stuff.

And a final rule I have found useful. Spend like a miser on cleansers and moisturisers. Spend like a depraved monarch on products in the treat step (that is, on serums and other skin care products containing actives). And do slip, slop, slap everyday.  


  • 1
    People greatly overestimate the extent to which they are part of ‘the normal’ similar to, I wager, how everyone imagines themselves to be a part of the middle class, no matter what their level of income actually is
  • 2
    As I understand it, skin care in parts of Asia has been more accepted across the gender spectrum
  • 3
    Pun intended, oh, how pleased I was to type that

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