Updated 4/8/21. Recently, I’ve been hearing people talk about undergoing a “skincare detox.” I’ve also heard it referred to as a “skincare cleanse” and “skin fasting.” Whatever you call it, this trend involves stopping the use of all skincare products in order to “reset” the skin. The idea is that without products getting in the way, your skin will be able to balance itself, so that any conditions you’re struggling with—whether it’s dryness, oiliness, acne, or sensitivity—will be resolved.
With all the recent advancements in skincare, it can certainly be overwhelming every time you see a new product being promoted. You might think to yourself, “do I need to add this to my routine now, too?” It makes sense that the trend would pivot from elaborate 13-step skincare routines to the other extreme—no routine at all. The question is, though, is this actually beneficial? Are we, in fact, using too many skincare products? Here are my thoughts.
Will a Skincare Detox Really Work?
To answer this question, I want to start by talking about what the word “detox” really means. Medically speaking, detoxification refers to the removal of toxic substances from the body. However, when it comes to beauty, the word “detox” is unregulated. It’s meaning is vague at best, which is why I like to think of it as a “reset.” In other words, your skin is acting up, so you want to strip everything down to bare bones. Think of it kind of like cleaning up your diet after the holidays—you stop eating rich foods and go back to basics to make yourself feel more balanced. In the case of skincare, I do think this can be beneficial, but I don’t think anyone should stop using skincare products altogether. Instead, I suggest pairing back your products to give your skin a chance to let you know what it likes or doesn’t like.
So, will a skincare detox really work? If you’re looking to remove toxins via a charcoal or clay mask, then the answer is no. However, if your skin is acting up and feels out of whack, then going back to basics for a while could work for you.
Who Should Try a Skincare Detox?
If you’re considering a skincare detox, the first thing you want to do is ask yourself, “what problem am I trying to solve?” If you can’t clearly answer this question, then a skincare detox might not be for you. That said, here are some of the problems that could be improved by a skincare detox:
Irritated, Red, Reactive Skin
If you find that your skin frequently becomes red, hot, and/or stings when you perform your skincare routine, chances are you have a damaged moisture barrier. While there are a lot of things that can cause this, as I mention in this post, what I see most often is people overusing active ingredients or using products that are too harsh and irritating. Going back to basics and doing a skincare detox can definitely help you identify which products are the root of the problem. From there, you can curate a skincare routine based on your skin type that agrees with your skin.
Eczema, Perioral Dermatitis, Rosacea, and Other Inflammatory Conditions
It’s not always possible to identify the triggers for these conditions, but using the wrong products is, once again, a common trigger. This problem tends to be more common in women since they’re often the ones experimenting with skincare. Even if you’re experiencing a flare-up that could be brought on by environmental triggers such as allergies or a weather change, it can be beneficial to strip everything back to make sure your products aren’t further aggravating your skin. Of course, if these types of issues persist, you’ll want to schedule an appointment with a dermatologist who can assess your individual needs. Conditions like eczema, rosacea, and perioral dermatitis sometimes require a prescription, especially if you’ve simplified your routine and you’re not seeing improvement.
Would Someone With Acne Benefit From a Skincare Detox?
In my opinion, those with acne probably won’t benefit from a skincare detox. Most acne, especially adult acne, is caused by internal hormonal factors. Topical products are simply used to help manage the situation. That said, if you have breakouts, using harsh or drying products can actually exacerbate the situation by causing irritation, and irritated, inflamed skin is more likely to break out than healthy, balanced skin. Removing irritating products will help your skin repair itself and create an environment where breakouts are less likely to occur.
What’s the Best Way to Go About a Skincare Detox?
To put it simply, take it back to basics. Only use “boring” products that are gentle, soothing, and free of irritants such as artificial fragrance, artificial dyes, drying alcohols, and harsh sulfates. Like I said before, I don’t think it would be beneficial for someone to stop using skincare products altogether. Instead, look for products that include barrier-repairing ingredients.
While you’re getting your skin back on track, I suggest sticking to just cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen. I’ve heard people say they skip moisturizer in order to let their skin breathe. I don’t suggest this, especially if you’re struggling with any conditions like eczema or perioral dermatitis. First of all, skin doesn’t respire, so the idea of skin breathing is actually a myth. Just be sure to look for a moisturizer that’s suitable for your skin type to avoid clogged pores. Second, moisturizer is important because it protects the skin and prevents water loss, which can lead to an even more damaged moisture barrier. Always remember that skin cells are like fish—they need water to live.
If you go back to basics for a while and your skin improves, this means you’ve been using the wrong products for your skin type.
Once your skin has been in a good place for two weeks, you can slowly start to introduce other products back into your routine. The key is to introduce them one at a time so you can tell if something irritates your skin. If you can, wait three to five days between each new product. Another great way to tell if a product is going to irritate your skin is to perform a patch test before using it on the rest of your face.
How Many Skincare Products is Too Many?
There is no exact number of skincare products everyone should use, but my general philosophy is a gentle cleanser, alcohol-free toner, hydrating serum, and moisturizer (which should include SPF in the mornings). Something to keep in mind is that our skin is like a sponge and can only absorb so much. At a certain point, things just accumulate on the surface of the skin.
I understand why people want to layer on all sorts of products. There are so many amazing ingredients available, and we all want to reap the benefits. While I do believe it’s good to use a variety of ingredients to give your skin a full spectrum of benefits, my philosophy is that it’s best to cycle through them, focusing on just one active a night, so it can do its job. Using too many actives at the same time risks irritation, which brings us back to the original problem that a “skincare detox” is meant to solve. As an example, you might use a retinol serum three nights a week, followed by three nights of an exfoliating acid serum and one night of a hydrating serum with peptides and antioxidants. The exact products you use will depend on your skin’s specific needs.
Creating a routine can be overwhelming, so if you’re not sure what your skin needs, try booking a virtual consultation with a Renée Rouleau esthetician for one-on-one skin coaching!
So, What’s the Bottom Line?
While there may be a few people who are lucky enough to have skin that’s so well-balanced they don’t need to use products, most of us are constantly exposed to things that disrupt our skin’s barrier. Using the right skincare products is one of the best ways to protect our barriers, so I never recommend forgoing products altogether. That said, if your skin is acting up, a “skincare detox” (AKA going back to bland basics) is a good way to identify whether your products are doing more harm than good.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”