Photographed by Sara Kerens.
My skin has always been pretty normal, erring on the side of oily and slightly acne prone. Sure, I'd need to swap to a heavier moisturizer in the cooler months and treat a few errant zits here and there — but, for the most part, all I needed was a gentle cleanser and a good moisturizer to keep things together. I never experienced sensitivity from trying a new product — it seemed that, as complexions go, my face was pretty low-maintenance.
Well, that all changed this year when fall arrived. Around the same time that the weather drastically shifted from warm and super humid to chilly and dry, I took a new cult-favorite product for a spin: a fancy moisturizer with glycolic acid. Suddenly, my face became extremely dry and itchy — even after quitting that lotion, I still broke out in hive-like bumps on my face and experienced extreme dryness and a rough scaly texture for weeks.
My complexion has since recovered a bit, but it seems that my skin type has made a full-on switch from oily/normal to dry/sensitive. I still haven't figured out exactly what caused my period of "face eczema." Was it the product? Stress? The weather? A combination of all of these things? I decided to investigate and called on one of my favorite derms, Dr. Anne Chapas of Union Square Laser Dermatology, to answer the question: Can one's skin type really just up and change, or am I going crazy?
Turns out, I'm not as nuts as I thought. "Our skin is an organ, it reacts to both our external and internal environments," explains the dermatologist. "There are always changes happening to our skin." The state of one's skin can vary due to age, hormones, weather, stress, and any other change to the environment inside or outside of your body. Of course, as I learned, it can be difficult to determine which aspect of your external or internal environment is affecting your skin.
If you experience subtle differences in your skin, such as increased sensitivity, dryness, and/or acne, Dr. Chapas recommends stripping down your skin-care routine to the very basics before taking any drastic measures. "Skin reactions can become cyclical. There's one problem, and then you try to fix it and another problem starts. It can be hard to determine what exactly your skin is reacting to if you're trying to troubleshoot it by putting products on your face willy-nilly." Rather than raiding your medicine cabinet for lotions and potions, Dr. Chapas recommends nixing your entire skin-care routine for a super-gentle, irritant-free cleanser and moisturizer combo (the derm loves the Vanicream line, which is available at many drugstores). If this basic skin routine doesn't clear up your complexion after two to four weeks, then should you seek out professional help.
On the other hand, if you're experiencing major skin transformations that don't merely seem to be a reaction to seasonal shifts or a new product, you may want to consider seeing an M.D. sooner. Says the derm: "If you're seeing major changes, like extreme acne or extra hair growth, you should see someone, as this could be a sign of hormone or thyroid issues." Dr. Chapas explains that there is a common theory that our skin changes in cycles of about seven to nine years — so, I shouldn't have been surprised that my adult complexion is looking (and behaving) differently than my post-adolescent visage.
The takeaway here: Be kind to your skin, and always try to avoid overly harsh treatments, as you never know which ingredient your particular complexion may have a reaction to. "For anti-aging or treating acne, I always prefer smaller doses of ingredients such as retinol or salicylic acid. Don't just drop your skin-care routine one day and decide to pick up an entire anti-aging range. Rather, add in one product at a time to make sure your skin can acclimate to it."
Finally, don't expect your skin-care routine to be one-size-fits-all for a lifetime. Like your music collection or your wardrobe, your routine should be constantly curated to make sure it fits exactly where you're at now.
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