I’m not much of a rule-breaker. I like going to bed early, drink plenty of water (hot, because an ex-boyfriend’s mother once told me cold water upsets your digestion), always check the weather forecast before leaving the house, and have never shattered my phone screen. I like my routines.
But if there’s one routine that truly comforts me, it’s skin care. Nothing calms my mind like the oh-so-satisfying wipe of a damp cotton pad across my face, the feel of a creamy cleanser emulsifying on my skin, or the relief from my skin as I dab oil over it before bed. On receiving bad news, I’ve been known to head to the bathroom cabinet, as if on auto-pilot, and cover myself in a clay mask with the same vigor some people reserve for pouring a stiff drink. So imagine my surprise when I settled in for a consultation with leading facialist Kate Kerr and rattled off my daily list of lotions and potions, expecting a gold star, only to be told: "You should stop using moisturizer."
The cornerstone of every good skin-care routine is moisturizer, right? It’s the one thing that most people use, if absolutely nothing else. It’s the step most of us make time for before bed. It's what we've always been told to do. But, Kerr told me, it's just not necessary. "Your skin is perfectly capable of hydrating itself," she said. "Moisturizer is essentially a crutch."
The renowned facialist isn't alone in her thinking. Dermatologist Zein Obagi, Founder and Medical Director of ZO Skin Health, told me the same thing. "Moisturizers in general weaken the skin’s barrier function because they alter the natural function of skin self-hydration," he said. "Natural hydration comes from within the body — the only thing moisturizer usually really offers is instant gratification. Your skin will feel soothed after applying cream, but this wears off after a few hours, and then you want more."
According to Kerr's theory, once young women are introduced to moisturizer, usually in their teens, their skin then becomes dependent on it — and it becomes harder to quit. She's got a point: Anecdotally, children and (some) men are able to maintain soft, smooth skin without ever applying a lick of Nivea Creme.
"Your skin has its own mechanisms for hydrating itself, including drawing moisture from your body and from the air," Kerr explained. "But when you apply moisturizer topically, your skin thinks it doesn’t need to do its job and stops that process. It gets lazy. Think about it: Most people start with using a light cream, and throughout their lives need to move on to richer and richer formulas."
It doesn’t just shut down the hydration process: Kerr informed me that it also makes your collagen and hyaluronic acid production sluggish, meaning more wrinkles, sooner. And that’s not to mention a lack of radiance.
My response, which I’m sure would have been echoed by many, was that I have really dry skin. Like, Sahara dry. To which Kerr replied: "There’s real dry skin and there’s dehydrated skin. Real dry skin usually has eczema or dermatitis alongside it, and only 10% of the population has that. Dehydrated skin is skin that’s not very oily, but has gotten used to moisturizer." Well, that firmly puts my skin in the dehydrated camp.
I left armed with a new skin-care prescription — to my relief, I can still have a routine — and a mind buzzing with questions. How tight is my face going to feel? Is my skin going to flake? Oh god, what’s makeup going to look like?
Back at home, I put my beloved Sisley Black Rose Oil and Colbert MD Heal & Soothe away in a drawer and forlornly applied NIOD Multi-Molecular Hyaluronic Complex, which is allowed on Kerr's skin diet. She also likes SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Serum and, for a more wallet-friendly option, La Roche-Posay Toleriane Fluide — all kosher according to Kerr, since their only moisturizing agent is hyaluronic acid, which occurs naturally in the skin and so doesn't upset its hydrating function.
For a day or two, I didn't notice a difference. My face felt tight, yes, but I wouldn’t say it looked vastly different. That was until almost a week in, when I noticed a spate of tiny whiteheads springing up around my nose and mouth, something I never normally get. I put in a crisis call to Kerr, who soothed me over the phone: "This isn’t the most common reaction, but it can happen. Your skin is simply trying to address the lack of hydration by producing more oil. It will settle down," she assured me.
The problem was, by that point, makeup really wasn't sitting as well as usual — and trying to layer concealer on those bumps just looked obvious and cake-y. My colleagues and friends insisted my skin looked fine, but it felt uncomfortable and mask-like.
By the mid-point of the experiment, taking off my makeup had become my favorite part of the day; just splashing water onto my face felt so good. I told Kerr over the phone, who laughed and told me I could enjoy that feeling, and could even hold a warm, wet flannel against my face before applying my serum to maximize the benefits, which was the best news I'd heard in a long time. If moisturizer offers instant gratification, the NIOD serum was delayed gratification — it did nothing straight after applying, relief-wise, but did make my skin start to feel a bit softer over the course of the day.
Still, two weeks came and went, and I never experienced any flakiness, which was my worst fear. "Looks like you don’t really have dry skin after all," Kerr told me. Perhaps she was right — yes, it didn’t feel great, and sure, makeup was a bit of a challenge, but all in all it really wasn’t too horrific at all.
Granted, I didn’t check that all the makeup I used was free from moisturizing agents (some foundations in particular have glycerin or other humectants), but I did well and truly quit the creams. I even switched to a gel cleanser, which I would never normally do. Being able to only use one or two products on my face massively streamlined my evening routine, and to be honest, I don’t see myself going back. Dr. Obagi told me there are some circumstances when moisturizer would be permissible, like if you were skiing at extreme altitudes, but I lead a pretty dull life at sea level.
The spots have gone, the tight feeling has all but disappeared, and there’s not a flake in sight. Could I, the perennial rule-follower, be on the verge of becoming a skin-care renegade?