When I think about the most superfluous parts of my skin-care arsenal — the products I use that are probably more fun than they are effective — I think about the “detoxifying” booster drops I add to my night cream, the exfoliating scrub for my eyebrows, and the sheet masks made just for my neck. But I have never once questioned the need for my moisturizer. In fact, I can’t decide whether cleanser or moisturizer is the more fundamental product, but if I were to whittle my multi-step routine down to the essentials, those would be the two left. Why would anyone do differently?
So, I was baffled when I recently met with Zein Obagi, M.D., a Beverly Hills-based dermatologist and founder of skin-care line ZO Skin Health, who told me using moisturizer was not only a waste of time, but potentially damaging to my skin. “When you use moisturizer every day, you run the risk of making your skin older, not younger,” he warned. “If you apply a lot of moisture, skin will become sensitive, dry, dull, and interfere with natural hydration.”
What, you ask, is the scientific explanation behind this? Dr. Obagi believes skin gets addicted to replacement moisture and stops supplying its own hydration from within the body. And your natural hydration, he says, is what really keeps skin healthy and young. “The tree gets its nutrients from the ground; no matter how much you spray the tree, it will become dry,” he says.
It makes sense when I remember the reverse wisdom that was commonly cited in my teen years: When you overdry your skin with too many zit-zappers, your skin responds by producing more oil to compensate. “Almost zero percent of my patients actually requires a moisturizer,” he explains. “All your skin really needs is cleansing, stimulation, and protection.” Even season changes don’t count. Daily moisturizer should not be needed no matter the calendar, he says.
Indeed, if you look on the site of his current skin-care brand ZO Skin Health (he sold his eponymous, and still wildly popular, Obagi Medical Products line in the '90s), you’ll notice there is no moisturizer category. His skepticism of moisturizers is almost at conspiracy level. “My feeling is there is abuse of moisturizer,” he says. “Because it is so easy to formulate and sell, the brainwashing started in the late '50s and '60s from all the cosmetic companies. They sold everyone that idea that you will dry and age. This is absolutely nonsense.”
So what to do if you’re hooked on moisturizer? Obagi says you should stop using it cold turkey —even in the winter — and wait three to six weeks. “As you break the addiction, you may feel dry and irritable,” he admits. “Your skin may feel like it’s missing something or like it's stinging or burning, depending on how long you were using moisturizer.” But the withdrawal, he claims, is worth it: “When patients come back in about five weeks, they thank me. It wakes up the skin and gets the cells to start working in harmony.”
While Dr. Obagi has long been marked as a forward-thinker in the dermatology world, I figured I might as well get a second opinion, considering how, you know, I’ve spent my entire career going to events for moisturizers touted by derms, scientists, and facialists. “I have the greatest respect for Dr. Obagi, I think he’s a genius, and I don’t disagree with him on some level,” says New York City-based dermatologist Doris Day, M.D., a pro I frequently turn to for a balanced bottom-line perspective on all things skin. “But when it comes to skin hydrating itself sufficiently, some people's can and some people's can’t.” It not only comes down to genetics, she explains, but many other factors working against us. “In today’s world where we can’t control all the stressors and exposure and pollution, using hydrators and moisturizers makes sense,” she continues. “The more you support your skin — sometimes by using hydrators and moisturizers — the more easily you can have healthy, beautiful, resilient skin.”
To be fair, Dr. Obagi does happen to carry some hydrating products in his brand (though they also aim to calm as well as hydrate) and there are exceptions to the rule, he says, like when you're skiing in extreme temps or traveling on a moisture-sucking plane. The key is just to not get into a daily habit and only use it when needed. His recommended routine? “Always wash your face, use a gentle exfoliating agent to enhance elimination, and some kind of active vitamin A to stimulate regeneration, and if you still feel dry, then you can apply a special moisturizer,” he explains.
I’ve done many things to my skin in the name of my job as a beauty writer — microneedling my entire face, zapping it with lasers, and even facial cupping — but the idea of shedding myself of my moisturizer for good as winter’s frigid breath breathes down my neck is especially daunting. Especially when, to Dr. Day’s point, I live in New York, one of the most stressful, polluted cities in the world. But, in the name of journalism, I just might give it a shot (and if it's anything like fellow beauty writer Daniela Morosini's experience, maybe it won't be so traumatic, after all). But if you think I'm giving up my eyebrow exfoliator, think again.
This story was originally published on January 9, 2017.