Dear Daniela: How Long Does It Take To See Results From New Skincare Products?

Illustration: Mallory Heyer
Dear Daniela,
How long should it take to actually see results from changing your skincare routine? It’s so hard to tell if something’s actually working, so I end up cycling through different products and techniques and I’m never sure when I should give up or persevere. If something doesn’t work in a few weeks’ time, does that mean it just doesn’t work for me at all? On that note, do I need to swap out products that do work from time to time to stop my skin ‘getting used to’ them? Help!
Helen, 29
There’s something to be said for the immediacy of makeup. When Leonard Lauder coined the term 'lipstick index' in the early 2000s, it was because he’d noticed that even in the depths of a recession, sales of cosmetics like lipstick actually increased, rather than falling off a cliff. Why? Because putting on lipstick – especially one weighty enough for the tube clicking shut to sound like the door of a Lamborghini Huracan closing – is transformative. It instantly lifts your mood and look. Can you imagine the stoicism of a multi-step skincare routine having such a pull in an uncertain time? I can’t. When the chips are down, I at least want to look polished as I hit my overdraft.
That’s perhaps why we all turn to makeup in times of need, and to be fair, when you notice a juicy new spot as you head to your big job interview, concealer is always going to be your first port of call, rather than salicylic acid. Inversely, when it comes to your skin, sometimes you have to play the long game to get results. "As a rule of thumb, the more work that needs to be done on a cellular level, the longer it’ll take to see the difference," confirmed aesthetic doctor David Jack. "If it needs to actually change the cells’ behaviour, you can’t expect results within less than a few weeks."
Some things should work quickly: moisturiser, especially a serum or cream with hyaluronic acid, should smooth the skin pretty much instantly. Something like acne or pigmentation, however, is going to take a little longer. "If you’re using something like vitamin C or retinol, that means a change on a cellular level, so expect to wait at least three months to see a benefit," added Dr. Jack. Likewise, cleanser (especially if you’re using it specifically for spot-fighting purposes) needs to shift your skin’s pH a little, which can take a couple of weeks.
Then there are all these masks and creams that guarantee to instantly brighten/lift/tone/give you the complexion of a prepubescent Miranda Kerr. "If it promises an instant effect, it may well deliver that," said Dr. Jack, "but the effect will be superficial." Any kind of peel-off mask that 'removes blackheads' does so by removing sebaceous filaments, which your skin will simply replenish within a few days, and takes a layer of vellus hair off with it. Anything that 'imparts an instant glow' might brighten your skin, but only through slight exfoliation or light-reflecting particles. As for anything that claims to 'lift', well, remember your old friend Isaac Newton and his apple and put that one back on the shelf. That’s not to say instant means bad – I personally love a sheet mask, and Dr. Jack said they were good, too – it’s just that any instant effect product should be the cherry on top of your skincare routine, not the cornerstone.
As for your skin 'getting used to' something, I personally don’t buy it. If it works, why wouldn’t you stick with it? "It’s true that there is probably an optimal state that a product can get your skin to in terms of bacterial flora and pH, but by stopping, all you’re doing is taking yourself back to square one. When you add that hero product back in again, it will work again, but only up to that previous point. It’s purely psychological to think it looks better after a break," explained Dr. Jack. It’s far better to keep using a product you know works for your skin, rather than swapping a handful of similar ones in and out for the sake of variety.
Helen, you didn’t ask about this specifically, but I wanted to ask the doctor while I had him: If a product makes you break out, should that be considered a 'purge' and should we ride it out, or is a breakout a breakout? "The jury’s out," explained Dr. Jack. Damn. "It’s true that rebalancing the flora of your skin can cause purging, but everyone’s different. It might clear up, it might not – it happens to some people with retinols or some cleansers and masks." Basically, if you can grin and bear it for a few weeks, it may very well go away, but if the product in question is causing you real grief, go back to your tried-and-tested.
Illustration: Mallory Heyer
Good things come to those who wait, Helen, but good things also come to those who do their homework. If your complexion is generally clear, but you’re looking to even out your skin tone a little, make your skin more radiant and keep it soft, you should stick with anything new for at least a few weeks. Be scientific about it, and operate a one-in, one-out policy on new products so you can tell what works and what doesn’t. If it’s long-term acne, fine lines or pigmentation that has you beat, prepare to enter into an LTR with your new clinical actives. I like to take process pics with new products to reassure myself that they’re actually helping, by the way.
Good luck!
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