Do We Really Need A Body Care Routine?

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.
“A lot of you have been asking about my skin-care routine.” One of the most-repeated beauty declarations on social media is more than a humblebrag from the clear-skinned: It’s an opportunity to flex amateur know-how gained from poring over tutorial views, Reddit deep dives, and daily intake of articles like this one. In this era of converging environmental, health, and humanitarian crises, is it any wonder that we find comfort in evangelising our inroads to facial glow? 
Bring that talk of expertise to points south of the sternum, however, and suddenly our collective skin-care knowledge falls apart. Most of us have been so focused on pinpointing the optimal facial-care routine that body care became an afterthought. But, as with just about everything else, the effects of the pandemic are changing that. After more than two years of being grounded (and often making our decisions through a filter of self-care) we’ve become serious about the skin on our bodies, too. 

"Following a year of heightened stress... some adults are focusing on simple tasks from their personal care routines to help them feel in control of their physical and mental health."

Olivia Guinaugh, Beauty & Personal Care Analyst
According to market research by Mintel, 33% of adult surveyed claim to be using body and hand care products more frequently than they were a year ago. “Following a year of heightened stress, safety concerns, and limited social interaction, some adults are focusing on simple tasks from their personal care routines to help them feel in control of their physical and mental health,” says Olivia Guinaugh, a beauty and personal care analyst at the firm.
From an industry perspective, skin care’s second coming was already in the works, thanks in part to a rise in in-office body contouring and other low-to-no-downtime body treatments offered by derms — and patients’ motivation to nurture results at home. Ahead of the pandemic, Boscia co-founder Lan Belinky came to a similar conclusion as Mintel. “We did our own research and found 40% of adults were starting to feel like having a body care routine was as important as having a skin care routine,” she says. It’s a radically different landscape from when the brand launched in 2002 and poor sales caused its body care products to be scrapped from the lineup entirely.  “Now, every ‘clean’ brand has a whole body-care line,” Belinky says.

The Body Care Boom, From Butt Masks To Boob Cream

Awaiting us is a motherlode of body-care products in categories that largely didn’t exist just a few years back: sheet masks for our bums (compliments of Frank Body and Revolution); boob cream, (see: Mio and This Works); Murad's Clarifying Salicylic Acid Body Spray for body acne; vaginal and full-body serums; retinol and alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids lotions and washes for limbs. Even minimalistic skin-care companies have added body options to the mix. Mother Dirt says the brand introduced body care options (including its Postbiotic Moisturizing Body Oil), in part, because people were pairing its signature healthy bacteria-boosting mist with incompatible products that negated its effects. Can’t you just smell the seven-step body care routines from here?
Some of your favourite beauty brands are counting on it. Last year, U.S. brand Hero Cosmetics launched a four-piece body-care collection geared at addressing acne and balancing the microbiome. “We wanted to do this as a multi-step regimen partly because we knew the products would be more effective that way, but also because there was consumer behaviour and demand for a body regimen,” says brand co-founder Ju Rhyu. The brand’s Once-over Toner, for example, was created to satisfy search. “We had data that showed that body mists and sprays were trending and a category to lean into,” she says.
When Drunk Elephant entered the body care space, it did so with the campaign: “I’ll have what the face is having.” Its T.L.C Glycolic Body Lotion, modelled and named after its popular T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum, followed. But dermatologists are careful to point out that the skin on our body is different from the skin on our face, neck, and décolleté. In many places, it’s thicker, for one, which means more potent doses of active ingredients may be needed to deliver a skin benefit like brightening, toning, firming. 
“The thicker the skin, the more it’s able to handle the active ingredients in higher concentration,” says Nina Desai, a dermatologist in Los Angeles County’s Manhattan Beach. “If you suffer from acne on your back, you may be able to actually tolerate a higher percentage of retinol on your back because the skin can withstand more irritation.” Similarly, Dr. Desai notes that those suffering from keratosis pilaris will likely tolerate AHA or BHAs on limbs — even if these exfoliators cause irritation on the face. “It really is body area dependent,” she says. “If you're using the right product in the right area, your body should respond very well.”
To this end, glycolic, salicylic, and other acid-infused body washes and lotions are abundant, ranging from early-to-market options like Amlactin Daily Moisturising Lotion, which contains 12% lactic acid to exfoliate skin, and Pixi Glycolic Body Peel to the more recently released Kosas Good Body Skin AHA + Enzyme Exfoliating Wash, which packs multiple actives and fruit enzymes to resurface skin and address body acne.
Even though thicker skin on the body can handle more potent servings of active ingredients shown to cause irritation in some (like AHA/BHAs, vitamin C, and retinol), most body skin benefits most from targeted treatment on a weekly or twice-weekly basis, not a daily diet comprised of these ingredients stacked indiscriminately. 

Like Skin Care, Less Is Still More

Therein lies the nuance that some dermatologists say we are missing: Selective use of body products — not excessive use of every product type available, and the resulting over-cleansing, over-washing, and over-treating — can give us the happier, healthier skin we’re looking for. Some who adopted a 17-step skin-care routine in the great K-beauty explosion of 2014 learned just that with facial skin care, after finding the more-is-more approach to backfire in the form of sensitive, reactive, and generally pissed-off skin. 
Still, in 2022, it can feel instinctual to dial up body care. ”Since COVID, I have seen more frequent bathing, increased soap use, and increased use of hand sanitisers and hand washing [among my patients],” says Leslie Baumann, a Miami-based dermatologist, researcher, and author of dermatology textbooks. “This impairs the skin barrier by stripping necessary lipids and impairs the microbiome.” 

“You're trying to make yourself look better and all you're doing is causing inflammation and making your skin age.”

Dr. Baumann, MD
Dr. Baumann and the other dermatologists we spoke to for this story also report a trend of over-exfoliation among patients. “Retinols, AHAs, microdermabrasion, dermaplaning, scrubs, and facial brushes all exfoliate and trigger a process called desquamation,” she says. “When this is overdone, it can cause sensitivity and acne breakouts and rosacea flares.” (Is it any wonder a Procter and Gamble researcher gauges more than 50% of adults to perceive their skin to be sensitive, while a meta analysis of 26 studies from 18 countries found 71% of people identified their skin as sensitive? It’s a huge change from the '70s when the concept of sensitive skin hadn't even been coined.
The effect is something that Seattle-based dermatologist Dr. Heather Rogers has noticed with frequent use of sugar- and salt-based body scrubs among her patients. “It makes it so difficult for your skin to get the pH back down below seven. Then the yeast grows and then you get pimples and atopic dermatitis,” she says. “You're trying to make yourself look better and all you're doing is causing inflammation and making your skin age.”
The tendency to overdo it with active-driven skincare is something that prompted Dr. Rogers to develop her own facial skin care line, Dr. Rogers Restore, which features biodegradable, skin barrier-building ingredients — and not much else. Like other brand founders, she recently expanded her stripped-down line to include a body wash and body lotion.
But there may be more to this idea of doing less: While one of the skin’s primary functions is to keep foreign substances from entering the body — and thicker skin on the body (particularly on backs, palms and soles) does a better job of this — blood and urine analysis has proven that chemicals from topical products do absorb.  
”The face is about 3.5 percent of total body surface ... When you use products over a larger area, such as the body, more absorption takes place,” says Dr. Baumann. “This means too much retinol, for example, could be absorbed (which is why the ingredient isn’t recommended during pregnancy).” As Dr. Rogers notes, the scientific community doesn’t exactly know how this cumulative chemical load affects our system once it gets in — much less if these chemicals are good or bad. This great unknown may be enough to make minimalists out of some when it comes to body care, though as Dr. Baumann notes, we shouldn’t necessarily be turned off by what’s not proven. “Worrisome ingredients bind oestrogen receptors and there is a fear that that causes hormonal disturbances,” she says. “But, anything listed by FDA as GRAS (Generally Recognised as Safe) has no proof of any [negative] issues when absorbed.” 
Given that skin cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer, our experts agree on a baseline of using sun protection on exposed skin — no matter where it is on the body. Ditto for a body moisturiser. “Just about everyone can use a barrier repair cream,” says Dr. Desai. 

Use Body Care Only For The Parts That Need It

Beyond protecting the skin with sunscreen and fortifying the barrier with peptides and ceramides, like those found in DefenAge’s new 10 Luxe Hand and Body Cream and Boscia’s uber-popular Peptide Youth-Restore Firming Body Serum, some experts suggest treating only the skin that needs special, targeted care — and largely forgetting the rest. “Retinoids have been proven to improve skin in non-sun exposed areas,” says Dr. Baumann.  “Other actives have not been proven, so [they’re] probably a waste of money.”
Dr. Desai, on the other hand, sees more opportunity for the employment of actives. The dermatologist ranks helping patients select their best skin care routines as a top service that she provides — and something she does with every patient, whether they ask for it or not. “It’s really important to have a good preventative skin care routine for the body, but it does not need to be super elaborate,” she says. After ensuring patients are using sun protection and maintaining the skin barrier, she suggests preventative products, like vitamin C to help with free radical formation.
“As a dermatologist, I would never say you need a toner for the body or the face — it’s one of those steps that, to me, delivers a small benefit,” she says. Similarly, not everyone will need to incorporate a body mask step into their weekly self-care session. But if tending to back acne, then the newly launched Kopari Pink Soufflé Body Mask with niacinamide and bentonite and kaolin clays is available. And there’s more to come: Brand founders from Mother Dirt, Boscia, Drunk Elephant, Hero Cosmetics and Dr. Rogers Restore all plan to expand body care offerings this year. Meanwhile, brands with mass appeal, like Dove, plan to launch body care spiked with vitamin C and salicylic acid next month.
But as it turns out, body care done right is so simple, it might not require all the market offers, much less inspire “ask me about my skin-care routine” videos — and maybe that’s for the best. “There's a million options available to everybody right now ... and what works for someone isn’t going to work for someone else.” Dr. Desai says. “So start sparingly, add in one thing at a time, and consult a board-certified dermatologist for what’s going to work best for you.”
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