How Long Does It Take For Your Skin-Care Routine To Actually Work?

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
There’s something to be said for the instant gratification 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 when it comes in a luxe gilded case so weighty the tube clicks shut like the door of a very expensive sports car — is transformative. It instantly lifts your mood and look. Can you imagine the studied stoicism of a multi-step skin-care routine having such a positive pull in an uncertain time? I can’t. When the chips are down, I at least want to look polished as I fall ever deeper into credit-card debt.
That’s probably why we all turn to makeup in times of need — and to be fair, when you notice a massive new zit as you head into 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," says cosmetic doctor David Jack. "If it needs to actually change the cells’ behavior, you can’t expect results within less than a few weeks."
Some things should work quickly: Moisturizer, especially a serum or cream with hyaluronic acid, should smooth the skin pretty much instantly. Something meant to treat 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," Dr. Jack says. Likewise, cleanser (especially if you’re using it specifically for breakout-fighting purposes) needs to shift your skin’s pH a little, which can take a couple of weeks.
Then there are all the masks and creams that guarantee to instantly brighten/lift/tone/give you the complexion of a beaming baby angel or Victoria's Secret model. "If it promises an instant effect, it may well deliver that," Dr. Jack explains, "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 peach fuzz off with it. Anything that "imparts an instant glow" might brighten your skin, but only through slight surface 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 that instant means bad, or ineffective — it’s just that any product that promises an instant improvement should be the cherry on top of your skin-care routine, not the cornerstone. And 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," Dr. Jack explains. "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." 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.
And if a product makes you break out, should that be considered a "purge" that we should ride out in pursuit of better skin, or is a breakout a breakout? "The jury’s out," Dr. Jack says. 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
If your complexion is generally clear, but you’re looking to even out your skin tone a little, make your complexion 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 things come to those who wait — and also to those who do their homework.

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