An Introduction

Happy new year and welcome to my new blog!

Just as I was putting a few last touches on this page for its eventual launch, some relatives had arrived to join my family for the holiday weekend. The conversations that ensued were pretty emblematic of why I decided to create this site despite any lingering uncertainties. My older cousin happened to share an account of her recent skin-related mishap and how she was looking to fix it, sparking a discussion between us and our mothers about potential solutions and other general skincare topics. At some point my mom asked about the difference between retinol and tretinoin, and as I explained my understanding of the science, my younger cousin commented on how interesting he found our exchange—he was genuinely learning something new. When his mention of those popular black peel-off face masks led me to complain how the one I’d sampled never pulled anything from my pores, no matter how thick I applied it, my other cousin interrupted me to say: “that’s because you literally have no pores.” My skin was doing particularly well at that moment—recovering from a short bout of winter-induced dryness, but otherwise clear and spot-free—I think because I’ve finally honed in on the final key (#anotherone) in terms of what my skin needed. In addition to these discussions, someone on Facebook asked an open question about skincare that elicited many replies, some more helpful than others, and I really couldn’t help but write a blogpost-length response with my advice and concerns/additions regarding others’ suggestions.

This is all to say, for the TL;DR crowd: talking and even writing about skincare is just what I do, blog or no blog. I used to just have fun with this stuff, and now I really care about it. I love trying face masks and will probably never stop. I’m that customer who leaves detailed, specific reviews for products online that let you know exactly the skin/hair types/shades and product-use backgrounds to which my testimonials are relevant. I feel personally betrayed by a company when I see its products in my mother’s possession only to find out they’re doing something terrible for her skin, such as formulating their serums at a ridiculously high pH (see my first substantive post for more on why that matters). At this point, it’s all part of who I am, as strange as that sounds. But given how I can say that my skin is one thing on which I’ve consistently received compliments over the years (even at times of breakouts or from porcelain doll-resembling people of whom I was envious), I think I can just say it. My younger sister’s words last summer, upon accidentally touching my face, are illustrative: “Whoa! Can I touch it again?” *strokes my cheek* “Whoa! Your skin is so soft. I can see why you’re so obsessed with it.”

Before the holidays I’d still been hesitating, going back and forth and fighting doubts about whether to continue preparing this blog—wondering whether it was worth it, to me, or worth something, to others. The beauty blogosphere could certainly be described as an over-saturated market. Regardless, luckily enough, those recent conversations reminded me exactly why I wanted to blog in the first place, how much I’d enjoy it, and what I had to offer readers.

I’ll offer further background with a more personal story below, because I think it’s important to push back against that aura of simple glamour and constant luxury that similar blogs tend to present. But if you’d like to skip ahead to the part where I just explain more about the blog itself, click here.

Me at 2.5 years old, smiling with brown lipstick smeared all over my face
Okay, I wasn’t quite this young when I started reaching for the serums, but I’m sure it looked pretty much the same to my mother—seeing a 10 year-old eyeing anything labeled “anti-aging.”

I’ve been fascinated by skincare for as long as I can remember. The actual state of my skin at any given time was initially irrelevant—as a kid, I’d reach for anti-aging creams and pore-clarifying masks alike, reading the labels with intrigue and (cringe!) occasionally slathering them on my still-cherubic face. My mother always enjoyed the art of makeup, but what stood out to me most from her beauty routine was her burgeoning skincare collection and the DIY treatments she’d learned from her mother and sisters back in the day. Through this familial and cultural transmission, I clearly got the impression that skincare was important and worth one’s time. But those early days also instilled in me an appreciation of the attendant luxury—the close care, enjoyment, and entertainment involved in skincare—as I coveted the varied and velvety masks featured in mail-order retail catalogs, long before they presented any real purpose to me. On the other hand, my deeper knowledge, of what goes into these concoctions and their potential effects, is a relatively new development that grew out of more unpleasant memories and experiences.

While most aspects of a person’s appearance are difficult to change (without surgery), skincare has always seemed to me like a factor over which I can retain some control. As a result, this realm of beauty was never solely a space of relaxation, recreation, and rosy nostalgia. I can still recall getting my first “pimple” at the age of 12, a tiny little thing that I still couldn’t help but scratch—leaving a scab right in between my eyebrows, just the right size and placement to generate questions about whether I was Indian, “because you’re wearing that forehead dot thing” (oh, the tact of seventh graders). When I started seeing zits more often in high school, I feared losing my alleged status as “the girl with perfect skin”—how a friend had apparently described me to another classmate, as if that was my most memorable physical trait. This led to a bad habit of overreacting every time an imperfection threatened that supposed honor, as I’d overwhelm my skin with products in a way that reliably made it look worse than if I’d just left it alone. Retrospectively, every memorable aesthetic crisis shared something in common: the original acne was never that bad. In fact, if you’re nitpicky about the term “acne” like I know many people to be, you probably wouldn’t use that word at all. Given how plenty other people my age had pimples all over their visage or even suffered from severe cystic acne, my level of distress was clearly unwarranted.

My bare face sometime during December 2011
After my dermatologist visit and my skin’s return to equilibrium, I even had the guts to take a close-up photo with my DSLR and post it filter-free.

The lesson I should have learned was that all of my heavy-handed, desperate attempts to restore my skin were invariably counterproductive. Basically, I just needed to chill. As I toned down the product overload, like many others I still picked at bumps with my fingers, leaving scars and spots of post-inflammatory hyper-pigmentation (PIH)—something people with my skin tone or darker are especially prone to developing. Eventually I just visited a dermatologist, got my hands on prescription tretinoin and benzoyl peroxide-clindamycin, and watched the remaining zits and dark spots disappear to reveal an all-over smooth surface. But when bumps would return sporadically (largely due to me neglecting some of the dermatologist’s instructions), I kept picking and squeezing, resulting in more PIH. Because my skin was still in good shape, this was just a minor annoyance; I took good care of my skin in every other sense, cleansing it twice a day, moisturizing, and occasionally buying a few special treatment products—nothing that called for much time spent learning about skincare ingredients.

This all changed about a year ago. Sometime in January 2016, little red bumps (specifically papules, I believe) began appearing on my forehead in previously unforeseen numbers and also around my nose, where I rarely got any type of acne. As time passed, these bumps not only failed to fade away but actually multiplied—to the point where I couldn’t recognize my own skin texture on that area anymore. Clearly I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist about my skin, but this was indisputably unprecedented. After an agonizing two weeks of contemplating possible causes, I had a realization: these pimples started popping up around the same time that I had started a new medication. It wasn’t a new-new medication, exactly—I had taken it years earlier with no major problems—but biology is weird and unpredictable, and as luck would have it, I now had to experience this acne as an incredibly rare side effect.

After about three weeks, I switched medications and (thank god) the bumps immediately started to shrink—confirming the source at fault. The problem, however, was that they weren’t simply diminishing; they were coming to a head, i.e. transforming into the type of pimple you can pop (whiteheads and pustules). Although I’d never been good at keeping my hands away from my face, I was working on it at the time and resisted the compulsion for longer than expected. But one random evening while washing my face, I suddenly found myself squeezing at every little bump. It just happened so quickly, without much conscious thought—and once I realized the mistake I’d made, it was just too late. I stared at my reflection in the mirror, overwhelmed by the archipelago of red splotches across my forehead.

How could I so recklessly injure my skin? Despite all self-awareness, the same thing happened again not long after; unsurprisingly, my pimples weren’t fully cleared out after the first attempt, so there was enough left over to draw my hands up for another go. Again, I felt shame and regret. Again, I thanked the heavens that it was winter—so I could wear a beanie any time I went out, pulling it down just enough to cover my forehead. And when the weather got too warm to justify the hat, I was grateful that color-correcting makeup had trickled down into the offerings of almost every cosmetic brand (you know how difficult it was to find green concealer just a year earlier when I first wanted it?). In the meantime, I tried everything possible to speed up the healing process. The situation was so bad that I even made a serious effort to improve my diet—when weight loss had never been a concern of mine, only skin health could provide the necessary motivation.

Despite my diligence and lifelong interest in skincare, I didn’t know anything substantive about products and ingredients. It seems like so much knowledge is easily available to me now, but when I first started my Google-search journey, it was hard to find reliable information; most of the sources I currently rely on were hardly a blip on that radar. One random comment on a post in a private Facebook group directed me to a science-citing skincare blog for the first time; one random search query on showed me an inexpensive product I would come to rely on heavily but had never previously heard of, despite its popularity among other skincare aficionados. My persistence was necessary but insufficient, as I found so much through sheer luck and timing.

Close-up photo
My skin in its normal state, without significant PIH or active acne. Also: flattering lighting. Yet I can still find areas to scrutinize…

In retrospect, it seems like I learned everything rather slowly—but once I reached a certain threshold in what I knew, the rest came much more quickly. Suddenly, I know a significant amount about skincare ingredients and can easily rattle off which ones are relevant to a particular skin concern; I cringe when I think about how I used to blindly buy products based on marketing, rarely even reading reviews, possessing no deeper knowledge of ingredients and formulation. For a while, all I knew of Korean skincare was sheet masks, and I’d barely scratched the surface of that sub-category; now at least half the products in my routine are from Korean brands. I went from pursuing my own questions to seeing questions asked by others and finding that I can actually help in answering them—and when I see questions that are particularly simple, I remember how ignorant I was not long ago and how hard it was to remedy that.

All of this comprises a major part of my motivation for beginning this blog, apart from my general penchant for skincare. I hope that what I’ve put together here can make it easier for others who are struggling with their own skincare questions to find what they need. And even if someone isn’t struggling, per se, I believe in the importance of having more background knowledge about what goes into skincare to figure out what will work best for you. Sometimes I’ve had friends ask casual questions that still require more thorough answers—this can be the place for that, while also avoiding limiting potentially helpful information to a private exchange.

My first post is a review of a facial cleanser—though it’s more than the standard product review, insofar as it’s connected to changes in my understanding of skincare and, correspondingly, a major change in the state of my skin. You can expect other product reviews from this blog, especially for masks and items that have become essentials in my daily/nightly routine. In the meantime, check my skincare stash page to see what I’m currently using or have already tested.

I also plan on writing posts that offer more general advice, rather than focusing on the benefits or lack thereof to a particular purchase. Skincare discourse in the media and elsewhere is dominated by the perspectives and experiences of white people, and this often leads to a dearth of advice on issues more particular to women of color, or, alternatively, advice that’s completely irrelevant (e.g. a magazine telling me to apply an aspirin mask to an ingrown hair to banish it overnight; if you think I have just one ingrown hair to spot-treat, you have no idea what I’m dealing with!). Skincare is also, as many on the internet like to put it, quite “YMMV”—“Your Mileage May Vary”. What works for some may not work for others, all things equal, and vice-versa: for instance, I remember seeing almost every bit of advice on nose-ring inflammation recommend tea tree oil or saltwater soaks, while insisting one should never put Neosporin on the area; the former two remedies did nothing for my post-piercing bump, but guess what forbidden item was finally revealed to be the magic cure that calms it every time it shows up? There’s no way I’m the only one for whom Neosporin does the trick, but I really wish whoever else experienced the same had posted about it online!

Finally, you may be wondering what’s up with the blog title. Really, I had originally wanted to go with “Skin Theory,” but that URL was taken, so I looked into alternative spellings and came to the French théorie and German Theorie. I actually went further in my Google Translating and came up with a name that would’ve been a play on the German word for “skin,” a similar adjective in French, and the English understanding of it—but I don’t even know German or French myself, so I figured that was a bit much to impose on anyone else. So here we are: Skin Theorie. Nope, it’s not missing an ‘S’ at the end. Yes, I’m big on ~theory~ in general, whether it be the underlying basis of skincare or the stuff of the humanities.

Feel free to contact me if there’s anything specific you’d like to see from this site, or if you have any questions or concerns. Check out the lefthand sidebar (expand the top menu on mobile browsers) for more information on me and my skin type. And if you feel like going shopping, see my referral codes/links to get a discount on your purchase at certain retailers.

Oh, and please—for the love of god—wash your face before going to sleep if you don’t do that already. The world doesn’t need another listicle featuring this Unbelievably Simple Skincare Tip From Celebrities. Plus, if you need a face wash recommendation, I got you. Here’s to glowing in 2017. ✦

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