A not-so funny thing happened the other day. Blotches of red developed on one of my cheeks, closely followed by dryness, and suddenly nothing I put on my skin seemed to make it better – worryingly, it just made it worse. An occupational hazard, I’m used to the occasional blip as a result of testing new beauty products on an almost daily basis, yet this still seemed unfair. After all, despite my maximalist job, I am a minimalist at heart. I grew up with that shampoo ad on TV, “Take two bottles into the shower? Not me. I just want to wash my hair and go,” and applied it to pretty much everything in life, including skincare. Could even my minimalist routine be too much?
“I’m seeing a lot of this now,” says facialist Tarryn Warren, peering at my skin under a bright light, after I beg her for an investigatory facial at short notice. Her advice is to immediately cut out everything, bar a gentle cleanser, until the red blotchiness calms down and then reintroduce products back in, one by one, until I find the guilty culprit. For my own simplistic “cleanse and moisturise and that’s it” routine, this shouldn’t be too daunting, but for a maximalist, like some of Warren’s clients, whose daily rituals can top 10 products, it can prove to be a little more challenging. “Particularly after lockdown, there has been more over-treated skin, and when I ask for a list of all the products my clients are using, it’s way too many actives and concoctions.”
We all love to try new things, but the results Warren and others of her ilk are seeing would indicate that the more fussy, full and fickle the routine, the more haphazard the results. “We’re being sold to left, right and centre,” she says, “but the advice just isn’t there. For instance, there’s so much on social media about retinol, but if you go in the sun your skin becomes photosensitised, so it has to be used carefully. It’s fun buying new skincare, but I’ll get clients asking me, ‘Is there anything new?’ and I always say, ‘Why do you feel you need something new?’”
Warren became even more convinced of the merits of a skinimalism approach following a stint as a facialist at Vivamayr Altaussee, the spa in Austria renowned for its active detox and immune-boosting programmes. She noticed how her clients’ skin improved radically after coming off foods they were intolerant to, while taking in the clean air and sleeping well. They had left their skincare behind. “Back in London, they’d be following a daily ritual that took in toners, cleansers, eye creams, acids, sunscreens… It’s a lot for just one organ.”
Our penchant for newness, while harmless in some ways, arguably needs to change – and the planet wouldn’t be the only winner. “I’m strongly against using skincare purely for the sake of entertainment,” says cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting, who argues trying new things constantly encourages a lack of consistency. “Like your workout routine, skincare is about showing up regularly, it’s about regular habits.” When her patients come to her for help, their list of commonly used products is regularly slashed through with a red pen. “Often it’s about the combination of things they’re using – layering a retinol with an AHA, for example. I’m all about simplification and liken my approach to Marie Kondo’s – I want a routine that sparks glow!”
For the new generation of beauty brands, “skinimalism” is a brave departure from the more conventional business strategies that depend on a constant slew of newness to engage consumers and build profits quickly. Products such as Vintner’s Daughter’s Active Botanical Serum and Active Treatment Essence are proving popular to a new type of customer that values science and quality over quantity and hype. “I’ve had two products in 10 years, whereas the majority of companies start with 10,” says April Gargiulo, of Vintner’s Daughter, whose essence and serum claim to treat all skin tones, ages, types and genders. A simple routine doesn’t necessarily mean a simple formulation either: each product took years in development and a bottle takes between three and five weeks to make.
Spectacle is another one-stop shop. Created by former beauty editor Olivia Falcon and former model and beauty educator Andre Condit, the brand launched last year with just one cream that promises to combine the benefits of a serum, moisturiser and primer in one. “We wanted to identify the golden ratio and concentration of the most premium ingredients in each category, which are skin identical, able to communicate between cells and work as antioxidants,” explains Condit of his science-led formulation that uses a mix of gallic acid, copper amino acids and bio-fermented squalane.
So in this less-is-more world, what should we be cutting out? For Bunting, double cleansing needs to go. “It started around the time influencers were going for long-wear foundations, which were harder to remove, and I was seeing a lot of balm cleansing followed by acid toners, with a lot of money spent on both. But the combination both irritates and clogs, so instead I’ve always advocated a single gel cleanser. The modern surfactants in it remove make-up but won’t deplete the skin barrier.” Warren also prefers to use one active per skin concern, alternating them on different nights, rather than layering them. All of which – as a minimalist – is music to my ears: it’s three to four products morning and night.
But back to going without moisturiser for a short period of time. It turns out this is actually really difficult. Firstly, your usual cleanser might be fine when you’re applying moisturiser on top, but suddenly without moisturiser it feels like paint stripper. This calls for something balmier, such as Wildsmith Skin’s Active Repair Nourishing Cleansing Balm, the classic Eve Lom Cleansing Balm, the cult favourite Clinique Take The Day Off or the lovely Deviant Cleansing Concentrate. I play around with different cleansers, but after three days of still feeling dry, I find myself cheating by trying out new moisturisers on the back of my hands, and then ever so subtly leaning on my elbows to get just a smudge of moisture on my skin. Using this random, cheat-a-bit method, I last about five days and then cave. And as I open up the bathroom cupboard again, I feel that familiar rush of excitement as I ponder over which new moisturisers I can try. Minimalist routine? No problem. But not without my moisturiser.