A solid skin care routine has been a part of my life since I was 12, and puberty came in at full force — making its appearance across my face in the form of bright red pimples.
I remember being given an amber-colored Neutrogena face cleansing bar and told to use it daily to “clear those pimples up.” My first lessons in skin care were fully rooted in vanity and doing what needed to be done to keep my skin looking shiny and free of impurities and imperfections.
I used all of the harsh products that would make today’s dermatologists and skin care gurus cringe.
Through a combination of trial and error, persistence and consultations with experts when I can afford them, my skin care routine has evolved over time. But each knife-cutting, moisture-sucking winter is an annual reminder to reassess the needs of my skin and adjust accordingly.
Here’s are three things I’m planning to prioritize this year.
1. This winter, I’m particularly focused on the health of my skin.
I am investing in a dermatologist to address the cause of some strange dry patches I’m experiencing that no amount of moisturizer gets rid of. The itching is irksome.
After doing some research that included recommendations from friends and Googling reviews, I found a dermatologist who looked promising and booked my first consultation.
With the doctor, I went through my history with harsh scrubs and laid out my current routine. Then the derm gave me some news that made sense but still surprised me: My daily routine was great, but I needed to embrace a side of skin care that wasn’t luxurious but still very necessary, such as more routine skin cancer screenings.
She also gave some recommendations and a prescribed treatment to address my problem areas (tretinoin cream for hyperpigmentation on my face) and offered some insight into potential internal issues that could be causing the dry patches I’m experiencing.
Dr. Nour Al-Hadidi, a board-certified dermatologist and internal medicine physician at Oak Dermatology in Itasca and Naperville, said it’s important to see a dermatologist to get “a baseline of what’s normal and what’s abnormal.”
“Dermatology is a highly specialized and nuanced study of the skin,” said Al-Hadidi. For people like me who have a self-prescribed skin care regimen, Al-Hadidi recommends a dermatologist visit to get a definitive skin evaluation and diagnosis, as some products may help with one issue yet exacerbate another.
“A lot of patients will come in and they think they have acne but, after an evaluation, we find they have rosacea,” Al-Hadidi said. “And that’s a completely different approach needed because patients who have rosacea cannot tolerate acne treatments.”
Dermatologists can also consult on what products work best for someone in the long term.
“When it comes to skin care products, I also urge people to ask themselves what’s the active ingredient in this product,” Al-Hadidi said. “How is it going to serve you and your skin care goals?”
2. I’m going to adhere to my single greatest learning about skin care: consistency.
In my 20s, I was hired to write and report on beauty trends for a national magazine. At the time, beauty influencers were powerful social media trendsetters who set the tone of the culture. During this period, the big beauty buzzword was “self-care.”
Depending on whose YouTube channel you were watching, self-care could mean a plethora of things. Even something as routine as washing your face with a cleansing bar was turned into a slow and indulgent ritual. Having an abundance of facial masks, serums, oils, creams and jade rollers to pamper skin meant folks were buying any and every skin care product and tool on the market.
I was handed all of these products and tools by brands hoping for product placement in the magazine. But in all of the hype I also learned a major beauty lesson: the power of consistency.
Over the years I’ve tried dozens of combinations and hundreds of products. At this point in my journey I have found a sweet routine that works for me on a daily basis.
Step 1: I use a gentle cleanser (gel is my favorite) daily to rid my face of makeup and pollution from the day.
Step 2: After patting my face dry, I apply a toner to introduce a bit of hydration back into my skin after cleaning, and to also prep my skin for more product.
Step 3: I apply a serum. Depending on what my skin needs, I may choose one filled with antioxidants or another that focuses on hydration.
Step 4: Once I turned 30 I introduced an eye cream into my routine. Currently, I use a cream focused on hydration.
Step 5: Even though I use hydrating serums and eye cream, I still apply a cream-based moisturizer for an added boost.
Step 6: I lock all of that product into my skin with a layer of facial oil — and yes, it all does soak in.
Note: Step 7 would be the step where I apply my sunscreen if I’m doing my skin care routine in the morning.
The balance between indulging my skin and sticking to the basics can be tough, especially from a financial perspective. Which brings me to my third observation.
3. I’m trying to toe the line of affordability.
For some people skin care is simply washing their face every morning and for others it goes as far as investing in expensive vampire facials made from the plasma of their own blood.
I find myself somewhere in the middle, making space in my budget for luxurious skin care experiences — like the sauna room at Aire Ancient Baths — while also trying to be mindful of my budget. I budget for the products I use daily, which end up costing around $150-200 of my budget per month.
I sometimes spend extra on experiences like spa visits, facials and mask bars. In Chicago, one of the places I go to for an indulgent yet affordable and practical experience is Scratch Goods in the West Loop. The female-founded retail shop sells handcrafted skin care products and hosts a mega-popular BYOB mask bar ($65) experience that is rooted in healing.
The bar is an interactive masking experience that lets you customize your face mask and explore different products based on the needs of your skin. The options include sea, matcha and charcoal masks, their bestselling tea tree cleansing oil, lash oil and even a coffee-infused eye butter. The warm towel and jade roller are a nice touch after a facial.
But the part I love the most is that the mask bar lets me try a new product without a full-size purchase, a low commitment option that allows for experimentation.
On a recent visit, co-founder Elizabeth Leipold also offered me some encouragement — especially regarding treating myself to indulgent experiences. “Carving out time for yourself isn’t a selfish practice,” she said.
Thinking of skin care as part of a ritual changes your whole mindset about it, she said, shifting it from a chore to a practice.
For me, whether it’s taking a few moments daily to center myself or treating myself every few months to a spa experience, the time and money I put into skin care is my way this winter of keeping my physical and mental health a priority. And that’s the real goal.
Samantha Callender is a digital reporting fellow for WBEZ. Follow her across social media @OnYourCallender.