My Skin, Two Years After Giving Up Moisturiser

Photo: Kate Anglestein
I have a surefire, crowd-pleasing, absolute doozy of a party trick. It’s not opening one bottle of beer against the lid of another (those days are behind me). I can’t do a backflip, or the splits. The only impression I can comfortably land is my mother and, these days, that doesn’t even take much effort. Want to know what it is? I can silence whomever I’m talking to with one sentence: "I don’t use moisturiser."
Coming out of the mouth of a hapless bachelor or a teenager, it might not be so surprising. But as a beauty journalist – and one who writes about skin a lot – it’s akin to saying I like to eat my bananas unpeeled. People are mystified, sometimes faintly disgusted, but always interested. Moisturiser is probably the core tenet of the nation’s skincare routine, the one thing people will slap on if they do nothing else, so saying I do without translates to many as "I don’t take care of myself". In reality, it couldn’t be further from the truth. I have an almost embarrassingly elaborate regime, haven’t gone to bed with makeup on in years, and am fastidious about SPF to the point that my boyfriend half-jokes that I’d probably sooner take a bullet than stand in direct sunlight.
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I stopped using moisturiser in 2016, when Refinery29 dared me to give it up for a feature. Excited to finally become beauty’s answer to Daniel Day-Lewis and go full ‘method’, I said yes. Funnily enough, it turned out to be the best thing I’d ever done for my skin, and I haven’t looked back. To recap, I was originally introduced to the idea of giving up moisturiser by clinical facialist Kate Kerr and initially, I scoffed at the idea. I thought I had dry skin, I loved thick creams, adored facial oils and always chose foundations that had ‘hydrating’ in the name. “It’s strange to me how many intelligent women can believe that their skin just fundamentally has a problem rather than thinking it might be the products they’re using,” Kate said to me when I called her. She was right – I had just accepted that I had ‘dry’ skin without ever considering that my beloved creams were hurting, rather than harming. “When you look in the mirror and see flaky dryness, your instinct is to reach for some lotion, apply it, and hey presto, you can’t see those flakes anymore, so you think the moisturiser has done its job. In reality, all you’re doing is compressing down that dead skin, stopping it from shedding naturally, and impacting your skin’s barrier function.”
Aesthetic doctor David Jack confirmed it, telling me: “The effects of moisturiser are usually pretty superficial and short-lived. Of course, it feels lovely to apply and it seems to, at least in the moment, solve the issue of dryness. But it’s not actually providing long-term hydration.” Your skin is hygroscopic, meaning it takes water from the air, as well as from the foods and liquids we consume. We also produce hyaluronic acid (HA) naturally, which holds an impressive 1,000 times its own weight in water. HA is a humectant, which means it draws water to the skin and helps to protect from water loss (there are other humectants, such as sodium PCA, which you also produce naturally). The other kind of moisturisers you might find are occlusives and emollients. An occlusive forms a physical barrier, no matter how imperceptible, over your skin (like an oil or a silicone) while an emollient is actually more of a skin-softener than a skin hydrator (any eczema sufferers out there know what I’m talking about).
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Face creams can be any mixture of these things, though more commonly humectants and occlusives. I still use products to hydrate my skin, namely hyaluronic acid-based serums. I love NIOD’s Multi Molecular Hyaluronic Complex, Peter Thomas Roth Water Drench Hyaluronic Cloud Serum, and The Ordinary’s Hyaluronic Acid 2% is brilliant for the price, while the gold standard has to be SkinCeuticals HA Intensifier. Rather than getting caught in this pore-clogging cycle, hyaluronic acid provides some instant relief but also helps bind more water in the skin. I also really like Hylamide’s Hydra-Density Mist and never say no to a good sheet mask.
Both Kate and Dr. Jack said that on your skin’s hierarchy of needs, exfoliation, SPF and antioxidants rank a lot higher than moisturising. “Your skin has a homeostatic balance that it will inevitably return to, so applying a moisturiser that’s just forming some kind of barrier won’t ‘fix’ much,” added Dr. Jack. Your skin needs to shed every day, so exfoliation – both natural and the kind you do with a little glycolic acid toner on a cotton pad – is integral. “So many people confuse dead skin with dry skin,” confirmed Kate. “Moisturiser impedes this process, and while exfoliation is often thought of as really harsh, it will actually strengthen your skin’s barrier function by stripping away weakened cells on the skin’s surface and letting stronger, fresher cells underneath come forward.”
I still exfoliate manually a few times a week, usually with Murad’s Pore Reform Scrub, and use a chemical exfoliant once a week. As thorough a cleanse as you might think you’re getting, SPF and makeup can still linger on the skin, so best to give things a helping hand. As for that dry skin I thought I had? Turns out it was just super dehydrated. As I covered in my original article, there are some people who do have genuinely dry skin, like eczema or psoriasis sufferers, who will need moisturiser. Also, I did take a little tub of face cream with me when I went skiing, as high altitudes play havoc with your skin.
Two years down the line, my skin feels the best it ever has. I don’t experience any tightness or dryness, and I used to go to bed sticky-faced with thick cream. I also sleep a little easier knowing that by keeping my production of HA active, I’m also keeping my collagen and elastin production levels ticking along nicely. But as they say on /r/SkincareAddiction: your mileage may vary. If you love facial oils and don’t want to give them up, don’t. I still lotion my body, primarily because serum is too expensive to use all over, but also because of the routine of it. I know plenty of women who have aged fabulously using Nivea Creme, and while there may be other factors at play there (older generations had a lot less pollution exposure, for one), I’m not in the business of telling anyone their beauty choices are wrong. I’d urge you to give it a go, or at least read a few clinical trials or studies to help you make an informed choice, but for now, I’m okay being an outsider.