One minute, you’re totally in a groove, and everything is moving along smoothly and bump free — then suddenly things start spiraling out of control, or just get dull. While that sounds like the woes of the stars on The Bachelor, the same issues can occur between our skin and the products we put on it.
There are a number of reasons why your go-to formulas can stop working, ranging from minor tweaks in your routine to the introduction of new ingredients. But when your products hit a dead end on efficacy, the best solve is to look carefully through your regimen to figure out the possible cause.
Before ditching your beloved essentials for something new, check out these dermatologist-approved tips to help you and your skin get back on track — and hopefully fall back in love with your favorites.
[Editor’s note: If any unexpected breakouts or any sensitivity suddenly occurs from switching up your routine, we recommend you see a dermatologist to make sure that the cause isn’t something deeper.]
If you’re experiencing a skincare slowdown, it could be due to factors like pollution, exposure to household chemicals and cigarette smoke. That’s because these all help increase the prevalence of free radicals.
Free radicals are unstable atoms that sneak beneath your skin’s surface, latching onto and damaging the perfectly good cells that keep it in good shape. These atoms also contribute to slowed cellular turnover, which is your body’s system for pushing fresh, healthy skin cells to the surface. Slower cellular turnover means more mature-looking skin. If environmental factors are teaming up with the natural aging process to cause fine lines and wrinkles, your skincare regimen has to do double duty to help deliver results.
Even if you’ve been careful and reduced all exposure to toxins, your occupation could be to blame. Those who work outdoors — or in a mostly sunny setting for a good chunk of the year — are exposed to not only the risk of skin cancer, but even more free radical damage from UVA/UVB rays.
Listen to Your Body
One wonderful characteristic of skin is that it’ll tell you loud and clear if there’s a problem. That includes how quickly your complexion responds (or doesn’t) to your skincare routine. Although it may seem otherwise, your skin can't actually develop an immunity to a product. However, there’s something called tachyphylaxis, a phenomenon in which the body builds a tolerance to a particular medication, making it no longer effective.
“This most commonly happens with topical steroids,” explains NYC cosmetic dermatologist Sejal Shah, founder of SmarterSkin Dermatology. (Topical steroids are most frequently used for conditions such as dermatitis, psoriasis, and eczema.) “It occurs when there are alterations or adjustments in signaling pathways on a molecular level, so that there is decreased or no response to the medication.” In layman’s terms: wires in our bodies get crossed and tell the meds to stop working.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any particular trigger that causes this phenomenon. There’s also a possibility that the product is actually still working, but the visible improvements that you may have seen early on have slowed down, making the changes less noticeable.
Exfoliate More Often
“If you are not exfoliating sufficiently, your products may not be working optimally,” says Dr. Michelle Henry, MD Clinical Instructor of Dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College. If you think about it, this makes total sense. If a product has to power through layers of dead skin in order to get to the fresh, healthy skin below the surface, the active ingredients may tap out before getting where they need to be to work.
Henry recommends using a chemical exfoliant like SkinMedica® AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser ($47) to help slough away dead layers of skin. Because this product contains glycolic acid and salicylic acid, we recommend starting off using it once or twice a week to allow your skin to get used to the formula. Then, ramp up to daily use — that way, you’ll always be revealing fresh, new skin for your products to target.
Up the Concentration
While skin doesn’t exactly get used to particular products, there are some ingredients that your surface adjusts to over time — like vitamin A-derived retinoids (often found in anti-aging products). “Your skin can get used to the retinoid,” says Shah. “This does not necessarily mean that the retinoid is no longer effective, but rather, you are able to get the benefits without experiencing the irritation.”
If you’ve reached a point where you feel like your retinoid isn't giving you the same results, talk to your derm about getting a stronger prescription. (Learn more about retinol here.)
Check Expiration Dates
Dr. Henry also suggests checking the expiration dates on your products. “With time, products will start to lose efficacy, so don't hesitate to update your stash regularly,” says Henry. If there isn’t a clear date marked on the bottle, check the icons on the packaging. One will look like an open jar, and may say “12M” on it. This will tell you what the shelf life of that particular item is (in the example we’ve given, it’s 12 months). To ensure that you’re getting the most potent form of your ingredients, consider swapping out all of your goods once a year — unless the label says to dump it sooner.
Henry also recommends storing your products in a cool, dark place to help extend the lifespan. (Meaning, the steamy humidity of your bathroom is not the most ideal location for storage.) A more temperate area for your products will help prevent them from breaking down, separating, or destabilizing. Be especially cautious with how you store products that contain oil: they can change texture if placed in a too-cold refrigerator or on an overly sunny (and warm) countertop.
We’ve all played beauty bartender with our products at some point, cocktailing whichever creams and serums strike our fancy. Problem is, some ingredients just aren’t meant to be mixed together. In fact, some can cancel each other out, so layering strategically is key.
For example, benzoyl peroxide (a common acne fighter) and vitamin C should not be combined, as the former may oxidize the latter. What will happen is similar to what occurs when you leaving a cut avocado out — the formula will turn brown. Another ingredient pair that should not be combined is vitamin C and retinol. Individually, the ingredients are powerhouses for helping to reduce wrinkles and other signs of aging. When combined, though, they can cause serious irritation, even on non-sensitive skin.
To avoid this issue entirely, we advise divvying up your more high-maintenance ingredients into the two halves of your regimen — morning and night — or using them on alternate days. That will help your skin to become acclimated to them without causing any clashes with your complexion.
While it can take a bit of time to strike the right balance for your face’s needs, the effort is well worth it. A few small upgrades and swaps could be all you need get back on track toward your best skin.
Dr. Sejal Shah is a paid Allergan consultant.
SkinMedica® is an Allergan-owned skin care product line.