About a month ago, an esthetician closely examined my skin under a bright light and declared, “Your skin is over-exfoliated.” And while I wanted to deny it, the math added up: I use glycolic acid every night, along with a serum with lactic acid in the morning, plus the occasional spot treatment.
I cut back on the frequency of my exfoliation after that. I shelved the serum and laid off the acids, opting instead for a gentle moisturizer morning and night. After a few weeks, my skin texture started to look less bumpy — and, hey, was my T-zone looking less oily? The rewards of reducing my routine were so satisfying, I couldn’t believe that I had ever done anything so extreme. As it turns out, this particular brand of skincare minimalism has a name: “skin fasting.” To get more insight into this trend, I consulted with two board-certified dermatologists, who shared what exactly skin fasting is, how it works, and how to do it safely.
The Theory Behind Skin Fasting
Skin fasting consists of scaling back your usual routine, either partially or entirely, by removing certain steps or products. “It’s just one of the skin trends going around, a stark contrast to the 10-step skincare routine,” says Neil Sadick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. It’s the idea of “less is more,” but applied to skin.
This rationale makes sense — and could seriously help your complexion. “Similar to the microbiome in our gut, we have a microbiome on our skin,” says Lauren Dickson, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Dallas. “It consists of trillions of microorganisms that you can't see — mostly bacteria that are essential for healthy skin — that provide different essential functions for your skin that the human body can't perform on its own.”
Harsh products, cleansing too often, and other habits can compromise that important microbiome. Other factors can compound the damage, too. “Overstimulating your skin with retinoids, antioxidants, and peels — and loading up on makeup and skincare products — just backfires and results in breakouts, redness, and irritation,” notes Dr. Sadick. “They can give the impression they are unclogging the skin and brightening the surface, but in reality, they are robbing your epidermis of vital natural oils and damaging the skin structure.” The most common ingredient culprits are retinoids, vitamin C formulas, and any acidic agent (such as alpha-hydroxy and beta-hydroxy acids).
[Editor's note: Retinol shouldn't be used by women who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.]
Removing these types of products from your routine not only halts the damage, but doing so can also give skin an opportunity to repair and reset itself. The most common indication that your complexion could benefit from a skin fast is irritation. “I haven't been able to find any peer-reviewed scientific data that supports this trend, or shows that it actually benefits the skin,” acknowledges Dr. Dickson. “But, having said that, it could be beneficial in certain patients who have noticed newly-onset irritation and redness.” Tight, tingly skin or a burning sensation are all signs that a product (or several) could be too harsh for your complexion, especially at the frequency you’ve added it into your routine. “Those are all signs that the barrier has been compromised from using too many products,” she explains. In any case, it’s best to talk to your doctor about any concerns you may have.
How to Skin Fast Properly
A complete skin fast — that is, a total suspension of using all skincare products for a certain period of time — can actually do more harm than good. After all, skincare products are designed to be beneficial, and most complexions react positively to a regular routine. “Most people don't need this type of skin fasting,” explains Dr. Dickson. “They really need more of a ‘slimming down’ rather than a fast.” So, instead of arbitrarily removing everything from your routine, try going back to the basics.
There’s very little you actually need at the beginning of a skin fast. Start with a gentle cleanser (meaning, one free of active ingredients like salicylic acid — we’re fans of Cetaphil® Gentle Skin Cleanser, $12). Then apply a simple moisturizer such as CeraVe® Moisturizing Cream ($15), and a classic sunscreen, like Neutrogena® Sensitive Skin SPF 60 ($9). That said, we recommend that you work with your dermatologist on a basic regimen that works best for your skin. Keep in mind that these three essential products can and should be in your regimen indefinitely. (After all, they’re the pillars of any skincare routine, no matter your skin type.) After about a month, which is about how long it takes for the cells of the epidermis of facial skin to turn over, you can reincorporate your go-to formulas designed to address special concerns, such as acne and rosacea.
Then, slowly incorporate an exfoliant, antioxidant serum, retinol, and other elective products into your routine and see how your skin fares. When you do this, analyze your routine and product ingredient lists for any redundancies and remove any. For instance, you likely don’t need two different AHA-infused products in a single nighttime routine.
Still, if your skin isn’t irritated, a skin fast likely isn’t necessary. But, if you have noticed irritation or tingling, it may be worth a shot. And, if you complete a skin fast and don’t see any improvement in redness or irritation, consult your doctor. “Oftentimes, an allergy, rosacea, or even acne can feel like burning and stinging,” Dr. Dickson explains. “Seeing a dermatologist is essential to diagnose that.”
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