One of the most common skincare questions I get in my Instagram DMs is: “What can I do about my dull skin?”
It sounds like a simple question with a simple solution, but there are several factors that can contribute to dull skin and many ways to address it. Phone keyboards hate me when I’m trying to answer complex questions in depth on mobile-only platforms, so I’ll discuss some dull skin remedies here instead, from the comfort of my laptop.
But first, let me rant one more time about the “glass skin” trend (and all the buzzwordy skin trends that came before and will come after).
Glass skin, honey skin, cloudless skin, gwang skin, mul-gwang skin, butter skin, Jell-O skin, forest pool skin, ice rink skin, Icelandic glacier skin* — it’s all more or less the same thing. All those trendy buzzwords are, to me, just a way of moving the goalposts with the goal of convincing beauty consumers that there’s yet another product or category of products they suddenly need.
*I made up everything after mul-gwang skin.
I strongly dislike this style of beauty marketing. Glowy skin is glowy skin. The underlying causes of dull skin won’t change with the passing of the trend seasons, and the products that best transform it into glowing skin will always vary from person to person.
In fact, although I’ll mention and link specific products that work for me, I want to clarify that I’m not making “recommendations” in the sense of “use these and you will for sure experience what I experienced!” YMMV is a thing. It’s awesome when people try my favorites and love them, but no one’s recommendation is a guarantee. Not even Fiddy’s. Consider other people’s HGs your starting points for learning more about your own skin’s preferences.
Now turn up the light so we can talk about your glow.
Like everything else perceived with our eyes, glowing skin looks the way it does because of how it manipulates the light and our perception of it.
At a high level, there are three distinct components to radiant skin. A smooth surface reflects light more uniformly. Moisture under the surface plumps skin up and contributes to surface smoothness while reflecting more light from within the skin. And an even skin tone (no matter what color your skin is) reflects light at consistent wavelengths throughout. The combination of these factors generates the appearance of maximum brightness and a soft, diffused luminosity from within.
Big thank you to the multiple physicists who helped fact check my explanation. Fiddy luhhh you.
When you achieve all three components in balance with each other, you have the kind of skin that beauty shops create special names to describe. Skin that is the Helen of Troy of K-beauty: capable of launching a thousand buzzwords.
Skin becomes dull for a variety of reasons, which is why people who DM me about dull skin often find themselves facing an interrogation about their skin type, skin condition, and skincare routine before I can provide a semi-straight answer.
Here are some common causes of dull skin:
Everyone’s skin is different, and we often experience more than one cause of dullness at a time (dryness and dehydration often go hand-in-hand and frequently lead to irregular skin texture, for example). Figure out what’s causing your dull skin first. Then read the relevant sections below to create your personal roadmap to glazed Krispy Kreme donut skin, or whatever you want to call it.
(As always, introduce new products slowly and one at a time! It’s better to be patient than it is to slap on five new things at once and end up with a reaction the cause of which you can’t identify.)
Let’s start from the surface and work our way down.
Sometimes skin looks dull because it simply isn’t as clean as it could be. If your cleansing routine isn’t removing all your sunscreen and makeup at the end of the day, for example, the residue your skin accumulates will mask its inner light.
I generally double cleanse with either a cleansing water or an oil-based first cleanser followed by a neutral to low pH foaming second cleanser to get my skin thoroughly clean without stripping it of its natural moisture. Avoid overly harsh, alkaline foaming cleansers and soaps, though. They will quickly and completely wash away oil and product residue, but they’re also likely to dehydrate your skin so that it loses its glow in a totally different way.
An occasional clarifying mask, such as a bubble pack or clay mask, may remove additional skin-dulling gunk buildup. Don’t reach for these too often, as they can be drying when overused. Once a week, twice max, is enough.
The outermost layer of skin is sometimes called the horny layer. I’ll give you a minute to finish laughing before I continue.
There are about 15-20 layers of dead skin in the horny layer. We need some of those layers, but an excess of dead cells makes skin look dull. Exfoliation will reveal a smoother surface and allow light to reach more of the moisture in the deeper layers of your skin.
As with cleansing, exfoliate in moderation. Over-exfoliation will thin and sensitize skin, making it more prone to dryness, dehydration, and irritation. For surface flakes, I’d stick with relatively gentle physical exfoliants instead of AHAs in most cases. AHAs carry the risk of photosensitization if not used in conjunction with generous daily sunscreen use. It’s also easy to accidentally go overboard with them, since the results of an AHA aren’t immediately apparent.
Unless you have an unusually out-of-control horny layer, an enzyme powder, gommage peel (aka peeling gel), mild scrub, or soft cleansing tool should be enough to sweep away the flakes. Use a light touch.
Like skin flakes, bumps and fine lines diminish your skin’s ability to reflect light by creating an irregular surface instead of a smooth one. Unlike skin flakes, however, bumps and fine lines take more than a quick once-over with a konjac sponge to smooth out.
AHAs work well for bumpy, congested skin. Since AHAs are photosensitizing, however, make sure you’re wearing sunscreen every day once you start AHA treatment, even on days when you haven’t used an AHA. Continue wearing sunscreen for at least a week after you stop your AHA treatment. (I recommend wearing sunscreen every day anyway, but I’ll refrain from a repeat of my sunscreen lecture here.)
Make sure to work a new AHA into your routine gradually. Start with just twice a week usage and only increase frequency if your skin is tolerating it well, without signs of over-exfoliation or irritation.
AHAs can also help smooth away superficial fine lines. When the fine lines and textural issues are related to the age-related reduction in collagen, though, I prefer an effectively formulated vitamin C serum.
For vitamin C, I stick to the L-ascorbic acid form, which comes with the most evidence of its effectiveness for cosmetic purposes. L-AA is also cheap and the parameters for effective formulation are clear. Regular, long-term use of a good vitamin C serum will increase skin’s radiance partly by stimulating it to produce more collagen for a firmer, smoother surface. The new collagen may also slightly reduce the appearance of pitted acne scars.
Beyond vitamin C, I’m not comfortable recommending any of the very few home treatments known to diminish pitted acne scars. (Dermarolling at home? I tried it for just long enough to know it is not for me and not something I can encourage others to do.) Dermatologists can offer more effective solutions in a safe environment.
* Mutoface Sootera Alpha Peel (for once a week use only!)
It will surprise no one with dry skin to read that dryness causes dullness.
Dryness occurs when the upper layers of skin are deficient in lipids and sebum. Without enough ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids filling in and linking together dead cells in the horny layer and without enough sebum forming a protective layer on top, skin becomes rough and loses the ability to hold moisture. There goes your glow.
Dry skin can be genetic. It can develop as we age. It can also be caused or exacerbated by over-cleansing, too-harsh cleansers, exposure to too-hot water, over-exfoliation, and certain skincare products or ingredients, particularly retinoids and many acne treatments. Either way, the methods for minimizing dryness are the same. Stop doing things that cause dryness or make it worse. Start using products that give your skin what it’s missing.
To reduce dullness, dry skin needs emollient and occlusive moisture to fill in the gaps between cells and create a barrier over the surface of skin. Ideal moisturizers for dry skin will contain ceramides, cholesterol, plant oils for their fatty acid content, and squalane. Even if they don’t, however, anything that smooths skin and helps it retain moisture will improve your skin’s appearance.
If you’re willing to add extra layers to your routine, consider a moisturizing serum to use under your cream. Look for the same barrier-boosting ingredients that I listed for creams: ceramides, cholesterol, plant oils, and squalane. Occasional use of a nourishing wash-off pack can help, too.
Dry skin lacks oils. Dehydrated skin, on the other hand, lacks water, and that deficiency is another common cause of dullness. The two conditions often occur together, since a lack of oils and lipids allows water to escape skin more easily. But where dryness generally causes dullness and a rougher texture at the surface, dehydration usually reduces your skin’s plumpness, bounce, and inner glow.
If your skin looks dull due to dehydration, you can increase its radiance by layering on products that contain plenty of humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid. You’ll find these most reliably in watery skincare products like hydrating toners and serums and, more importantly for dehydrated skin, sheet masks. Slowly add these types of products to your daily routine and watch your glow increase with your hydration.
As a final note, the obvious advice for dehydrated skin would be to drink more water. I’ve never noticed any changes in my skin’s hydration from drinking more or less water, so I can’t fully endorse the idea, but most of us could probably stand to drink more water for general health anyway.
The eye perceives irregular skin tones as less bright than even skin tones, no matter what shade your complexion is. It stands to reason, therefore, that the more even your skin tone is, the more radiant it will appear. Uneven skin tone won’t be as easy to change as surface texture or dryness/dehydration issues, however. Commitment, consistency, and the correct ingredients and formulations for your skin tone needs are critical here.
Red- or pink-toned blotchiness tends to stem from irritation and sensitivity. The first step when dealing with this kind of unevenness is to consider whether anything in your routine is causing the redness, and remove it. Common culprits are alkaline cleansers, harsh actives, irritating fragrances or essential oils, and abrasive scrubs. Wherever you can, replace irritating products with milder ones to reduce blotchiness.
Don’t limit yourself to suspecting your products, either. Even your cleansing methods could contribute to blotchiness. Are you a little heavy-handed when you wash your face? Do you scrub a little too hard with exfoliants or cleansing tools? Treat your face gently.
Once you’ve cut out any products or habits that are actively irritating your skin, look for soothing products with anti-inflammatory ingredients like Centella asiatica to further reduce redness and even out your skin tone. Personally, I also find certain high quality hanbang products excellent for the job.
Brownish blotchiness and discoloration due to sun damage and/or the aging process will require a different approach. Again, there’s a preventative aspect to treating this kind of uneven skin tone. Pigmentation issues are often caused or exacerbated by sun damage, so make sure you’re using a sunscreen with high UVA and UVB protection (in my opinion, at least SPF 45 and PA+++) in generous quantities every single day, rain or shine. If you continue to take sun damage, nothing you do about your pigmentation issues will have much impact.
Once your sunscreen habits are sorted out, look for ingredients that actively fade hyperpigmentation and inhibit melanin formation. Vitamin C, retinoids, and niacinamide are my three favorites in this category. These actives all have additional benefits, too. They’re antioxidants, for one thing. Vitamin C and retinoids also help promote collagen production over time. Niacinamide, on the other hand, improves skin barrier function and elasticity. In other words, all of them will help you get your glow back on multiple dimensions.
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In the grand scheme of things, dull skin isn’t a big deal. For those of us who care about our complexions, however, glowing skin can be a serious confidence boost that can have a positive impact on the rest of our lives. So if you feel the need to radiate more light, enjoy the journey to a brighter glow!
Have you struggled with dull skin? Tell us what you did about it in the comments!