Skin Detectives #2: Decoding Skin Sensations & What to Do About Them
What exactly does “listening to your skin” mean and how do we figure out what our skin is trying to tell us? Here, a guide to some of the more common skin sensations, what they mean, and what to do about them.
Hello, Skin Detectives. Welcome to the K-Beauty Clubhouse. Our guiding principles are as follows:
* Be yourself
* Be gentle
* Be curious
Today we’re going to talk about what people mean when they say listen to your skin. What kinds of things does skin say? How does it say them?
In other words, what are these skin sensations and what do I do about them?
I see an awful lot of words used to describe ways skin might be feeling, looking, or otherwise behaving. Tingling. Tightness. Stickiness. Tackiness. Some describe what the skin itself is up to, others how a product is interacting with the skin. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find all this vocabulary overwhelming. I worry that I’m misreading — maybe I think I’m dewy but actually I’m shiny! Dewy skin needs something different from shiny skin! WHAT IF I GET IT WRONG? I WILL RUIN MY FACE FOREVER!
Unfortunately, I haven’t found a K-beauty dictionary. The only way to figure out what all those words mean for me seems to be to make my best guess, try things I think might work, and see what happens over time.
Here are some of the skin sensations I’ve experienced personally, what I initially assumed they meant, and what I eventually concluded they meant for me. (I will be stretching the definition of “sensation” a bit — these are not all things your nerves will tell you without your looking in the mirror — but vision is a sense, too!)
Please note — again and always — that I am not an expert. I’m just one woman, both new to and in love with K-beauty, who’s learning as she goes. As always, your mileage may vary.
This was one of the first sensations I could identify. Tightness is how my skin feels a few minutes after washing it, when every time I move one part of my face, it pulls on skin somewhere else. I used to think this indicated dryness, as in a dry skin type that doesn’t have enough oil. When I read in a K-beauty blog (shout out Cat Cactus!) that tightness can indicate dryness or dehydration, it blew my mind.
How I figured out what it means for me:
I used some other clues to narrow my issue down to dehydration. Those clues included my visible pores, tendency toward acne, and consistent readings on a little skin reading instrument that demonstrated I was losing about 20 percentage points of hydration within an hour of finishing my skincare routine.
I love patting hydrators into my face. Some of my current favorites are Klairs Supple Preparation Toner and Innisfree Jeju Cherry Blossom Skin. I use these right after I wash my face (before my face is even dry), and I typically do several layers. I sometimes mix them with a hyaluronic acid product to help my skin keep the hydration longer.
Sidebar: I’ve been trying products with vitamin C lately, and I’ve noticed that several of them tighten my skin up instantly — not in a good way. It feels like water gets sucked straight out. If you know an effective vitamin C source that isn’t drying, let me know in the comments, eh?
Sensation: Shininess that is dry
This one is so weird. I always thought shiny skin was oily skin.
How I figured out what it means for me:
I’ve come to understand that there is a sort of dry shine my skin gets when it is over-exfoliated. In addition to being shiny, it’s also “crepe-y,” by which I mean I can create tiny fine wrinkles by pushing it in any direction.
Dry-shiny skin (for me) is thin skin. I’m thin-skinned enough metaphorically — I don’t need my epidermis to be thin as well!
Solution: gentleness, barrier care
Step 1: Knock off the acids and slow the surfactants (sigh). I have this terrible habit of assuming harsher products are always better. Listening to my skin means noticing when it’s dry-shiny and reducing or pausing all the products that might be stripping layers off.
Sensation: Shininess that is wet
Like the shininess above, I assumed this was oily skin. Sometimes when my face is shiny I can blot it and see a bit of oil. More often, though, nothing comes away, or what comes away is sticky instead of slippy. Calling Skin Detectives, mystery on line one!
How I figured out what it means for me:
I didn’t realize until I started watching videos of other people patting products into their faces how little product they were putting in their hands to start with. I tend to pour so much that I have to cup my hands not to dump toner on my bathroom counter. Surprise, surprise — if I do this with a few products in a row, I might end up with some residue on my face after the stuff that can sink in has sunk!
It turns out — for me — wet shininess is often residue from products I’ve used too much of.
Solution: Use less product
I’m still experimenting, but I’ve noticed I can apply more things to my cheeks than to my forehead before I start seeing shine. I infer my cheeks are thirstier, more dehydration-prone than my forehead is.
If I’ve already gone too far, I’ve found I can wait for my face to dry, then give it a swipe with something mild and thin on a cotton pad. Mamonde’s Chamomile Pure Toner is good for this. It removes that residue without pulling anything my face has already benefited from out of my skin. (Of course, I do this swipe before sunscreen!)
I cannot remember a time when I didn’t have this. From benign facial tumors with extra blood supply to acne that still shows up in my 30s, from intense flushing when embarrassed to blotchiness out of nowhere, redness in my skin has been present for decades. I always assumed it was just … acne. Unlucky me, oh well. I basically ignored the fact that I often had redness in places I didn’t have pimples.
How I figured out what this means for me:
Step 1: I fell in love with my skin. (See that Woman Wonder article I wrote.) I had to fall in love with my skin to be willing to get to know it.
Step 2: Because I loved my skin, I started paying real attention instead of pretending it didn’t exist. Finally — finally! — the penny dropped. Not all my inflammation is about acne. I started noticing things like redness can include pimples or it can be a general irritability. It can accompany over-exfoliation or it can be its own independent party on my face.
The truth is I haven’t completely figured this one out. I’m sure more will be revealed. What I know for now is that inflammation strikes, I see blotches, and my skin is often more sensitive during these times.
The most calming product in my arsenal is COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence. Something about this — pumped in generous quantity and smoothed over my (already hydrated) face — is soothing. It is also protective. Without feeling heavy, it creates what feels like the thinnest possible film, preventing outside irritants from getting in.
I have high hopes for some other ingredients — propolis, honey, and Centella asiatica in particular — but my workhorse at this moment is snail mucin. I’ve also noticed that sheet masks touted as “whitening,” while they aren’t literally lightening my skin, tend to have anti-inflammatory ingredients in them. They are often good for calming.
Sidebar: Pure acne is a different story. I have that, too. To do the topic justice I’d probably have to write another article, but in short: Azelaic acid and general skin health are doing wonders for my acne.
And finally, the goal of it all:
The holy grail! It’s what we’re all after, right?
I woke up this morning with normal skin, not that cracking dry feeling. My tone was even, not a blotch to be seen. Even my little tiny whiteheads — thank you, azelaic acid purge — were barely red at all. I had no idea my skin could look this good.
“Glow” probably means different things for different people, but for me it seems to be a combination of factors:
* Hydration, which plumps my skin up and makes me light-reflective from the inside.
* Strength, which gives me a barrier between my delicate dermis and the irritants outside.
* Calm, which reduces redness and evens out my skin tone overall.
Slowly but surely, my skin is teaching me what it needs. I can’t wait to learn whatever comes next.
I’ve only touched on a few skin sensations here. We haven’t talked about wrinkles, roughness, or breakouts, and I’m sure you can think of others. But I’ve got to stop talking some time — that’s why I need you, Skin Detectives!
Have you experienced any of the above skin sensations? What other skin sensations have you had? How have you figured out what they mean for you? And do you have any mysteries? Let me know so we can talk about it next time!