Skin Detectives #3: Decoding More Skin Sensations & What to Do About Them
So we (kinda) figured out tightness, shininess (both wet and dry), and inflammation, but there are a lot more skin sensations out there. Here, we tackle a few more, what they mean, and what you can do about them.
People are always saying, “Listen to your skin.” For a newbie, it can be difficult to know what your skin is saying. Dry or dehydrated? Oily or slow to desquamate? Allergic or acne-prone? Halp! In my last article I talked about tightness/stiffness, shininess that is dry, shininess that is wet, and that whole category of things that falls under the heading “inflammation” (redness, pain, and blotchiness). Today I’ll be describing some more sensations I’ve experienced in my skin, what I think those skin sensations mean for me, and what I do about them.
I do not enjoy horror movies. Skin flaking off a zombie is my nightmare. When it becomes my reality, I am not pleased. Waking up in the morning with visible bits of dry skin lifting off my face … heaven fix it.
How I figured out what it means for me:
I used to think flakiness meant dryness. If dryness is the problem, obviously oil is the answer, right? (gags) Nooooooo ….
Coco Park wrote a great article on how to tell whether your skin is dry or dehydrated. I detailed my own learning process in part one of this series. Long story short: My skin is not dry, and oil is not the answer. But even now that I’m hydrating properly, I still sometimes wake up with flakes! So what could possibly help?
Solution: gentle exfoliation
Fortunately, I can fix flakes without knowing for sure what caused them. All I need to do is scrub my skin gently so anything that’s loose sloughs off. I’m skeeved out by most scrubs (I don’t think I’ve recovered yet from my teenage face-grinding days), so I look for the gentlest method I can find.
Peeling gels are my answer. Yes, they sound gross, but they don’t actually peel my face off. What they really do is bunch up into little fibers that roll around and pick up dead skin as they go. I can use them morning or night, whenever I see the need. They’re so gentle I can even use them twice in one routine. Usually I gel-peel before I cleanse (because it works best on dry skin, and I’m bad at waiting). If my clean skin still looks iffy, I can dry my face and gel-peel again. The skin underneath always feels healthy, fat, and strong. Right now I’m using Goodal Natural Clear Mild Peeling Gel. I’d like to try either Secret Key Sparkling Peeling Gel or SanDaWha Aqua Peeling Gel next.
OK, so maybe I’m a little bit of a masochist.
My face used to be my enemy. K-beauty has been instrumental in changing my attitude from armed opponent to well-informed caregiver. And yet I still have a little bit of that old lust for battle. I recognize it in the little thrill I get from products that make my skin tingle.
How I figured out what it means for me:
Y’all have taught me that tingling and stinging are the same thing. They both signify irritation. Yes, one is lighter than the other, and the lightness of the sensation might be an indicator of how severe the irritation is, but ultimately, anything that gives my skin a zing is doing something serious.
Honestly, I still struggle with this. I like using products that produce a tingle or a sting, and I tend to increase use until it hurts. I still suffer from the illusion that suffering is virtue. Pain is beauty. I feel like things that dance on my nerves must be working.
If I had better self-control, I’d just put down the acids, back away from the mirror, and give my skin a break. Unfortunately, I need bigger guns! That’s why I’ve made myself a spreadsheet with a schedule for introducing new products. (Thank you Cat Cactus for the inspiration.) I play fast and loose with the dates for products that aren’t likely to be irritating, like new serums or sunscreens, but with products that exfoliate, I am strict.
(You’ll notice “I’m strict” doesn’t mean “I never deviate from the schedule.” I lasted one day with a propolis ampoule because I was too excited about trying a retinoid, and then gave up on the retinoid after a week because I felt like it was preventing my skin from absorbing water. However, each time I change one date, the dates underneath change automatically. I will not add any new acids until at least four weeks after I started the last one.)
(You’ll also notice my products are increasingly the sort of things you can find at Beautytap. I have a backlog of things I bought at American stores, and I’m not going to waste them, but as time goes on, I’m more and more interested in K-beauty products.)
Sensation: breakouts without inflammation
How is this even possible? Pimples have always been painful for me. I’d never had visible blemishes before that weren’t particularly inflamed. And yet a couple months ago I started seeing it. Clusters of liquid-y whiteheads. Hard little white-centered bumps. Waking up with spots. New ones showing up as the day progressed. What was weird about them is that if something pierced them and the white bit came out — not that I would ever do this, obviously, but like if I accidentally leaned on a porcupine or something — they would just sort of go away. They weren’t turning into angry red little hills of death. They’d stay pink for a few minutes, and then they would just be gone.
How I figured out what it means for me:
I’d heard of purging, of course. I’ve seen other writers describe it. Since I knew a purge might be coming once I started using azelaic acid, I was primed to notice anything new about my skin. Pimples without pain were not what I was expecting, but apparently that’s what purging looks like for me!
My theory — and this is completely based in imagination, absolutely nothing to do with known science — is that my clogs are always trying to get out. They’re like little kids in detention, angry at the teacher barring the door, trying to rile up the other kids into a revolution. Before the purge, clogs had to push hard against my thick skin. All that effort irritated the tissue around them. Once azelaic acid thinned out the cover on top of those clogs, they didn’t have to work so hard to get free. They were just sort of sitting near the surface. Teacher’s asleep, y’all, let’s go — and they’d slip right out the door.
Solution: be gentle and wait it out
The nice thing about purging is it’s temporary. My skin is adjusting to its prescription exfoliant (hey Curology hey). The biggest challenge for me is to wait until it’s all the way adjusted before I start playing with other potentially irritating products. My goal when I’m purging is to stay the course: Keep hydrating, keep using protective ingredients like ceramides and snail mucin, and stick to the schedule that keeps me from breaking my skin.
In addition to all the products I mentioned last time, I use a sheet mask every night after I’ve applied my steps through ampoules. That consistent, intensive hydration really helps my skin stay strong during times of transition. Some of my favorites right now are Klairs Rich Moist Soothing Tencel Sheet Masks, seaNtree Cica Soothing Cotton Mask, and Etude House’s entire 0.2mm Air Therapy series.
Just like glow in the last article, I’m ending on a positive note. Plumpness is a fun one! It’s what happens right after I hydrate, when my cells are full to bursting with water. (Did I just make that up? Is it the cells that get hydrated, or is water flowing around the cells through my plasma or something? Protect us from a K-beauty newbie who thinks she knows some things!)
Anyway, whatever it really is, I know what plumpness looks like. It’s what happens when you connect your hose to your Slip ‘N Slide: All those wrinkles straighten out as the tube fills up with water. My fine lines fade into smoothness. (It doesn’t sort my laugh lines, but there’s nothing fine about those.)
Bad news: The effect is temporary. Good news: If I stick to my hydrating routine, I get that temporary effect twice a day. The healthier my skin gets overall, too, the longer it lasts each time.
Where are you in your journey, Skin Detectives? Any more skin sensations you wanna talk about? Tell us in the comments and give us something to figure out together!