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I don’t have the time, energy or money for all the science behind skincare these days

Tanya Sweeney


Active ingredients: Modern skincare has gotten very complicated

Active ingredients: Modern skincare has gotten very complicated

Active ingredients: Modern skincare has gotten very complicated

Someone very lovely and kind gave me a skincare set for Christmas, and I’ m still afraid to use it, because I only have biology and chemistry to Leaving Cert level. Retino l, hyaluronic acid, Matri xyl 3000 — I don’t know if I’m supposed to moisturise with it or give a science class with it. One of the products, according to the instructions, should be used “after water-based serums, but before heavier treatments”, at which point my brain almost somersaults itself into shutdown mode. I wasn’t really listening in chemistry class, and I’m not listening now.

Modern skincare has gotten very complicated. I don’t mean the skincare for models and beauty professionals; I mean skincare for us ordinary, cell-shedding mortals. Years ago, you were conscientious if you cleansed, toned and moisturised every day. Occasionally, if you really meant business, you’d do a mask or scrub once a week. The end.

Well, pah to all that. You might as well be wiping your face with a burlap sack.

A friend of mine, a professor at a university, occasionally chastises me for not having a six-step, twice-daily regimen involving SPFs, serums and all other sorts of superfluous faff. Another friend, a book editor, casually talks about ‘active ingredients’ with the authority of a clinical dermatologist. She’s done the spadework, and she is genuinely invested in alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and ceramides and peptides and what they purport to do. I can’t tell if it’s age, or exhaustion, or parenthood, or general existential ennui that has left me completely uninterested in this stuff. I wish I could say I was actively giving two fingers to the patriarchy and rejecting the societal shame around getting older, but I’m too tired and busy for all that right now.

I don’t want to spend money on anti-ageing products. I haven’t enough bandwidth left to figure out the difference between 2% retinol and 5% retinol. Perhaps owing to Covid, and effectively being let off the hook vis-à-vis having to actually see people, my vanity has well and truly left the building. I might get lynched by some unspecific female council for saying this, but I have been known to sleep with my makeup on — a sin beyond your typical five-Hail-Marys level. Sorry, womanhood.

The bitter irony, of course, is that I was very, very interested in all things beauty when I had much less need for anti-ageing skincare. Even when I was plump of cheek and smooth of forehead, I was convinced of the ‘transformational’ abilities of some insanely pricey moisturiser. When sales assistants at the airport or department store weren’t looking, I’d scoop huge gobs of products like Crème de la Mer Skintint or La Prairie moisturiser out of sample jars and whack them on. It’s a memory lost on the sandbanks of time, but I vaguely remember the feel-good factor involved in using the high-end stuff.

I was a long, long way off from needing anti-ageing skincare at the time, but then I’d grown up in a culture heavy with the wisdom of women’s magazines. This can often be boiled down to a simple philosophy: buy this, and you’ll feel better, more youthful and, by extension, more desirable.

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I should mention that I don’t look down my nose at the women who have grasped highly complicated skincare/anti-ageing routines, and I certainly don’t care if you want to spend your money on Botox or fillers. In fact, it really bothers me when beauty enthusiasts are dismissed as vainglorious airheads or women pathetically pushing back the tides of time. The Guardian beauty columnist Sali Hughes makes a good point: the hobbies and enthusiasms of men — whether it’s football, jazz or golf — are often culturally elevated. They have a level of social import that things like fashion or beauty never will. No one says anything about frivolous spending to a man who has spent hundreds on a rare vinyl reissue or a football season ticket. And yet a woman who is paying €100 on self-care, to upkeep a physical ideal — imposed constantly on her by the wider world — is some kind of airhead.

Part of me would like to keep some skin in the skincare game. Who doesn’t like to feel like they look like the best version of themselves? Yet several factors conspire against this, and the complicated ‘here comes the science bit’ nonsense is just one of them. I hate to sound like your granny who swore blind that a bar of Sunlight soap kept her looking radiant for nigh on 60 years, but I will leave you with this parting gift. A few years ago, when I was working out daily and drinking about four litres of water a day, I was told by a friend that a ‘rumour’ was going around that I’d had Botox. My skin had definitely plumped out and lost its parched feeling.

Luckily, we’re past the point where Botox use is some sort of dirty little secret worthy of the rumour mill, but still. I took it as evidence that I was doing something right. Eternal youth doesn’t require Niacinamide, Glycolic acid or Argireline. Really, you just need a tap and a very forgiving bladder.

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