“Saving face” might mean not saving your face at all

Nicole Ong

Perched at my desk, I was ready. I stared intently at a brightly color-coded spreadsheet, prepared to solve the world’s most difficult logic puzzle: my skincare routine. The rules of the game raced in my mind — oil cleanser comes before water cleanser, the salicylic acid cleanser can’t be used with the Japanese toner, vitamin C serum can’t be used on two consecutive days or with a physical exfoliator, along with a plethora of other restrictions and ideal pairs. My movements mimicked a chess game, eyebrows furrowing as I moved products from one box on the spreadsheet to another, until, checkmate, I was beaten.

Initially, I wasn’t particularly picky about my skin — a quick rinse with Cetaphil face wash (as per a recommendation from my mother) and dollop of moisturizer (also as per my mother’s advice) sufficed; maybe even a sheet mask if I got a pack as a Christmas gift. If anything, I wanted to shrink my huge pores and minimize my acne. I soon expanded to using African Black Soap, a witch hazel toner and a simple $5 moisturizer from Trader Joes. The bumps on my forehead weren’t a major annoyance, and I easily laughed off any embarrassment about my features.

Late in junior year, however, a suggestion came on my YouTube feed — something along the lines of “How to get GLASS SKIN! KOREAN SKINCARE ROUTINE!” Intrigued, I clicked, and was sucked into the rabbit hole of suggested videos. Each one depicted flawless beauty gurus who advertised promises of “honey skin” or “glass skin” — flawless, hydrated and supple skin, without the use of any makeup. If any or all of it was a marketing sham, then props to the marketing department, because it worked, almost a little too well.

Following the advice of these glowing skincare gurus, I began spending more time and money on skincare. My routine jumped from a modest three steps to a sizable 10 steps, to be completed both morning and night; from a routine which cost $15 maximum to one which had a total value of $100. 

Oops. 

Steps were never to be skipped, and I was to follow the precise routine outlined in my color-coded spreadsheet detailing a four-week skincare cycle. Each product had its place: chemical exfoliators would never be used without sunscreen the next day, I would use a sheet mask every Friday and I would double-moisturize four times a week.

What YouTube tutorials and product advertisements don’t tell you is the burden of a 10-step routine. Traveling was a hassle — try shoving 10 full-size products and regular toiletries into a quart-sized Ziploc, and then finding a way to get it past airport security. Some nights, after hours of studying, I wished for my 10 steps to be reduced to nine, just once, so I could go to sleep a little earlier. I started agonizing over every blemish; from the smallest blackhead on my nose to a large pimple on my forehead, I felt the need to fix everything. If I wanted “honey skin,” I had to be diligent: find every blemish, and find a product to eliminate it.

I waited, slathering thick creams and goopy essences onto my face each night, but “honey skin” never came. The tiny bumps on my forehead never completely disappeared, no matter how much I scrubbed at them. My nose is still an oil slick but my cheeks are basically the Sahara Desert, if not worse. I’d add on another product to resolve this, and my skin would break out into painful acne even worse than before I started. Out of desperation, I switched out reasonable products for more expensive ones, adjusted my spreadsheet, read more articles and pored through thousands of product reviews, all in the hopes I’d finally unlock the secret combination that would give me the smoothest skin possible. 

Nope.

Instead of bright, glowing skin and a renewed sense of self, I only faced greater amounts of painful acne and a ruined self-image. I’d hide my chin in my hands when I sat down, hoping I’d mask the scabs. I’d see girls around school and envy their smooth skin, failing to realize that they were probably wearing makeup.

At some point, I just stopped caring so much; I had to. I still hope for “honey skin,” but it got tiring to look in the mirror and be filled with deep insecurities about every miniscule bump on my cheek or blackhead on my nose. I didn’t want to cake my face in makeup every morning just to take it off and feel worse at night. 

At the end of the day, Photoshop doesn’t work in real life, the Fountain of Youth isn’t real, and anyone who judges you on appearances rather than character is not worth your time. Will I ever be blemish-free? Perhaps not, but instead of bashing myself for what I can’t control, I rest assured that blemishes are universal — remember: no one cares more than you do. Whether I have the “honey skin” I so dearly seek or the “pepperoni pizza” skin of my breakouts, I know the secret to beauty was never a color-coded paradox-on-a-spreadsheet of a skincare routine or a 40-dollar bottle of essence, but confidence.