I have neglected the skin on my face my entire life. Aside from trying various acne treatments when I was a zit-riddled teen, I’ve effectively paid little attention to it. This wasn’t done out of altruism or a lack of human vanity, but rather out of sheer laziness. I was terrible about using SPF, and for years my skincare regime has consisted entirely of splashing water on my face. That’s it. No soap. Just rubbing water on my face then drying it off with a no-name towel I bought at Ross.
You may not be surprised to hear that my face gradually started looking more and more like a catcher’s glove. But what was responsible for this, exactly? Was it simply the fact that I am careening toward 40 and spend a lot of time outdoors? Or was it because I’d eschewed a proper skincare routine for the free stuff that magically comes out of my faucet? I thought an experiment was in order. I wanted to see if a hardcore, three-month skincare regimen could counteract a lifetime of dermatological ambivalence.
Let me state right away that this is not what scientists call, “good science.” We’re talking about a sample size of exactly one human being, but I make a somewhat unique test subject because, well, do you remember that Jodie Foster movie Nell, wherein the titular character is a woman who had essentially raised herself in the woods without any human contact? Well, for this experiment, “society” is skin-care products, and “Nell” is my face.
What I mean is that this should give us a pretty good look at what happens when you diligently use an expensive skincare system versus using a control substance, i.e. water. I knew this would represent a lifestyle change for me, so I wanted to keep it as simple as possible and just use one brand’s system. I had already received several pitches from the California-based company Biossance, so, I asked representatives from the company if they could fix my face. (I absolutely was not paid by the company for this experiment which I embarked on entirely alone, accompanied only by hope.) Wrinkles were accruing around my eyes and forehead, more discoloration spots were appearing, and I had some red blotchiness on my nose. They took a quick look and said they could come up with an intensive routine. Six steps in the morning, six steps at night, for 90 days.
It’s worth quickly explaining my current skincare routine, if it can be called that. I use only water, nothing else. About 10 years ago I read about the “no poo” movement, and the soap-free movement that went with it. I decided to try it, and while that experiment is a story for another day, the relevant bit is that I really liked just using water for cleaning my face. If my skin is oily one day, then I’ll wash a bit longer with warmer water. If it’s dry, then I’ll use cooler water. That’s seemed to keep things pretty-well balanced for the last decade.
Oh, and it’s worth noting that I am a cis white guy (apologies). I bring this up because the skincare industrial complex’s marketing machine isn’t aimed at me. It’s likely that I went so long without a skincare routine, in part, because my eyeballs aren’t constantly bludgeoned with messaging informing me that I am stupid/bad/crazy/ugly for not buying these products. They tell me to buy dandruff shampoo, gray-in-beard-hiding dye, and body washes that will make women want to wrestle alligators for me, and that’s about it. It’s a different experience and my experiment didn’t come with the pressures about age and appearance that women certainly face. Nor did it come with the costs of doing this over a lifetime.
My skincare routine arrived in a gigantic box, and consisted of the following items:
ANTIOXIDANT CLEANSING OIL
GLYCOLIC RENEWAL FACIAL
MARINE ALGAE EYE CREAM
PROBIOTIC GEL MOISTURIZER
TEA TREE BALANCING OIL
MICRONUTRIENT FACE MIST
PEPTIDE EYE GEL
PROBIOTIC GEL MOISTURIZER
MINERAL SPF 45
VITAMIN C ROSE OIL
According to Biossance, the grand total for these products is $524. Woof.
My routine came with very specific instructions on how to use each product. For example, for the Peptide Eye Gel, “Tap the product under the eye, then under the brow. Then massage, using the ring finger, in 360 circles around the whole eye. 5 times one way, then reverse 5 times.” Why my ring finger, I wondered? Would my eyeballs fall out if I used my index finger? Best not to take chances.
The short version of my routine is this: In the morning, I spray myself in the face with the micronutrient mist to prep my skin. Then, I dab eye gel around my eyes (ring finger only, you savage!), to reduce dark circles and puffiness. Then work a plant-based retinol serum onto my whole face to reduce lines and even skin tone. Massage in the probiotic gel moisturizer to hydrate, balance, and reduce redness. Lastly, take a couple of pumps of the mineral SPF lotion, add a few drops of the vitamin C oil (so it goes on smoother), and rub all over the face and neck.
At night, I start with the oil cleanser to cleanse my pores and “melt away impurities.” I was told to rub it into dry skin, then add water, and then wipe off with a washcloth. Twice a week I was to use the glycolic renewal mask, which I guess renews my skin? Then marine algae eye cream around the eyes to reduce wrinkles, followed by the phyto-retinol serum again, then the probiotic moisturizer again, and seal it all in with a few drops of Squalane + tea tree oil.
I stared at this mountain of bottles and jars and this tome of instructions and felt rather unequal to the task. On the first night, I added too much cleansing oil. Turns out one pump is enough. Then I got to the part in the instructions that said “remove with washcloth” and I was like, “WASHCLOTH? Who am I, Prince Harry? Let me see what I have in my ‘everything cabinet.’” I found a small PackTowl I use for backpacking and figured that would work okay.
The phyto-retinol seemed to make my face red at first, but then it faded pretty quickly. The mask stung my neck when it first went on, possibly from shaving nicks.
By day three, I realized that the routine wasn’t taking as long as I thought it would, especially as it came more naturally to me. I could get the whole thing done in under five minutes. Not bad! But, I suck at sleep and usually wait until I can barely keep my eyes open to brush my teeth and go to bed, so this addition to my nighttime routine represented a challenge, especially nights when I had to do the mask, which adds 10 minutes. I’d use that time to floss and brush my teeth, but still, it felt like a long time to wait.
After one month, I still hadn’t missed a single application morning or night, and I was very proud of myself. By the time the three months were up I had my routine down to under three minutes unless it was a mask night. I only missed a total of six applications in that entire time, so I felt like I gave this stuff every chance to succeed. I liked the way my skin felt, but I hadn’t really hated the way my skin felt before starting all of this. It’s hard to assess subtle changes over a period of months, especially when it’s something you see every day (like your face). So, I strove for a more objective way to measure my progress.
On night one, right before I started applying goops, I shaved my face, threw on a green t-shirt (I am the Imelda Marcos of green t-shirts), and took a series of awkward close-up photos of my face with my phone. On the final night, I shaved again, put on the same t-shirt, and ensured that the lighting was the exact same as it was when I took my “before photos.” I used the same lens on the same phone, and I did my best to recreate the same poses and angles as the originals (though I didn’t do a perfect job on that front). I then lined them up and compared the before and after photos.
I know what I thought when I analyzed the photos, but I wanted a more objective opinion, so I randomized the order, put these especially unflattering photos on my Instagram and Facebook, and asked for people to comment whether they thought my skin looked better on the right or left in each pair. If you’d like, before you find out which is which, take a look for yourself and see what you think:
The after photos are 1:R, 2:R, 3:L, 4:R, 5:L. My Instagram followers correctly identified the after shot 66 percent of the time. Two out of three isn’t bad! Twenty-three percent of the answers were wrong, and 11 percent of the answers were when people saw “no difference.” Of the 33 people who took the world’s most boring online quiz, only five people got all five correct, which is 15 percent.
Personally, I didn’t really see a difference in the photos. I was able to zoom in and everything, and it still looked essentially the same. This is also the experience I have when looking in the mirror. I think there was a part of me that secretly hoped that spending all this effort and money on my face would magically make me look 25 again. But no. I wasn’t suddenly back to getting I.D.ed at bars, and I wasn’t turning heads walking down the street.
I don’t think there’s enough conclusive evidence for me to be able to make a declarative statement about whether or not this stuff works. I can tell you that after my three-month trial ended, I stopped using all of these products and went back to just splashing water on my face morning and night. For the first couple of days, my skin felt dry, but by day three it seemed to have rebalanced itself, and it’s looked and felt normal since then. Looking in the mirror, I’m not seeing any differences. I am trying to be better about using sunblock, though, and I still like the Biossance SPF stuff as a daily thing.
I think about how much this routine would cost if I sustained it for a year or even a decade. I would rather just keep splashing water on my face for free, never worrying about having the right products with me, and take the wrinkles as they come, because this experiment leads me to believe that they’re going to come anyway, regardless of the products I use.
But “taking the wrinkles as they come” is generally a lot easier for me to say. The pressures aren’t the same for me as they are for women. While I do a fair amount of on-camera work and aspire to do more, the standards of beauty for men and for women are worlds apart. So, I understand why people spend thousands of dollars over a lifetime on this stuff. These cleansers, creams, serums, and elixirs promise to help stave off the effects of time and the censure of the world, and there could be a strong case to be made for the expense and effort being “worth it.”
This experiment was a tiny, quasi-scientific attempt to find out if they actually work, and while I don’t think I could conclusively say that they don’t, I certainly can’t say that they do, either. What you do with this is up to you. If you need anything, I’ll be over here with my face under the tap.
Brent Rose is an actor, filmmaker, and writer (for Gizmodo, among others). He has spent the last five years traveling in a van and documenting the American experience in this particularly insane time. You can find him on Instagram, Twitter, and at brentrose.com