I really wish I wasn’t qualified to write this post. My goal when I started getting into Asian Beauty and general skincare was to fix up this skin mess as soon as possible so I could get back to focusing on glittery makeup.
Unfortunately, my hormones never signed on for that deal, as they remind me all too often. My skin has vastly improved since committing to my skincare routine, but there’s a lot of garbage below the surface that needs to be cleared out and the regular new explosion. That said, there’s only so much even my PocketDerm dermatologist can do to fight the hormones without me taking pills that would drastically change my hormones in ways I’m not down with at this point.
My screwed up skin isn’t the end of the world to me, and I’ll keep pushing my troubled skin boulder up the hill each day in hopes of incremental improvement.
I took the photos for this post on the toughest day of the month for my skin: my hormones spiked as usual, I did a pretty strong peel two days ago, and I’m in the middle of an ongoing purge of everything nasty once trapped in my pores. While considering whether to do this post now or later I thought to myself: put your makeup where your mouth is, miss “beauty blogger”, and show the world what you can do with your skin at its worst.
I was nervous about posting this because ICK! VULNERABILITY!, but my friend Cat at Snow White and the Asian Pear reminded me that imperfect skin isn’t a sign of failure and that people with skin driven nuts by hormones might find some real advice from in the trenches useful.
The upside to running a product-focused blog is that I doubt anyone is here to sigh in envy over my weird, uneven face. ahahaha
This isn’t a post just about skincare and makeup
I was inspired to make this post because I remember my mom saying that long ago, when I was a child and her skin experienced the same very serious hormonal acne, that she once didn’t want to go to one of my dad’s work parties due to her skin. Her dermatologist reassured her that she should go and that there was a makeup brand that was pricey, but could conceal her blemishes and give her the confidence to leave the house.
After watching my mom’s struggles on account of troubled skin I vowed that no matter what my insides served up, I wouldn’t let my skin hold me back from life.
This isn’t about looking cute or beautiful. It’s hopefully about making one person somewhere feel empowered enough that they keep their plans and make it out of the house even when they feel like they’re starting from unlovable and unpretty due to troubled skin.
Sure, in a perfect world skincare would be our focus and we could heal everything and not need makeup, but that’s not an option for all of us, and it’s not an option today for many of us. This stuff takes time, I know. I use fantastic skincare religiously and still my inner chemistry dictates that my skin is spotty. And sure, it would be great if we could completely disentangle feelings of self-esteem and value from what’s in the mirror, but even if I feel pretty good about me that doesn’t mean I’m not afraid that someone else will point out my flaws and make me feel foolish. Add in uncomfortable shoes and we have the makings of a nightmare.
Stepping out of the house means vulnerability. But it also means the possibility of great things happening: creative growth, love, business connections, and friendship.
Your job is not to look beautiful. Very few people in this world draw a paycheck from their looks alone. Your job isn’t even to be a bad bitch or…non-creepy male equivalent (boss?). You just have to be you and sometimes leave the house. Ideally without crying–that shit can really screw up makeup, trust me.
You deserve to live front and center in your own life and feel able to chase the things that interest you. If your skin is holding you back from a full life, this post is for you, written by your compatriot. Fighting!
Some notes and warnings
- Think of this as a “Special Event” skincare and makeup routine. Even my fairly hardy skin can’t handle a 10% AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acid–good for resurfacing skin and suitable even for dry skin) every day.
- As always, my results may not be your results.
- Introduce products slowly and test them thoroughly. In no universe should anyone buy all of the stuff that I mention and then slap it on their face right before a big event–it’s a recipe for a total disaster.
- You may already own products in the same category as those I use–if you have a pH-adjusting toner, for example, that you like there’s no need to drop more money on the Pixi Glow Tonic that I use here.
- You don’t need every product and every technique–pick out what seems like it might work for your skin and try it.
What I Can Deliver
I can deliver seriously messed up bare skin (with some areas that are now trouble-free AYY!!!! PARTY TIME!) and seriously messed up skin with makeup on it. By the end of this routine I can get out of my house without crying about my skin or cancelling plans (I’ve been tempted before). Considering that my plans sometimes involve meeting NYC-based Korean beauty shop owners with famously flawless skin, I feel like simply getting out of the house and keeping appointments is a victory. Trust me, these women have AMAZING skin and also I am a potato. But a potato that showed up for coffee! Victory!
Lest anyone ask why someone with skin like that is running a skincare blog, here’s my skin at its worst (which was a few months after I started using Asian Beauty products, was working impossibly long hours, had tons of stress, and happened to be using Benton products, justsayin).
By the way, I usually never post before and after photos and it’s not because I don’t know that they exist or because I want to force people to rely on my word alone. I think that they’re one of the trickiest bits of blogging to do truly well. I also think that they’re one of the most powerful tools bloggers have for sharing their experiences and people are programmed to trust photos more than words, so they’re enormously effective for persuasion and inducing people to buy products.
Bloggers who don’t have wild hormonal acne like me can do great things with them, but–having taken tracking photos of my skin regularly for two years now–I can tell you that something can appear to work beautifully for me for two or four or six whole weeks and then give way to waves of blemishes once my hormones come back from their vacation and take the reins for the next six months. That doesn’t make the product bad, but the respite from the hormonal assault doesn’t make the product good either (this is why I usually take months and months to test acne and brightening products before reviewing them). I wouldn’t want people to be unduly influenced by photos taken during that skin honeymoon, so I stash away tracking photos, push my skin boulder up the hill, and work toward the day I have clear skin and can share the ups and downs of the past few years and the products that demonstrably changed my skin for the better for the long-term. For people with hormonal acne that’s not yet under control (or can’t be controlled), the history of our skin must be told from the perspective of the longue durée.
My Routine Goals
The goals of this routine are pretty simple:
- get out of my house without crying about my skin or cancelling plans.
- use skincare to make the not-blemished parts of my face as nice and glowy as possible.
- keep the overall amount of base makeup on my skin as minimal as possible while attempting to create a more or less even skin tone (it’s still a lot of makeup).
- at the same time, create base coverage that won’t become ridiculously oily while I’m out and won’t melt away in a reasonable amount of heat (this routine was designed and tested during summer, and I take NYC public transportation everywhere, so it can handle a lot).
- yeah that’s all I got, trust me, it’s a challenge.
The routine has three stages: night before skincare, morning skincare, and base makeup. I’m not even going to touch on the color makeup portion because it’s not directly related to troubled skin in quite the same way base makeup like foundation and concealer is.
A note regarding filters and retouching
Unless otherwise noted, the photos in this post have been taken with my iPhone 5S without a filter and without any kind of retouching in Photoshop or elsewhere. I took most of the photos while facing afternoon natural light or the light of my makeup mirror (which is bright as hell).
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE filters. And trust me, your famous favorites on YouTube and Instagram probably love the shit outta filters, too. If you don’t see their filters it’s because they’re good with their filters. FILTERS. Because filters are magic. The alternative is to have a crap phone or camera because nobody has skin that looks great all the time in all lights and at all angles. The truth is that NOBODY looks like they just walked through a cloud, but people love looking at cloud-softly focused photos.
I consider a makeup mirror absolutely essential for really elevating one’s game, especially when it comes to base makeup like foundation and concealer. The light and magnification force one to create an even finish, which pays off big time in terms of how one’s makeup looks away from magnification. I’ve used them since high school and I’ve really noticed how much my game levels up when I use one (and drops off hard when I don’t).
I currently use a stupidly expensive mirror that I really like in some ways and not others. It’s the Simplehuman 8” Sensor Mirror. It’s SO EXPENSIVE for what it is imo: the sensor turns off too fast and the battery runs out too fast, but it has a nice big mirror surface and it’s amazing to have a cordless mirror that looks nice at my workstation that turns itself on when I lean in.
I used to use the Conair Double-Sided Mirror and it was fine until the bulb burned out and I stripped the screws trying to replace it. When faced with the choice between spending $30 or $200 for a makeup mirror, I think that the $30 one is just fine unless you’re looking to splurge. The pricier simplehuman mirror is certainly better, but it falls short of what I expect from a product that much more expensive than other mirrors. I bought mine during the spring Sephora 20% off sale and I’m still on the fence about whether that was a good investment.
The point of my “night-before-event” skincare routine is to resurface my skin using an AHA to avoid dry skin flakes in the morning and then drive water-based moisture into my skin before sealing it with a sleeping pack and a dry oil.
This routine was originally posted on my Instagram btw, which is where I share quick reviews and previews of what I’m up to.
1. Start with a pH-adjusting toner (a toner with a fairly low pH-level to prep skin after cleansing for acid effectiveness). Let it dry for 30 seconds and move on. I use Pixi Glow Tonic. [Target | Pixi Beauty | Amazon]
2. Immediately follow with a good dose of AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) to remove dead skin and flakes. Paula’s Choice Resist Weekly Resurfacing Treatment 10% AHA is my favorite. Wait 30 minutes. [Paula’s Choice; this link will allow new customers to take $10 off their first order]
3. Thirsty-making essence. Follow with a super gentle product that makes your skin thirsty–think something along the lines of a first essence (IOPE Bio Conditioning, Missha FTE, SK-II). Yes, I’m aware that this doesn’t quite follow the standard routine, but work with me. I’ve been using Blithe Vital Treatment Essence because it doesn’t contain niacinamide, so my face doesn’t end up flushed following acids and things (I’m a bit sensitive to niacinamide). Testing ongoing. [Glow Recipe; new customers can save 15% by using this link]
4. Sheet mask. Apply a sheet mask for at least 20 minutes. I’m crazy in love with Taiwanese sheet masks like Love More’s silk Rosa Hybrida. It’s thin, comfortable, and the essence feels PERFECT. [Amazon | eBay] 5. Close out with a sleeping pack plus one drop of oil. I call this the “sticky mask”–it’s not actually that sticky unless you apply a lot (I do). I’m digging the new Su:m 37 Water-full Aqua Sleeping Pack mixed with one drop of Blossom Jeju 100% Camellia Seed Oil. This oil…it’s truly a game-changer (whereas I don’t feel that way about the sleeping pack). It sinks in quickly and seems to burrow deep to provide lasting skin hydration without oiliness. It’s a strange ingredient–it feels much more like a water-based humectant than an occlusive–which is perfect for my skin. [Su:m sleeping pack: eBay | Amazon | Bisou Beauty Bar | Skin Milk Bar] [Blossom Jeju oil: Glow Recipe; new customers can save 15% by using this link] Sleep in this cocoon of moisture, cleanse the next morning, and apply your normal skincare products–I was able to avoid emergency products (like heavy creams to try to control flaking) in the morning routine thanks to this, which is honestly better for makeup application. I find that this routine helps remove dead skin without me scrubbing and agitating skin and it also often flattens blemishes to make them appear less noticeable. Think of it as making the smoothest of a rough skin situation.
My goal for the morning skincare routine is to hydrate skin quickly after cleansing, but not over-do the moisture or add products I wouldn’t normally use; the whole reason for the decadent evening routine is to pre-load skin with all the good stuff so that my morning skincare routine can be simple.
1. Start with a gentle cleanser. The gentlest cleanser I’ve ever found for my skin is Re:cipe’s Slowganic Cleanser (I’ve tried all three types–lemon, green tea, and adlay–and they’re all equally gentle on my skin). Keep in mind that my skin is a fussy baby when it comes to foaming agents, so not only do I pay attention to pH, I also have to think about ingredients (many of which my skin hates), and the texture of my skin created by the cleanser.
This cleanser starts with a moist, undrained fresh cheese curd texture (yes, I used to make cheese at home, I’m a historian! don’t laugh ahahaah) and forms pleasant but not foamy bubbles when agitated with added water. The pH level is 5.5 (according to Unboxing Beauty‘s test) and this doesn’t anger my skin or make the texture rough even after a serious peel. [eBay | TesterKorea] 2. I follow with a toner. Son & Park’s Beauty Water is a multitasking skincare product that I’ve come to like a lot–it can be used to remove makeup (as part of one’s larger cleansing routine; it’s not meant to be used alone) and tone skin. I use this because it has a low pH (5), but it doesn’t contain acid, which is necessary after the intense peel the night before.
3. Follow with a super gentle essence that makes your skin thirsty. I’ve been using Blithe Vital Treatment because it doesn’t contain niacinamide, so my face doesn’t end up flushed following acids and things. Testing ongoing. [Glow Recipe; new customers can save 15% by using this link]
4. Next up is a soothing and lightly moisturizing essence for troubled skin, LJH’s Tea Tree 90 Essence, which was my favorite product of 2014. I reviewed it way back in May of 2014 and loved it enough to include it in the lineup for my first Memebox Haul of Fame sale. [Memebox; use code FANSERVICEDB to save 30% on this product until 20 September | eBay | Glow Recipe; new customers can save 15 by using this link] 5. I top this off with a light gel-cream that controls oil, SN-T’s Plant Stem Cell Cream. I included it in the lineup for my first Memebox Haul of Fame sale and tried cream after cream since then, but nothing surpasses the light moisture and oil control (without causing clogs) like this. It’s one of my best weapons for keeping my makeup intact all day. [Memebox; use code FANSERVICEDB to save 30% on this product until 20 September] Note: I skipped the sunscreen for my photos (so I wouldn’t flash out in the natural light), but I usually apply that daily unless I’m staying home.
My base makeup philosophy is that concealers should be incredibly thick and SUPER pigmented (but buffed out to be incredibly thin) and general base makeup should be super thin to the point of being runny but also highly pigmented. The reason I want base makeup to be thick and mega pigmented is because I need it to pack a bunch of pigmentation into a small amount of product so that I can gain coverage with a minimal amount of makeup caked on my face–the goal is to add very thin layers of coverage loaded with pigmentation. It’s still not the kbeauty ideal of virtually sheer makeup over perfect skin, but whaddyagonnadoaboutit. This means that, for me, bb cream is out. Bb cream has a lot of stuff other than pigmentation in it, so I’d need to use a ton to provide the coverage I need and that just ends up cakey. Also, I’ve never found a bb cream that doesn’t give my skin a mega white cast, matches my skin tone, and doesn’t break me out. NEVER. Considering that at N15 with neutral undertones, I’m right in the sweet spot as far as kbeauty base makeup goes, that’s insane. On the other hand, plenty of cushions look ok and some look good. I’m blaming bb creams as a genre and moving on. The goal is to do some mille feuille base makeup–lots of micro layers adding up to the least possible makeup necessary that still conceals most stuff. Texture is obviously the problem here–if you have active blemishes or dry skin, that’s going to show up no matter how much makeup you put on. Don’t get hung up on it; keep the overall base as natural as possible and then move on to play up other parts of your face. Spoiler alert: I end up wearing A LOT of makeup and taking a lot of time getting it on here. Most days I just apply a base of foundation with my fingers, dab on some cushion in problem areas, and run out the door. In this case, I’m going for a full faked decent skin look.
This is the point where I think to myself, “Well, shit. At least I’m kind of smart? Sometimes? I dunno. I have a great wardrobe of 80% cat t-shirts? If I tell some jokes maybe people will think I’m ok? Ehh. Don’t overthink it. Just get your makeup on, T-Dogg and get your ass out of the house.”
Thin Foundation: Sua Young MEIN Mineral Essence in Liquid Foundation
For my neutral-undertoned N15 skin this stuff is IT omg. It’s a rare product that looks toward N20 rather than back at N10, so it doesn’t make my skin lighter. It’s incredibly pigmented, but runny in consistency. It seems to control oil a bit, but it makes my skin look like skin and not excessively powdery or matte. I bought mine from the official Sua Young qoo10 shop.
Literally one pump could more than cover the whole face of someone without troubled skin. I apply this using my fingers because I find that they’re easier to keep clean than sponges and brushes, and they don’t leave brush marks or bristles on my face ahahah. Fingers are a great way to apply initial base makeup thinly and evenly, but I do use tools later to give my base makeup a nicer, more airbrushy finish. My advice for this stage would be to realize that the game has just started and that there will be plenty of time to add more coverage later and conceal marks and blemishes. The goal is simply to get a foundation for your foundation.
Concealer: Kevyn Aucoin Sensual Skin Enhancer (SSE) (I use #5)
Can we just take a moment to honor the legacy of the late, great Kevyn Aucoin? His Making Faces book about makeup was one of the formative things I read as a teenager, so I knew all about contouring about two decades ago–he was that ahead of the game. His vision of makeup and beauty was inclusive and powerful. He could truly transform someone and reveal their beauty by using makeup. Reading that book was really empowering because I knew from the moment I started high school (I received a copy of the book in 1997) that makeup was magic and power and art.
The Sensual Skin Enhancer from his eponymous makeup line is an amazing product that matches that legacy and vision. The shade range is wide and a tiny amount (we’re talking a grain of rice) can be enough to cover a whole face when used properly. Camera Ready Cosmetics sells samples, which I found really necessary to buy since this is stocked in few stores and it’s not cheap at all. I bought four samples and experimented before landing on my match, SX05.
I apply this using the Zoeva Concealer Buffer Brush (#142), which I think is fantastic. It allows me to buff the SSE into my skin to concentrate it over spots that need concealing and then blend it out from there to make the coverage appear more natural. The shortness of the bristles allow me to buff into the skin, which contributes to the blending. This is the part of my makeup routine that most reminds me of oil painting! My Zoeva brushes are imported from Germany (groan, I know, unless you live in the EU). They cost a fair bit to ship to me and took a damn long time to arrive, but the Rose Golden brush set, unf. The #142 Concealer Buffer is also available individually. If you don’t want to buy a Zoeva brush, look for one with short, compact bristles and a rounded head.
It’s obviously important to keep one’s brushes clean. I like to use an actual brush soap since the bristles and glue need care so as not to fall apart or get hard–my unwanted high pH cleansers aren’t coming anywhere near my brushes, to be honest. I really like the Da Vinci Series 4033 All Natural Brush Soap–it keeps bristles pliable and cleans really well.
The danger with concealer is overconcealing, which ends up highlighting blemishes and drawing attention to them rather than actually concealing them. Aim for just adding another layer of coverage and move on.
Pore Primer: Miguhara BP Cream (for nose pores)
This stuff is fabulous and has quite a cult following among Memebox fans who received it in boxes in 2014. It’s like Benefit’s The Porefessional except it’s slightly tinted, goes on silkier imo, and doesn’t cause me to break out. It’s not cheap at all, but I use it infrequently and it’s lasting forever. I grabbed this tube from the official Miguhara qoo10 shop.
I take about a pea-sized amount and rub into my nose to conceal pores. The idea here is not to create a layer of this on the surface of your nose, but to just fill in the pores–that’s it.
I don’t apply this elsewhere because I don’t want to add more makeup to my face in places where it isn’t absolutely necessary.
Undereye concealer: Skinfood Salmon Darkcircle Concealer
I think that this concealer is ok. I should probably devote myself to finding a new concealer at some point, but for now this sort of works. It’s more salmon-colored than my skin, which means it can counteract the blood that pools under my eyes and makes them appear kind of purple-y.
My main issue with this is that I’d need to apply so much to cover my circles that this would then crease horribly, making me look a decade older. Not ideal.
My rule is to use one swipe of this under my eye and then blend it in. I aim to get some percentage of the darkness concealed, but if I try to go for 100% coverage with this it’s crease city.
Not great. If you have recommendations give me a shout in the comments.
Cushion foundation: Lalavesi F.W (fall winter original formula) in Y2
The Lalavesi case originally had a sick queen skull design, but it rubbed off in my bag, so I replaced it with a design dedicated to my OTP. heh I am adult human.
This cushion is the freaking BOSS of cushions, as far as I’m concerned. The coverage is THICK in terms of pigmentation, but THIN in terms of the formula. Don’t drag the cushion applicator across your face–pat it up and down. That up/down motion will disperse the cushion formula most evenly and create an even, airbrushed finish. One hit from the Lalavesi puff results in a crazy level of liquidy, dewy coverage. It’s amazing for troubled skin.
Cushions often like to hide formula from us in the basement of their sponge reservoir. To get enough coverage I needed to flip the sponge to gain access to all that Y2 neutral-y goodness.
A metal chopstick keeps things sanitary and neat when flipping the sponge.
I used the chopstick to draw on my hand to show just how liquidy the formula is. I drew two lines with the cushion formula and then zigzagged the cleaned up chopstick back through them. See how spreadable it is? That’s miraculous and wonderful for skin that needs non-cakey coverage. Lalavesi cushions are now available more widely–find them on eBay and Amazon, but make sure to buy the Fall/Winter (F.W) cushion in original (there’s a new “natural” formula that’s not as densely pigmented) if you’re looking for the sort of super dewy, super pigmented coverage I demonstrated here. There are neutral/very slightly yellow-toned colors: Y2 and Y6; Y2 is a good match for my neutral, N15 skin. Y6 is meant for neutral skin that’s darker than N15; google for swatches. P2 and P6 are for people with pink undertones; I tested the pink and it’s WAY too pink for my skin. Again, google for swatches before buying.
If the coverage from this cushion (or others, for that matter) is too much for you, just mist your cushion applicatior, dab it on your hand, and then apply the diluted formula to your face. The water will cut the formula of most cushions down and make it more workable/thinner. Aaaaaand I brilliantly seem to have forgotten to take a photo at this stage, awesome. Well, I’ll narrate: after applying the cushion very sparingly to the areas without issues and more heavily to the places that need coverage, my skin gets dewy as hell. I mean, this is a cushion meant for fall and winter and it’s made with Korean customers in mind, of course the look is going to be glowy. While I like this dewiness in theory it presents two problems: 1) wear time. Unless the cushion formula is set, somehow it will always be in play like the perpetually undry paint of an oil painting. 2) Western people unfamiliar with kbeauty would probably view a cushion this dewy (we’re talking DEWY) as oily and be put off by the look.
Skin-color powder: Benefit The Porefessional Agent Zero Shine
Since I use a SUPER dewy cushion meant for dry skin in winter on account of the need for a thin formula it’s very necessary to dust on some powder to offset the dew and natural oiliness of my skin, especially in summer. I bought this Benefit The Porefessional Agent Zero Shine powder in Berlin after a Benefit sales assistant at Douglas shaded the super dewy kbeauty look with “there’s dewy and then there’s oily.” DAYUM. Sold. SOB. hahahahah
I gently lay this powder on my skin so as not to disturb the layers of base makeup I’ve laid down. I really like the Memebox I’m Powder Brush for this–the bristles are long and gentle, so I can just pat on the powder rather than brushing it, which would increase the likelihood of brush marks in my then-soft makeup. One of my favorite makeup tricks is to gently dab a bit of cushion over powder to deliver an extra bit of coverage. The powder actually offsets the dewiness unless you go wild, and you can really do some major concealing here. Be gentle and sparing–alternating layers of powder and cushion on top of each other over and over will create a heavier, cakier texture and potentially cause your base makeup layers to collapse in a disastrous heap.
I look pretty washed out, but that’s where blush comes in (I consider it necessary for people who wear base makeup tbh). If you find yourself looking too powdery at the end just spray yourself gently with a fine mist and let it airdry. As you add color makeup, your skin and base makeup should get to know each other and a glowy look will emerge due to the goodness in your skin and cushion formula overtaking the powder. And yet the powder is necessary for setting the makeup and making sure that it has a good shot of lasting through the day. Or 5 minutes in 95-degree heat. I hate you, New York.
For fun: If you’re trying to capture the moment for social media
Werk those angles and that lighting to take a legit #nofilter shot.
Throw on bold color makeup, consider some spot healing (in Photoshop and PS Express)
Let’s say you want to be friends with the…I dunno…vampire crowd. Shove your head in front of your makeup mirror on full blast and look troubled by existential despair while wearing a Son & Park lip crayon. By the way, I like to apply blush so it looks like I just got caught reading something NC-17 involving tentacles, in case you can’t tell. The photo is actually a gif that shows the original unfiltered photo versus the minimally spot healed version.
Add hair and a filter if you want to ramp it up
Turn on your filter app and throw up the emoji praise hands for Jeju and sing [Jonghyun’s] Hallelujah. Slam the door extra hard on the way out.
Get Ready Playlist
To aid your getting ready and leaving the house efforts, here’s a YouTube playlist I made! WOO WOO! Go troubled skin team! Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Clicking those links before you shop means that fan-b receives a small commission, which helps to support the blog. Please see my full disclosure for more information.