My morning skincare routine is reminiscent of the first scene of Mommie Dearest, in which Joan Crawford prepares and ice-water face bath and then starts in on her systematic beauty ritual. First, I spend three minutes rinsing my face with cold water, then I apply a hyaluronic-acid toner, followed by a salicylic-acid serum on my nose and chin, and finally an eye gel. Phase two, post-shower, involves a different serum, followed by two types of sunscreen and eye cream. Suffice it to say my regimen can last through the majority of a Law and Order: SVU episode.
I’m not alone in my ablutions. In fact, by some women’s standards, I’m low maintenance. San Francisco style writer Jessica Egbu’s morning ritual has seven steps (one involves a refrigerated rose-quartz face roller), but she says it’s streamlined compared to her p.m. program, which involves double-cleansing, toner, an essence, and a sheet mask. “Sometimes I’m touching my face for what seems like almost an hour,” she admits. Kelly Stevens, a physical therapist in Chicago, multimasks (with the clay, hydration, sleeping, and lip varieties) as part of her routine. “It’s my pampering window at the end of a long day,” she says.
With the rise of K-beauty and an increasing amount of social-media content devoted to complexions (#sheetmaskselfies #skincaregoals #selfcaresundays), skincare is much more than a matter of hygiene these days. “It’s become a trend. It’s an actual hobby for a lot of women,” says Josie Howard, a San Francisco psychiatrist. But it’s simplistic to dismiss this trend as another sign of our culture’s penchant for self-indulgence and vanity because there’s something deeper going on.
For me, it’s about control. When I was going through a divorce, my routine kept me sane. It was one of the things I could count on. Every liquid layer I put on comforted me like a soothing security blanket. To this day, my beauty ritual remains an effective coping mechanism. “A skincare regimen can be very calming, and the physical act of a facial massage can help lower your heartate,” says Amy Wechser, M.D., a New York physician who is double-board-certified in dermatology and psychiatry. “When someone is depressed or anxious, a routine provides a sense that they have control over their skin, their body, and consequently part of their life.” It also delivers solace; 15 percent of women say they use skincare to relax, according to a 2017 survey of 1,295 women in the U.K. Howard likens it to an exercise program: “It’s a healthy, empowering habit. These days, the news can be so anxiety-provoking, but creating a daily ritual makes you feel so grounded.”
That’s certainly the case for Jude Chao, a marketing director (she details her skincare obsession on the blog Fifty Shades of Snail) who struggles with depression. “Sticking to my routine has improved my mental health more than hours of therapy could. It’s helped to lessen the severity and length of my depressive episodes,” Chao says. “Purposefully patting and massaging things onto my face forces me to be present twice a day.”
Of course, as with any habit, there’s a potential to veer into dangerous territory. “Some people cross the line by obsessing in a magnifying mirror, picking at their skin, or using harsh ingredients to the point of irritation,” says Dr. Wechsler. “But, in general, an elaborate routine isn’t a bad thing if it doesn’t interfere with your life in a negative way.”
Howard has a litmus test for this. She asks patients questions like “Do you feel anxiety or panic if you can’t complete your routine?” and “Is your goal to take care of yourself or achieve some unrealistic level of perfection?” The latter could make anyone feel bad about herself.
But that’s never been the case for me. Going through my ritual at the beginning and the end of each day is an uplifting meditation that gives me a feeling of purpose, satisfaction, and optimism. I’m doing something proactive, and I can literally see the glowing results.
This article appears in the Holiday 2018 issue of Marie Claire.