What’s your skin care love language? Does it involve luxe, silky creams that envelope you in a fragrant cloud? Or maybe you’re into the influencer-founded line that’s all soufflé-like textures in chic packaging. But what if I told you there are a bunch of us that gravitate towards skin care so bland that it can only be termed joyless? I’m a long-standing champion of unsexy skin care, and if your products are causing more problems than they’re solving, maybe you should consider it, too.
When I say ‘joyless’ or ‘unsexy’ skin care, I’m referring to products or routines that don’t elevate you with an all-round sensorial experience. There’s no fragrance to transport you to the Mediterranean, the packaging is functional and basic, and the textures will never be deemed luxurious. It’s fuss-free, the antithesis of bougie skin care.
Of course, skin care can be many things to many different people. Its ritualistic elements may bring them comfort or joy. It can be a grounding daily practice, akin to meditation or yoga, or function as an act of self-care. Apart from a product’s basic job of protecting and caring for skin, these additional benefits might explain why so many people describe themselves as skin care junkies.
I’ve been one of them — as a long-time beauty editor, I’ve tried every outré product that’s crossed my desk. I’ve slathered on essences with hothouse orchids, gold and other heavy metals, and a surprising amount of sea life, both real and make believe. It was all gravy until it suddenly wasn’t. I developed sensitive skin seemingly overnight, and that quickly put a stop to all kinds of topically-administered flora. Hence my pivot to less sexy skin care.
“I think [simpler products] make a lot of sense for a lot of people!” says Dr. Papri Sarkar, a board-certified dermatologist based in Brookline, Massachusetts. “Not everyone wants frills, or uses skin care for a ‘self-care experience’. Many people are sensitive to ingredients, so the simpler brands keep a product, the easier it is to identify what the patient may be sensitive to and avoid the ingredients that cause a reaction.”
These days, all I want are dependable, clinically-tested ingredients, and it so happens, those often shine in the beige-est, and most dull packaging you can find. I don’t want or need gold added to my face cream — it’s more of a marketing ploy at this point than any real added benefit. Aside from precious metals, more common ingredients, like added fragrance, can also sensitive your skin.
“As dermatologists, we tend to advise those people with sensitive skin to avoid fragrances (which certainly includes essential oils). They are at a higher likelihood of having a reaction,” says Dr. Ranella Hirsch, a Boston-based dermatologist and co-founder of customized skin care brand Atolla. And according to Dr. Sarkar, fragrance is almost always on a list of top 10 substances that cause the most reactions. There is, of course, no reason to avoid fragranced skin care if you don’t react negatively to it, but those with sensitive skin should still stick to fragrance-free products if possible.
For me, fragrance does nothing but inflame my skin, alcohols (all except the moisturizing fatty kind such as cetyl and stearyl alcohol) dry me out, and I have no patience left for exotic plant extracts that have zero research behind them. Now, a heavily-fragranced product is no longer desirable, but you know what is? Finding a moisturizer that doesn’t leave my skin red or irritated. And products that support the skin’s function by cleansing, protecting, and nourishing the barrier, and treat any concerns without causing any reactions. Unsexy and straightforward — that’s all I want or need.
I’m not the only one realizing the drawback of more sensorial skin care. A growing number of product nerds, sensitized by their own routines, are going rogue and picking the bland over the bombastic. In consumers with unusually sensitive skin, “78% avoided specific products due to prior experiences of unpleasant sensory effects with their use”, according to this article published in Frontiers in Medicine, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. We’ve realized that by swapping a heightened user experience for a simpler one, we will achieve our skin goals quicker, since the elements that make a product ‘fancy’ are often what set us back on our journey to healthy skin.
But just because a product is unsexy doesn’t mean it can’t have a real, positive impact on your skin. Active ingredients, like retinol and vitamin C, can be a tricky group of ingredients to navigate since many are known to be irritating. “Actives need to be used with real care,” says Dr. Hirsch. “There are many ingredients that can be a challenge for many people, not just those who are sensitive.” That’s why I look for brands that avoid ingredients that may cause a skin flare, like fragrance or denatured alcohols, and have mastered how to use cutting edge actives that still manage to be gentle, even on delicate complexions.
Paula’s Choice has been a decades-old pioneer of power-packed skin care products while remaining fragrance- and irritant-free — I highly recommend their cleansers. French pharmacy staple Bioderma is another gold standard brand for non-irritating products and has been my go-to for moisturizers. I turn to Drunk Elephant at those rare times when I’m tempted to make an Instagrammable purchase — it’s a brand that satisfies my desire to be trendy, while simultaneously ensuring its formulations are gentle.
As for brands that haven’t always prioritized irritant-free formulas, they are slowly catching on to the fact that a large percentage of buyers are looking for more basic, less sexy options, and are releasing fragrance-free collections or are reformulating popular products. A few years ago, Korean brand Klairs removed the essential oils from their popular toner, Supple Preparation, and released an unscented version after high customer demand. The cult-favorite French brand, Embryolisse, recently welcomed a new addition, the Lait-Crème Sensitive, a fragrance-free version of the iconic Lait Crème Concentré. Kate Somerville’s DeliKate is a fragrance-free, three-product collection whose star performer is a soothing, creamy, pudding-textured moisturizer. “It's a great shift. Patients with sensitivities can have more options,” says Dr. Sarkar, who celebrates more brands going fragrance-free.
So while my embrace of sensorial-free skin care might not be your jam, it might be worth considering when you’re wondering what new product will solve that pesky dry patch or recent breakout. If skin health and fewer complexion freakouts are your end goal, give unsexy products a shot, and they (or the results) might convert you. It’s all about a change in perspective. What’s unsexy today might be wildly desirable tomorrow (we’re looking at you, Adam Driver). Here are some new and classic unsexy products to spark some joy and help your skin glow.
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This serum has a tiny amount of retinol (0.03%), which is low-stakes enough for my sensitive face, but still feels like it’s doing something for my skin. The texture is a bit silicone-heavy but it’s chock-full of antioxidants, making it worth a try.
This is one of Dr. Sarkar’s CeraVe favorites (in addition to the Healing Ointment and Hydrating Cleanser). It’s a drugstore all-star, with niacinamide and ceramides to reinforce the skin’s moisture barrier. Also, feel free to ignore the PM in its name and use it day or night.