Why I Gave Up Makeup For The Sake Of My Skin — & My Self-Esteem

by Jessica DeFino
Tristan Fewings/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

I never wore foundation until freshman year of college, when cystic acne took up residence all over my face. At which point, I did what any self-conscious 18-year-old who didn’t know the first thing about skincare would do: I traded my no-makeup beauty routine for a round of Accutane and a daily dose of Dermablend Cover Creme High Coverage Foundation. The stuff is so thick, it comes in a pot with a spatula; and applying it every morning was like painting on a whole new face. Paired with a swipe of red lipstick, Dermablend became my daily armor. You’d never guess what was underneath.

I was able to keep this up for almost a decade. Every single morning, without fail, I’d spend 30 minutes in front of the mirror, using makeup to conceal what I didn’t like and create something I did, even if it was just to run across the street to CVS for a roll of TP. Eventually, a chronic case of perioral and periorbital dermatitis (aka, recurring rashes around my eyes and mouth) threw a wrench into my routine. In order to heal, I had to give up the makeup… and it was hard.

The first time I showed up to my corporate nine-to-five job sans makeup, I found myself on the receiving end of random sympathy stares in meetings. The CEO called me to her desk to tell me I “was still beautiful” to her… uh, WTF? A guy in the elevator asked if I was contagious. All of it made me want to run back to the sweet, sweet security blanket of a done-up face — which I did, as soon as my skin could stand it. As a compromise, I updated my beauty stash with clean alternatives, like KOSAS Tinted Face Oil and RMS Beauty Un Cover-Up, which have served me (and my skin) well. But recently, I found myself wondering what life would be like without any makeup at all. Was it possible to find a way to be comfortable with myself, exactly as I am? Acne scars, dermatitis outbreaks, and all?

A typical dermatitis outbreak / Jessica L. Yarbrough

I’ve always been a go big or go home type — see: the Accutane and Dermablend combo above — and for some reason, I landed on the idea of a personal no-makeup challenge. And I say “challenge” because that’s exactly what I wanted to do: challenge my own ideas about what beauty looked like, and challenge the idea that women have to be “put together” or “done up” in order to look professional, attractive, stylish, insert positive adjective here. I wanted to challenge myself to go beyond “makeup-free;” to actually free myself from the pull of makeup. I mean, it can get kind of addictive.

That was over three months ago, and I’ve been “free from makeup” — and so happy about it — ever since. Ahead, everything I’ve learned from my skin-changing (and honestly, life-changing) experiment.

It Sucks — At First.

During the first week of my new no-makeup lifestyle, I did not feel cute. (This probably had something to do with the raging hormonal acne around my chin, a side effect of a birth control switch-up.) I actively avoided going out and socializing, scared that people would judge me. I also found myself opting to wear sweatpants and old T-shirts everyday; without the final “accessory” of makeup, my more pulled-together outfits felt off-balance and over-the-top. Luckily, this phase was short-lived.

Hormonal acne at the start of my experiment / Jessica L. Yarbrough

No One Else Cares.

Going to a party bare-faced was legitimately anxiety-inducing… but once I was there and in the moment, it didn’t matter at all. No one looked twice — which was a nice reminder that I’m my own worst critic, and everyone has their own little “imperfections,” whether that’s a scar or a mole or the occasional pimple (meaning, they’re not thinking about mine). And it’s totally fine — and even encouraged! — to pair eye-catching ensembles with a makeup-less face. I regularly scrolled through Leandra Medine’s Instagram for inspiration; she always manages to make being makeup-free look so chic, which helped me realize I could, too.

I Got Comfortable, Quick.

After a few days, my bare skin didn’t bother me at all, which I did not anticipate. But I guess it makes sense: The reason I had judged myself so harshly before was because I was used to seeing my face covered in foundation and looking “flawless.” Once my eyes adjusted to its makeup-free state, that became my new normal. I didn’t scrutinize every last red patch and pockmark; I learned to let it be.

I Started Embracing My Other “Flaws.”

A month or so in, I noticed that other things that used to bother me about my appearance — my under-eye area and stick-out ears, for example — suddenly didn’t. I tried a new lipstick for work and loved how it matched my dark circles. I exposed my ears by wearing my hair up in a topknot, further embellished the look with statement earrings, and felt absolutely fabulous. It was all part of the slow and steady process of self-acceptance, which — guess what? — just keeps going.

Bare faced / Jessica L. Yarbrough

My Skin Is Better Without It.

This one’s not exactly a surprise — but the less I wore makeup, the less I “needed” to wear makeup. Without foundation and concealer on the agenda, my pores stayed clean and clear all day, which made a significant improvement in my skin’s overall health.

I Have So Much More Free Time.

Mornings, previously dominated by the painstaking process of drawing on the perfect cat eye, are now gloriously open. I’ll switch up my schedule depending on the day: Sometimes, I use that extra 30 minutes to make an indulgent breakfast; other times, I treat myself to a lengthy meditation session. I love having the freedom to wake up slowly and see what my soul feels like doing in the moment.

I Wasn’t Alone.

In the midst of this experiment, I discovered the skin positivity movement (just search #skinpositivity or #acnepositivity on Instagram) and connected with so many women fighting the stigma of going makeup-free by putting their chronic skin conditions — like cystic acne and eczema — on display. Their stories are nothing short of inspiring, and helped me realize that going makeup-free and flaunting it can actually be a form of activism in and of itself.

I Prefer Myself Without Makeup.

I don’t have any insightful thoughts about how or why this happened... it just happened. After three months without it, my skin now feels suffocated — not to mention, overdone — with a full face.

Wearing a little bit of makeup again / Jessica L. Yarbrough

I Learned To Love Makeup Again — For All The Best Reasons.

My desire to be “free from makeup” was never about vilifying foundation or concealer or colorful eyeshadow— I mean, I’m a beauty editor. I love the stuff. It was about acknowledging my complicated relationship with covering up, and rediscovering the positive aspects of makeup; namely, creativity and self-expression. These days, I’m (sparingly) wearing makeup again — but only when I want to, and never because I need to.