Looking after our skin

Sometimes it feels we’re bombarded with messages about how to look after our skin, almost from the moment we’re born (“the miracles of cocoa butter baby cream”).

Beauty magazines and cosmetics salespeople assume that everyone conscientiously cleanses, tones and moisturises every day, and understands the benefits of all those magic potions.

Just in case, here are some definitions of frequently used terms, and some thoughts on why they could be important:

Cleanse – “wash”

Our mums taught us to wash our faces. But soap, hot water and a rough flannel are harsh on skin.

Dermatologists and beauticians recommend gentle washing, once or twice a day. After we’ve removed make-up and dirt that can clog pores, the sebum in our skin can get on with naturally cleaning and lubricating.

Swap that abrasive flannel for a gentle exfoliator, perhaps just once a week. It’s a kinder way to help remove dead skin cells, and can help us avoid blocked pores which may lead to spots.

Tone – “strengthen or tighten”

Toners used to be astringents. They often used alcohol to achieve that extra-clean, tight feeling. The modern view is that those toners stripped natural oils and damaged skin.

Nowadays toning is the second cleaning stage, to remove the last bits of grime and soothe skin. This year beauty writers are singing the praises of two-stage cleansing. So tone away – gently.

Moisturise – “make something moist”

Sun, cold weather and central heating can make skin feel dry. Can a moisturiser really rehydrate our skin?

“Hydration” – adding water – is fashionable, whether that’s drinking two litres of water a day or swigging coconut water after a workout. Medical advice is simply to drink water when we’re thirsty. Only if we’re severely dehydrated does our skin start to suffer. The rest of the time, using a moisturiser is enough.

Moisturisers contain ingredients to attract and retain water in our skin, with oils that can help reduce irritation and return some youthful plumpness. Doctors recognise their effectiveness in keeping skin soft, even though there’s little solid evidence for more extravagant claims.

As for Day versus Night creams, think of Day creams as lighter, protecting skin under make-up. Night creams are richer, helping skin in repair mode.

It seems it can be worth using those potions to help us look and feel at our best for longer. Perhaps we should simply think of skincare as another branch of healthy living. It’s well known that cutting down on smoking and alcohol and boosting sleep and exercise can be as beneficial for our skin as they are for our mental and physical health.

And it’s easier than ever to check that the products we choose to help us aren’t causing unintentional harm. Look for skincare that’s:

Safe for our health and our environment

If we’re trying to choose food and clothing that’s grown with care for the world we live in, we might also want to find skincare that’s made with more organic, natural ingredients.

Natural and organic skincare isn’t just about what it DOES contain. It often avoids the use of harmful synthetic chemicals such as parabens, formaldehyde and phthalates, which have been shown to cause health problems. Many suppliers list the nasties they exclude. But always check the ingredients to see if any potential toxins are still included, as well as the percentage of natural and organic ingredients.

The most reliable way to ensure skincare is truly organic is to look for independent certification from COSMOS (COSMetic Organic Standard) or a member like the Soil Association, Ecocert or IONC. And search trusted campaigning websites to find sustainable or ethical producers – working to reduce their detrimental effect across the whole production process.

Good for skin

Pollution, smoke, sunlight and smoking are among the triggers for the production of unstable molecules called free radicals. We see their effects when plastics degrade, metals rust, fruit goes brown and skin shows signs of aging, such as wrinkling.

To defend our bodies from the harm that free radicals can cause we need antioxidants. Although antioxidants occur naturally, choosing skincare containing them could help skin protect itself. Look for antioxidants, including Vitamin C, gingko, Vitamin E and resveratrol, in product descriptions.

Kind to animals

Ocean and freshwater animals can be harmed by plastic microbeads, which are present in some exfoliators and scrubs and can escape water treatment. The Netherlands have led the way in asking manufacturers to remove them – other countries are now following.

Choose natural exfoliators such as ground seeds or nuts, organic oatmeal or sea salt. And remember that since 2013 no cosmetic products sold in Europe may be tested on animals or contain ingredients tested on animals.

As long as we use carefully chosen natural and pure products in a daily routine of cleansing, toning and moisturising, and combine them with staying active, eating well and maintaining a happy state of mind, it seems they really can help us to have healthier-looking skin. Add some thought and a little research and we can make sure we keep our world healthy too.