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Men’s Skincare 101

The bare essentials of a good skincare routine and how to solve common problems

Skincare has traditionally been seen as women’s territory. After all, women have been referred to as “the fairer sex” for ages. Women were expected to look and smell nice, while men were expected to let any kind of self-care go in the interest of demonstrating to everyone how strong and tough they were.

Thank goodness we’ve moved quite a distance away from that. Now that we’ve entered the ‘20s of the 21st millennium, we recognize that men’s and women’s needs overlap more than we used to think. One of those overlapping needs is skincare. Skincare is not yet as popular with men as it is with women, but more and more men are realizing that just because men are known as the brawnier and physically hardier sex does not mean that the health of any part of their body, even that of their skin, needs to suffer.

Why Skincare?

Why do we, whether we are male or female, have to take care of our skin anyway? Skincare is associated with vanity and unattainable ideals. Is it really necessary to take a significant chunk of time out of our day that we could be spending doing other more urgent things and use it for several steps of skincare?

Our skin is the biggest and one of the most hard-working organs in our body. It is our first line of defense against disease as it keeps pathogens and foreign substances out. It regulates the body temperature. It holds the internal organs together. It contains our nerves, without which we wouldn’t be able to feel physical sensations. That’s just to name a few of its functions. It’s common knowledge that the skin produces less collagen, elastin, and other substances associated with youth as we age, leading to the loss of elasticity and firmness. What is not commonly talked about is that the functions of our skin also diminish as we age. A good skincare regimen may not completely freeze time and keep you looking twenty-eight for life, but it keeps your skin in tip-top shape aside from making your skin look better. A good skincare routine simply makes the skin healthier and reflects that improved health on your outward appearance.

Basic Skincare Steps

Contrary to what we commonly see from today’s influencers, especially from what is touted by the Korean skincare culture, you don’t actually need to have as many skincare steps as the push-up reps you do at the gym. The most basic skincare is all that you need to maintain—or even improve—the health of your skin. In the morning, all you need is a cleanser, a moisturizer, and a sunscreen. Nowadays, there are a lot of good quality lightweight, multitasking sunscreens with high SPF, that you don’t even need a separate moisturizer if you want to further pare your routine down. In the evening, all you need is to cleanse and moisturize before hitting the bed. Yes, it can be that quick and simple.

Take It Further

Many men, once they get a hang of using skincare products, want to add more to their two- or three-step routine, especially if they want to address specific skin problems. If you are at this point right now and are confused about what next step to take, you’re not alone. With the advent of Korean skincare came confusion because of all the different steps and products they introduced. Most people know about sheet masks, serums, and toners. What is an essence, though? What is an ampoule? What is an emulsion? Why do some routines have two cleansing steps at night? What is a balm? Do you really need a separate eye cream? What is the difference between an oil cleanser, a cream cleanser, and a foaming cleanser? Who has time to look all of these things up when you’re busy hustling at work and hitting career goals? And why do you have to spend your hard-earned money on all of these products that you don’t even understand?

The short answer is: you don’t have to use all of them. You don’t even have to go beyond cleansing, moisturizing, and protecting your skin from the sun if you don’t want to. Life is hectic enough as it is. Skincare is also something personal, and it depends greatly on your individual needs and goals.

For those who have specific needs that are beyond the scope of the basic steps, or for those who simply want to take their skincare to the next level, here is a handy, but by no means comprehensive, guide to widely available active ingredients that do extra work to improve the condition of your skin and solve some common problems.

Photo: Nick Demou from Pexels

Razor Bumps

Razor bumps are prevalent among men because of shaving, and the answer to this is to exfoliate at least once a week, depending on your skin type and what your skin can handle overall. Facial scrubs are commonly recommended for this. I have to admit that scrubbing your face hard feels good. It feels like you are getting a mini face massage. 

However, there is a lot of new information that says that scrubbing may not be all that good for your skin in the long run because it causes microtears. If you hesitate to give your scrub up, go for the gentler ones like rice powder scrubs. Skincare experts, enthusiasts, and professionals now recommend chemical exfoliators over scrubs. 

Chemical exfoliators include the hydroxy acids and fruit enzymes. The most common among these would be the AHAs or alpha hydroxy acids–among which glycolic and lactic acids are the most commonly known–and the lone BHA or beta hydroxy acid, which is your trusty salicylic acid. If your skin is sensitive, you can use the gentlest AHA, which is lactic acid, and you can choose a preparation with a lower concentration. The newest hydroxy acids on the market, the PHAs or polyhydroxy acids, are the gentlest of the three types, even gentler than lactic acid. Look for ingredients like lactobionic acid, phytic acid, or gluconolactone.

Acne

Acne does not discriminate between the sexes, genders, and skin types, and sometimes even ages. Not only can acne affect a person’s self-esteem, it can be painful, too.  The most commonly recommended treatment for acne are salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and retinoids, which is an umbrella term for vitamin A  and its derivatives. Salicylic acid and retinoids normalize cellular turnover and help unclog pores. Retinoids, the most popular of which are the prescription topical medication tretinoin and the milder over-the-counter retinol, have an added bonus of calming inflammation once your skin has acclimated to them. Benzoyl peroxide works by killing Propionibacterium acnes, the acne-causing bacteria.

Sometimes, acne may not be caused by hormonal imbalances or bacteria. It is a wise move to consult your dermatologist whenever skin problems arise, or even before using any active ingredient in your routine. Fungal acne can be mistaken by many for your garden-variety hormonal acne, which can be troublesome because fungal acne does not respond to regular acne-fighting active ingredients. Sometimes, acne can also be a reaction to harsh ingredients in your skincare products, fragrance for instance, and it may be hard to tell if you are not well-versed when it comes to skincare.

Hyperpigmentation

If you have problems with hyperpigmentation, you’re in luck because skin-lightening products abound in Asian countries with huge populations of brown-skinned citizens. There’s kojic acid, tranexamic acid, licorice extract, melawhite, and hydroquinone, just to name a few commonly available actives. 

Some good multi-tasking active ingredients to add to your routine would be vitamin C, niacinamide, and azelaic acid. Vitamin C, aside from lightening dark spots, is a good antioxidant for you skin. It helps to fight free radicals, and it increases collagen production. 

The L-ascorbic acid form of vitamic C could be irritating, and could exfoliate your skin as well. Caution is advised in using this form of vitamin C, especially in tandem with AHAs, BHAs, or retinoids. It is the most bioavailable form of vitamin C, so it is recommended if you want the best and fastest results. If you want a milder, non-acidic form of vitamin C, look for ingredients like sodium ascorbate, magnesium ascorbate, calcium ascorbate, or tetrahexyldecyl (THD) ascorbate. They may not work as fast or as effectively as L-ascorbic acid, but you will get great results over time.

Both niacinamide and azelaic acid fade dark spots as well as make your skin more resilient over time. They are great to use alongside the hydroxy acids or retinoids, which can be quite irritating at first. Ironically, both niacinamide and azelaic acid can be irritating for some people at first as well. Introduce them into your regimen slowly, increasing the concentration or frequency of usage as your skin gets used to them. You can also apply this slow introduction method to retinoids, vitamin C, and the chemical exfoliators.

Hydration

For good old hydration, which all of us, even the ones with oily skin, need, hyaluronic acid and glycerin do the trick. They are humectants, which draw water from the atmosphere into your skin. They may give enough hydration for people with oilier skin types, but those with dry skin may need to follow with occlusive ingredients, such as oils and waxes. Look for ingredients like plant oils, specifically the carrier oil kind, or plant butters such as shea butter. Make sure to choose non-comedogenic occlusives!

We’ve barely touched upon the tip of the skincare iceberg, and there will always be more to learn with the advancement of science and technology, but the bare basics are the best place to start. They are the backbone of every good skincare regimen, and they oftentimes work wonders on their own. Consulting with a dermatologist helps you get the best results in your skincare and in solving skin problems. Healthy, optimally functioning skin is part of having a healthy body, and all men deserve the best of health. 

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