There are few things more aesthetically pleasing than a bathroom cabinet full to the brim with colour-coded skincare – there’s a reason shelfies get so many likes after all – but while this may look amazing on the ‘gram, it could have your skin crying out in protest.
There's no denying it's fun to switch from one cleanser to the next via an enticing new toner (new arrivals are too exciting to pass up!) but all of this product promiscuity can cause chaos for your complexion. Hopping from one skincare product to this next is something that dermatologist and skincare formulator Dr Sam Bunting has noticed an increase of during the pandemic. "At times of uncertainty it’s very human to try to take control of something and this has led to skincare becoming a huge focus for people over the last six months," she says.
Dr Sam tells us that sales of direct-to-consumer beauty brands such as her own 'Dr Sam's' skincare have soared in that time. Anxiety has affected our skin for sure, as has mask-wearing but she believes product hopping has too. She has seen a 33 per cent rise in sign-ups to her skincare subscription service, which creates a bespoke regime that eliminates product hopping. "This makes me incredibly happy as it means the message of skincare consistency as the safest and easiest route to getting great skin is really hitting home."
Why is it so important? “Our skin loves consistency,” she says. “It doesn’t need entertainment with novelty." She blames social media for driving the desire for newness in a way that's not always helpful. "The fear of missing out on a new launch means we’re stockpiling huge numbers of products and using them in rotation, rather than focusing on just one or two key products.”
What happens to our skin when we chop and change our products?
A compromised skin barrier is the most common side effect of being a floozy with face care, explains Dr Sam. Once this is disrupted (showing itself through redness, flakiness and sensitivity) you need to make a conscious effort to heal it before things get worse.
If you’ve noticed multiple small spots around your mouth and nose (a nasty hybrid of acne and rosacea called 'perioral dermatitis') or have suddenly developed eczema, this could be a sign of product hopping, says Dr Sam. “New-onset eczema is related to product hopping in at least 50 per cent of people I see and it can be blamed for acne and rosacea flare-ups too.”
While our skin is already in the wars thanks to wearing face coverings causing maskne ( acne mechanical) for most of us, it pays to stick to a skincare regime, not just avoid flare-ups but so we can actually see what suits us, what's working, rather than too much dabbling with newness. It takes four to six weeks for our skin to renew (known as a 'skin cycle') so consistency is key.
Why is product hopping bad for our skin?
So why does product hopping makes our skin so reactive? The answer is that it often means we're often doubling up on active ingredients and getting a bigger dose than our skin can cope with. Your new toner may have an acid in it, likewise your vitamin C serum (vitamin C is often in the form of ascorbic acid) and even your mist or cleanser. Add to that retinol (another acid) at night and it can be a flare-up waiting to happen.
"Overuse of actives such as exfoliating acids and retinoids is extremely common,” says Dr Sam. “The effect of using multiple actives at the same time in a haphazard way overwhelms our skin’s tolerance, leading to inflammation and barrier disruption.”
"The consequences of using the increasingly active skincare products that are available mean that it's not uncommon for someone to be using an acid mask, a retinol-based product and a salicylic acid toner all at the same time," she says. "This can damage the skin’s delicate acid mantle [its first line of defence] allowing the penetration of irritants into the [deeper] stratum corneum, leading to inflammation." The result is that the outer protective layer of skin starts to break down.
"Without a structured approach for use of these potent ingredients, hopping can have dire consequences for the skin."
While single-ingredient brands such as The Ordinary have made us much more conversant with powerful ingredients such as niacinamide, lactic acid and azelaic acid , they can offer too much choice, says Sam, making us more likely to use too many at once or combine things that don't go well together. We're not cosmetic chemists after all. "I think [these brands] offer too much choice and not enough guidance on how to dose and use these ingredients correctly," she says.
There are some ingredients that work beautifully together. Niacinamide pretty much goes with most things. "Niacinamide and retinoids are great in combination too as the niacinamide boosts skin ceramide production, improving the tolerability of retinoids," explains Dr Sam. Pigment brightener tranexamic acid is one of the friendliest out there and can be paired with most other actives. Retinol and vitamin C can co-exist harmoniously part of the same regime (and indeed are recommended for most of us) particularly if you save vitamin C for morning application and retinol for the evening.
When can I start changing skincare products?
If the lure of newness is too strong and you can't wait to dip a toe into a new tub of cream, Dr Sam recommends slowly introducing new products into a regime that works for you. "I’m a big believer in the six-week cycle. This is the right length of time to know what results the product is delivering. I strongly recommend adding in one new product at a time, so you really know [if it's working]. If you start multiple things at the one time, you never really know which one is moving the needle."
And if you do experience sensitivity, rather like treating a food allergy, it's best to go right back to basics and add one gentle step at a time, as Dr Sam explains in the video below.