Beauty’s middle path

Taking on the clean beauty vs pharma skincare debate, this columnist makes a case for having the best of both

June 04, 2021 03:11 pm | Updated 03:11 pm IST

This month, I felt like a celebrity after discovering a Reddit thread about myself. ‘What’s the tea on Vasudha Rai?’ someone asked. In the comments there was a discussion about why — after talking about wellness and natural remedies — would I make the switch to tretinoin, a prescription-strength retinol? It’s a question that highlights our highly-polarised digital landscape, which leaves little room for transformation.

In my opinion it would be most unfortunate to be rigid, especially in beauty routines, which must evolve in order to be effective. Also, why should we paint ourselves into a corner and prevent ourselves from enjoying the current beauty boom? Today, we’re blending ancient herbs with scientific formulations, rediscovering old tools, while also bringing doctor’s office treatments into our homes. Cosmetic aisles are bursting with green beauty products, cosmeceuticals, high-end luxuries, budget buys, DIYs, collagen powders, LED masks, micro-current tools, traditional massagers — all a blend of the old and new. So why settle for one thing when we can have it all?

To each his own

Having written on beauty for almost two decades, I know that those who have the most covetable complexions do a little bit of everything. The most effective skincare routines are constructed with several elements. One example could be plant-based oils with a cosmeceutical serum, a touch of prescription-strength retinol, a zap of laser, and a teensy bit of baby Botox. Add to that supplements, superfoods and fitness routines. Some may find such routines obsessive, but others find them therapeutic.

Take the skincare routine of New York-based makeup artist, Namvo, who popularised the phrase ‘dewy dumpling’ with her juicy, glossy make-up. As a self-confessed skincare connoisseur, who (in her words) uses ‘a butt-ton of expensive skincare’, her favourite serum is the MBR Liquid Surgery at over $1,700 a bottle. She’s been using eye cream since the age of 12, gets weekly facials, uses the NuFace massager, and does at-home facials, too. Of course, not everyone has such an elaborate smorgasboard of rituals. I certainly don’t. But there are also some incredibly lucky people who have great skin even when they sleep with their make-up on.

Compare Namvo’s routine to that of beauty writer Jessica Defino, who avoids washing her face in the morning to preserve the skin’s microbiome. As polar opposites on the skincare spectrum, none of them is 100% right or wrong. The correct answer often lies right in the middle of these two extremes. If you look back at just the last decade we’ve seen trends go from vegan beauty to science-based skincare, from 10-step maximalism to the current minimalism. So it would be foolish to identify with one style of skincare.

Snooze for good skin

An example that reflects changing trends is sunscreen. A couple of years back, when green beauty was the norm, it was believed that sunscreen is carcinogenic. But in the last year, we have been told to apply three finger-lengths at least twice a day. Then, last week, a carcinogenic ingredient (benzene) was found in the production of sunscreen. Some brands were called back, but it gave many people an opportunity to indulge in fear-mongering. Will I stop wearing sunscreen because of this report? No. But do I consider it to be the best habit for great skin? Also no, because for me the best skincare habit is sleep. No product can make up for the lack of sleep.

The point I’m trying to make is that sticking to a particular system of belief leads to zero growth. I don’t believe in labels when it comes to identifying myself as a particular type of blogger. I’m neither a clean-beauty advocate nor a science nerd. Because of this, when veganism and clean beauty were trending, I was questioned why I used harsh actives. Now that we’re back to science again I’m asked if natural products really work. The truth is that we need a bit of both.

I enjoy vegan food and bone broth, clean beauty and pharmaceutical skincare. I visit a dermatologist and have a solid wellness routine at home. I also practice yoga and lift weights. I started using tretinoin because I wanted to avoid/postpone injectables. But I might go and get a jab of Botox tomorrow. I allow myself the luxury of changing my mind. And in this world of unshakeable opinions, it feels like the ultimate flex.

Vasudha Rai has authored Glow: Indian Foods, Recipes and Rituals for Beauty Inside and Out and blogs

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