The latest skincare trend is not a UV-activated peel-off mask, a snail-slime serum, or even a 13th step: It is literally nothing. “Skin fasting” — the act of avoiding all skincare products to “detox” your visage — has been bubbling around the internet lately. Popularized by Mirai Clinical, a skincare company committed to sharing “unique beauty secrets from Japan,” the methodology draws inspiration from Hippocrates’s belief that traditional fasting can be used as a healing mechanism.
A trend towards abstinence in response to the recent product-mania makes sense. According to Zion Market Research, the global skincare market was valued at $138 billion in 2017. As a practice, skin fasting provides all the glamour of participating in skincare without any of the bloated consumerism. It’s a trend that rejects corporate monetization. And people say punk is dead.
I did have misgivings about participating myself though. Beyond being skeptical of skin fasting’s central tenet — that one can detox their skin — I’ve been on a new routine involving masks, lotions and exfoliants designed to help my dry and pink winter skin. I’ve also entered that glorious age range where women are chastised by Big Beauty for failing to properly moisturize since our third trimester in the womb. Punishment being a life playing catch up in the bowels of a $300-dollar tub of La Mer.
Still, beauty as a general space of interest has always been more about whimsy than necessity for me. Sheet masks, celery juice and gluing pearls to my face for an extremely extra Gucci-inspired party look give me the same feeling I used to get when baking with my mother. Between the addition of butter and the ceremonial licking of the spoon, she’d dab vanilla behind my ears and on the insides of my wrists, explaining that long ago women used it as perfume, and that with every contraction of my heart, a little drumbeat of scent would be pushed out around me. It was our simple, shared beauty ritual, tucked between the cracks of necessary work. The tenor of which I’ve carried with me into adulthood.
Was I ready to give that up in the name of beauty sobriety?
Skin is an interesting organ in that in addition to acting as a both a sensory and protective layer for all of our precious blood and guts, it also “breathes.” Which is to say, there is some gas exchange at play (albeit small, adding up to around 2% of respiration in humans).
Naturally, when covered in certain kinds of non-porous materials (often containing comedogenic ingredients such as Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Oleth-3 and some algaes), the skin’s ability to “breathe” is inhibited. This observation has spawned all kinds of urban legends that leave us all on the edge of believing death by body paint holds any merit.
Skin also produces an oily substance called sebum, comprised of a variety of fatty acids which help to prevent moisture loss. According to some early studies performed by Kolmar Research Center, skincare products should be structured in a similar molecular pattern to sebum in order to allow skin’s natural gas exchange to occur. This is, in part, where the idea of skin fasting comes from. That by engaging in exhaustive daily beauty routines, we’re not letting our skin “breathe,” so we need to cut out products in order to neutralize.
Koko Hayashi, founder of Mirai Clinical Body Care says, “Japanese have studied the skin’s regeneration on a monthly basis and have proved that ‘skin fasting’ will improve your skin’s condition and detoxify skin impurities.”
While Hayashi’s claim sounds reasonable, I was unable to find any reliable science in support of it. But we live in a world where celery juice, designer vitamins, and essential oils thrive long past their scientific shunnings, so I figured: Why not give it a shot?
I jumped into my week of skin fasting nearly product-free (I kept only my brow powder in rotation because my eyebrows look like God blew a dandelion across my forehead and made a wish), and woke up on day one feeling positively reptilian: pretty standard for my face as of late. Normally I would use a light exfoliant followed by a facial sunscreen/moisturizer combo, but I eschewed them in favor of Science™. My forehead, in particular, was excruciatingly itchy. I tried not to scratch too much, in part to decrease irritation, but mainly because I’m the new kid at work and would rather “feverish scratching” not be a key component of my burgeoning persona.
On day two, I woke up to skin that felt both dry and greasy, like an oil slick on dry toast. Which is a poor analogy because that would just be butter and it would seep in deliciously unlike what happened to my skin. The oil just sort of clung to its flaky surface. Overall, I just felt gross — tired and lacking polish.
Day three was a horror show. I woke up to a profoundly cracked and bleeding lower lip. Tubes of chapstick seemed to appear as if summoned from the depths of forgotten pockets to taunt me. That evening, during a sibling dinner, I couldn’t help but complain about the experiment. Every laugh was painful. Foods once considered friends (tomatoes, mustards, my beloved Cholula) were now enemies.
As I explained the reason my mouth looked like an extra in a slasher film, one of my brothers told me that I was just “doing what every man I know already does,” and that I should just drink some water because I was obviously dehydrated. So I did. And you know what?
I woke up on day four with noticeably better skin. My lips were on the upswing, there were some patches of dryness around my lower jaw line, but the oil slick had left. I honestly felt like I had gamed the system with my hydration trick.
I realize that classifying something required for human existence under “life hack” is pretty dumb, but it also led me to my biggest realization: I was unwittingly using skincare to mask dehydration. Having to sit in my parched skin for a few days was a wake-up call. I continued to hydrate for the remainder of the week and by day seven, I was looking pretty good. Even my signature pink tinge had diminished.
I’m surprised to say that skin fasting was a beneficial practice for me. Not because it detoxed my skin — at least not as far as I could tell — but because it forced me to confront an underlying issue that I wasn’t aware of. It helped me recognize where I was failing my body, and the simple way I could rectify that failure. For others, that reveal could be a hormone imbalance or an allergy exasperated by certain products, or it could be no issues at all, hinting at what is and isn’t a “necessary” expense.
Ultimately, abstaining from skincare allowed me to reestablish why I love it to begin with. It’s a vehicle to nudge me just over the line of indulgence. That kiss of vanilla, just behind my ear. A moment stolen for myself during the in-betweens of life’s necessary work.
Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.