Want A Feral Girl Summer? Stop Using Skincare
People are saying it’s a “feral girl summer.” People are fundamentally misusing the word “feral.” The other day, a woman I follow on Instagram advised her followers to use “four different face masks” to “honor the feral girl within.” But what’s feral about applying mass-produced beauty products in excess? A true feral girl summer —wild, authentic, free! — wouldn’t include skincare at all.
If giving up skincare can indeed be considered “feral,” I went feral five years ago after reading Adina Grigore’s book Skin Cleanse. (I wrote about this for The Zoe Report in 2019.) The process the author outlines is often referred to as “skin fasting” or “skin detoxing,” and I used to use those terms, too, but I’ve since grown to resent the diet culture implications — because taking a break from skincare isn’t about control or deprivation. It’s about relinquishing control. It’s about abundance. To stop using skincare products is to let your skin thrive! Anyway, I now refer to the process as “de-stressing your skin” or simply “leaving your face the fuck alone.”
If you’re used to an elaborate skincare routine, leaving your face the fuck alone probably sounds strange, and scary. I get it. At the time of my own “skin cleanse,” I was in the midst of a two-year struggle with dermatitis and going through withdrawal from prescription steroids. I’d spent the past 10 years swallowing antibiotics, birth control pills, and Accutane and slathering on retinoids, medicated creams, and Cerave in an effort to control my acne. I could not think of anything more horrifying than skipping my twice-a-day cleanser-toner-serum-moisturizer-oil-ointment ritual. It was my religion, my church, my reason for getting out of bed in the morning. But I was desperate, and guided by Grigore’s words, I did it. I ditched everything.
Seven days and zero products later, my skin was ~75 percent healed.
“I do think there is something to be said for simplicity,” Dr. Jennifer Vickers, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist with Sanova Dermatology, told me in our interview for TZR. “I see many patients using multi-step regimens for their skin, and while they may benefit from a good skincare regimen, allowing the skin to reset from time to time will likely reveal unexpected benefits.” She likened it to an allergy elimination diet for the face: “By pausing your routine, you may find out that you are using a product that doesn't agree with your skin or is unnecessary,” Dr. Vickers said. “You also allow your skin to recover its barrier and to resume production of sebum, the natural oily substance that our skin produces to keep the bad things out and the good things (like water) in.”
Skin de-stressing’s raison d'etre lies in that last sentence: Not only does it give your skin a chance to chill, it gives it a chance to resume its natural functions. The skin is actually self-sufficient; it has built-in mechanisms to self-cleanse, self-moisturize (sebum), self-exfoliate (desquamation), self-protect, and self-heal. (I wrote about all of this in detail for Slate if you’re curious to know more.) Oftentimes, skincare products suppress or overwrite these functions rather than support them, which can lead to a whole host of skin issues, including barrier damage and dehydration. That, of course, makes you reach for more products — the exact opposite of what the skin needs.
“Our skin becomes dependent on these [products], and doing a fast of them is going to force our skin to function on its own again, which is what it should be doing in the first place,” Angela Peck, a holistic aesthetician and the founder of Wholistic Skin + Care, told me. Dr. Neil Sadick, M.D., F.A.A.D., a Manhattan-based dermatologist with Sadick Dermatology, corroborated this claim, saying, “If people are bombarding their skin with products, peels, and masks, taking a break may allow product buildup to be removed and skin can recover.”
“A week or two of skin fasting should be sufficient to let the skin reset and breathe,” Dr. Vickers said. For best results, I recommend skipping out on products for a full 28 days — the length of a typical skin cycle.
Be warned: The recovery phase isn’t always easy. “It gets ugly at first as the skin goes through the process of losing its dependency on the products that it was relying on for a lot of its functioning,” Peck said. Take exfoliators, for example; the purpose of exfoliating is to speed up cellular turnover. When you stop, your skin slows to its natural turnover rate — that 28-day cycle — which could lead to clogged pores as your cells adjust. Or, if you’re regularly using a too-drying cleanser, your skin has likely learned to produce extra oil to make up for it — and forgoing your usual cleanser makes it seem like your oil production is out of control. This explains why some people experiment with “skin fasting” for a few days, experience issues, and run back to their products ASAP. Really, the skin just needs more time to adjust.
There are no hard-and-fast rules about how to de-stress your skin. Personally, I eliminated everything for a month. I splashed my face with water morning and night, but that was it. No skincare. No makeup. No sunscreen. (In lieu of SPF, I followed the American Cancer Society’s recommendations: I stayed out of the sun as much as possible and covered up with clothing, wide-brim hats, and sunglasses when outdoors. Did you know these are the American Cancer Society’s number one and two tips for sun protection? SPF, as the New York Times reports, is best thought of as a “second line of defense,” since it’s prone to both factory error and human error.) If you don’t feel comfortable going without makeup or sunscreen, that’s fine — no one’s forcing you to go full-on feral! You can downsize your product line-up according to your personal preferences. Maybe that means putting on makeup and/or SPF in the morning, removing it with plain jojoba oil at night, thoroughly cleansing with water after, and going to bed with bare skin.
When your two weeks or three weeks or 28 days or whatever is up, don’t be surprised if you want to pare down your routine indefinitely. My personal de-stressing taught me that my skin stays balanced when I cleanse with Mānuka honey at night and skip it in the morning, use jojoba oil instead of creamy moisturizers during the day, and apply Kari Gran Essential SPF when I’m outdoors. Most nights, I sleep with zero products on my face. Zilch. Nada. None!
The rest of my old standbys — the toners, essences, serums, masks, and meds? It turns out, I didn’t need ‘em. When the skin is functioning on its own, it self-produces all the “skincare ingredients” anyone could ever want: ceramides, peptides, antioxidants, antimicrobials, exfoliating enzymes, epidermal growth factor, stem cells, squalene oil, pre-, pro-, and post-biotics, collagen, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, lactic acid, and even a biocompatible face oil (sebum). Seriously. The human body makes all of the above!!
While I’m done with industrialized skincare for life, your de-stressing need not be so extreme. “I tell my clients to take time off from their products two to three evenings a week, or at least one weekend day,” Peck said. Not only does this allow the skin to do its thing, it also spares you the hassle of a 10-step regimen. And clears some shelf space. And saves you money.
Go tell the Instagram girlies: To be feral is to be free!