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A curious act has been transpiring in front of my beauty shelf lately. Sometime within the last few months, I began organically cherry-picking the products in my morning and evening skincare routines based on how my skin was feeling. This may not seem life-altering to you, but for someone like me, whose Virgoan nature thrives on order, the narrow parameters of a strict regimen have always been a cozy comfort zone—and in these trying times, who couldn’t use a few no-brainers in their day?
But this kind of "intuitive beauty"—where products are in loose rotation rather than lined up single-file, awaiting their twice-daily turn on the skin—is new to me. In the last year, a rigid Marie Veronique regimen has been helping my skin recover from a total meltdown—a full-blown eruption, more accurately—after I carelessly and abruptly made a switch to an all-natural beauty line. The allure of "garden-grown" is real. My enthusiasm and expectations for the line failed me. Marie Veronique, with its clean ingredients and next-generation science, to the rescue.
That said, there are excellent products in both camps—synthetic and plant-based. It all depends on your skin and how you use them—nothing is one-size fits all. So, I let my strict routine quietly evolve into a more liberal process. If I feel a breakout coming on, I’ll try to head it off at the pass with a pre-emptive willow bark strike. If my skin feels dry, I’ll incorporate a rich oil. Texture has been a stubborn issue lately, so I’ve brought on a punchy refiner, May Lindstrom's The Problem Solver, since intuitive beauty draws no hard lines between skincare brands or, for that matter, natural and synthetic ingredients. I’ll even play formulator, mixing a drop or two of this with a drop or two of that; half a pump of this with a full pump of that to get the combination or cushioning of ingredients and effects that I need.
Dara Kennedy, the owner of Ayla, a clean-beauty boutique in San Francisco, likens this level of perceptiveness to intuitive eating, a non-diet diet based on moderation and has one easy-going rule, according to Vogue: Eat what you want when you want, with a “goal of satisfaction not excess.” In this strategy, a backlash against rigid diets like keto and The Whole30, duck fat fries are no more or less virtuous than a leafy salad harvested from the community organic-vegetable plot. “If you really can’t eat for yourself, you are always in a state of friction,” says the article.
What Is Intuitive Skincare?
So how does intuitive eating apply to skincare? In the case of one Ayla customer, quite literally. Kennedy tells me of a woman who was hesitant to put anything on her face unless the ingredients came from nature and she could theoretically ingest them—a strict, self-imposed, no-synthetics skin diet. Washing with a combination of coconut, sesame, olive and avocado oils may work for some, but the customer was experiencing clogged, dry skin and in desperate need of some water-based hydration to break the cycle.
“She had become frustrated after reading all of these different lists of no-no ingredients in skincare that she sort of gave up and said, ‘Fine, I’ll just use products I can eat,’” says Kennedy, who worked for Elizabeth Arden and Living Proof before launching Ayla in 2011. “I get that. I can see exactly how that might happen.” Though she wasn’t able to find a cleanser that the customer felt comfortable using, Kennedy convinced her to start simply with rosewater. “And even that was a big, anxiety-ridden step,” says Kennedy.
All-Natural Versus Synthetic Ingredients
“The truth is, I believe clean beauty can include synthetics, and that they can be enormously helpful.” In fact, the miracle humectant known as hyaluronic acid, which naturally occurs in the skin, is made in a lab for use in our best skin-plumping, glow-inducing products. This news is bound to give anti-synthetics sticklers a moment of pause. Go ahead, I dare you to throw out your Vintner’s Daughter Essence.
Bay Area skincare expert Kristina Holey, of the gold-label collaboration with Marie Veronique that brought my skin back from the brink, is also quite democratic about the ingredients that make up clean beauty products. “I don’t see why it would make any difference whether it’s a synthetically or naturally derived ingredient,” she says. “It’s going to have the same response in your body. Chemicals are chemicals, natural or not.”
Getting hung up on such distinctions obscures what Holey believes is the real purpose of intuitive beauty: “To be biomimetic and match what your skin naturally craves and needs,” she says. “That’s what’s triggering your intuition.”
What’s more, adopting an intuitive approach to beauty could eliminate product dependency. “You never want to feel like your skin is going to breakdown if you skip a particular product for a day,” says Holey. “Our bodies go through fluctuations all the time—from weather to diet or, for anyone who menstruates, a monthly cycle. Intuitive beauty is about figuring out how those factors impact the skin and then how you can fill in the blanks with products.”
But if stable, strong skin is the holy grail that we’re all striving toward, perhaps the ultimate path is one of least resistance. How in the world is your microbiome supposed reach optimum levels of beneficial bacteria—the very microorganisms that will keep your skin balanced—if you keep handicapping it with stripping products?
Bacteria Is Not "Bad"
For years, Holey and brand formulator Marie Veronique Nadeau have long been pedaling organic plain yogurt—full fat with live cultures—cleanses and masks as ways to naturally replenish and strengthen the skin’s ecosystem with beneficial bacteria, but their gospel is only resonating now that “maskne” is running rampant. The science is simple: A skin ecosystem depleted of the microorganisms needed to control inflammation and the overgrowth of acne-causing pathogens is going to be prone to breakouts, mask or no mask. We’re looking at you, users of skin-stripping cleansers and other harsh, sterilizing topicals. Don’t even get us started on the frequent exfoliators out there.
“If you can stop viewing bacteria as bad and stop trying to control it, then over time you’ll achieve more healthy, stable skin,” says Holey. “Relinquishing control is a key component of intuitive beauty that is going to give your skin a chance to function in the way nature intended.”
(So, guess who’s been cleansing her face each morning with this awesome goat milk yogurt since her Zoom interview with Holey a few weeks ago? Not only does it feel good—cooling and nourishing at the same time, with a bonus lactic acid boost—but there have been less breakouts. Marginally less, but in this case, time is on my side. “You can’t overdo it,” says Holey. “The idea is that with consistent application of yogurt, the lactobacillus bacteria will take over and change the microbiome of the skin for the better, eventually bringing it into strong, strong balance.”)
Sometimes Less Is More
Formulator May Lindstrom is also a proponent of the (occasional) one-product regimen to allow the skin space to heal itself. “You’ve got to get out of your own way,” she says. One of her common morning rituals is to rinse with water and follow with a single (and singular) product from her line—The Blue Cocoon.
But it’s Lindstrom’s recommended application of the cult balm—a facial massage courtesy of your own fingers, not some carved jade tool—that she believes is crucial for developing intuitive beauty. Not only does this technique drive The Blue Cocoon’s hydrating, anti-inflammatory ingredients deeper into the dermal layers for even more profound benefits, but it also gives you an opportunity to fine-tune your connection to the skin.
“It’s vital to develop an active relationship with your skin, starting with the most basic and intimate of rituals—touch,” says Lindstrom. “This is the only way you’ll come to know your skin and be responsive to its needs on a daily basis.”
She reminds me that skin is a living organ that interfaces with the outside environment—its primary role is to be a physical barrier against foreign organisms and toxic substances. For this sole purpose, it should be as strong and as healthy as possible. And even though we may get glowy when we encourage its natural functionality, such radiance is, Lindstrom says, “a bonus, but not the goal.” Ironically, this may seem like counterintuitive beauty. Luckily, my instinct tells me otherwise.