The 5 Stages of Skincare Product Grief: Letting Go When Things Don’t Work

It’s not easy to accept that something isn’t working. How can it be? You spent days researching until you decided to buy that moisturizer! You almost spent a beautiful arm and leg for shipping. You waited weeks, nay, months for it to arrive on my doorstep. Literally dozens of people have said it works for them. How could it fail you now?! Just as with everything else in your life, it downright sucks when it doesn’t work out.

No one is immune to the chances of a skincare or cosmetic product being ineffective. (And if you are immune, then you should consult a doctor/veterinarian/scientist because you are probably not human.) At best, it simply doesn’t work. At worst, it can be downright harmful for you. It may not evenbe a product, but a habit during your routine or through the day, or maybe a skincare/cosmetic tool.

I’m with you on this struggle. The ever-popular holy grail moisturizer, Mizon Snail Recovery Gel Cream, sadly just did not work for me. It has 74% snail secretion filtrate, is a lightweight occlusive, and is cheap! But when things don’t work despite all expectations, we don’t have to despair. We can make it through, if only we keep the bigger picture in mind. Because this, too, shall pass. –Not Gandalf

Mizon Snail Recovery Gel Cream
feat. Skinfood Magic Hair Pad raining on my Mizon parade.

Stage 1: Questioning 

“Could it be?! Please, snail lords, no!” (Yeah, you might experience a little Anger.) You may need to confirm what the culprit is for that bad reaction. Isolate the problematic product! 

Patch-test one last time or finish your current patch-testing. TLDR of patch-testing: Use the product on only a small part of your skin before using it on your whole face, to see if you are having a breakout, allergic reaction, or other bad reaction. It is recommended to patch-test for around 1-2 weeks. A breakout could happen at any time. 

Minimize your routine to just the basics and take out any actives, or chemical exfoliators, which can dry out your skin and cause purging as opposed to a breakout. Stick to the 3 foundational steps: a cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen (unless one of those is a possible culprit, then omit or replace that step). Hold off on your weekly clay masks as well. This will help you figure out whether or not it really is a product that you reacted badly to, or if it’s a different factor. Ease off makeup if you can, and/or wash your makeup brushes. Makeup can bog your skin down, and any makeup package or tool can become a petri dish of invisible bacteria. Yuck.

If you are using physical exfoliator cleansing tools like a spinning sonic brush, pore brush, or silicone pad, take a break from them, especially if your skin feels tight and overly dry after using them. Many “Western” skincare products and habits create the common assumption that the more physical exfoliation, the better you can clean out skin impurities. Yeah, no. Doesn’t work that way. Do not use corporal punishment on your skin. Do not wash your face 12 times a day. Excessive exfoliation, either chemical or physical, can strip your skin’s moisture barrier, a common cause of dehydrated and dehydrated-oily skin. In the latter case—as I sometimes experience when it’s not soupily humid—your skin may be overproducing sebum to compensate for the oils lost in too-often or too-harsh cleansing. It’s a vicious cycle of sadness and regret. Your skin deserves more, so be kind to it.

Stage 2: Understanding (Yourself)

“I don’t know why my skin hates me. I just wanted to love you. :(“ It can be hard to understand what’s breaking you out, but it can be even worse to figure out why. The first step to understanding your reaction is to understand yourself.

A habit I’ve picked up on /r/AsianBeauty is keeping an Excel spreadsheet of the steps in my routine. Spreadsheets can make your skincare journey immensely easier in the long run. Include a column listing the ingredients of each product. This way, you can narrow down the possible irritant. What did you recently introduce for the first time to your skin? What are the common ingredients among all the products you suspect? The process of elimination can help. You can look up ingredient lists on Cosdna, which includes an acne trigger rating for most ingredients. Here’s a part of my own colorful spreadsheet:

Screenshot of my AB Routine Spreadsheet

Keep in mind that, of course, everyone is different. An ingredient that triggers acne for one person might do nothing for the next. A high acne trigger rating is not a guarantee, just as unstandardized terms like “non-comedogenic” on product labels may actually mean very little. Almost anything has a chance of causing a bad reaction in any individual, because that’s exactly what we are: very different individuals with multiple factors at play.

It might not be a particular ingredient, but the overall formulation or quality of a product that is causing you grief. This was the case for me. At first, I thought it was an ingredient in Mizon Snail Recovery Gel Cream, cyclopentasiloxane; according to this Skin & Tonics review, some people are simply more sensitive to it than others. However, a few of my other moisturizers with cyclopentasiloxane worked perfectly fine for me! It turns out that, with its myriad silicone ingredients altogether, the Mizon SRG was just suffocating my skin. In a bout of final patch-testing, it blessed the left cheek (of my face…) with these lovely gifts:

Mizon Snail Recovery Gel reaction
NSFD(ignity). Huzzah! I present “A Bad Reaction” feat. Pustules.

Stage 3: Reasoning

“I skin, therefore I am…Or something.” You don’t have to create long-term damage to the largest organ of your body, no matter how adventurous of a spirit you are. Let’s understand the logic and reasoning for playing it safe when it comes to your skin.

Think of the bigger picture, the long run. You are on a journey for the healthiest skin possible; this has to start from within. Don’t cling to products that get rave reviews yet didn’t get your personal seal of approval. As Michaelangelo once said (or as a statement of uncertain origin tried to say), a sculptor is not really creating a statue out of a marble block; the sculptor is simply revealing the statue imprisoned within. Letting go of one product is one way of chipping away at the skincare world in order to get the ideal routine uniquely for you.

Think of this as a step toward expanding your skincare boundaries. There’s a reason that there are so many things available for various concerns. Why not look into your next potential Holy Grail? Or pick up some new habits, like air-drying instead of towel-drying? The little things add up. And so what if that failed product was super cheap, like that silly Mizon gel? Long-term or permanent skin damage is not worth the low, low price.

Most of all, there’s nothing “wrong” with you. (“It’s not you, it’s me.” –Your Bad Product) Remember: As with all matters, Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV). We as humans are made of so many different physical manifestations of our genes. We are subject to so many other internal and external factors, like stress level, eating habits, sleeping habits, and climate, that there is simply no foolproof way to ensure 100% that one thing will for everyone. And that’s perfectly fine. Don’t use sheer willpower to force your skin to respond well to a product. Cultivate a routine that works for you.

Stage 4: Moving On

“Just gonna walk away now…” You’ve accepted this as a learning experience, emerging with shiny new knowledge about yourself and the skincare world that’ll help you moving forward. Now, what do you do with that 200-ml paperweight? Where do you put that pore brush that practically scrubbed away your soul?

Repurpose it. A facial cleanser whose pH level is too high? Try it as a makeup brush cleanser. Makeup wipes too harsh? Use it to clean surfaces around your house. Horrible moisturizer for your face? Try it on your decolletage or body! You might give it a shot as an eye cream only. Or even spot treatment, as I occasionally use my tube of Mizon gel. Turns out it worked fine when it wasn’t suffocating my entire face. Anyway, practically any product that won’t play nicely with your face can be tried on your body instead. There are tons of ways to repurpose your skincare and cosmetic products!

Pass it forward. If a sleeping pack is way too heavy for your combo/oily skin type, give it to a dry friend. Trade or sell it on /r/AsianBeautyExchange. If it doesn’t work for you, maybe it will work for someone else.

Toss it. Is it an vitamin C serum with an unstable L-AA formula, reaching the end of its quickly-oxidizing lifespan? Is it hard to picture anyone else at all finding that sonic brush useful? Do you have 12 more sample packets of a useless toner that you simply don’t want to look at anymore? If you can’t pass it forward, build a snowman let it go. It’s probably done enough damage. There is certainly some psychological advantage to pouring that bottle of essence down the drain. It ain’t cheap, though, so do this mindfully.

Stage 5: Acceptance

“I paid for my 10-pack of sheet masks with a $20. Where’s my change?” “Change must come from within.” (Not sorry for the Zen jokes.) Congratulations: You’ve made it out of the deep. Take a deep breath. The struggle has to end, and so it ends now.

More accurately, it’s a new beginning. Refresh your mind, skin, and soul. Give yourself a break from new products for a while; I recommend resting 1-2 weeks at least. Sure, maybe you have about 20 things in your wishlist, or have a newly-arrived box of samples. Tuck it safely out of sight for now. Start anew, so you can continue exploring another day. Get comfortable in your own skin again, and give it a chance to relax. For me, I’m returning to my luxuriously-scented Laneige Water Bank Gel Cream EX to calm my skin down. Indulge in your favorite sheet mask (that you already know works well for you). Go ahead. You’ve earned it.

Aaaahhh.

Mizon Snail Recovery Gel - feat. Jon Snow
And so the struggle has ended. (P.S. F*** Olly.)

This isn’t by any means an exhaustive list on ways to move on from skincare distress. Do you have your own way of letting go? Are you a zen master and you didn’t even need this post? Tell us your secrets!

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