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Expert Talk: Jessica DeFino, skincare expert and beauty journalist
What's in your skincare products?
Hello! Today I’m launching Expert Talk, a series where I interview a special guest every month. For our first interview, I talked to Jessica DeFino, a beauty reporter who’s written for The New York Times, Vogue, Harper’s BAZAAR, The Cut, ELLE, Cosmopolitan, and more. Jessica is a skincare and beauty expert, gleaning from her years reporting on the beauty industry and her personal journey.
If you don’t already, I highly recommend following Jessica and subscribing to her trailblazing newsletter, The Unpublishable. Jessica gives her blunt and witty insights on everything from neurotoxin-containing anti-aging products to eating sweet potatoes as a form of skincare.
Without further ado, here’s Jessica!
1 - How did you get interested in skincare, and what was your own skin journey?
I got interested in skincare after my skin was severely injured by a topical steroid prescription at age 25. I've always had very reactive, communicative skin and was on one medication or another between the ages of 14 - 25: antibiotics, retinoids, birth control, Accutane, and eventually topical steroids. After two years of steroid use — I later found out steroids are only supposed to be prescribed for two weeks at a time — I developed something called "skin atrophy", where my skin barrier was basically thinned and not able to function. I had to stop using steroids, of course, and then my skin went into Topical Steroid Withdrawal, which was all as gruesome as it sounds. My skin was too sensitive to handle any products at all; even splashing it with water burned. So I started researching ways to heal my skin without topical products and became fascinated with the Gut-Brain-Skin Axis, the field of psychodermatology, and the science of how the skin inherently functions. Turns out, it has built-in mechanisms to self-cleanse, self-moisturize, self-exfoliate, self-protect, and self-heal — and oftentimes, topical products overwrite these functions, cause problems, and do more harm than good. I decided to pivot to a career in the beauty space (at the time, I was a writer for the Kardashian-Jenner Official Apps) in order to debunk some of the industry's biggest marketing myths and encourage people to take their power back from products.
2 - What’s your overall message or philosophy?
My overall philosophy is Leave Your Face The Fuck Alone. Perhaps a more polite way of saying that is: The component parts of you are more powerful than any pre-bottled skincare product.
3 - Most people, especially women, have dealt with skin conditions like acne and rosacea. A lot of them are also surprised to still have these conditions well into their 20s. What’s the biggest misconception people have about skin conditions?
I think the biggest misconception is that skin conditions are "conditions" in the first place! Pretty much every skin reaction is a communication or a sign of healing-in-progress — so we should approach the treatment of "skin conditions" by asking, "What is my body attempting to heal here?" For instance, acne, rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis all have an element of inflammation. Inflammation is the body's healing response! So the question becomes: What is making your body work so hard to heal? (Of course, these aren't easy questions to answer, and there's always a genetic element as to why your body communicates in this particular way. Everyone's unique!) The other big misconception is that skin issues are about the skin at all. More often, triggers have to do with internal wellbeing, mental health, and the environment — the skin is merely the messenger!
4 - It's well-established that skin and beauty products can contain toxic and environmentally unfriendly ingredients. What are some ingredients found in skincare products that would surprise people?
To me, the most worrying ingredients are petrochemicals — AKA, ingredients derived from fossil fuels. Many of these petrochemicals (like petroleum jelly and mineral oil) are purified before they're incorporated into cosmetics, and so they don't present much of a threat to your skin topically... which would be a good excuse for using them if skin was the most important thing in the world. But the world is the most important thing in the world, and fossil fuels are currently destroying that. It's concerning to me that beauty brands are so dependent on an industry that's literally causing climate change. No skincare product is important enough to justify that, full stop. I really think that we, as an industry and as consumers, need to commit to divesting from fossil fuels. I mean, if you look at it holistically, it even makes sense on a skin health level! Environmental changes caused by global warming, like increased pollution and sun exposure, are the biggest threats to the skin. The fossil fuel industry creates said environmental changes. In other words, the production of these products creates the demand for these products. It's a vicious cycle. It's backwards and ridiculous and there is just no coherent, ethical argument for the continued use of fossil fuel byproducts in beauty. Other petrochemicals include petrolatum, paraffin wax, PEGs, ingredients that include the prefix butyl, and ingredients that include the prefix propyl, among others.
5 - We've seen so many viral skincare trends and products emerge, especially during the pandemic. What's a trend or product you wish would go away?
"Slugging" with Vaseline, for all the aforementioned reasons. Retinol, since it disrupts the skin barrier. Hyaluronic acid, since it doesn't belong on the surface of the skin. Daily exfoliation, since dead skin cells are important!
6 - What are natural skincare products you would recommend?
My favorite skincare products are Manuka honey and plain jojoba oil, since they both support the skin's inherent functions and are multi-use. Manuka is my cleanser, face mask, and spot treatment. Jojoba oil is my makeup remover and moisturizer (applied to damp skin, always!). I also love Kari Gran Essential SPF. Simple and sustainable all around!
7 - What are some up-and-coming trends you see in skincare? Is the way we view skincare and skin health changing?
To be honest, I've sort of stopped paying attention to skincare trends. They truly do not matter. When you understand how the skin inherently functions, that's really all you need to know. Trends come and go, but the biology of human skin is forever. (I mean, until we evolve into whatever comes next...)