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I Didn’t Wash My Face for 28 Years

Why I finally started taking care of my skin.

I didn't wash my face for the first 28 years of my life.

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There’s so much to hate about the frothing, the splashing, the turning your countertop into a Slip’N Slide that I simply never took part. The pre-cosmetics years are an ironic wash, but even once I reached an age where MAC meant makeup and not cheeseburgers, I never picked up on beauty’s other half. Every pillowcase was trashed; household towels were marred with colorful half-circles from wiping my eyes post-shower. I spent my college years falling asleep in pathetic attempts at smoky eyes and cleaning around the edges come morning — double-use eyeliner is cheaper, after all — ignoring the construct of a clean face for years longer than I should have, and all the while getting away with it.

There’s so much to hate about the frothing, the splashing, the turning your countertop into a Slip'N Slide that I simply never took part.

My life has been heeded with one compliment: clear skin. I have poofy hair, an ever-expanding waistline that looks lumpy in fitted clothes, and an ever-so-slightly off-kilter face that Picasso on stimulants could have painted, but my skin? It's always been fine. No face wash, no acne, no issue — so I never messed with it. I've not once been drawn in by a Proactiv commercial; trips to the dermatologist weren't for battling pimples, but for inspecting a single mole on my left arm.

Everything changed after I moved to California last year. Transplanted New Yorkers are quick to extol the virtues of farmers market strawberries and sunshine in December, but cooly leave out the detriment it inflicts onto your physicality. Hard water, rich with minerals and acidic pH unlike anything I’ve experienced even in tenement-like East Village apartments, strips moisture from your skin and hair like paint thinner. Putting sink water onto my face became a backwards task, leaving me to retype "buy micellar water" on 60 iterations of the same to-do list. I’ve tried it all: installing water filters, buying new shower heads, bathing purely with Evian — which is cold and less French than you’d imagine — but while my legs have become a crepey mess fixed by heavy-duty lotion that leaves knee prints wherever I go, my upstairs was even worse. Wrinkles, redness, blotchiness, dryness, and creases; my face aged five years in as many months before my newly textured eyes.

I had no choice but to sack up. Until last fall, I had never really done a mask, never exfoliated, never intentionally used a serum. I’d occasionally toned with a set of tiny bottles I swiped from a hotel stay two years ago, but only because it was a way to take off my makeup without turning on the faucet.

My face was becoming the early pencil work of a California Raisin cartoon.

And so, I tried to try. I bought a boring Clinique face wash and toner because it was the biggest and cheapest and had a very cool gift with purchase; I purchased a Peter Thomas Roth mask and sensitive skin-friendly exfoliant because I never again wanted to see the horror I saw in the eyes of the skincare salesperson to whom I confessed my not-now, not-ever exfoliation habits. I stepped it up, ordering lotion samples instead of foundation trial packs with my many online Sephora orders, going as far as to buy a moisturizer specifically tied to a time of day when the sun had set. It was less of a routine and more of a drawer of things I’d grab and slop together on my face, which at this point was becoming the early pencil work of a California Raisin cartoon. The wrinkles were appearing faster than I could contain them. I accepted my fate and jumped in hard.

Before, I was the life of the party come bedtime — who needs a half hour to wash up? — having no idea how truly lonely taking care of yourself can be. For the past month, my husband lay comatose by the time I actually crawl into bed all gooey-faced, carefully laying back on my pillow like the titular scene in a very real rendition of Sleeping Beauty. Night creams are an executioner of intimacy; even an accidental hand to my face in the bedroom is an unexpected terror, all wet and clammy and confusing like a bowl of grapes being presented as eyeballs in a haunted house.

My new life requires a stack of black towels, overpriced water in spray cans, and face wash with the consistency of sand. I sleep differently because my precious face products stick to the bed; I plop oil onto my dry face when I work from home, pondering how anyone can be moisturized and not stroll through life as one large human stain.

It took me the better part of six months, but I finally built an evening routine I can stick to.

It took me the better part of six months, but I finally built an evening routine I can stick to. I de-makeup with Boscia Oil and a swath of alcohol toner, or cleanse clean-ish skin with a splash of water and leftover Birchbox samples, if I can muster the strength. Then, I apply overpriced SKII magic water, pressing it into my wrinkles while convincing myself that I shouldn’t feel bad about how much I spent on it by picturing an older, gray-haired version of myself with an identical complexion telling strangers she "owes it all to starting young." (This panic was at an all-time high when I followed instructions to soak a cotton pad with about $4 worth of the non-water, which will be the full subject of a future therapy appointment.) I then rub in Drunk Elephant’s Glycolic Night Serum, which stings in the good way, and plop whatever other serum sample I can find on top because my friend and Racked editor Julia Rubin layers products and has baby doll skin so I’ll do anything she says. More often than not, I follow that with a calming night cream, or skip the serum and mix the weirdly foam-like Kate Somerville retinol in instead, because Vogue says to use it before you’re 30 and I trust them ever since they ran that really great article about Phish. Then I slap on an eye serum solely because Drunk Elephant’s Lego-like bottles are fun to use, apply way too much eye cream to my eyes, and proceed to my Casper coffin.

It’s a complicated nightmare when I wake up, too. I’ve never accomplished a routine with so many contradictory rules in my life. Did you know that not wearing sunscreen can kill you, but most ingredients in sunscreen can kill you, too? You’re screwed if you don’t put on a Vitamin C serum before applying the sunscreen, you’re screwed if you’re not using products with Vitamin A to prevent aging, but you can’t go out in the sun if you use Vitamin A, which negates the point of using Vitamin C or panicking about sunscreen ingredients or opening your front door and living a regular human life at all. (No wonder The Bride of Frankenstein always needed her roots touched up, but beheld a flawless alabaster face.)

"Am I... trying to avoid admitting I’m aging?" I asked myself, like the end of a Carrie Bradshaw monologue.

Throughout my transition into someone who nominally cares about her looks, I never actually gave my reasoning for avoiding face maintenance any thought. Laziness, confusion, hating the feeling of drowning in my own bathroom sink, they all fit. It wasn’t until I actually read the label of that glycolic night serum that it all began to make sense. The instructions weirdly called for additional application to the back of my hands, so I did, allowing a small piece of my confidence to melt away with the skin cells below it. "Am I... trying to avoid admitting I’m aging?" I asked myself, like the end of a Carrie Bradshaw monologue. I couldn't ever have old lady hands, warped like the stump of an old willow tree, right? My hands could never resemble the veiny paws of someone who had spent so much time on earth, despite my skin creeping up towards becoming three decades old. I didn’t skip slapping on creams, daintily pressing essences into my forehead, or washing my face for these many years because I’m lazy or scared I’d drown. It was because I was in denial.

Children hate washing up for bed, skipping out on brushing their teeth to squeeze out the last ounces of night. Twentysomethings pass out on a friend’s couch or companion’s bed, making their mascara-strewn face tomorrow’s problem. Women, though? Women click and pop open a cabinet’s worth of potions worthy of a open mic comic routine about their sum cost. By ignoring that I could — and okay, will — become one of them in due time, I was inadvertently speeding up that very process.

I’m all-in now, a reformed skincare dirtbag. The crazy thing is, it’s not all marketing and bottle design and pretend magic. It works. I look 14 again! (I am obviously kidding, but the bags under my eyes are now carry-ons instead of the ones you see being spun-wrapped in plastic at international terminals.) I may still emerge from the bathroom looking like someone hit the bullseye on a carnival dunk tank filled with glycerine, but I’m committed to forcing myself to use face wash dailyish, and uphold the rest of my custom facial marinade, too. Truth be told, I nearly missed a deadline because I was building that early-to-bed life partner of mine a five-step skincare routine of his own. (If we’re truly together through richer and poorer, we’re suffering through the pricey gloop together.) I may be an inadvertent minimalist who’s three decades late to this party, but I’m determined to stick around ‘til they cut the cake.


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