The word “detox” has become comically overused in the past few years. Everywhere you look, people are detoxing their diets and homes and relationships. Though the idea of removing anything that’s toxic from your life is a good one, it sometimes feels like another catchall phrase that’s become commoditized in our culture. This is most certainly the case with the Internet trend of doing a “skin detox.”
What does it mean to detox your skin?
“Scientifically, it has no meaning,” says Dr. Kenneth Howe, a board-certified dermatologist at Wexler Dermatology in New York. “The technical meaning of ‘detoxify’ is ‘to remove toxins,’ and your organs like the liver or kidneys do just that on their own: They filter toxins from the blood and process them for removal.”
“People use the word ‘detox’ in a metaphorical sense when talking about the skin, because your skin doesn’t remove toxins from the body,” explains Howe. “As such, your skin does not harbor toxins either.”
So, can you actually detox your skin?
“Technically, no. Metaphorically, yes,” says Howe, and he notes that people approach it in many different ways. “A skin detox might include added exfoliation to remove build-up of dead cells on the surface of your skin for some, or cutting back on the amount and usage of makeup for another,” he explains.
“Then there are some people who detox through implementing certain dietary changes like eliminating refined sugars, decreasing caffeine intake and/or increasing their consumption of leafy greens and water,” he says. “The list goes on and on, and though all of these changes might be beneficial to the appearance of your skin and overall health (in the case of the dietary changes), they don’t actually detox the skin. Nothing does because your skin doesn’t need detoxification.”
OK, then what’s the deal with all of those skincare products that claim to detox your skin?
According to Howe, “they’re just using ‘detox’ as a popular buzz word.” Again, the skin doesn’t have the ability to remove toxins from your body.
When popular skincare products that claim to detox your skin (i.e., a charcoal or baking soda face mask or cleanser) make your skin feel cleaner or look clearer after using them, it’s because they’re doing just that: cleaning up any residual makeup, sebum, or dead cell buildup from the surface.
In other cases, products that tout their skin detoxifying benefits by protecting against environmental damage (i.e., an antioxidant serum or cream) are actually inhibiting or reducing the amount of free radical damage that’s caused by the environment. Again, they are not technically detoxing anything.
To sum it up, saying that a product will detox your skin is a bit misleading or mislabeled. “What they’re actually doing falls in one of the traditional categories of skin care treatments such as antioxidant or exfoliant,” says Howe.
What about juicing or other dietary changes that claim to detox your skin?
As stated above, “There are some dietary changes such as cutting down on refined sugar or dairy that have proven benefits for people—especially in the case of acne,” says Howe. “These benefits are most pronounced in people who overindulge in sugar or dairy to begin with, so cutting back on these things can make a significant difference for them. If you’re already eating a fairly healthy diet, and you make a draconian effort to skip those last grains of sugar, you’re probably not going to see any significant reward for your efforts.”
What about infrared saunas, dry brushing or "sweating out" your toxins?
“Dry brushing is a method of exfoliation,” explains Howe. “It removes built-up dead cells on the surface of your skin. It doesn’t pull out any toxins from it.”
And sorry to say, but the idea of “sweating out your toxins” is also an illusion. “Sweat is mostly made up of water so what you’re sweating out is mostly H2O. There are some trace amounts of electrolytes that ride out with the fluid, but no toxins,” says Howe.
As for infrared saunas, Howe claims that they can actually harm your skin, as infrared radiation has been shown to damage the skin similar to the way ultraviolet light does. “Though IR is not as harmful as UV, it does contribute to aging of the skin.”
Got it—so, skip the whole skin detox thing. What are some ways we can actually improve the clarity, tone or texture of our skin, doc?
It all goes back to the basics, y’all. If you don’t already have a simple skincare regimen that works for you, then start there.
The key pillars to healthy skin are: cleansing, moisturizing and protecting. So wash your face once to twice daily. (Most experts we’ve spoken to throughout the years agree that a quick wipe down with a toner or micellar water in the morning, and more thorough cleanse in the evening, is sufficient.)
Next, apply a layer of moisturizer while your skin is still slightly damp from cleansing. Opt for lightweight, gel, oil-free or non-comedogenic formulas if you have oily skin and are prone to getting breakouts. Choose a more emollient moisturizer (translation: creamy) if you’re on the drier side.
Last, but perhaps most importantly, finish off with a layer of sunscreen in the morning. You’ve probably heard your mom (and every glowy-skinned actress or beauty influencer) say this a zillion times throughout the years, but it’s true: Wear sunscreen every day. SPF is your BFF when it comes to protecting against UV damage (which causes premature aging, dark spots, and, um, skin cancer).
There are two main types of sunscreen—physical and chemical—with pros and cons for each. If you’re not sure which one to get, in general, physical sunscreens are better tolerated by people with sensitive skin, while chemical sunscreens tend to hold up better on oilier skin (or people who are very active or tend to sweat a lot).
Once you get those three key steps down pat, from there, you can add in any additional steps or products to troubleshoot specific issues you’re having (like acne or hyperpigmentation) as needed.
Bottom line: Taking good care of your skin doesn’t require any detoxing, and the best way to improve your complexion is to follow a consistent regimen.
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