No face wash. No toners. No serums. No moisturizers. Would you take this routine on two months before your wedding? I decided to give it a shot.
A history of skincare obsession
I have had temperamental skin since I was 14. And, since that time, I've also been a skincare junkie. First, when I was younger, my bathroom cabinet overflowed with prescription products from dermatologists: retinols, benzoyl peroxide, prescription strength salicylic acid, chemical peels and exfoliators — all to help manage my regular acne flair ups. Every morning and evening (and after any sports or exercise) my multi-step routine was kicked off by a thorough face cleansing. It was a complex ritual, I was married to it, and you couldn’t pay me to stray from it.
In my 20s, the flare ups continued, but the trips to the dermatologist became fewer and farther between. Seduced by Sephora, I rapidly (and unintentionally) elevated myself to VIB Rouge status, also known as Sephora's loyalty program for its out-of-control shoppers. I was always trying something: glycolic peels, lactic acid, toners, serums, essences, and moisturizers of varying hydration levels and consistencies (whipped! oil! gel!). But my skin remained temperamental and stubborn. Most frustrating of all, even on days with no breakouts, my complexion was splotchy and uneven — prompting endless experimentation with concealers and foundations. Needless to say, the cycle has been exhausting, expensive, and not nearly as successful as I would like.
A new routine is triggered
A few months after my 28th birthday, I got engaged. And with the wedding planning underway, I was determined to figure out a solution to my skin woes before the big day. One early morning, as I lay in bed groggily scrolling through my Instagram feed, I stumbled upon a blogger who mentioned that she was about to start a ten-day skin cleanse: no makeup, no face washing, no moisturizers, no nothing. I had to suppress my gag reflex. The idea was baffling — barbaric, even. And indeed, this ritual is affectionately referred to as “The Caveman Ritual”. My fiancé, now husband, happens to follow this ritual to a “T” and has for as long as I’ve known him. He also happens to have flawless skin — though I’ve always chocked it up to good genes. But could it be possible that he has great skin because of rather than in spite of his lack of skin care hygiene? I pondered this momentarily then put my phone away, scoffing at the ridiculousness of the notion that my beloved skin care ritual — my faithful cleansing, my near-fanatic hygiene — might actually be doing more harm than good.
My curiosity began to seep in days later, and I googled more about the Caveman Ritual. As it turns out, everyone seems to have something to say about it: Refinery29, Cosmopolitan, The Love Vitamin, even Fox News. A lot of what’s being said is not that encouraging if you’re in the pro-caveman camp. Dermatologists, for one, don’t seem too psyched about people tossing out their moisturizer and sunblock. Despite the harsh criticisms, the logic behind it does make sense to me — and there are a lot of people who claim it’s saved their skin. The idea is that by abstaining from soaps and products, you allow the skin’s acid mantle to repair itself. The acid mantle is a slightly acidic layer of sebum and sweat that forms on our skin when we hit puberty. Its purpose is to protect the skin from invading bacteria — the types of bacteria that cause acne and other skin conditions. When we wash the skin and apply products, we can destroy that acid mantle, and the skin loses its natural ability to protect itself from bacteria. Hence, acne.
The more I read, the more I felt like the idea did have some merit. At the very least, I had to admit that it wasn’t that outlandish or even novel. The idea of “excessive hygiene” has been making its rounds for a while now. We’ve all heard that we should wash our hair less often if we want it to be less oily. Or that if you stop wearing antiperspirant (which I highly advise, that stuff is toxic), your body will go through an adjustment period after which point you stop smelling so atrocious. So is it really all that crazy to think that by constantly washing and moisturizing and toning and fussing, our skin might lose its natural ability to protect itself?
The cavemen advocates appeared to be onto something, but I wasn’t ready to totally throw the towel in. After all, cavemen also didn’t brush their teeth, and I think we can all agree that dental hygiene has been a positive step forward. And they certainly didn’t deal with city smog and pollution — and we do know that these things can wreak havoc on skin. Eventually, intrigued by the logic of allowing my skin to self-regulate, but unconvinced that doing nothing at all is an appropriate modern panacea, I opted to try my own version, Cave(wo)man Light: for one month I would forgo all makeup and only use a damp wash cloth to remove dirt from my skin. And I wouldn’t use any products (toners, moisturizers, serums, etc.) — with the important exception of a topical retinol at night, because, well, I’m addicted to it.
The first few days were tough. I felt naked and disoriented — after all, for many of us skin care routines are the ritualistic bookends of our day. Oh and I was oily. Definitely oily. But I powered through the discomfort, and around the 14-day marker, I noticed that things were changing for the better. Existing blemishes were fading away, and nothing new was coming up. The uneven blotchiness that had irked me all through my teens and 20s had improved quite a bit. And the oiliness had largely abated. But — and this is an important but — I also noticed some white bumpiness under my skin (clogged pores, I presume) which isn’t typical for me. When I hit my one-month Cave(wo)man Light anniversary, my skin was looking as good as I had seen it in years. If I did get a blemish it was tiny, not angry, and it cleared quickly. Though a little dull, my complexion was (for once) even. But those pesky bumps I had noticed around the halfway marker had gotten worse. My best guess is that the washcloth and water wasn’t doing enough to get rid of the grime that had accumulated on my face throughout the day.
With one month to go before my wedding, I decided to selectively reintroduce certain products to see if I could strike the right balance for my skin, keeping things gentle enough that my skin’s barrier remained intact, while also effectively removing dirt and impurities at the day’s end. I continued to only use a washcloth and water in the morning, but started using Mahina Beaute’s Cleansing Balm at night and applying their Vitamin C “Turn the Lights On” serum in the morning. I chose this brand after reading positive reviews from one of my all time favorite bloggers, Fashion Veggie (@fashionveggie) and because of its clean, herbaceous, and minimal — yet potent — ingredient list. The cleansing balm gently removes dirt and impurities without disrupting skin’s natural barrier. And the Vitamin C serum helped with my skin’s overall brightness — as well as with fading some leftover scars (yes, VOKE now sells Mahina Beaute — and I truly wouldn't sell anything I don't personally love!). I also reintroduced two favorite products from my prior routine, both by The Ordinary: glycolic acid and niacinamide. In total, I went from an excessive 7+ step skin care routine to three steps in the morning (wash cloth and water, Vitamin C serum, and niacinamide) and three at night (Cleansing Balm, glycolic acid, retinol). The bumps soon disappeared. And I’m happy to say that despite my wedding coinciding perfectly with my PMS (thanks, mother nature), my skin was actually on great behavior for the big day.
Non-filtered / non-airbrushed wedding pic with happy skin (disclaimer: in case it's not obvious...I definitely DO have makeup on!)
The aftermath: Will I be a cavewoman forever?
After this experiment, I was persuaded that the answer for many of my skincare woes was allowing my skin’s natural barrier to repair itself. To be clear, my skin is not perfect and it never will be. But it is significantly better than it has been in years. That said, I also believe that for anyone who lives in an area with high levels of pollution (which, unfortunately, is most of us), it’s not a good idea to skip the skin cleansing process all together. And while I’m not a heavy makeup wearer, I do like wearing a small amount most days — therefore washing my face at night is a must. So for me, the extremes of the full on Caveman Ritual aren’t a good fit. Maybe if I live in the fresh mountain air one day I’ll give it shot. For now though, I’m all about my modified Cave(wo)man Light routine where less is more: no more ten step rituals, and no more obsessive face-washing. Just a few gentle products applied sparingly each morning and evening.
Have you tried the Caveman Ritual? If so, tell us about it in the comments below!