By Valerie Monroe
If you’re interested in feeling happier about your appearance—especially as you age—you might like reading what she has to say about it. For more of her philosophical and practical advice, subscribe for free to How Not to F*ck Up Your Face at valeriemonroe.substack.com.
A WEIRD THING happened after I wrote my last post. If you read it, you’ll know I mentioned that a good way to feel more pleased with your appearance is to invest in flattering bathroom lighting. I bragged about the quality and favorable effects of my own. Not five minutes after I hit “Publish” did the lights in my bathroom flicker spookily and then—pfffffttttt! After more than 10 years of illuminated perfection, dark. An electrician is expected to arrive…someday.
Something about the situation reminded me of waiting for weeks to get a haircut because the style is all wrong and then waking up on the morning of your appointment and thinking your hair looks absolutely perfect—in fact, it’s the most cunning style you’ve ever had.
I was casting about for the connection between those two stories and then it hit me: perfection. Specifically, the impermanence of perfection. Everything changes, nothing stays the same, and to expect it to, or regret that it doesn’t, invites a special kind of suffering.
Speaking of a special kind of suffering—and avoiding it—more beauty companies are refusing to retouch model photos, so advertising images are less about perfection and more about the real thing. I think this is a fine idea and applaud it. It inches us closer to a world where the images used to sell us stuff we probably don’t need aren’t also selling us an unachievable ideal we definitely don’t need. Striving for perfection, as it relates to our complexion, must be one of the greatest drivers of women to beauty counters. After all, even skin tone and texture (related to perceived health, fitness, immunity, and fertility) are cues for physical and sexual attractiveness. And doesn’t the makeup industry do a terrific job of offering multiple and ingenious ways to imitate those cues? Foundation, blush, concealer—all the trickery you could wish for.
Still, not content with imitation, we strive for actual perfection—a much more, let’s face it, impossible goal. For example, poreless skin. A pore is a tiny hole at the top of a hair follicle that allows sweat and sebum to exit through the skin. There are roughly 20,000 on your face alone (nearly 5 million on your entire hide). A poreless-looking complexion is associated with youthfulness, because as we age pores appear larger due to slowing skin-cell turnover, trapped sebum, and loss of skin elasticity. Though pore size is genetically influenced, says dermatologist Tina Alster, if you have oily skin or tend to perspire a lot, they’ll look bigger than if your skin is dry.
Before I get to Alster’s suggestions for minimizing pore size, I want to direct you to a face mask that claims to clean out pores in a similar way Biore pore strips do for your nose—but with more…screaming. I’d never heard of the Milky Piggy Hell-Pore Clean Up Mask till a young friend recommended I look at it, which I did here. (Fair warning, you’ll probably want to fast forward.)
This video says a lot about what women will do in the name of beauty (and also about creative or weirdly-translated product names). What’s strange to me is not that the YouTuber tried the mask; it’s that after watching her video, other women wanted to try it, too.
For the saner (and less masochistic) among us, Alster recommends a cleansing brush to clean the surface of your pores; but this won’t make a big difference in appearance if you think your pores are very noticeable. A prescription retinoid, like a Tretinoin cream or lotion, applied in the evening will, over time, refine your complexion’s surface by increasing cell turnover, which prevents sebum from collecting in the pores.
If enlarged pores are your personal skincare bugaboo (I’m speaking to you, Nicole) Alster recommends in-office microneedling, which works on any skin type, as the most effective treatment. With a motorized handpiece containing 36 tiny needles on the tip, she “tills the land” on your face, essentially creating a controlled injury that obliterates pores and encourages new skin growth. Each treatment, she says, reduces pores in size, number, and depth. She recommends two to three microneedling treatments about a month apart to get up to 80% improvement.
I had one treatment (as part of a “vampire facial”) around four years ago; this is what I wrote about it for O, The Oprah Magazine:
When you tell people you’re going to have your face poked all over with tiny needles, you get two responses: “Yech!” and then, “Why?”
I’ll tell you why. I want the smoothest, freshest-looking, glowiest skin—and to that end, many dermatologists suggest microneedling, a process in which a small device embedded with a cluster of sterile, retractable needles is pressed all over the face, causing “micro-injuries.” The skin rushes to heal those injuries with new collagen and elastin, which, if you’re my age (66), are literally face-saving; they help keep it from looking like all the stuffing’s been pulled out of it.
There are at-home kits, but doctors aren’t fond of them because they say the needling typically doesn’t go deep enough to get appreciable results—and because infection is possible. So I made an appointment with New York City dermatologist Cheryl Karcher, MD, who uses the EndyMed Intensif microneedle device. The Intensif also emits pulses of radio-frequency energy to further tighten skin and minimize pores. In the equivalent of a skincare trifecta, Karcher suggested I increase the benefits by rubbing into the “micro-injuries” 6 milliliters of my own platelet-rich plasma, which she extracted from a vial of my blood drawn just before the Intensif procedure. (If you’ve read about the “vampire facial,” you’ve probably seen photos of famous faces smeared with blood. On me, Karcher used only the yellowish plasma because it contains beneficial growth factors.) Numbing cream is applied pre-procedure; still, I have two words for you: staple gun. Karcher moved the device over my face in increments of about an inch as she released the needles. It really hurt, especially around my lips and eyes. The plasma, warm and sticky, is mostly absorbed during the minutes after the needling, and though Karcher said I could rinse it off, for good measure I left it on all day.
For about 24 hours, I was very pink, with one small red dot on my forehead, and for several days, my skin peeled a bit. By the end of the next week, my cheeks looked smoother. Over a month or so, as the collagen and elastin regeneration continues, I should see more glowiness and a little tightening, says Karcher. Which seems well worth the yech and ouch to me.
Confession: I didn’t notice that my skin became appreciably tighter after this treatment, and it was free; if I wanted to address a specific issue—Alster says microneedling also works on perioral wrinkles, a.k.a the little lines around the mouth, and stretch marks—I might’ve invested in another treatment or two.
Peels, Alster says, don’t work to reduce pore size, and most dermatologists don’t recommend the Milky Piggy Hell-type mask (or even those less creatively named) as they can injure the skin. She also doesn’t recommend at-home microneedling, because it’s impossible to clean the needles appropriately.
One last thing about pores: You need them! They’re an integral part of your physical infrastructure. Of the many millions on your body, if you think you can see 20, really, how bad is that? And if you can only see them in a magnifying mirror, just put the mirror away. Because no one else sees them.
Today, as my bathroom remains dark and my refrigerator has begun to emit an ominous whistling noise, I’m struggling to accept the impermanence of perfection. But I am always looking for an excuse to pick up Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart; it’s not about appliances, but it’ll likely lighten my outlook. Yours, too, if you need that.
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