We All Die In the End, But Our Skin Looks Great: A Reading List

Image by Ben Rose (CC-BY-2.0)

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories

I am as superficial and vain as anyone who wants to look hot, fun, and flirty 900% of the time (and who achieves it maybe 20% of the time). But for 35 years of my life, my vanity was missing a piece. Then, sometime in 2016, the internet let me know that I needed to pay more attention to the largest organ in my body. Obsessive attention, in fact. I found it impossible to care that much about my skin, but my vanity did permit a certain amount of heightened interest in my birthday suit. So while I have not yet gone for diamond microdermabrasion, a fruit acid facial, a full-body salt scrub and seaweed wrap, gua sha, cupping, or a ritual beating with branches by a woman of Eastern European extraction, I have considered all of these! But why?

The answer, of course, is so that someone will love me. No one told me, specifically, that I must engage in one or all of these things or else risk a lifetime of loneliness, but the message that skin-care marketing sends is: Do this, or wither in isolation. It is demonstrably true that one can live happily and healthily with wrinkles, blemishes, dry skin, dark spots, light spots, inflammation, and visible pores on one’s epidermis. But digital marketing, that most seductive form of storytelling, got married to social media and found even more insidious ways to invade our brains. Look at enough of those headlines, subject lines, Instagram ads, sponsored tweets, and carefully crafted hashtags and calls to action and you, too, will fall into the abyss.

I had a great deal of fun researching the topic and I made it out without buying any goop from Goop, a website primarily known for selling pussy eggs to white women, which is surely some kind of tiny victory. So enjoy this array of skin-care research, stunt reportage, and opining from around the web.

1. “Cosmetics and Personal Care Products in the Medicine and Science Collections: Skin Care,” (National Museum of American History, Behring Center)

If you’re a history dork or a skincare dork, this is the site for you! You’ll find an intelligent, nuanced approach to a thorny subject. Here is the author (unnamed) on the pre-spray tan era: “A pale, creamy complexion and smooth, white hands not only signified that one was racially white, they also demonstrated one’s wealth by implying that a man — but far more importantly a woman — did not perform manual labor or work outside in the sun.” Skin lightening products marketed to darker-skinned women were common (and still are internationally).  In the 1930s, L’Oréal launched one of the first skin tanning products marketed at white people. I assume this was because the concept of a summer beach vacation became a symbol of higher class living in the same way that a pale complexion once signified more money and less manual labor.

Not all museum education is made alike, but the Smithsonian does a wonderful job here of achieving the stated goal of providing historical context that “shows how we can use these products to explore aspects of American history, for example, race and conceptions of beauty and health.”

2. “The Year That Skin Care Became a Coping Mechanism,” (Jia Tolentino, New Yorker, December 2017)

Eleven long months after the first Women’s March, Tolentino muses on an era in which “the concept of skin care — specifically, of skin care as a phenomenon that invites unlimited expenditures of money, strategy, and time — has exploded kaleidoscopically.” Is the pop cultural skin-care obsession simply connected to the usual American idolization of youth, fertility, and sexual availability? Or is it a kind of spell meant to stave off something even more terrifying than — gasp — wrinkles? As usual, Tolentino is very good here.

3. “The Hygiene Culture Wars That Started on Social Media,” (Nicole Froio, Zora, August 2019)

Froio breaks down the racial and class-related subtext of a popular debate that began on social media earlier this year when a white woman tweeted about not showering very often. The conversation spawned a lot of jokes, but humor often arises from anger at injustice, which is baked into every layer of the discussion. Froio clearly illuminates the ways in which who is and is not allowed the privilege of washing — or the even greater privilege of choosing to not wash even when one could — has more to do with money and power than personal preference. She grounds the essay in real-world horror: “Immigrants detained at the border are being treated like they don’t need to wash because the authoritarian government believes they are animals, not humans. This is a dehumanization tactic used often in incarceration.” 

4. “Skincare Tips for Wanderlusters,” (Halfrican American, Medium, April 2019)

I met a stunning, funny gal one day at a comedy show in Brooklyn, and we’ve been internet friends ever since (maybe we were before, as well? I can’t remember!) She’s @lenubienne on Twitter and Instagram, and she travels more than anybody else I’ve ever met. She’s also an archer. Like, not the animated television show. Like, not the Taylor Swift song. Like the Robin Hood Disney cartoon, the finest of all Disney cartoon films; she can shoot arrows and stuff. She’s also a falconer. I know. I know. Anyway, she’s very into learning practical skills that will benefit her and her loved ones during the inevitable breakdown of society and she will win the Hunger Games so I’d become a follower now if I were you.

This is a lovely, very useful guide to how to take care of one’s skin and, as a bonus, includes some important skin cancer prevention tips for all. She gives some nice shout-outs to real-deal skin-care experts who don’t just promote a lotion because their weirdo diarrhea tea money ran out. It’s what the magazine industry calls a “service-y” piece, and it’s fun and thoughtful.

5. “I Quit Showering, and Life Continued,” (James Hamblin, The Atlantic, June 2016)

Kudos to whoever wrote the headline, as I assume it attracted plenty of skeeved-out clicks from American readers in 2016. Also, we have no choice but to stan such a ridiculous lede: “12,167 hours of washing our bodies.” That’s Hamblin’s calculation for how long one spends in the shower throughout a lifetime, if one showers 20 minutes per day, seven days a week, for 100 years. (Sure, he doesn’t figure in childhood or adult baths, but I think he’s in the ballpark.)

The point is, we spend a hell of a lot of time and water on showering. There’s also the gas and electric that heat the water, the chemicals that make up the store-bought goops we put on our various parts, the detergent to wash the towels we use to dry ourselves off, the materials that go into said towels, and more stuff I don’t have room to list here. But does a daily shower habit actually help us that much? Might it even hurt us?

This longread isn’t actually super long, and it does contain an informative video, but I couldn’t resist including it here because — wow, what a weird experiment. And at least as of June 2016, Hamblin had mostly eschewed showering and soap altogether, though he still washed his hands all the time.

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Before I was 35, I only thought about skin care in terms of death: I was diagnosed with an easily treated form of skin cancer when I was 17 years old. This was unusual and alarming; one might expect a basal cell carcinoma to appear in a pale-skinned Irish-American golfer in his 50s, but not in a legal child who had experienced only a couple of bad sunburns in her day. But as dermatologists will tell you, one bad burn will do it. And while it is extremely rare for a teenager to present with such a diagnosis — many doctors since have asked if I was misdiagnosed, and no, I wasn’t — it isn’t unheard of. So off I went to an excellent teaching hospital in New Jersey for an outpatient procedure, performed by an accomplished medical professional and observed by eight residents and a nurse. 

At the time, the highest technological advance in “mole mapping” amounted to a really advanced Polaroid camera. The doctor and his team used it to photograph nearly all the skin on my body that might conceivably see the light of the sun. Thankfully, this did not extend to certain particularly sensitive areas I would one day expose to the light of a dingy salon back room during my one and only bikini wax experience. (I have no idea if those Polaroids survive, but if they do, they deserve to be put on eBay. There must be a specific fetish for exactly that item, and I have bills to pay.)

But of course, times change, and now my interest in skin care extends to “looking less than my actual age” and “appearing to be constantly awake and serene and relaxed.” Now that I am as much a skin-care expert as many of the people making a buck off skin-care influencing, I decided to design a skin-care regimen just for you, and also for me.

  1. Wash your face if you feel like it, or if there’s something weird on it that you need to remove. Do this twice a day, max. I use Ajara Ayurveda Coconut Rose Softening Wash, or something from Kiehl’s, or some hippie all-natural soap – whichever is closest.
  2. Use a toner if you feel like it. I spritz Heritage Store lavender water on my face. I think that’s maybe not what a toner is. It’s maybe a moisturizer. I don’t know what a toner is, actually. I got the lavender stuff back when I still ate edibles; I was with my friend and we were high and felt the need to support a small, overpriced local business on a casual weekend afternoon. Anyway, find out what a toner is. 
  3. A couple of times a week put some other nice shit on your face — a fun mask or something. Buy stuff from somebody with a high rating on Etsy. Make your own oatmeal scrub from a recipe in a 1995 edition of Sassy. Find a local cruelty-free beauty line, support a small business, and enjoy your life.
  4. Wear sunscreen every time you go outside, but make sure to let some of your skin get 15 or 20 minutes of sunscreen-free exposure per day. I don’t go outside every day, but if I did, I would probably follow this guideline. Purchase a sunscreen that is cruelty-free. (A “reef-safe” label is better than no “reef-safe” label – sunscreen causes enormous damage to coral reefs and marine wildlife – but as this article from Consumer Reports shows, “reef-safe” doesn’t really mean that much.)
  5. Cover yourself in glorious fabrics that protect you from the sun. When possible, wear things with ultraviolet protection factor. If you’re in the car a lot, maybe get driving gloves? I met a 63-year-old Lyft driver who does that and her hands look great! Bonus: no skin cancer on the hands.
  6. Cut way back on added sugar. When I quit boozing, the biggest physical difference people noticed was in my skin. The booze puff went away — like unpaid bills, I hadn’t even known the puff was there!  — and my skin looked healthier. I couldn’t tell, because I was busy crying and learning how to not be hungover, but I got many nice compliments.
  7. Drink lots of water.

You look better than you think you do. I promise. And so long as you’re not hurting others or endangering your own health — financial, physical, mental, emotional, social, or otherwise — do what you wish to do in order to feel gorgeous. As far as we can confirm, you get exactly one (1) lifetime. And remember that self-care, that trendiest of terms, isn’t really about physical beauty. No matter how well-moisturized your T-zone may be, your soul always needs tending.

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Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, actress, college speaker on mental health awareness, and the author of Real Artists Have Day JobsDC TripGreat, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She also wrote a very silly joke book called Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad. Recent roles include “Corporate” on Comedy Central, “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” on TVLand and critically-acclaimed short film “The Focus Group,” which she also wrote. She also hosts the podcast “Where Ya From?”

Editor: Michelle Weber