A daily cleanser, a nighttime mask, or even a bit of tinted moisturizer can save the appearance of your skin — and have major effects on your emotional well-being.
What you need right now in the COVID-19 era is a pandemic skin-care self-care plan. Simply put, it’s committing to and following a routine that will benefit the health of your body’s largest organ (that’s your skin, notes Berkeley Wellness) and deliver the bonus of providing the structure and pampering that benefits your psychological well-being.
“Caring for my skin is one of the first steps in my self-care routine,” says Erum Ilyas, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Montgomery Dermatology in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
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Yes, she’s a dermatologist, so naturally she’s skin-focused, but there’s good reason for the dermal attention. “The reality is that our skin in so many ways is a ‘check engine light’ for our internal health. When skin looks and feels good, we tend to feel better about ourselves,” she says.
Here are five powerful reasons why.
1. A Skin-Care Routine Provides Stability in Your Day That Benefits Your Mental Health
“One of the bigger things we’re experiencing right now is the transition from being out and about to home all the time. What happens during that change is that you lose the structure and routine of your day. Those routines include healthy eating habits, exercise, journaling, and skin care,” says Matt Traube, a licensed clinical psychotherapist and a psychodermatologist in Santa Barbara, California. Those routines are critical for your overall health, in both body and mind. In a study published in June 2018 in the Lancet Psychiatry, researchers found that people who have less consistent routines throughout the active parts of their day were more likely to suffer from major depressive and bipolar disorders, mood problems, loneliness, and less happiness.
These routines feel good and act as a comforting force in your life, providing an anchor to your day and serving as a point of stability in your week, says Traube. On a small scale, you may even feel like you’ve accomplished something. “I think that especially now, because of COVID-19, it’s vitally important to maintain some routines during the week, otherwise one day begins to blend into the other. Now, in particular, is a fantastic time to reap the benefit of these habits,” he says.
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2. Focusing on Doing Something Nice for Yourself Helps Stop a Worry Spiral
You might find that certain times of the day can trigger intrusive thoughts, but you can break the negative thoughts with self-care. “Patients who experience anxiety and depression often report that their condition is exacerbated 30 minutes to one hour before bed. This is when they have more idle time, which increases worry for a lot of people,” says Traube. It’s when you’re engaged in an activity, including washing, toning, and moisturizing your face that you can get out of your head and focus on what you’re doing. (This goes for any activity that keeps you busy, like working on a new project, cooking dinner, or walking your dog around the neighborhood.)
The act of caring for your skin additionally provides an opportunity for mindfulness. Mindfulness is when you home in on sensations you’re experiencing in the present moment without passing judgment (the soothing feel of warm water, for instance). This practice has been shown to buffer depression and anxiety by stopping worry and rumination, according to a study on more than 1,100 adults published in March 2019 in Frontiers in Psychology. “By engaging in this activity for a few minutes, you can help your brain unhook from less healthy, spiraling thinking patterns,” says Traube.
3. Pampering Skin on a Regular Basis Triggers a Cascade of Chemicals in Your Brain to Boost Your Mood
Create a routine that feels good and includes products that you enjoy using. For example, don’t underestimate the impact of gently massaging skin with a warm washcloth to cleanse, taking extra time to smooth a silky moisturizer on your face, or applying a mask. You can even turn this into an evening event like Melanie Moreno, head of aesthetics at Mario Tricoci in Chicago, does: “Caring for my skin during quarantine has definitely given me something to look forward to. My significant other and I like to set the mood when we do at-home facials by lighting some candles, having a glass of wine, and playing some relaxing tunes while we let our mask sit,” she says.
Now that many people are experimenting with at-home facial treatments, like masks and peels, Joyce Davis, MD, a dermatologist in New York City, recommends sticking with a mask if you’d like a more concentrated skin treatment. “Masks are safer at this time. There is more of a risk of experiencing a skin reaction to a peel, and at this time, you can’t rely on going to a dermatologist to get you out of a problem,” she says. Generally, masks are gentler and can help temporarily plump the skin to give you a youthful, refreshed appearance.
The experience of an at-home facial or treatment is certainly comforting, but you also get a lot of fulfillment just planning for it. “Anticipation of happy events releases feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain,” says Traube. Expecting positive events has also been shown to activate a certain area of the prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with a sense of well-being, according to a study published in January 2018 in Frontiers in Psychology. It’s a natural little high for something so simple.
This is one reason why baths are so inherently calming. First, you expect to feel relaxed as you lower into one, and second, the warm water is naturally relaxing to muscles. “Physical relaxation sends your brain the message that it’s time to be calm and mellow, reducing the fight-or-flight stress response,” says Traube.
To make your bath an act of self-care that improves your skin health at the same time, add oatmeal to the water, suggests Dr. Davis. Look for packets of colloidal oatmeal, which eases irritated skin in eczema, psoriasis, and generally dry skin. Soak for 10 minutes, she suggests.
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4. Skin Care Provides a Chance to Bond With Loved Ones — and That’s a Boon to Mental Health
Moreno and her partner are onto something with their mask routine. In general, spending this concentrated time with loved ones pursuing hobbies and enjoyable activities is linked to greater levels of happiness, according to a study published in May 2018 in the journal Psychological Science. In a time when it may feel as if you’re too close for comfort with the other members of your household, you can carve out meaningful time together that will bolster your sense of personal satisfaction and family bond.
Dr. Ilyas has seen this play out in her life, too. “One key step to this process lately for me is sharing this routine with my teenage kids,” she says. “I find that at this time, with less direct social interaction, spending my self-care time with my kids is so much more effective in achieving the ultimate goal of self-care — a balance of physical and mental well-being,” she says.
You can make this a fun experience for everyone, too. There’s no need to purchase a case of new products. Instead, focus on those that you already have at home that you love. Or, you can hunt for some skin-friendly ingredients in your pantry for a DIY mask, like coconut oil, mashed avocado, or a milk compress and turn this into a fun, bonding event.
5. Caring for Your Skin Is an Act of Kindness That Sends a Powerful Message
Right now, the world is a stressful place. So it might feel tempting to watch TV late into the night and then roll into bed without so much as splashing your face with water — you’re just too tired. But what if, instead, you focused on taking care of yourself in this small way. By spending five extra minutes to treat your skin, you’re sending a message: “I’m worth it,” says Traube. This is akin to the perk you might get when you swipe on a coat of mascara in the morning, apply color on your cheeks to make them pop, or smooth on that tinted moisturizer that makes your skin glow.
What might be one of the more impactful steps is finding a moisturizer that you really love. (Some things to consider: Does it feel good going onto your skin? Does it smell pleasant? Does your skin feel good after?) “Moisturizing serves to improve the overall look and appearance of the skin, while also restoring and maintaining the skin’s function as a barrier to the environment. It also helps improve circulation to the skin, which can help better your general sense of well-being,” says Ilyas.
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Why Self-Care, Including When It Comes to Your Skin, Is So Important Now
There are numerous ways to practice self-care, but focusing your efforts on improving skin health pays off for your mental and emotional health, too — and that’s critical in the time of COVID-19. “I find that there is a direct correlation between my skin-care routine and my mood,” says Moreno. “Taking the time to nurture my skin affects my mind and body. It boosts my confidence and gives me a sense of control over how my day will go.”