Skin is in baby! And I’m not talking about revealing outfits, though that is certainly the case too. The five years before the pandemic hit were dominated by heavy, glamorous make-up, with beauty YouTubers disseminating tips and tricks formerly limited to professional make up artists. Influencers and celebrities alike came out with their own make-up lines, and terms like “contour” and “cut creases” became part of daily lexicon. At that time I had a toddler and an infant, and after putting them to bed my mind was too mushy to commit to a full episode of a TV show. Instead, I found YouTube make-up tutorials to be soothing, and was captivated by how you could literally paint yourself to have a chiselled nose, fuller lips, and J Lo glow. This revelation plus the availability of many brands, led to my love for full glam, and the best part of a night out was actually the getting ready process.

But once we found ourselves locked down and masked up, the pendulum swung in the other direction. We now had the freedom to go barefaced all day, and the time to commit to a multi-step skincare routine. Self-care was in, and staring at yourself while massaging in various serums and creams replaced going to the parlour for a head massage. Just as with make-up, influencers and YouTubers played a huge part in bringing this to the masses. In the true spirit of consumerism, they introduced a slew of accessories you never thought you needed: soft clips and terrycloth headbands made for holding your hair back while applying your products, jade rollers and gua sha stones for pushing serums into your skin and shaping your jawline, and LED light masks to give you the thrill of using technology in what was once a more organic space. But there is one big difference between shilling make-up tips vs. skincare tips: the latter can be harmful if you don’t have an actual education on the subject! Influencers might make skincare info more accessible to us, and more palatable with their stylishly filmed videos featuring gleaming white bathroom countertops and silky robes. But the fact is that they are amateurs just like us, and if you are really serious about your skin, doing your own “research” online is not going to cut it.

Visiting a dermatologist, telling them your specific skin type and concerns, and following their advice consistently is the best way to go if you can afford it. Just like with make-up, I too first fell for the well produced videos about 10-step Korean skincare routines, and amassed toners and serums which I pat-patted into my skin feeling feminine and like a beauty insider. When my skin reacted poorly, I thought it might be an adaptation process or the “purging” that so many influencers had mentioned, as though our skin is a dam holding back a bevy of nasties just waiting to get out. The motivation to persist also came from the fact that I had spent a fair bit of money on these products, and felt lucky to have discovered the new websites which were importing Korean products to India. It was only after finally visiting a dermatologist that I learned that for Indian skin especially, less is more! I left with a prescription featuring old favourites like Cetaphil and SebaMed. These OG brands may not have the flashy packaging of the trendier newbies, but you know what they do have behind them? Years of clinical research! Just a couple weeks into my new routine, and that ever-present rash on my face that I assumed was an unavoidable part of having sensitive skin and living in a tropical climate was gone. Further bonuses were that these products were easy to purchase in India, and my skincare routine took only a few minutes. There is still place for some of those cool accessories like the LED light mask, but using it under a doctor’s guidance is the only way to use it correctly.

But there is good news if visiting a dermatologist isn’t an option for you right now. Many of them are utilising the power of social media to share their expertise and answer your questions. Simply following one or two local dermatologists can be a great introduction to this complex topic if you don’t know where to begin. Once you start, there are a couple of pillars of skincare that will become apparent very quickly. The first one is sunscreen. Rather than jumping the gun to botox for wrinkles and laser for pigmentation, how about focusing on prevention first? Every dermatologist under the sun, will tell you to start being consistent with sunscreen at once. Dr. Renita Rajan is a renowned Chennai dermatologist and the one who set me on the right path I mentioned earlier. On her Instagram page, she revisits the sunscreen topic frequently, and even sacrifices her own skin to test new brands of sunscreen every month, to see if she can add any to the very small group of brands that she prescribes, such as Heliocare, Avene, BioDerma and Cetaphil. To fight long term pigmentation and uneven skin tone, Dr. Rajan says you should use the highest protection that your skin can tolerate. Some people start with a very high protection, experience break outs, and then get scared off by sunscreen altogether. To avoid this, start with something like Cetaphil 30, and once your skin seems to be tolerating it very well, work your way up to an option like Heliocare 50. But keep in mind that more than the protection number, applying the right amount, covering the full face like you’re icing a cake, and reapplying after four hours are essential to getting the full benefits.

Another Chennai dermatologist with a wonderfully informative Instagram feed is Dr. Selvi R. Dr. Selvi does not hide the fact that great skin begins with a healthy diet. It may be a lot harder than applying a cream, but increasing your intake of veggies, fruits and water is a must if you want that aforementioned J Lo glow. I admit that the positive changes in my skin were due more to eating 8 servings of vegetables a day than to simplifying my routine. She also confirms that overdoing skincare can be harmful, and gives a simple calendar to follow where exfoliation and face masks are to be done once a week at most. Her feed also dives into the benefits of ingredients like retinol, Vitamin C, and azelaic acid, of course with the caveat that the best way to use any of these is, say it with me again, “under a doctor’s guidance!” For example, I had been using a prescription retinoid for almost two years, at my mother’s urging and also because of a magazine article in which several dermatologists were interviewed and all had answered that retinoid/retinol was the number one most effective, game changing ingredient in their field. But when I consulted Dr. Selvi she examined my skin and found that while it had done its job well for me, my skin was getting thin from using it that long, so it was time to stop.

As you can see, even the most well informed skincare enthusiast can benefit from regular consultations with a certified professional. Your face is your calling card for life, so it is far from an indulgence to spend some time and money on it. Personally I am always surprised when I meet people who forgo sunscreen, or who (gasp) don’t even moisturise! Indian women in particular have always cared for their skin and hair, as we see women from all backgrounds applying sandalwood masks and oiling their hair regularly. And while colourism and the preference for lighter skin is an unfortunate tradition that thankfully the current generation is pushing back against, one silver lining is that it kept us out of the sun. Whereas in the West, women who grew up baking themselves in the sun are now desperately treating their pigmentation and leathery texture with whatever the doctor can throw at them. There’s a saying that no matter how young a woman’s face looks from plastic surgery, you can always tell her age by her neck and hands!

So please don’t fall into the trap of forming your skincare routine around Instagram’s algorithm. Influencers who are paid to promote products and who use filters to erase pores are not your best source of information. And with more people coming out with skincare lines than ever before, it can be confusing and overwhelming to get started. Instead, write down your concerns and curiosities and take them to a dermatologist. Hopefully by the time we are all able to ditch the masks, you’ll have landed on a routine that works for you and make-up will serve to enhance instead of cover up!

-By Priyanka Acharya