skin deep

The Best New Skin-Care Ingredient Costs Nothing

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Have you thanked the universe lately? I highly recommend it. For one, it’s a nice thing to do for the ever-expanding assemblage of space and matter that supports your very existence. But also, gratitude is increasingly becoming a step in the routines of skin-care obsessives — and it could actually make a difference.

Yes, like many spiritual tools before it — crystals, reiki, meditation — gratitude has finally infiltrated the beauty industry. It’s been at it for a while. A Glamour editor tried The Secret on her cellulite a decade ago. Dr. Murad launched an app for daily affirmations back in 2014. I once published a guide to giving thanks to your skin in accordance with the Harvest Moon. At the time (2018) it felt very “woo-woo.” Today, it feels a little less so.

The always-dewy Emily Weiss keeps a gratitude journal — perhaps the secret to her moistness? Allison McNamara, dewy influencer and founder of MARA Beauty, starts her day by gratitude journaling, too. Poet Cleo Wade recently dropped her skin-care routine on Allure; it includes staying present, practicing self-love, and being grateful for good moisturizer.

“I absolutely consider gratitude to be a part of my personal beauty routine,” influencer Christina Grasso, aka @thepouf, tells the Cut. She’s posted multiple pictures of her unconventional shelfie set-up, featuring the expected and expensive skin-care suspects — La Mer, Vintner’s Daughter, The Cream from Augustinus Bader — but also a handwritten morning ritual taped to the bathroom mirror, with directives like “List five people in your life you are thankful for” and “Set an intention for the day.” It’s the ultimate example of mainstream mindfulness: a juxtaposition of skin care and self-care, and a comment on the constant push-pull of consciousness and capitalism that defines modern “wellness culture.”

“I am lucky enough to have a very well-stocked beauty cabinet through generous giftings and collaborations, but no product will buy happiness or true self-confidence, and a clear complexion won’t either, though it certainly doesn’t hurt,” Grasso says. She calls her products “supplemental,” and maintains that “doing the inner work, of which gratitude is a part for me, is paramount.”

She was introduced to affirmations about a decade ago while in treatment for an eating disorder. “I probably (definitely) scoffed at the idea initially, but did find it intriguing how we can, simply put, retrain our brains by challenging cognitive distortions and processes,” Grasso tells me over email. That’s not an exaggeration; studies show affirmations increase brain activity in areas associated with reward and valuation, and can even influence future positive behavior.

Affirmations do more than change your mind, though. Dr. Howard Murad, pharmacist and founder of Murad Skincare, says they can even change your skin. In addition to his brand’s popular Replenishing Multi-Acid Peel and AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser, the doctor offers the Dr. Murad’s Inspirations app. Download it, and a daily push notification presents one of 11 positive affirmations. (His favorite: “Why have a bad day when you can have a good day?”)

“The 11 affirmations I recommend today are based on a clinical study that produced positive, measurable results related to stress reduction,” Dr. Murad tells the Cut. Stress reduction causes better sleep, which causes better skin. After “just eight weeks of saying these 11 affirmations twice a day and journaling for five minutes,” subjects saw “reduced fine lines, dark circles, and redness,” Dr. Murad says.

Add gratitude to the equation, and study results skyrocket. One research paper from 2015 showed that a simple gratitude exercise (in this case, writing a letter of thankfulness) not only lowered anxiety and depression in the moment, it lowered them long-term, too. Participants were still “hardwired” to feel more grateful and less stressed months later — and although their appearance wasn’t evaluated, one can only assume they were positively radiant, right? Right. In theory. “Anything that lowers stress levels improves the health of the skin,” says Dr. Amy Wechsler, a psychodermatologist (she’s double-board-certified in psychiatry and dermatology) who studies the mind-beauty connection.

Summer Fridays co-founder Lauren Gores Ireland will vouch for that. “When we are grateful, there’s a certain light that exudes from our eyes, and when we’re in a rut, it’s as though our faces look foggy,” she tells me. “The inside work manifests into a whole new kind of glow that even the best highlighter in the world can’t give you.” Sadly, her Jet Lag Mask can’t either, so Gores Ireland keeps a gratitude journal. She spends a few minutes each day documenting what she’s grateful for or looking for the positives in a negative situation. “I usually journal prior to my nighttime beauty routine,” the entrepreneur shares. “I consider it part of my day in the same way I never forget to wash my face.”

Dr. Wechsler words it a bit differently, but ultimately confirms Gores Ireland’s experience. “When someone is feeling great and happy, it shows on their face [because] the skin’s barrier function is working better,” the psychodermatologist explains. Since chronic stress can cause the barrier to weaken and “leak” water, gratitude journaling may help it “stay hydrated, turn over cells healthfully, and overall have a brighter appearance.” The metaphorical “lit from within” look, then, is not so much metaphoric as scientific.

This is a nice explanation, and a convenient one. But is there something deeper at play here? Something more spiritual than skin barrier function and stress levels? Lalah Delia, certified spiritual practitioner and author of Vibrate Higher Daily, thinks so.

“The inner and outer can be a reflection of each other — sometimes our blemishes and things on the outside are because something on the inside is processing,” Delia tells me at the Create & Cultivate Self-Care Summit in Los Angeles. To an extent, acne may represent a deeper issue around being seen; dull skin could result from ignoring your soul’s purpose. “Wherever that energy shows up, it’s just a matter of putting more love more grace there, raising your vibration, and allowing yourself to show up for that part of yourself,” the author says. How you show up is up to you: You can meditate, or treat yourself to a massage, or repeat a mantra, of which Delia offers many on Instagram. “When you are in a state of deep gratitude and vibrating hard, it shows,” she explains.

I discovered the whole gratitude-as-skin-care thing about three years ago, after my skin was thinned by a topical steroid prescription. (The standard treatment window for steroids is two weeks; I was on them for two years, which caused a condition terrifyingly known as “skin atrophy.”) My face can’t handle much more than pure Manuka honey and jojoba oil, so I’m constantly searching for ways to heal from the inside out. One of them is giving thanks.

Every morning, I start my meditation by taking a few deep breaths and saying, in my head, “Thank you, skin.” I think about how everything my skin does is literally meant to protect me, and try to find the positive in the perceived “flaw.” Sensitive skin becomes communicative skin: “Thank you, skin, for communicating with me every day and guiding me to make the best choices for my health and well-being.” Acne scars become a sign of healing in progress: “Thank you, skin, for being so resilient.” Pimples become a detox method: “Thank you, skin, for getting out the gunk the best way you know how.” I repeat these on a loop in my head for a few minutes, until I settle into a more traditional meditation.

It’s a simple shift in perspective, but it helps me see my skin through a lens of love, rather than a lens of judgement. Instead of lamenting it, I celebrate it. Instead of stressing about what I look like, I look for the deeper message — usually, to stop basing my self-worth on what I look like. (Touché, universe.) My skin has changed for the better since incorporating gratitude. Plus it feels good and costs nothing.

Of course, if your face can handle a full-fledged skin-care routine, have at it. But don’t overlook the glow-giving power of also saying “thank you” to the universe, or even just to your skin. Grasso said it best: “Capitalism is nice, but gratitude works, too.”

The Best New Skin-Care Ingredient Costs Nothing