In Defense of ‘Good Enough’ Skin

Photo: Dora Lazarevic/EyeEm/Getty Images

When I was growing up, my skin was “textured.” As soon as my period started, so did the acne. I ignored it mostly, too focused on updating my Tumblr or playing volleyball to notice. I moved to New York when I was 18 for my undergraduate degree, and it seemed everyone had beautiful skin. I figured mine would come soon enough. I avoided mirrors and showered in the dark to avoid confronting my acne. When I was 21 years old, I decided to go on Accutane, a complicated drug whose effects I stomached for six months. My lips peeled off in sheets. I felt drunk after a glass of wine. If I didn’t coat my entire body in coconut oil within minutes of exiting the shower, I’d start to feel scales. But after some time, I watched my once active, acne-prone skin become mostly clear and was generally happy. Or so I thought.

Five years later, when I became a beauty writer, the PR emails started rolling in: red-light therapy, cupping, two-hour facials, cryotherapy, tinctures, tonics. Was better skin possible? I started noticing new problems, just to be mailed solutions I never knew existed. Brightness, for example, or luminosity, or skin that glowed from the inside out. I read the word flawless used without irony. And then I thought, Was perfect skin possible?

Perfect skin is what I would define as generally poreless, clear in complexion, smooth like glass, and a signifier of good health. It’s a badge of honor, communicating to the world that you can either buy or create an environment so pure that the result is mirrorlike. Advanced technology — makeup like primers, procedures like lasers, and virtual-reality filters — has presented perfect skin as not only attainable but normal. This has become especially prevalent with the illusion of flawless skin enabled by social media and apps like Facetune, which make it tempting to have unrealistic expectations for our skin, according to Dr. Courtney Rubin, a board-certified dermatologist.

I really thought I could create a routine capable of transforming my skin. I started saying yes to everything, to every facial, every product launch, every founder meeting. My tried-and-true products were replaced by alternatives three times the price. Documenting my skin’s changes throughout the month became an obsession. When I started to break out minimally (from what I can now identify as a product overload), I felt betrayed. I’d done it all. How was it not enough?

I went to my therapist, Jessica Asch, LCAT, RDT, who introduced me to the term good enough. She was referring to the concept of “good enough mother,” a phrase coined by pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott in his seminal book Playing and Reality. This idea has more to do with consistency than being perfect. It’s about keeping expectations at bay and being realistic with the object of your attention — your child, in this case. Winnicott taught that aiming for perfection causes more problems than it prevents.

“Perfection is the thing that actually prevents us from living full, joyful, and expansive lives,” Asch told me. This made me think. Could I apply this concept to my skin?

Then I turned to some experts. And when it comes to so-called perfect skin, Shanika Hillocks has the closest thing to it. Hillocks works in marketing but tries not to buy into the idea that perfect skin can be purchased. “Instead of looking at skin care as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ enough, I assess it from a holistic point of view,” she says. Lifestyle, stress, genetics, diet — are all important to Hillocks. Seeing skin as a part of the complex ecosystem of having a body is the first step toward allowing good enough skin to be adequate.

What I eventually learned was that consistency over time is more important than individual products. According to Charlotte Palermino, a skin-care expert and the co-founder of Dieux Skin, the industry relies on basic psychology — creating a problem and then establishing itself as the solution. For Palermino, less is more. What shocked me the most about adopting her practices was the lack of noticeable change in my skin. The $85 moisturizer wasn’t integral to my skin’s happiness. The Earth kept spinning. I barely missed it.

“The best skin-care products are the ones you will use,” Hannah Krause, the owner of Eden, an apothecary in Des Moines, Iowa, always says. This means “sticking to something in your price range that you can continue to re-purchase, building a routine that fits within your lifestyle, and being as consistent as possible.” It’s about evaluating your life as it is and setting aspirational images on social media of stocked shelves and poreless nose bridges aside.

For Jo Marini, co-founder of REYN, a functional skin-care line, good enough skin is skin that allows her to move in the world with ease and not think about it. “My skin has nothing to do with my contributions to the world, but I feel good in it, and I don’t have to think about it, and that’s exactly how I want it to be.”

Eventually, I handed off the new products to my younger sister. I headed back to the drugstore, a place I hadn’t shopped for skin care in years, and I emptied the shelves of my cabinet until only the essentials remained. Good enough skin comes from a realistic place of contentment. It’s skin with human expectations that allows for life outside of the vanity mirror. For me, good enough skin was permission to abandon perfection.

For me, good enough skin requires ground rules: sticking with what works (no new products for old problems) and spending less than $50 on everything. I’ve stopped believing an SPF can change my skin or that the right facial could unlock a better self. It’s hard to tell if my skin is less textured than it was almost exactly a year ago when I wrote my first beauty story. The money I might have spent on products has been spent on the trappings of a joyful life — cases of artisanal seltzer, vintage linen sets, flowers for friends. Today, good enough feels better than perfect.

In Defense of ‘Good Enough’ Skin