8 of the Worst Skincare Mistakes (and How To Avoid Them)

Follow these tips for a healthy complexion.
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Michelle Villett
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Follow these tips for a healthy complexion.
Skincare mistakes

Ever since I launched Better Skin in 7, my free skincare course, I've exchanged emails with dozens and dozens of students (maybe even you!) about their skin struggles and goals.

In order to help serve you guys better, I've been keeping track of the most common questions... and you know what? There are certain themes that come up again and again.

Here are eight of the most common skincare mistakes I hear people making. Getting these basics right is ESSENTIAL for a healthy complexion!

1. Not Washing Your Face Properly at Night

Skincare mistakes - Not washing your face properly at night

Not washing your face properly at night can trap debris in your pores, which prevents other products from doing their job.

It sounds simple enough, but the truth is, most people aren't washing their faces thoroughly before they go to bed. 

Cleansing once usually isn't sufficient to get off every trace of dirt, oil, makeup, sunscreen and silicone-based products. When that debris is left on the skin surface, it can lead to clogged pores, breakouts and dehydration, and also prevents other products in your routine from doing their job. 

Proper nighttime cleansing alone can dramatically improve your skin!

How To Wash Your Face Thoroughly

  • Do a double cleanse: Use a makeup-removing product first, followed by a gentle face wash to actually clean your skin. Micellar waters, oils and balms are your best bet for breaking up makeup. Your second cleanser can be a gel, foam or cream—just make sure it's sulfate-free.
  • Try hot cloth cleansing: If you can't bear two steps, I've found that coconut oil and a warm, wet cloth are quite effective on their own, as long as you repeat the steaming/wiping process a few times. Simply massage some oil over dry skin, and then drape the steamy wet cloth over your face for up to 10 seconds. Then, use the cloth to gently wipe away the oil, dirt, makeup, etc. Rinse and repeat up to four times. Make sure to use a fresh cloth every night!
  • Don't rely on face wipes: Cleansing cloths don't clean well, although they're certainly better than not washing at all. Just don't make them a habit.

Here are a few of the cleansing products I use and recommend:

2. Never Exfoliating

Skincare mistakes - Never exfoliating

Never exfoliating can leave you with dull, clogged skin that is more prone to acne and dryness.

Okay, some people can get away without exfoliation, but most of us need a little help removing the dead cells that accumulate on the surface layer of our skin. Even though our bodies naturally slough them off in a 28-day cycle, that process slows down with age and hormonal changes. 

When you don't exfoliate, the dead skin cells can get trapped, along with oil, in your pores, which leads to clogs, blackheads and acne. (Then, there's the aftermath of post-inflammatory pigmentation, a.k.a. acne marks.) If your skin is dry and dehydrated, dead cell build-up can aggravate that condition as well, by forming a barrier that prevents your hydrating products from reaching the live cells.

Once you start exfoliating, the results are often fast and immediate: fewer blackheads and pimples; a smooth texture and even tone; and best of all, a fresh-faced glow.

How To Start Exfoliating

  • Start with hot cloth cleansing: This method doesn't just cleanse, it also exfoliates. It is the safest and gentlest way to remove dead skin, no matter what your skin type. This is where you should start if you're new to exfoliation. The steam will help soften the dead skin and the soft cloth gently buffs it off. You can do this as often as every night, but do not scrub or rub.
  • Consider lactic acid: If you're ready for acids, most people tolerate lactic acid, the gentlest and most hydrating alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA). Glycolic and salicylic acids are more aggressive and best for oily and acneic skin. If that's not you, proceed with caution. 
  • Try enzymes: Enzymes, usually derived from papaya, pineapple or pumpkin, are a good alternative to acids for people with sensitive skin. 
  • Watch for irritation: Always keep a close eye on how your skin reacts to exfoliation; some people can handle daily lactic or even glycolic acid, while others can only tolerate them once or twice a week. Exfoliate less often and/or switch to a gentler method if your skin starts becoming sensitized.

Here are a few of the exfoliating products I use and recommend:

3. Over-Cleansing and Over-Exfoliating

Skincare mistakes - Over-cleansing and over-exfoliating

Over-cleansing and over-exfoliating can strip your skin's barrier and cause irritation.

The flip side of not cleansing and not exfoliating is doing them too much, which can strip your skin and leave it irritated, sensitive and dry. Said dryness can even clog pores and cause rebound oil production and breakouts. 

Harsh products are a big problem. Think: sulfate-based cleansers, grainy scrubs, strong acids and nylon cleansing brushes. (Yes, Clarisonic, I'm looking at you.)

How To Avoid Irritating Your Skin

  • Wash your face once or twice a day: Cleansing more often than every morning and night isn't necessary, unless you've been sweating. In fact, it's perfectly okay to just splash water on your face when you wake up. (Water alone is a gentle cleanser.) 
  • Avoid sensitizing ingredients: Ditch products with sulfates and fragrances. Even essential oils can be problematic for sensitive skin.
  • Exfoliate more gently and less often: I never recommend scrubs, which tend to be too aggressive and can create micro-tears in the skin. Enzyme or acid exfoliants are a better choice, and depending on your skin, may be used anywhere from once a week to daily. Build up slowly and again, only use acids if your skin truly tolerates them.
  • Use a silicone cleansing brush: If you prefer to wash and exfoliate with a brush, I'd go for one like the Foreo Luna. Unlike nylon, its silicone bristles are soft on your skin, and way more hygienic.
  • Watch your skin: Again, I can't stress this enough. A red, tight, flaky complexion is a sure sign you're overdoing it and need to back off.

Here are a few of the gentlest cleansers and exfoliators I use and recommend:

4. Wearing and Eating Toxic Oils

Skincare mistakes - Wearing and eating toxic oils

Unstable oils generate free radicals that cause premature aging.

Whether you apply them topically or ingest them, some oils are so unstable that they actually CAUSE premature aging. 

Called polyunsaturated oils, or PUFAs, they have a molecular structure that is highly prone to attack by free radicals, which triggers oxidation. An oxidized oil might moisturize your skin well, but over the long-term, its absorption (or consumption) can lead to cell and connective tissue damage, age spots, thyroid suppression and other hormonal imbalances. 

By eliminating these oils, you'll not only improve your skin but also your health.

How To Choose Safe Oils

  • Moisturize with saturated oils: Saturated fats are the safest and most stable oils. Squalane is my current favourite, since it's 100 percent saturated and not likely to be comedogenic. Coconut oil, MCT oil, shea butter and cocoa butter are also great oils.
  • Monounsaturated oils are the next best choice: They're less stable than saturated fats, but MUFAs are still a MUCH better option than PUFAs. Consider jojoba, olive or marula oils. 
  • Avoid polyunsaturated oils: I don't recommend using any oil that is more than, say, 10 percent polyunsaturated. This includes rose hip, argan, almond, grapeseed, avocado, apricot kernel, soybean and sunflower oils. Check your product labels and ditch any that include these oils high on their ingredients lists.
  • Remove PUFAs from your diet: Cook with butter or refined coconut oil (it has no taste). Monounsaturated fats should not be heated, but it's fine to dress salads with a drizzle of high-quality olive oil (these are my fave... keep in mind that most supermarket olive oil is actually cheap PUFA oil). Avoid PUFAs in packaged foods—always read your labels!

Here are a few of the safe oils I use and recommend:

5. Moisturizing Too Much or Not Enough

Skincare mistakes - Moisturizing too much or not enough

Too much moisture can make skin greasy and broken out, while too little can leave it dry and dull.

Moisture is tricky. We need a little bit to keep our skin soft and hydrated, but too much (or the wrong type) can cause greasiness, acne, and even make our skin lazy. This is a common issue when people use moisturizers and anti-aging treatments that are way too rich and heavy for their skin.

But with too little moisture, your complexion obviously gets dry, tight and dull. A big reason for this is that many moisturizers on the market don't, in fact, moisturize. Time and time again, I see ingredients that only give the illusion of hydrated skin—by delivering a layer of silicones that simply smooth the surface. Yuck!

How To Moisturize the Right Way

  • Start with a humectant: I believe everyone—no matter what their skin type—should be using a light hydrating serum or mist to start with. That alone may deliver enough moisture in warm weather, or if you're oily. Otherwise, follow with a moisturizing cream, oil or both on top.
  • Layer on an emollient: Layering is the key to locking in the moisture. If you want to use a moisturizing cream, I suggest avoiding any with PUFA oils (for the reasons mentioned above) or silicones. 
  • Avoid silicones: Speaking of silicones... I know they are in practically everything these days, but their sealant properties mean that dead skin, oil, bacteria and other materials get trapped and impacted in the pores. This not only results in clogs and even acne, but also dehydrates the skin because it interferes with the cells' natural regeneration process. If you're wondering why your moisturizer doesn't seem to "work," check for silicones—they very well could be the culprit.
  • Finish with an oil: Not everyone needs to use oil, but if you do, it should be the last layer. Many people are fine skipping moisturizer and just doing a hydrating serum with an oil on top. But if you're dry, I would do all three steps: serum, moisturizer, oil. Again, make sure your face oil is saturated or monounsaturated fat.

Here are a few of the silicone-free, PUFA-free moisturizers and serums I use and recommend:

6. Approaching Sun Protection the Wrong Way

Skincare mistakes - Approaching sun protection the wrong way

Most sunscreens offer inadequate protection and won't prevent heat-induced pigmentation.

These days, everyone talks about sunscreen as if anti-aging were as simple as slathering yourself from head to toe in SPF at all times.

If only that were true! While I do think sunscreen is important, the truth is, it does not guarantee that your skin won't get damaged by the sun. What you might not know is that MOST products on the market don't provide enough protection from UVA rays, just UVB. Although UVB light is responsible for sunburn, UVA rays are known as the "aging" rays because they penetrate more deeply and are ultimately more harmful to our skin—and health. 

You also can't rely on sunscreen to prevent age spots. Did you know that pigmentation can be induced by heat alone? Even the best SPF can't fully protect you from that.

And then there's the over-use of sunscreen. Wearing it even when you're not getting any sun exposure is problematic, as the occlusive ingredients can be highly comedogenic.

How To Protect Your Skin From the Sun

  • Use a high-zinc sunscreen: Zinc oxide offers the best protection against both UVB and UVA. But it has to be in a high concentration. Look for a PUFA-free product with at least 20 percent zinc; or a combination of at least 15 percent zinc with at least 7.5 percent titanium dioxide. (Titanium dioxide alone is inadequate against UVA.) 
  • Avoid chemical sunscreens: I don't recommend chemical sunscreens because not only are they less protective, they also absorb into the bloodstream and are linked to hormone disruption and cell damage (more details here). Because they work by absorbing the sun's rays, they are more likely than mineral sunscreens to trap heat in the body and trigger brown spots. 
  • Be sun smart: Even if you have the best sunscreen, you still need to practice good sun safety. That means avoiding the direct mid-day sun and staying in the shade, so you're less likely to overheat. 
  • Don't wear sunscreen when you don't need it: If you work in an office all day and get less than 15 minutes of sun exposure before or after work, consider not wearing sunscreen—it may be clogging your pores.

Here are a few of the zinc-based sunscreens I use and recommend:

7. Not Prioritizing Sleep and Nutrition

Skincare mistakes - Not prioritizing sleep and nutrition

Topical skincare products can't compensate for a bad diet or sleep-deprived lifestyle.

Topicals can only do so much, and they certainly can't make up for an unhealthy lifestyle. So before you chase after the next "hot" skincare product or treatment, consider if you could do a better job at the basics. 

Your skin is a reflection of what you eat, your sleeping habits and the fluctuations of your hormones. Dark circles, dullness, thinning skin and acne can be caused by low-calorie or low-protein diets, late nights, fasting, food sensitivities and nutrient deficiencies. 

Over-exercising can also harm your skin by depleting levels of active thyroid hormone.

How To Improve Your Skin with Lifestyle Changes

  • Prioritize sleep: Sleep deprivation is a major stress on your body, and skin. Make it your highest priority to get seven to nine hours of restful sleep each night. 
  • Check your diet: To support a healthy metabolism (and therefore healthy skin), you need to be eating at least 80 grams of high-quality protein and minimum 2,300 calories, ideally more, each day. Without sufficient calories and protein, our bodies simply cannot build and repair tissues or detoxify estrogen (which is associated with pigmentation and premature aging).
  • Keep stress hormones in check: Eat frequent meals and avoid doing vigorous cardio for more than 30 minutes at a time. 
  • Correct any nutrient deficiencies: CRON-O-Meter is a great way to track whether your diet is nutrient replete. One of the most important vitamins that I've found most people are deficient in is vitamin A, which I call the "skin vitamin." You can correct this by having a serving of liver once a week, or supplementing.

Here are a few of the lifestyle products I use and recommend:

8. Expecting Perfection

Skincare mistakes - Expecting perfection

Unrealistic expectations can make you obsess over skin imperfections instead of appreciating incremental improvements.

People often ask me how they can get skin like the models or actresses they see on the red carpet, in magazines or on Instagram. 

When your complexion's not where you want it to be, seeing images of flawless, ageless, poreless faces can definitely get you down—and even encourages bad habits such as picking. 

How To Avoid the Perfection Trap

  • Recognize the illusion: Many people really are blessed with beautiful skin. But it's important to know that most celebs take advantage of makeup, lighting, angles, Photoshop and filters, which can all make a complexion look better than it may actually be! Plus there's the whole plastic surgery thing.
  • Track your progress: Perfection may not be realistic, but you CAN strive for the best version of YOUR skin. I've found it helpful to take pictures to track incremental improvements. Looking back at my skin even as recently as a year ago, I can see the progress I've made! 
  • Avoid magnifying mirrors: Seriously. Nobody sees your skin that close, and it encourages poking and prodding that can leave you with inflammatory pigmentation for months.
  • Focus on getting healthier: I believe that great skin is a natural consequence of a healthy, balanced body. Improve your health and your skin will follow!

Get Better Skin in 7

Need more help with your skin? I've created a FREE seven-day course to help kickstart your journey towards a better complexion. It includes all my most important tips and product recommendations for glowing, healthy-looking skin.

You can sign up right here to get the emails in your inbox:

In the meantime, tell me:

What do you think is the worst skincare mistake?
Have you tried any of the tips or products I mentioned here?
What has made the biggest improvement to your skin?