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A Top Derm On Skin Cycling, Retinol & Her Fave Vitamin C Serum

Whitney Bowe, M.D. has always been ahead of the curve. I first met the board-certified dermatologist and researcher about a decade ago when I was writing my very first big beauty feature for a glossy in-print edition of the magazine I worked for. I was an assistant, and writing opps like this one were coveted as precious as gold.

I was writing about how diet affects the skin, specifically acne, and the emerging research on the gut-skin connection1. At the time, many dermatologists regarded the connection as an old wives tale. But not Bowe, who came to my first interview with her with research to back up all her advice on how to help skin from the inside-out. A few years later, she was the first person to really introduce me to the skin microbiome (with her book The Beauty of Dirty Skin: The Surprising Science of Looking and Feeling Radiant from the Inside Out). And now the microbiome is one of my personal favorite areas of interest. Clearly, she’s influenced my work in a lot of ways.

So I always look forward to catching up with Bowe, where the research has led her, what ingredients have piqued her interest, and how she’s caring for her skin at the moment. Here, how the mbg collective member is gearing up for 2023.

Tried and true: A repairing moisturizer.

“I can’t survive without my twice-daily moisturizer, Bowe Glow Microbiome Nourishing Cream. It took me over two years to formulate, and it’s clinically proven to repair the skin barrier in one hour. We did really extensive clinical studies surrounding it, looking at how it increases the skin diversity in terms of the microbiome, how it improves hydration, and repairs the skin barrier. Honestly, it just feels amazing on my skin too.

“I have acne-prone skin, but it’s also very sensitive and dry. So for me, finding a moisturizer that gives me enough hydration, dives into the skin, feels comfortable, but doesn’t break me out has not been an easy task. I’m very reactive, so products that have fragrance, essential oils, or drying alcohols–my skin just won’t do well with them.

“But a repairing moisturizer is a foundation of any skin care routine. Because if you don’t have a really good moisturizer that agrees with your skin, then it’s really hard to tolerate all of the more powerful actives.”

Bowe Glow Microbiome Nourishing Cream $ 95This facial moisturizer has all the ingredients you need to support a robust, thriving skin barrier: Squalane, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and a blend of prebiotics and postbiotics. The blend can help balance the skin microbiome, restore the moisture barrier, and improve your overall complexion.

The secret: A good night’s sleep.

“Stress affects my sleep. I fall asleep pretty easily, but what I find is that if I wake up in the middle of the night then I can’t fall back asleep–my mind starts to race. When I’m not sleeping well, I’m irritable, I’m not thinking as clearly, and I don’t work out as effectively. But where you can clearly see it is my skin. Lack of sleep deeply takes a toll on my skin. No matter how good my outer skincare routine is, if I’m not sleeping, it doesn’t matter.”

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The surprise hit: A trendy balm for slugging.

“Theoretically, I loved the idea of slugging–I love this concept. I know it works so well for my patients who have eczema and very dry skin, but slugging didn’t work for me for a number of reasons.

“First, because, I can’t slug on top of my exfoliation or retinoid night. Inherently, slugging is very occlusive, which can drive those powerful ingredients deeper into the skin and cause irritation. But then in between, on recovery nights, I couldn’t slug because I’m acne prone.

“The most common ingredient people use for slugging is petroleum jelly. I know that’s quote-unquote non-comedogenic, but it is incredibly occlusive. And personally for me, it did cause me to break out. I also developed what is called milia, which are these tiny white bumps that were developing around my eyelid area. It’s a very common reaction to occlusive products.

“But I wanted it to work, so I was experimenting with other products, especially during the winter months. During the summer I can get away with just a moisturizer, but during the winter I want something that is designed to sit on the surface and really seal in moisture.

“And I actually really fell in love with this Glossier product, which is funny because it’s not a typical brand that I would gravitate towards. It doesn’t have that classic, science-backed approach. And it was a more youthful brand–it’s something that I think my daughter could get super excited about. But I actually think the After Baume’s formulation is really good.

“It’s become a staple I use during the winter months, especially in very dry, tight areas–such as the juncture of my eyelid and upper cheek. I apply it at night, on top of my moisturizer to really create that comfortable seal.”

Glossier After Baume$ 28This formula from the trendy brand is actually certified by the National Eczema Association Seal of Acceptance–as it’s free of drying alcohols, essential oils, fragrance, and many other traditionally irritating ingredients. But it’s not just what it leaves out, the plant-based formula contains several soothing botanical ingredients such as glycerin, babassu oil, a postbiotic ferment and green microalgae extract. A formula we can get behind.

The moment: A gold-standard ingredient.

“I think retinoids are having a moment, and are going to continue in 2023.

“Thankfully, having safe, sustainable ingredients has become table-stakes for brands. You need to be conscious of those things because the consumer expects that their products will be good for their bodies and for the planet. That used to be a differentiating factor for brands, but any more!

“And now, they are looking for clinically proven and effective results. Retinoids are a category and class of ingredients that has the most scientific evidence behind its ability to transform the skin.

“I think a big focus of 2023 is going to be educating people on how to correctly use them. I’ve been counseling my patients on how to fold them into their routine–and level-up their routine–so they can tolerate it. Because it’s just one of those ingredients that’s incredibly powerful.”

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The splurge: A quality vitamin C serum.

“Vitamin C is an incredibly challenging ingredient to formulate with–so it’s a product where price really does come into play. It’s incredibly expensive to formulate with more stable and potent forms of vitamin C, while creating something that’s really elegant, not sticky or tacky, and doesn’t have an odor.

“I’m the first to say don’t splurge on a cleanser. With a cleanser, you’re washing it down the drain. Yes, you can do damage with a cleanser–so you need to pick a good one for your skin type–but you’re not going to transform your skin with a cleanser. Or don’t splurge on hyaluronic acid, because it can temporarily plump your skin but it’s not really doing anything long-term.

“But when it comes to a vitamin C Serum, it’s critical you get a high-quality one. It’s such an essential part of the skin care routine, too. A good serum can boost the effects of sunscreen, boost collagen, brighten dark spots, provide powerful antioxidant protection, and prevent a lot of issues and changes in the skin. I would say my current go-to is this SkinCeuticals one.”

SkinCeuticals Phloretin CF with Ferulic Acid$ 169This brand is famous for their vitamin C concoctions, and this serum is no different. Made with a blend of 2% phloretin, 10% pure vitamin C (l-ascorbic acid), and 0.5% ferulic acid this offers free radical protection, aids in collagen production, and more.

The signature: Skin cycling.

“Right now, I definitely think I’m most known for skin cycling. It’s gotten over 3.5 billion views on TikTok and has been endorsed by so many dermatologist, estheticians, and credible experts that it feels like it’s transcended a trend and become more of a movement. And I’ve become recognized as the authority in that area.

“Now I’ve moved on to educating on the nuances within skin cycling. When you only watch one short video, it’s easy to walk away with the misconception that it’s a four night cycle that’s one size fits all. But that’s not the way I introduced it or intended it to be.

“I want people to know that you can level it up, or level down–essentially how to customize and personalize it to meet your skin’s needs and goals. It’s meant to be a flexible framework.

“Because our skin’s needs change over time. For example, the way I’m skin cycling in the winter is very different from the way that I skin cycle in the summer. And when we have our hormonal shifts or when our skin matures and ages, then skin cycling needs to change over time with it.

“So the people who are most successful with skin cycling are those who are using it as a framework and structure. It’s important that people learn to listen to their skin, and learn how to adapt to it.

“The way I envision it is you can practice it in many different ways: The classic four-night cycle, the gentle cycle, the advanced cycle. You can make these little changes to meet your skin where it’s at.”

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