Monday, May 7, 2018

Skincare more than Ordinary

Today's post is quite uncharacteristic - it's on skincare. If you're like me, facing the onset of ageing skin, read on.

My skin is generally unproblematic but when the kids came along, I started getting breakouts. I tried different products, from the drugstore brands to high end ones. Some were ok, many of them broke me out even more, but none were really very spectacular, even the ones that came highly recommended.

Then a few years ago, I discovered Paula's Choice and that was a game changer. Paula's Choice is founded by Paula Begoun. who has been lambasting beauty companies for years, for selling skincare with unproven claims and at ridiculously doped up prices. In the best case scenario, some of these dubious ingredients do nothing for your skin, and in the worst case, are actually harmful. Or in some cases, the ingredients in the product actually do work, but exist in such small quantities or are inappropriately packaged, so that their effectiveness is negligible.

For example, did you know many ingredients, like Vitamin C, when exposed to air, quickly oxidise and lose their effectiveness? Worse, instead of being antioxidants, they become pro-oxidants, meaning they're harmful for your skin. You can tell this has happened when your Vitamin C serum turns orange. In other words, if your cream is packaged in a jar, once you open it, it instantly starts to be less effective. Your $100 jar of face cream might as well be a decorative ornament on your dresser. Pretty but useless.

Know that beauty products are not strictly regulated so companies can make any claims they want. "75% of users showed a reduction in wrinkles in 2 weeks!" Well, that could very well be 3 out of 4 of the company's friends. Nobody checks or sets rules for these claims.

Paula's Choice products use ingredients that have been scientifically proven to work. In her products, she lists what each ingredient is used for. Her packaging does not allow for oxidisation and she doesn't add loads of unnecessary preservatives and fragrance, which are potentially irritating to the skin.

For instance, when I first started breaking out in adult acne, I tried a cream by L'oreal that contained BHA (salicylic acid), because I read that BHAs are great for acne. Horrors! It gave me little bumps like eczema. So I thought I was allergic to BHA and stopped using it. Many year later, I decided to try the Paula's Choice 2% BHA gel and guess what, it is a fantastic cure for acne. Turns out it was probably poor formulation on the L'oreal product or additives that didn't agree with my skin. Paula's Choice BHA worked so well so me that I bought a bottle for Andre when he was suffering from bad acne on his back. It completely healed. From then, this is the go-to zit cream for the whole family.

Anyway, for many years, I stuck to a Paula's Choice regime of BHA, retinol and moisturiser. It has kept my skin pretty problem-free.

Then in the last year or so, my skin started morphing again. It got drier and yet, I would regularly get painful cystic acne - you know, those big angry zits that even when they dry up, leave inflamed bumps under your skin that take forever to go away. BHA didn't seem to work as well. My skin was "maturing". GAH. I had to change my makeup because it would cake badly under my eyes and settle into the gazillion lines I never knew I had. Things became worse when I started swimming regularly. All that chlorine and thick sunscreen turned my skin into a confused mess.

Enter The Ordinary from UK. It caught my eye when I chanced upon many bloggers raving about this new brand and its focus on skincare research and science. What's unusual about this brand is that most of their products are formulated with only one main ingredient each, to target a specific problem, with no additives, fragrance, etc. You might be thinking, one ingredient? How many would I need then to tackle multiple issues?

Well, that's the beauty of the brand. You can customise your regime based on what you need and layer them as you wish because their prices are DIRT CHEAP. Less than S$10 for a 30ml bottle of high concentration Vitamin C or retinol serum. The founder, Brandon Truaxe, is pretty extraordinary. He ditches fancy marketing and packaging to reduce costs, and every time he manages to negotiate better prices for raw ingredients, he passes the savings back to customers. The Ordinary's tagline is "clinical formulations with integrity" and you only have to do a Google search to read all the rave reviews by users. Their rivals are selling equivalent concentrations for up to 10 times the price. No wonder The Ordinary can't produce the items fast enough to keep them in stock.

I bought two items to try out: Alpha Lipoic Acid 5% and Vitamin C Suspension 23% + HA Spheres 2%. Now, both are very strong and people have reported stinging sensations when using them. But me, being overly optimistic, figured that since I've been a long-time user of BHA, Vitamin C and Retinol, I would be ok. More is best, right?

Alpha Lipoic Acid is both an exfoliant and an antioxidant. They tell you you can't use it more than 2-3 times a week. I will attest to its strength. The first time, I only used 3 drops for whole face and neck. Holy cow. The burn. I quickly put a soothing moisturiser on top but even then, the sting took a while to subside. Oh and it has a funky smell, like sulphur.

Same with the Vitamin C 23%. They warn you on the website that application is not pleasant because of the gritty bits and it might sting because of its high potency. Yes to both. Plus it goes on with an oily feel that doesn't quite go away, so some people may not like that.

So at first, I half regretted my decision, especially for the Vitamin C cream, because the application was so unpleasant. It's almost like suffering for beauty. Was it worth it? I was thinking that maybe I shouldn't have been quite so gung-ho and gone for lower, more tolerant formulas.

But I found out that if I mixed the serums with my usual moisturiser (as advised on the website) before applying, it didn't sting so much any more or feel sandy. Then after about a week and a half of using the two products, I woke up one day and suddenly noticed the row of remnant cystic acne bumps along my chin that had stubbornly plagued me for more than a month was imperceptible. Like magic. I peered into the mirror and realised that my skin was brighter and smoother than it had been for a long time.

WOWZERS. At that moment, I had to quell an overwhelming urge to run out (virtually) and buy every single product from The Ordinary. I mean, I still love Paula's Choice but some of their products are really expensive, and the price point of The Ordinary is just so darn attractive.

Of course I didn't lah. I just bought a few. And then a few more. Don't judge me.

If you're confused by the many options in skincare and don't know where to start, I've tried to simplify it for you. (I'm not addressing things like cleansing and toning, just the stuff you put on your skin).

If you really are the can't-be-bothered type and want to do the minimum, I'd say just use a moisturiser with sunscreen in the morning and one with retinol at night. 

But if you are like me, above 40, facing the unpleasant realities of ageing skin, and want to do something about it before you end up looking like a wrinkled prune, here's a mini skincare lesson. There are many good skincare ingredients, but an essential anti-ageing regime should incorporate these main "types" (for lack of a better word) of skin thingies.


Retinol, to date, is the only ingredient has been scientifically proven to lessen fine lines and reduce acne. It is the gold standard in wrinkle reduction. NOTHING ELSE. Forget whatever new snake oil companies are trying to market. This is what dermatologists prescribe for acne and wrinkles.

The problem is that retinol, especially in high concentrations, is highly irritating. Many people have been known to purge and peel for days, even weeks before they see that baby soft skin. This article explains retinol pretty comprehensively.

The Ordinary sells 6 different retinoid products, 3 of which are with Granactive Retinoid - an advanced form of retinol with all the goodness of retinol but without the irritation. I suggest you try these instead. Do note that retinoids make your skin sensitive to the sun, so use them only at night.


Exfoliants are AHAs or BHAs that get rid of dead skin cells, unclog pores and reduce acne and blackheads, thus improving the texture of your skin. It's good to use this a few times a week. As mentioned, my family uses Paula's Choice 2% BHA for acne with much success.

However, like with retinol, if you're not used to exfoliants, you can also end up peeling before your skin heals. Technology has since uncovered new types of exfoliants that are even gentler on the skin. The Ordinary now offers Azelaic Acid and Mandelic Acid, both of which work like exfoliants but without the typical side effects.

Vitamin C

Once you hit a certain age, you realise with horror that the age spots you used to see on little old ladies now appear on you (ie you have become that little old lady). You curse all the times you were garang and refused to carry an umbrella while walking in the sun (because very "auntie") or the times you forgot to wear sunscreen.

If retinol is the gold standard for reducing wrinkles, then Vitamin C is the counterpart for reducing dark spots. Believe it or not, The Ordinary has 8 different products with Vitamin C, with different strengths and formulations. Talk about an over-achiever. Similarly, Vitamin C makes your skin sensitive to the sun so either wear sunscreen on top or use it only at night.

To reduce the confusion as to which one might be suitable for you, read their Vitamin C guide.


Personally, I find this category really boring, so I try to use serums that multi-task in this area. Sometimes, I just skip this altogether if my serums have hydrating ingredients. If you need a moisturiser, The Ordinary has some very affordable ones with natural moisturising ingredients that you might like.

And that ends my very long post on skincare. I will try out the other items from The Ordinary and may review them on this blog if enough people are interested.

If you're not used to acids or retinol, don't be greedy and start with the lower concentrations. Otherwise you might end up peeling like an orange and having to hibernate at home for a few weeks.

I bought my earlier batch from Beauty Bay - you get free delivery to Singapore if you spend just S$28. Or you can also buy from Cult Beauty or LookFantastic (smallest range but no minimum for free shipping). They're always out of stock, so be patient. 

If you want to try Paula's Choice instead, use this referral code to get a $10 coupon: The online store is offering free shipping on any purchase for the month of May.

You know I'm not a beauty blogger so none of my products were sponsored. I'm blogging about it because all good things should be shared. Let me know if you've enjoyed reading this, ok?


Rachel Tan said...

What should one apply on the neck to reduce the dreadful lines!

monlim said...

Rachel: Ooh, those are a pain! I use retinol but I suspect nothing short of surgery would get rid of those :P You can also try The Ordinary's argireline solution. I heard that works like Botox. The effects are temporary though.

Rachel Tan said...

I tell you Monica, I am the worst-est person when it comes to skincare. I don't go for facials, and all I use is a cleanser, and SK2 Facial Treatment Essence - no moisturizer, no toner, no masks no nothing. I use SK2 once a day and a 75ml bottle lasts me 5 to 6 months! lol :) Then in the day time, I use a Korean moisturizer (Innisfree or one of the likes) only because it's not possible to apply BB cream or liquid foundation on dry skin.

Thankfully, my face skin is pretty ok! However now that I am turning 40, I've been hearing horrible stories of facial degeneration, if I may say, and how important it is to prevent it. I am wondering whether retinols and vitamin Cs are a preventive measure, or are they for treatment. I'm worried that I'm risking my face to these acids when nothing is wrong with it. However, if they are necessary for prevention, I'd better start.

The neck however, has been completely neglected and it shows. Let me go pick up The Ordinary's angireline solution - cheaper than botox lol.

monlim said...

Rachel: Oh, retinol and vit C are definitely for prevention too! Easier to prevent the dark spots than wait until they appear, then frantically try to reverse them, like me lol.

These are not acids though, vit C is an antioxidant and retinol is a derivative of vit A. So they're pretty safe, as in, they won't do any harm to your skin. Btw, retinol is still best for wrinkles, so try that with the argireline for your neck and see if it makes any diff! I think those deep lines are very challenging though.

Rachel Tan said...

Here I come The Ordinary!

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica
Can you recommend the serum or moisturiser that you are using too. Dark sports are creeping up my face in a horrifying speed. So this post of yours is really timely. Thank you.

monlim said...

Anon: I've only just started on The Ordinary's skincare so it's too early to tell. Basically Vit C is the gold standard for dark spots so maybe you can try one of their many serums? I've tried their Azelaic Acid, which has brightening properties as well, and I saw a difference in skin texture within the first week. So maybe that's another option.

Anonymous said...

With a post like that, how could you not show some before and after pics! Not too late though to add them in.

monlim said...

A close up of my skin for all to see?? *shudder*

Jen said...

Hi Monica,

I read your post and it is like some kind of sign for me to start taking care of my skin as I only use cleaner wash now and there are spots developing since I am also past 40. For starter, which moisturizer do you use? Cant seem to find one from The Ordinary though. I think I should get a decent moisturizer before I start on the Vit C regime since it can be stinging and burning.

monlim said...

Jenn: The Ordinary has moisturisers, just that you may not be aware cos they name their products after ingredients instead of what they do. If you go to their website, you'll find the moisturisers under "Hydrators and Oils". Their cold-pressed oils are very popular but if you don't like the oily feeling, you can try their NMF + HA. I personally love their squalane - it's hydrating like oils but not as greasy (it's actually oil-free).

Anonymous said...

I used to get acnes right before that time of the month, every month w/o fail. Not sure if it's called cystic acne, but it does leave permanent marks :(
Chanced upon konjac sponge on sale from Sephora, and used it. After a month, to my surprise, no acne! Once I forgot to use it over a few weeks, and the acne appeared though. Now I'm trying to remember to use it at least one a week. Crossing fingers that it will continue to keep me acne-free.
I still need to find something that works to lighten my age spots and wrinkles though. Thanks for the recommendation of the 2 skincare, will browse them.
Gosh.. age 40+ is really annoying!
Disclaimer: I'm not selling any konjac sponge, nor related to any company selling one :)

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