It started with a simple question: Do straight men exfoliate? I asked it on Twitter, half honest inquiry, half joke that, like, of course straight men don’t exfoliate. I tapped it into my phone just after washing my face and before continuing with my morning skincare and makeup routine. But by the time I’d finished and put my glasses back on, my mentions were full of men asking me what, exactly, exfoliating is.
Do straight men exfoliate
— Amanda Mull (@amandamull) January 12, 2018
By the end of the day, I had more than a hundred such inquiries, mixed in with a few men positing that the practice somehow involved a loofah. (Disclaimer: Please don’t use a body loofah on your face.) One man told me he didn’t exfoliate but did wash his face with very hot water, in the apparent belief that he was burning off dead skin instead of sucking all the moisture out of it. Things were worse than I’d even jokingly expected.
I don’t but I wash with hot water
— taytaythemaymay (@Demsocnt1h) January 13, 2018
I can’t even spell exfoliate
— grassman and son inc (@GApasturedbirds) January 13, 2018
I vigorously brush my beard and a lot of skin falls out, so yes?
— BenRad (@benrad) January 12, 2018
Considering how trendy skincare has become among young women, the fact that so many of the men who responded knew so little about the basic maintenance of their faces felt counterintuitive. Even if the average straight American male isn’t masking three times a week or going in for dermaplaning, I assumed they were at least washing their faces and putting on some moisturizer at night.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Charles, 47, tells me, “I do nothing — I don’t even wash my face.” Tyler, 32, washes only a very specific portion of his face: “I use bar soap on the sides of my nose in the shower. Mostly because of blackheads. I picked that because it seemed simple and cheap.”
And Barry, 33, provides an answer that inspires me to stare into space for several minutes. “The only thing I use regularly is body wash in the shower every morning (including on my face),” he explains. “Outside of the shower, I will wash my face only if it feels particularly dirty or greasy — with hand soap if I’m in my bathroom or dish soap if I’m in my kitchen.” When I tell him that’s, for lack of a better description, insane, he responds, “I just want to point out that they use over-the-counter dish soap to clean animals that get caught in oil spills! If it’s good enough for them, it’s more than good enough for me.”
Of the men I speak with who use products intended for their faces, almost all of them chose to develop a routine because of medical issues like acne or dermatitis, or because they were in long-term relationships with women from whom they could borrow products and get some basic skincare consulting. Andrew, 26, says, “[My interest in skincare] came from exposure in relationships. When I had girlfriends who got into skincare, I’d find myself giving things a try and just enjoying how they feel.” Tim, 39, started taking care of his skin after seeking professional help. “I suffer from chronic dermatitis, and as such, I’ve gone through years and years of trying to find the right products for my face. I first went to a dermatologist when I was 20 and was tired of having red splotches on my face all the time.”
Both Andrew and Tim found outside encouragement to move past a huge obstacle that stands in the way of straight men taking care of their skin: Skincare’s traditional associations with feminine beauty. “Most skincare products are marketed toward women,” explains Dr. Kachiu Lee, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Brown University. “Skin products at stores are nestled right up against, and often integrated within, the makeup aisle. This reinforces the notion that these skincare products are only for women.”
In that context, it’s hard to blame straight men for not knowing where to start. Social costs for not adhering to the traditional boundaries of masculinity can be high, on top of persistent cultural messaging about men’s grooming that stops with deodorant, body wash and a handful of hair products.
Lee says that not only do men frequently tell her they think skincare is meant only for women, but that they don’t need to wash their faces at all. “Even young men with acne tell me this!”
Men are clearly curious about what they could — or should — be doing, though, based on the 30-plus people I ask about their routines. Absent cultural messages about how men should care for their skin, many of them have come up with folk remedies of their own, which are often as misguided as they are earnest. Clay, 20, uses what’s most readily available to slough off dead skin — his hands. “I’ve been rowing for three years at an elite level and have these thick rough calluses on my hands. When I shower, I scrub my face vigorously with my hands (while wet) to exfoliate — even typing this out makes it sound super weird.”
Although the barrier to entry for skincare can feel high, Lee says a basic regimen for men doesn’t have to be confusing. “Start by washing your face and moisturizing. The sheer number of products out there are intimidating, and there are so many choices that men are overwhelmed with which products to buy. The easiest thing is to just pick up a gentle face wash and a gentle daily moisturizer with sunscreen.”
Exfoliating is only slightly trickier, and it’s well worth adding a third product to your new routine and only needs to be done a couple times per week. “Exfoliating your face helps to clear clogged pores and dead layers of skin. It’s especially important for men, who have larger pores than women and can accumulate more oils and sebum in them,” Lee says.
There are two main types of exfoliants: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliants are things like scrubs, which use their rough texture to rub off dead skin and deep-clean pores. Lee doesn’t recommend these, however, for facial use. “Physical blockers [such as scrubs] tend to be too harsh for the skin for many people. Further, the plastic microbeads in a lot of them contribute to clogged waterways.” That leaves chemical exfoliators, which are smooth in texture and use things like alpha and beta hydroxy acids or fruit enzymes to break down the bonds that hold dead skin cells to your face. Chemical exfoliants also avoid the micro-tears in the skin that using a too-rough scrub can cause, striking the right balance between gentleness and effectiveness for your face in particular.
Almost to a man, the guys I interviewed for this piece were mostly not adhering to skincare routines because they didn’t really understand the benefits of doing so. And while it’s true that a detail-oriented task like skincare is unlikely to change anyone’s life (or face) overnight, it can make your skin clearer, brighter and less prone to visible aging and change how you think about yourself, too.
Case in point: My 30-year-old little brother John, who is a very typical straight dude in most ways, except that he has, over time, come around to taking meticulous care of his skin and hair, entirely on his own. When I ask him why, he says it was in an effort to fix something else. “At 24 or 25, I was pretty depressed. Everyone handles depression in different ways, but I decided I was going to change the things I didn’t like about myself. I started using products to style my hair, but I learned if you don’t wash your face every day, the the hair products will start causing acne on your forehead. So I started washing my face.”
From there, he researched products and tried new things, and he found that he enjoyed the process, both for its physical results and the psychological side effects. “Taking 20 minutes to care about yourself can really set a positive tone for the rest of the day.”