Before sheltering in place, I couldn’t look at my face without makeup. A glance at the dark circles under my eyes and dull, uneven complexion and I immediately reached for my makeup bag. Even in the first couple weeks of quarantining where I’d see no one but my reflection, husband and dog, I wore foundation, concealer and blush. I felt naked without anything on. But, now, I don’t wear a drop. As I’ve adjusted to seeing my face sans makeup, I’ve come to accept my natural face. In fact, I look OK. Is my complexion healthier without the daily beat of slathering product on or has my perception of my au-naturale face changed? Well, according to science, this likely comes down to mind over matter.
What happens to our brains when we wear makeup every day?
“When we put on makeup,” says holistic psychotherapist Jennifer Pepper, MA AMFT, “we are sending a message to our subconscious that we are flawed and that those flaws must be covered up or concealed.” Essentially, Pepper explains, we are happier with our changed appearance and identify strongly with it because it affects how we feel inside. Personally, this rings true. When I used to see my makeup-less face, I reacted viscerally, thinking “That’s not me,” because my brain’s idea of what I looked like is so tied to the “corrected and enhanced” version.
But there’s also the routine of makeup, Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LP and Talkspace therapist illustrates, “For a lot of us, our routine keeps us in alignment with our goals. If our routine incorporates makeup, then it makes sense that skipping it could make us feel a little imbalanced. Little imbalances can add up and makes us feel less confident about ourselves.” In that sense, it wasn’t just my brain’s reaction to my self-image, but to the break in the pattern.
So, what happens to our brains when we stop wearing makeup?
Well, you’ve broken the routine, and, per Rice, the brain recognizes when we skip steps. But just as you form a routine wearing makeup, you can form a routine not wearing makeup, “The more we do something, the better it feels, and then we can learn to detach from the opinion of others.” This explains why my no-makeup behavior didn’t happen overnight, it took time to develop as a routine. (And now, putting it on feels like chore.)
But it also takes time for your brain to recalibrate your new self-image. When you choose to go makeup-free or wear it occasionally—for a video chat, let’s say—you begin to understand your relationship with makeup more clearly. “Is it for other people or for yourself?” Pepper asks. Once you become more aware of the role that makeup plays in your life, you can help your brain adjust your self-image if it’s been tethered to the contoured, Kardashian version of yourself. “Talk to yourself in a loving way. This will send the message to your subconscious that you are worth more than simply your appearance, and that alone will do wonders for your self-love and your life in general.”
Clinical psychologist Daniel Sher acknowledges that the basic law of behavioral psychology follows that the more frequently you are exposed to something that makes you uncomfortable, the easier it becomes. A 2016 study presented at the American Psychological Association asked women to look at themselves in the mirror daily for two weeks without makeup on. Over time, they became more self-confident and self-compassionate. Their overall levels of discomfort and distress also dropped. But Sher believes there’s a bigger factor at play than repetition, “In my opinion, seeing oneself without makeup on repeatedly gives one a chance to challenge the message that we keep receiving on a cultural level—that you can only feel good about yourself if you look ‘presentable.’”
In this sense, we’re not just redefining our idea of beauty, but our culture’s. (And if you need a refresher on our culture’s mind-baffling approach to beauty, watch Amy Schumer’s “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup” sketch.) No wonder my brain was hardwired to prefer my face with makeup.
Wait, but will a makeup hiatus save my skin?
As our own beauty director Jenny Jin has explored, makeup is not necessarily bad for our skin. But giving your skin an extensive break doesn’t hurt. It could help your skin clear up by giving your pores some breathing room, and it could also help you identify what your skin really, truly needs—maybe without the foundation and concealer you can see you’re not as dry or as oily as you thought. But most importantly, it will help you see what’s good about your face, because if science really does tell us anything, it’s that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.