Obsessed with the Gothamista YouTube channel? So are we. We got a chance to chat with her about all things skin care below.
You probably know Renee as Gothamista, the skin care devotee who has 176,000 YouTube subscribers. She’s a vlogger inspired by her life in New York who calls herself a “professional treasure hunter” and “skinthusiast,” ready to try products and give an honest opinion.
It’s her knowledge, winning personality, and gorgeous videos that have fans listening to what she has to say about the biggest trends and products in the skin care world. Here, we chat with her about how she became so obsessed with skin care (K-beauty, specifically), her favorite products, and the one ingredients she’s into this year.
You’re so knowledgeable about skin care on a scientific level. Can you tell us about your experience in the beauty world?
I was a buyer at a high-end, specialty, beauty retailer for about a decade and developed relationships with brands that ranged from the luxury to indie discoveries. Many of them were great at educating their partners on ingredients, new technologies, sourcing, and regimens, which always helped me gain more appreciation for why a product might be good beyond just cosmetic elegance and packaging.
But what really opened my eyes was when I started my own product development a few years ago on a luxury bath and body skin care line. When I was learning from chemists, I began to understand the importance of formulas as a whole; how ingredients work in tandem and even why some seemingly “questionable” ingredients were sometimes, in fact, purposeful.
Simultaneously, I became aware of how much mis-information was floating around, some of which is inaccurate and incurring unnecessary fear. So I do my own research, talk to dermatologists and scientists and keep learning because my inner-nerd loves this stuff but at the end of the day, my own experience with a product is what counts.
What was your breakthrough moment in skin care research?
I became obsessive about finding products to fix things but I was going about it the wrong way entirely. I was looking for that one “miracle” product that would change my life. French brands, for example, seemed to always promote a multi-step skin care routine, but I didn’t believe the extra products were making enough of a difference to justify the additional time, labor, and money. When I was introduced to the Korean skin care routine, I won’t lie, I was really resistant to the idea of even more steps, but everything changed.
I mean, double cleansing was pretty overwhelming. But…it was transformative. My love for skin care really did begin when I discovered Asian products and started to understand how to effectively use them. It’s an experiment and a process of discovering how and what yields the best results for my own skin.
When did you start paying attention to Korean beauty products?
I vividly remember it actually! I had a four-hour layover at Incheon Airport about five years ago. I was lost in a sea of brands I didn’t recognize but all the beauty ads for the products had women and men who were glowing with radiant, dewy skin. This was the first time I recognized what I wanted for my own skin represented in “marketing.” I was never into the velvet or matte complexions popular in the West. It never resonated with me as healthy-looking skin that was well-hydrated. The healthy, bright, radiance being depicted in these photographs was unlike anything I had seen and it was in all the faces, everywhere.
I found myself glaring at all the women (and men!) working at the airport, with their gleaming, lit-from-within faces. I wanted it, too. Inspired, I bought an entire seven step routine from Sulwhasoo and that was the beginning of my love affair. Sticking to all the steps gave me the kind of skin I wanted that’s now become far less problematic, normal, and most days, glowy!
What’s make K-beauty so different?
Its focus on hydration and radiance aligns with my personal desires deeply. I’m blown away by the innovation that’s consistently developing. It has turned making skin care into something that is interesting, fun, and fascinating. Most brands come out with one or two new launches a year. But in K-beauty, it’s happening most every month! Having said that, this “skintertainment” aspect is one thing, but the formulas themselves are also very ingredient focused and concentrated. We are usually forced to choose one or the other. It’s either what we want to use but there’s a compromise in how good it is for us, or it’s good for our health but we don’t enjoy it, like gulping down a wheatgrass shot.
What excites me most is the focus on concentrated formulas. A honey ampoule could actually be 10-80% honey extracts, or an aloe toner might be 95% aloe. In fact, seeing the percentage of a key ingredient listed on the packaging of a product is common in K-beauty, as well as information such as the pH of a cleanser or toner. I love that the average consumer in Korea responds to this information.
In the Western markets, we’ve been conditioned to pay a premium for formulas that haven’t been diluted with Aqua as the first listed ingredient, bulked up with mineral oils, have a high concentration of plant oils and extracts, or eliminate questionable ingredients. Such formulas are basic to Korean skin care and available at very fair prices. This has massively impacted skin care as we know it, and we are now seeing the rest of the industry respond.
What are your top three tips for sensitive skin?
First, do not over-cleanse. I personally only use cleansers in my evening routine. My preference is an oil-based first cleanser that emulsifies so I don’t need a washcloth to remove everything, followed by a mild, low pH second cleanser. I don’t use cleansing tools. Secondly, do not over-exfoliate. Ease your actives into your routine. (Dilute them with your hydrating toner or a hyaluronic acid serum/lotion first and don’t combine wIth others.) And lastly, keep your routine simple and only introduce new products one at a time.
What ingredients do you look for when choosing anti-aging products?
Anti-aging for me is about damage repair and anti-oxidants. My routine is very anti-oxidant rich with vitamin C and E, green tea, marula oil, prickly pear and other clean actives. Ingredients that work to stimulate collagen are a plus so I look for peptides, niacinamide, and ceramides.
Exfoliation is an important practice in anti-aging so I look for gentle exfoliating products that are able to get rid of the build-up that has developed more aggressively as I’ve gotten older, but also encourages skin regeneration. My preference is gentler forms of AHA’s or non-acid peels.
What advice do you have for people who are interested in anti-aging but aren’t sure where to begin?
I’m all about prevention, but my personal approach to skin care is not to be excessive about it before it’s necessary. The best place to start is always with protection, so sunscreen and antioxidants first. Introducing a mild form of vitamin C regularly or switching to an antioxidant rich formulas is great.
Anti-aging solutions can start any age, but a lot of anti-aging skin care is focused around active ingredients such as acids and retinoids which work by pushing cell-turnover. I personally am very careful about over-exfoliating as it can sensitize my skin, cause redness, stinging and other issues. I would recommend starting with gentle enzyme peels, or gentler acid products to be used only a couple of times a week.
What ingredients should people with sensitive skin stay away from?
This really depends on what one is sensitive to. Some key things to avoid would be cleansers with sulfates and products with excessive alcohol.
What are the biggest skin care mistakes you’ve made in the past?
My number one mistake is one that so many of us do: not wearing sunscreen! Also, I’m realizing in hindsight that before I discovered double-cleansing and oil-based cleansers, I just never properly cleansed my skin. I cringe thinking about my pre K-beauty routine.
I’ve also definitely made my share of other mistakes, such as mis-combining acids, not listening to my skin, and over-exfoliating. I’ve learned many things the hard way.
What are the products you currently can’t live without?
The Heimish All Clean Balm, the Tatcha Luminous Dewy Skin Mist, the Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum, and all my oil serums!
What ingredients are you looking forward to trying out this year?
This year is about vitamin A. A few years back, I tried prescription Tretinoin and was horrified! I really didn’t know what to expect and my terrible—and painful—experience was beyond what I was willing to deal with at the time. My dermatologist did a horrible job of preparing me for this product and I ended up feeling like a burn victim, walking around for a week with a beard of flaking skin.
But vitamin A is something I’ve started re-introducing into my life now that there are a new generation of vitamin As being incorporated into formulas that don’t have the same harsh side-effects. With all these new generation retinol treatments popping up everywhere this year, I have been really happy with what I’ve been trying so far, but it takes a while to really know if it’s working.
Right now, I’m using new generation retinoids so they are derivatives of Tretinoin but apparently just as direct, effective but without side effects so naturally, I’m all in! Most recently, I’m trying The Ordinary 2% Advanced Retinoid and a retinol oil from Pestle & Mortar, Superstar. They all use the same derivative as Sunday Riley’s Luna Sleeping Night Oil, Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate. I’ve been loving these and they are also good precursors to the more traditional Retin-A products as a way to ease in.