SECRET KEY Starting Treatment Essence

Happy 2021 everyone, fingers crossed that this year will be much better than the last!

I’m starting things out right for my wallet this year with a budget-friendly “dupe” of SK-II. If you’re not familiar with SK-II, it’s an upscale skincare line that has been linked to many celebrities, including but not limited to Cate Blanchett, Chloe Moretz, and Behati Prinsloo. SK-II’s facial treatment essence is the most heavily marketed, but perhaps the price range is a little more suitable for celebrities only, coming in at a cool $100 for a 2.5 oz bottle. Secret Key, by comparison, is $16.

Behati holding onto a bottle of liquid money for dear life.

Right off the bat, I’m impressed by Secret Key’s packaging of their essence. I daresay the glass bottle is just as sturdy and aesthetically pleasing, if not moreso, than SK-II. A drop-check was also inadvertently completed: this has also fallen from my medicine cabinet to my floor without shattering the bottle.

But for as beautiful as the bottle is, the product inside is absolutely miserable to work with. Secret Key’s essence is basically… water. By the time you’ve dropped enough onto your cotton round or your hand, a lot of it will have absorbed leaving you shaking the bottle again for another dousing of product. The dropper is a shake dropper instead of a squeeze dropper, so it’s equally as difficult applying this directly to your face.

So with this being essentially… water… it absorbs really quickly, and you’ll need to shake the product out a few times to get an adequate covering. Now, granted, essences are generally the first step in a skincare regime, so it is not intended to be your primary moisturizer and thickness should be of no concern. But many essences I’ve tried — including SK-II itself — are of a little bit thicker substance, and are easier to spread around (keeping in mind that SK-II contains more chemically-based filler ingredients, whereas Secret Key doesn’t have as many, which may contribute to SK-II’s heavier weight. Pick your poison!).

Since it is so thin, this won’t affect the rest of your routine, or weigh you down as the day wears on. However, I am convinced that something within the product dries my pores out faster throughout the day, regardless of what I’m wearing over it. My skin tends to feel itchy more often than not when this essence is in my routine.

Though I did feel that this essence made my skin brighter within the first few hours of use, the dryness that inevitably ensued made my skin more inflamed by the end of the day, so any positive benefits would likely have been cancelled out. What I did discover was that this product is effective as a night-time makeup remover and toner — it’s gentler than most micellar waters or witch hazel toners I’ve tried.

If you’re not ready to drop the big bucks on SK-II, I would still recommend giving this a try, despite my lackluster experience. For a different skin type, I think Secret Key essence could be a great product, since I did notice subtle brightening. Also the ingredient listing is extract-based and free of sulfates and alcohol, so it’s also a good bet for those with acne-prone skin. ~A

Perceived efficacy: 4/5

Longevity: 1/5

How much I actually like this product: 3/5

Recommended for sensitive skin: Sensitive skin, yes — dry skin, no!

Mistine Milk Tea Body Lotion

A friend gifted me this within the past year and sadly I am more than halfway through the bottle. I love it! But, buyer beware: you must be a fan of bubble tea in order to purchase this, because it really, REALLY smells like it’s name. Bubble tea is amazing, BTW, and if you’ve never tried it before I highly recommend it!

Conceptually this lotion is a tad bit gimmick-y, since it not only smells like milk tea, but it also contains milk tea. Fortunately, black tea (and tea in general) boasts anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing properties, and milk is said to be conducive to maintain skin moisture.

I will say this is not a good product for eczema sufferers or those with chronically dry skin. Not that you can’t use it, but consider mixing a heavier lotion in with it, such as Aquaphor or Eucerin. The milk tea lotion’s consistency is overall quite thin, so while a little goes a long way, it won’t be leaving a thick film behind.

Mistine also managed to sneak in a hint of lactic acid into the ingredient listing. For me personally, this is a huge selling point, because it implies that some light skin exfoliation will be accomplished while maintaining a layer of hydration. But, just as they would any other acid-containing product, sensitive skin users may want to be wary.

Overall, this is just a really fun lotion to try out with, and while it’s not the most hydrating lotion of them all, it does leave your skin smooth, with a hint of a glow. It’s not sold locally anywhere in the US, and Mistine is based in Thailand, so the price tag to order internationally can run a little high at $24. If you can find it cheaper than that, I’d recommend checking it out! ~A

Perceived efficacy: 3.75/5

Longevity: 3.75/5

How much I actually like this product: 4/5

Recommended for sensitive skin: for extremely dry skin, no. otherwise, patch test first, and then proceed!

Merry Christmas, my dear readers! ❤

The Ordinary 5% Lactic Acid – a COVID special

Mask-ne is real, folks. Don’t get me wrong, I am 100% pro-mask. It’s such an easy thing to wear to protect yourself and other people. But boy does it mess with your skin. Brand new breakouts on the lower half of my face, check. Extremely red, itchy and dry skin where the mask is supposed to cover, check.

What does this have to do with lactic acid, you ask, especially when I’ve already posted about it before? I consider lactic acid my official exfoliating powerhouse during this very long mask season. This will help bring acne to the surface and turn the skin cells over. Compared to salicylic acid, glycolic acid and adapalene/benzoyl peroxide combination, I found this to be the pretty clear winner. I started off using this every two days, to daily, and as of this writing, I’m back down to 3 or 4x a week usage.

As with most acids, there’s a purging period that comes with the use of this product. For me, it was a major purge. Even though I keep this product around in my medicine cabinet, I don’t use it every day, so I certainly wasn’t immune to it’s effects when switching to daily use. I felt like I was at pre-spironolactone levels of acne — goes to show how much crud was probably building up in my skin. Heck, I almost threw in the towel. But by week three, most of the acne was gone and my skin was glowing!

Lactic acid will still continue to pull up new acne even after the purging period is done, but there won’t be as much, and it will disappear quickly. In my opinion, it’s worth it for the healthy glow and smooth texture you get from this product.

Since even it’s 5% iteration is pretty strong, you’re going to want to layer up on some emollients afterwards. My favorite to use in this case was The Ordinary’s Rosehip Seed Oil. While the lactic acid is busy at work pushing the dead skin out, rose hip oil does a nice job of clean-sweeping all the grits out of the pores.

Something else that did help my acne decrease was switching from cloth masks to paper/disposable masks. I hate the idea of disposable masks because they’re just so… wasteful. I don’t need more reasons to contribute to landfills! But no matter how vigilantly I was washing my cloth masks, the cloth was a way bigger offender of trapping dirt and oil into my skin.

As with all acids, users who are new to these types of products should start off slow. You really only need two drops of this product to spread throughout your face, and should start by applying only every two days. And wear your sunscreen! Despite all my usual acid product warnings, this is a cheap little fixer-upper for $10 that got my skin back to normal under the mask. ~A

Perceived efficacy: 5/5

Longevity: 3/5

How much I actually like this product: 4.5/5

Recommended for sensitive skin: Yes, if used carefully!

Peter Thomas Roth Water Drench

As I started to write this, I wanted to apologize for veering off the path of “reasonable prices” with this product, but then I did a quick Google search and realized I’ve been grossly overpaying for this product for a year or so. $52 at Ulta — $29 at Walmart. Wow. It’s still expensive, and you’ll have to make sure the seller through Walmart is reputable, but just don’t be an ignoramous like me, and you can save $23!

But since I’ve been through two jars of this, there must be a part of me that believes this is worth $52. This is an incredibly light-weight and easy to work with moisturizer that melts right into your skin. It smells fresh (think Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost scent), it doesn’t pill, and over the long-term, shows proof of visible skin smoothing.

Alongside Dramatically Different, this is what I consider one of the best moisturizers for those with acne-prone skin. It doesn’t cause any sort of congestion or burning sensations. There’s definitely no drying alcohols. There’s no break-in period for the product, either, where you might notice your skin breaking out because it’s getting used to the new product — it works great, right away. In fact, since I’ve started using this my skin has overall felt healthier and “bouncier” (I’m sure the five ceramides listed in the first two lines of ingredients may contribute to this).

Even though I’ve noticed long-term effects, the day-to-day longevity of this product really depends on the weather. Although it’s labeled as a cream and takes significantly longer to dry down to the skin like a gel would, it is not, by any means, a heavy cream. By hour six or seven you may experience some tightness in your skin. This moisturizer also isn’t the best under makeup — it might just be a little too thick, with a tendency to break down any foundation quickly, despite it not pilling during the initial application.

This was my go-to holy grail moisturizer during quarantine, though. Provided you aren’t adding any layers of foundation over it, this was phenomenal for wearing around the house and keeping your skin hydrated. My skin started looking so good, in fact, that I was able to stop wearing foundation altogether! If you can pick this up for less than regular retail price, I highly recommend it. ~A

Perceived efficacy: 5/5

Longevity: 4/5

How much I actually like this product: 5/5

Recommended for sensitive skin: Yes!

ELABORE Hair BB 10 in 1

As I may have mentioned before, my hair is blonde again, so I’m back on the hunt for the impossible products that will undo all of the damage I’ve done to it. I received this Hair BB as a sample and was impressed with it, so I bought the whole 3oz bottle for $10. Sadly that optimism was short-lived.

This is a heavy white cream leave-in conditioning/mask hair product, although in my experience, I think it’s a bit too heavy to be a leave-in. I had better luck using it as a hair mask that was rinsed off after some time, but even then, it didn’t seem to live up to most of the products claims.

What it was good at: detangling right out of the shower, softening hair if used as a mask. Also, I’m not usually a fan of peach-scented products, but this stuff smells great all day!

What it was bad at: frizz control, anti-breakage, promoting shine, silkiness, or moisture-trapping.

Now bear in mind that my hair is already really damaged anyway — so some of these things, like breakage, were bound to happen no matter what! But all in all after my hair was dried, this cream just felt far too heavy and greasy, and didn’t really seem to do much in the way of keeping it smooth and frizz-free throughout the day. A day after usage, my hair somehow felt… drier, than it had been before I started.

I also wanted to mention keratin and protein sensitivity for people with processed or damaged hair. A lot of leave-ins and damage control type conditioners will boast keratin and/or protein in their ingredient list. And they do work as intended, if used correctly. Unfortunately the proliferation of these ingredients in many drugstore items creates a scenario in which the consumer ends up putting way too much protein and keratin in their hair over the course of just a few days, causing it to become brittle or break off. And because this product contains keratin, it is no exception to the “use sparingly” rule. Also, protein and keratin tend to cause your hair to darken, which can be problematic for bright blondes.

To me it seems strange that it’s advertised as a daily leave-in that will repair your hair and help to style it as you want without causing more damage. But should the average user really be putting a keratin product in their hair more than once or twice a week? (If even that — I’m lookin’ at you, too, It’s a 10!)

Cute packaging, nice smelling and conceptually hair-healthy, but there are better masks, leave-ins and conditioners for your hair. ~A

Perceived efficacy: 1.5/5

Longevity: 4.5/5

How much I actually like this product: 1.5/5

Castor Oil

Castor oil has recently been a hot topic in the skincare community since the big eyebrow trend is still hanging around, albeit evolving. Everyone wants fuller eyebrows! Castor oil is like the 2020 version of biotin, except it’s a topical oil instead of an ingestable supplement. It claims to make your hair grow faster and will help to moisturizer your skin, so I tried it out for two months to see if it lived up to the hype.

Isn’t Castor Oil Toxic? Unless you’re allergic to castor oil, the answer is no, on two fronts. Growing up I remember hearing the reference to castor oil as being used as a laxative. Yup, gross. But there is a distinction between food-grade castor oil and skincare castor oil, so if your bottle says “not safe for consumption” then… you probably shouldn’t consume it. But that’s not because of the ricin! Yep, another unpleasant word to throw into a paragraph. Ricin is not contained in the actual oil itself. Ricin is the result of the seeds being mashed together after the oil has been extracted. Long story short, your skincare castor oil isn’t poisonous, but if you’re looking for a laxative, you should probably go find yourself a food-grade bottle!

Does it make your eyebrows or eyelashes grow faster? In my experience, no. I can see where it would give the appearance of your eyebrows seeming darker since the oil clumps all the hairs together, but if you’re missing certain patches of your eyebrow, this oil will not help to stimulate skin cells in helping the hair grow. Ditto for the eyelashes. It’s kind of a daunting task to Q-tip this in the eyelash area to begin with, but again, besides the oil making them darker, I didn’t feel that my eyelashes grew any faster or more voluminously.

I will say, however, one of my nervous tics is to pull my eyebrows when I’m stressed out, and putting castor oil almost completely put an end to this habit, solely because that oil is so… unruly, to deal with. Turns out, not pulling your eyebrows out lets them grow! Who would have thought… For anyone who suffers trichotillomania, I highly recommend you pick up a bottle and give it a try. You can even use it for your hair. Which brings me to…

Does it make your hair grow faster? Again, no. But it is, in small doses, it is a good “mask” to help keep some moisture in. Since castor oil is so sticky, I would recommend that anyone with fine hair use this as a day-mask or wash it out before you go to bed.

Also, for all you bleach blondes out there, have you ever had the burning desire to speed up the shedding process in one fell swoop? Look no further than a bottle of castor oil… place it on your most broken hair follicles and watch allllll the hair fall out! (I’d like to think that this happened for the better…)

What about your skin? I don’t really recommend it. Again, this oil is just so heavy and sticky that it’s very difficult to remove or absorb, which, in my opinion, also makes it a bad candidate for oil-cleansing (OCM). Despite this oil being non-comedogenic, I noticed a lot more redness in my skin than usual when using it as a “only step) in my routine.

Unfortunately castor oil misses the mark on skincare and hair growth panacea status. However I think it’s been a great alternative to coconut oil for masking my hair and helping to keep it hydrated. There are a lot of masks on the market that boast castor oil as the main product, but I think it’s best to go straight to the source and just grab a bottle from a reputable skincare or holistic company business. ~A

TL;DR:

Will it definitively make your hair/eyebrows/eyelashes grow super fast? Probably not.

Is it good for your skin? Not the worst, but there are better alternatives.

Is it good for overall hair health? When used sporadically, yes.

Black Owned Beauty Brands

I found this awesome infographic that lists black owned cosmetic brands from @nyjats Twitter. A great way to support the Black Lives Matter movement right now is to shop at black owned businesses.

Two of my favorites in this list: Mielle Organics for natural hair products, they don’t generally include drying alcohol or SLS ingredients! Then there’s Pat McGrath — I have a powder eyeshadow from this brand that I LOVE but I’m terrified of using because it’s, well, it’s that good, it never rubs off and the color payout is fantastic — so I’ll probably cry if and when it runs out.

I hope that everyone finds peace and safety in this time, and remember to amplify black voices! ~A

Clinique Dramatically Different Hydrating Jelly

If you’ve been following my blog for awhile now, you have probably realized that I never stop talking about Clinique’s Dramatically Different Gel. It is just the most reliable, versatile, lightweight and foolproof gel, and I’ve never found anything like it.

Except, oops, I forgot that Clinique had a few more things in their Dramatically Different line-up. I had a little inspiration after reading a great write-up on this product over at V’s Beauty Talk blog, which kickstarted me into grabbing a 1.7oz trial size for $15 ($30 for full-size) to see if this lived up to my extremely high expectations.

Although Clinique tends to be heavy on the ingredients-you-cant-pronounce-the-names-of, this line generally leaves out drying alcohols and comdeogenic oils, which I like. The product itself is closer to a liqui-gel than a jelly, but this makes it easy to get out of the bottle. If you have dry skin, prepare for this stuff to dry down extremely fast. You would think this would be “a little goes a long way” spreadable, but it’s not.

Unfortunately the review mostly goes downhill from here. Immediately after I applied this, my skin felt sticky. After six hours, my skin still felt sticky and… dry, again. Products are impossible to stack over this, because it will pill. Scrubbing the product off the next morning also ends in a gigantic, pilling mess.

So… what is this? I can’t use it as a moisturizer, because it doesn’t hydrate my skin for long enough, and I also can’t stack anything else over top of it if I wanted to. I can’t use it as a one-step emolliant either, or even consider it a humectant, because it, again, is not hydrating.

Based on the ingredient listing, and for the sole fact I love the gel version so much, I would be inclined to recommend this to sensitive-skin users, but honestly I suspect the uncomfortable sensation this moisturizer leaves behind actually did cause some irritation to my skin, and ultimately caused me to break out a few times after using this.

I was hugely disappointed by this product, but, for some perspective, there are three different types of moisturizers in this series, and more suited for different skin types than the other. Maybe the gel version is my one-and-only, and you know what they say: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! ~A

Perceived efficacy: 2/5

Longevity: 2/5

How much I actually like this product: 1.75/5

Recommended for sensitive skin: No

Mediheal NMF Intensive Hydrating Mask

Lately, the weather around here has been anywhere between 25° and 70°, and my skin is suffering for it. Even my coveted My Beauty Diary masks don’t seem to be doing much in the way of re-introducing moisture back into my skin. So I decided to look for a sheet mask that was a little more heavy duty in hydration.

This mask is a pain to get out of the packaging and unfold since it is over-saturated (in the best way possible, of course) in product. That said, the fact that the linen is already soaked through makes it a lot easier to contour to your face, making this one of the better-fitting masks I’ve tried in my lifetime.

Right away, I loved the way this mask felt on. It was immediately relieving, and refreshing! Since it’s over-saturated in product, the overall effect is cooling. But I just felt like the tightness and irritation were going away in real time.

Unfortunately I’m not a huge fan of the tacky residue the mask leaves behind. As with most other masks, you can’t really stack other skincare or product over this for at least 30 minutes to an hour, or else it will pill. But this stuff is really sticky. Sure, that probably means that it’s better at retaining moisture, but it’s just a little bit too uncomfortable, for too long.

The long-term effects, however, are amazing! My skin has been brighter and clearer since I started to use it. It doesn’t aggravate my skin, and I haven’t experienced any breakouts from using it, despite the obnoxious pore-clogging texture that the mask seems to leave behind after use.

I think for how much improvement in quality my skin seemed to experience, $11 for a box of five masks was more than worth my money. Despite my complaints about the immediate after-effects of this mask, this is a great pick for anyone with sensitive skin and enough time to spare for this product to fully sink in. ~A

Perceived efficacy: 4.5/5

Longevity: 4.5/5

How much I actually like this product: 3.75/5

Recommended for sensitive skin: Yes

After a little Googling, I just saw that Mediheal has BTS special edition versions of some of their masks. I wish I had seen this before, how freakin cool!

La Roche-Posay Micellar Water

Disclaimer: I largely think micellar water is a marketing hoax. In my personal opinion, removing makeup and cleaning your face should be left to good ol’ fashioned face cleanser, possibly a splash of toner, and that thing that comes out of your sink… ah yes, water. But I do love trying out skincare products, so I will admit I’ve tried a few micellar waters in the past few years. And… this one ain’t it, for me.

I picked up the “sensitive skin” version of this instead of the effaclar version, which is more targeted toward oily skin. As with most micellar waters, it is basically… odorless, colorless, water. It’s best applied with a cotton ball or pad.

Did it remove my makeup? I hate comparing two items because there’s zillions of items on the market in general, but I actually sort of liked the Garnier Micellar water back in the day, when it was like the only one you could buy in the grocery store. Garnier’s formula was ridiculously oily, but man, did it take off makeup! One swipe and five layers of foundation were gone. That’s not the case with LRP’s version, here: on average I used up five cotton circles to take off my makeup, even on a “light foundation” day. So it does remove makeup, but it will waste your time in doing so.

Did it make my skin feel clean? After the aforementioned five cotton circles used up on my face, my skin was feeling a little raw. I guess it felt clean? There definitely isn’t an “oily” residue left over. However…

Is it good for sensitive skin? In my opinion, no. Sure, some of the abrasion can come from using a cotton circle or pad, but this product is impractical to use with just your hands. Once my makeup was removed, my face felt dry. Even after adding a layer of moisturizer, my skin was still more dry throughout the day than it would have been, had I just used a regular cleanser.

There are no drying alcohols, sulfates or parabens in this micellar water, so I don’t think that the ingredient listing is inherently evil. But the need to fight through your foundation removal causes more abrasion to your skin than it’s worth. Maybe it is better to use an oilier formulation, after all.

La Roche-Posay has a good name in skincare, sure, but I would personally pass on this $15 micellar water. There are better ways to cleanse and remove makeup than this! ~A

Perceived efficacy: 2/5

Longevity: n/a

How much I actually like this product: 1.75/5

Recommended for sensitive skin: No