Paula’s Choice Skincare: Best Products

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My name is Michelle, and I’m a Paula’s Choice tragic. I first got into skincare around 2009. Back then we didn’t have all the brands we have now – and more importantly, we didn’t have all the skincare information we have now. Paula Begoun was one of the few lone voices in the internet landscape talking about the science behind …

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My Emergency Routine for Treating an Irritant Breakout

My Emergency Routine for Treating an Irritant Breakout

A couple of weeks ago I had an irritant breakout reaction from testing a product, and I posted about it on Instagram. I’m still not 100% sure which product it was, but I used an anti-breakout routine that flattened my pimples in about 24 hours, and they were almost completely gone in around 3 days. I had a lot of …

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Vitamin C serum review: Paula’s Choice, Ultraceuticals, Ausceuticals

Vitamin C serum review: Paula's Choice, Ultraceuticals, Ausceuticals

I’ve been trying out a lot of vitamin C serums lately as long summer days and increased UV exposure looms closer. In case you’ve forgotten from my reviews of the Obagi, Indeed and Ole Henriksen serums, vitamin C is an amazing skincare multitasker. It can soak up incoming sun damage, fade existing sun damage and hyperpigmentation (such as acne scars) …

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Antioxidants in Skincare: What Do They Do?

Antioxidants in Skincare: What Do They Do?

Antioxidants in Skincare: What Do They Do?

You can find antioxidants in all sorts of products – from food and supplements, to creams and lipstick, and even shampoo. Skincare expert Paula Begoun almost immediately downgrades a product on Beautypedia if it doesn’t contain antioxidants. What are antioxidants doing in your skincare products, how do they work, and what should you look for?

Free Radicals and Skin Damage

One of the key ways in which skin (and your body) ages is through free radical damage, also known as oxidative stress. Free radicals are molecules with an unpaired electron, which make them highly reactive. To become more stable, they have to acquire another electron by taking one from another molecule (aka acting as an oxidant). That molecule now has an unpaired electron, which makes it highly unstable, and it wants an extra electron…see where it’s going? We have a chain reaction. In the process of electron transfer, chemical bonds are broken and new ones form, causing irreversible changes in the molecules’ structure and function.

Antioxidants in Skincare: What Do They Do?

Free radicals are essential in many biological processes, but if too many are formed in the wrong place, they’ll react with whatever’s around – free radicals can attack DNA, proteins and lipids. The electron-stealing chain reactions permanently change the structures of your molecules, leading to the features you’d think of in damaged skin: wrinkles, fine lines, fragile skin, mottled pigmentation and even skin cancers. Free radicals can also trigger inflammation and other harmful pathways in the skin, such as increased production of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) which break down collagen in your skin.

Free radicals in living organisms usually contain oxygen, so they’re often called “reactive oxygen species” (ROS for short). The most common free radicals in the body are superoxide O2-• and hydroxyl OH.

What Causes Free Radicals?

Free radicals are formed during normal biological processes such as respiration. Environmental factors like UV exposure, pollution and cigarette smoke also cause more free radicals in your body, and since your skin is the main interface between you and the outside world, that’s where free radicals form in the greatest amounts.

As I’ve mentioned many times, sun exposure should be one of your biggest skincare concerns, and free radicals are a big part of the reason. Free radicals form in your skin within 15 minutes of exposure to UV, and continues for up to an hour afterwards. Sun damage from UVA exposure is largely from free radical damage, and since UVA penetrates into the dermis, free radical damage can occur quite deeply in the skin. UVB can also produce free radicals too.

How Do Antioxidants Prevent Free Radical Damage?

An antioxidant is any molecule that can neutralise free radicals. They’re usually molecules that are reasonably stable with an unpaired electron, so once the free radical takes their electron, the chain reaction stops. Essentially, they’re like sacrificial shields that intercept the free radicals before they have a chance to react with important biological molecules.

Your body naturally contains antioxidants that soak up free radical damage, including enzymes like superoxide dismutase, catalase and glutathione peroxidase. There are also smaller non-enzymatic antioxidants like vitamins C and E, coenzyme Q10 (ubiquinol) and glutathione. However, these natural mechanisms can become overwhelmed if too many free radicals are present, which is where the idea of topping up your antioxidant stores with antioxidant-containing products come in.

There’s a lot of talk of dietary antioxidants and antioxidant “superfoods” in the media, but it’s still debatable whether taking antioxidant supplements actually helps reduce oxidative stress – clinical studies are divided, likely because antioxidants aren’t getting to the right place or are destroyed during digestion, or may even be reducing oxidative damage in unwanted cells when large supplements are taken. (Luckily, a lot of antioxidant-rich foods are healthy for other reasons, and many of them are cheap, so they’re often worth eating anyway!)

The advantages of applying antioxidant products to your skin are a bit more straightforward, according to the research so far. Since your skin is exposed to the elements (in particular, UV), it’s a part of your body that experiences a lot of extra free radical damage, and can benefit the most from extra antioxidants.

Which Antioxidants Actually Work in Skincare?

Applying more of the antioxidants naturally present in your skin can boost your skin’s ability to neutralise free radicals. The ones you’ll find in skincare products, that have clinical studies to show that they work when applied to skin, include:

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Paula’s Choice Blush It On Palette and Flawless Finish Powder review

Paula's Choice Blush It On Palette and Flawless Finish Powder review

I love Paula’s Choice products, but I hadn’t used any of their makeup products until I tried the Blush It On Contour palette and the Resist Flawless Finish powder recently.

Paula's Choice Blush It On Palette and Flawless Finish Powder review

The Blush It On palette ($55 AUD/$36 USD from Paula’s Choice or Amazon) has a set of 4 blushes, a champagne highlighter and a taupe contour powder (all 3 g) in cardboard packaging. It includes a mirror that’s wide enough for both cheeks to be visible which is handy! The shades are (left to right):

Paula's Choice Blush It On Palette and Flawless Finish Powder review

  • Pearl – a champagne highlighter with fine shimmer
  • Bronze – a slightly warm taupe contouring shade
  • Delicate Coral – a slightly pastel orange coral shade
  • Dusty Rose – peachy pink
  • Peony – warm pink
  • Soft Mauve – a cool, deeper pink

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How to Exfoliate 2: All About Chemical Exfoliants


Here’s Part 2 of this skincare series on exfoliation. Part 1 was on physical exfoliating tools and scrubs, this time we’re tackling the more complex chemical exfoliants, before moving onto picking the right exfoliation routine for your skin in Part 3. For a simpler overview, you can head to this exfoliation basics post, and for a more user-friendly version check out my free exfoliation guide.

What’s exfoliation again?

Your skin is covered in a thin protective layer of dead cells (the stratum corneum) which naturally shed over time in a process called desquamation. Sometimes this layer gets too thick, resulting in dull, rough skin. Exfoliants help the shedding along, resulting in more even, “glowier” skin.

What’s chemical exfoliation?

Chemical exfoliants help cells shed in a more indirect way than physical exfoliation, which works using friction between the tool or scrub and the skin. The mechanism of how chemical exfoliants work aren’t always obvious, but the most common theories and methods of how they work are:

  • by normalising cell turnover – that is, how quickly cells in the epidermis die and migrate to the stratum corneum, pushing old cells out. Exfoliants do this by travelling to living cells under the dead layer and telling them to change how they behave – in more technical terms, they act on receptors to upregulate cell division. (Technically, any ingredient that does this is a drug, but regulations around these “cosmeceuticals” is pretty iffy.)
  • by unsticking the cellular glue (desmosomes) holding dead cells together in the stratum corneum.

Chemical exfoliation is touted to be gentler than physical exfoliation, mostly because it’s less prone to user error. However, how well it works depends largely on the formulation of the product. A poorly formulated product might not work, or it might work so well that it irritates your skin and causes uneven pigmentation and chemical burns.

Product categories

Click on each heading to jump to that section.

Leave-on Hydroxy Acid Products

Hydroxy acids are the most common ingredients in chemical exfoliants. There are two main types:

  • Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which includes ingredients like glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid and mandelic acid. Glycolic and lactic acids are most common in skincare, and the vast majority of scientific studies on AHAs are based on the action of glycolic acid.
  • Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), of which salicylic acid is the only one commonly used in skincare (I’ll be using the terms “BHA” and “salicylic acid” interchangeably).

A few ingredients are technically both alpha and beta hydroxy acids such as citric acid, which acts more like an AHA.

It’s not 100% clear how AHAs and BHAs work to exfoliate the skin – it’s likely to be a combination of the two actions described at the beginning: increasing cell turnover at the epidermis and unsticking stratum corneum cells. As well as just removing build-up of skin, they can also improve hyperpigmentation and reduce the appearance of wrinkles.

There are a few key differences between AHAs and BHA/salicylic acid:

  • Solubility: The commonly used AHAs (glycolic acid, lactic acid) are water soluble, while salicylic acid is oil soluble. Theoretically this means salicylic acid is better for treating oily skin and clogged pores because they can penetrate through sebum and sebum plugs, but there’s a lot of variation between people’s experiences. You’ll generally find AHAs in products for dry, ageing skin, and BHA in products for oily, acne-prone skin.
  • Sun sensitivity: Glycolic acid is documented to cause sun sensitivity for a while even after you finish using it, while salicylic acid isn’t. Salicylic acid has a UV protective effect while on the skin, due to the benzene ring in its structure which lets it act as a chemical sunscreen. You need to wear sunscreen while you use alpha hydroxy acids, and for at least a week after you finish – otherwise, you can actually cause more wrinkles and uneven pigmentation and sagginess than you started off with! And you should use sunscreen with salicylic acid anyway.
  • Other effects: Salicylic acid can have some anti-inflammatory action, depending on whether enough gets through the skin – it’s actually one of the active forms of aspirin. Glycolic and lactic acids are humectants that act to slow down the evaporation of water from the skin.

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How to choose a skincare mask


There are a lot of masks out there – which one should you use to boost your skincare routine into hyperdrive? Let me help!

What is a mask?

A mask is a treatment that you put on your face for an extended period of time (between 10 minutes and 10 hours). You’re not meant to be seen in public while it’s on. The effects of a good mask will last around 1-3 days.

There are a bunch of different types of masks, good for different purposes. There’s a bit of crossover, especially if you’re mixing the mask yourself, but these are the basic categories:

Clay masks

Clay masks have clay as their main ingredient, and are helpful for sucking oil out of your pores, along with any random gunk in the oil. There are a range of clays with slightly different textures, but since all sorts of ingredients (oils, humectants like honey, etc.) can be mixed into a clay mask, it’s hard to say what effect a particular clay mask will have without trying it (though we can safely say that none of them will detox your body).

Kaolin clays are less absorbent than bentonite, so kaolin-based masks (usually white or pink in colour) are generally better for dry and sensitive skin, while bentonite masks (usually green in colour) are recommended for oily skin (I’m using handwavy language on purpose, because there is a LOT of variation – look up reviews of that specific mask before you buy).

How to use: You can apply a clay mask with your fingers (my preferred method) or a brush (feels posher, but requires more clean-up). Wait 5-30 min depending on your skin’s tolerance, then wash off (you may need to use a cloth to soak it off – I find that sticking my face under the shower head for 5 seconds helps tremendously). You don’t need to wait for it to dry before removing, but letting it dry will result in more oil absorption (but also more irritation potential).


Examples: Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay is pure powdered calcium bentonite clay that you can mix into a mask yourself. If you mix it with an acidic substance, you’ll end up with a more skin-friendly pH and a very absorbent mask (here are some recipes for mixing bentonite with non-stinky citric acid and for mixing with slightly stinky ACV). You can make it less absorbent by adding humectants and oils. I’ve also got The Cosmetic Kitchen Raw Chocolate Clay Mask, which consists of pre-mixed Australian pink clay and raw cacao powder (antioxidant).

If you don’t want to go through the fuss of mixing, Queen Helene Mint Julep Masque is a popular option which contains both kaolin and bentonite, but I find that the anti-acne sulfur in it smells very unpleasant (lots of other people disagree). Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Oil Absorbing Mask* is another example, but I found it quite itchy. Moreish Emergence Clay Mask* is a premade kaolin clay mask that’s super gentle, with lots of humectants and oils thrown in.

Hydrating masks

Hydrating masks are a pretty broad category – there are oil-based masks which soften your skin, there are humectant-based masks which help water bind and absorb. I’m lumping them together because most oil-based masks have some humectants in them. These masks aim to leave your skin smooth and plump.

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Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing Range Review


Last time I reviewed Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinol, which is my new favourite retinol product. I also tried out Paula’s Choice Skin Balancing range recently, which is formulated for normal/oily combination skin – my skin type, which also happens to be Paula Begoun’s skin type. No one quite understands Oily Life like another Oily Lifer, so I had high hopes for this range!

I tried out 4 products from the Skin Balancing range: Oil-Reducing Cleanser, Pore-Reducing Toner, Ultra-Sheer Daily Defense and Oil-Absorbing Mask.


Skin Balancing Oil-Reducing Cleanser

This is a straightforward lightly-foaming cleanser, that almost resembles a cream cleanser. I really like the texture and the non-stripping gentleness, and it’s pretty good value – it spreads nicely so you don’t have to use a lot. It’s fragrance-free, which is good for sensitive skin, and has some moisturisers in it (such as humectants glycerin and aloe vera, and emollient sunflower seed oil), but no other really notable ingredients – which is fine with me, since I don’t think cleansers sit long enough on the skin to really have much effect. I’d rather save my expensive potent active ingredients for treatments that stay on my face!


Ingredients: Water, Sodium Lauroamphoacetate, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Stearic Acid, Glycerin, Glycol Distearate, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Acrylates Copolymer, Cetearyl Alcohol, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract, Sodium Chloride, Sodium Hydroxide, Xanthan Gum, Caprylyl Glycol, Hexylene Glycol, Disodium EDTA, Phenoxyethanol.


Skin Balancing Pore-Reducing Toner

I really like the idea of this toner – it’s got niacinamide, which is good for treating ageing and pigmentation, as well as some good moisturisers (glycerin, sodium hyaluronate, ceramides) and soothing chamomile extract. I don’t use toner much though, and I tend to use Paula’s Choice 2% BHA straight on my skin after cleansing, so I found that I simply forgot to use this most of the time. If you’re a toner person though, this is a good option.

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