The Pros and Cons of Skin Slugging: A Comprehensive Guide to This Viral Skincare Trend

Skin slugging is the latest skincare trend surging on social media, where users coat their skin with a thick, occlusive agent like petrolatum to lock in moisture and bolster the skin’s natural barrier. Though “slugging” is a novel term, its underlying principles are long-standing in dermatology. This article explores why skin slugging, despite its apparent benefits, may not be as advantageous as it seems, drawing on expert opinions and research findings.

Understanding the Skin Barrier

The skin’s primary function is to serve as a barrier, protecting internal tissues from environmental threats such as pathogens, chemicals, and physical injuries. This barrier also plays a crucial role in preventing excessive water loss, a key component in maintaining skin hydration and health. The stratum corneum, the outermost layer of the skin, consists of dead skin cells bound together by lipids, including ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids. Disruption of this barrier can lead to dryness, irritation, and increased sensitivity.

The Role of Occlusives in Skin Slugging

At the core of skin slugging is the concept of occlusion. Occlusives create a physical barrier on the skin that prevents the escape of water molecules, effectively trapping moisture within the skin. This barrier not only minimises moisture loss to the environment but also supports the skin’s natural repair processes. Dermatological research emphasises the importance of the skin’s hydration levels not only for maintaining a smooth and supple appearance but also for ensuring the effectiveness of the skin’s barrier against pathogens and environmental pollutants.

However, experts like Paul Fister suggest that instead of using thick occlusive layers, oil-based creams that replicate the skin’s natural barrier may offer better hydration without hindering the skin’s ability to exchange moisture and gases.

In an article called Skin Slugging: Why is this Trending?, Fister explains, “for our skin to be healthy it must be protected by a ‘permeable’ barrier. It must be able to exchange water vapour, oxygen and carbon dioxide with the environment. Skin slugging – covering the skin with a thick layer consisting of lipids – stops this exchange. Development and maturation of skin cells will be disrupted, the barrier function of the skin disturbed. It can also lead to the generation of proinflammatory reactive oxygen species (free radicals) and increased microbial growth.”.

Potential Benefits of Skin Slugging

Skin Repair and Protection

By sealing in moisture and protective lipids, slugging will temporarily increase hydration levels in the epidermis. This will alleviate dryness and may help to reduce inflammation.

Impact on Skin Microenvironment

Maintaining a hydrated barrier is crucial for optimal enzyme function, which in turn preserves skin health, elasticity, and appearance. This could be achieved through the occlusive method used in skin slugging or by using biomimetic products that enhance the skin’s natural lipid barrier.

Supporting Skin Ageing

By maintaining elevated hydration levels and protecting against environmental factors, occlusives can potentially slow the rate of collagen degradation and support the skin’s natural regenerative processes. Research shows that sustained hydration significantly influences skin elasticity and firmness, which are key factors in ageing.

Predicted Downsides to Skin Slugging

Disruption of Skin’s Natural Processes

Skin slugging, by creating an occlusive barrier, can disrupt the skin’s natural processes, such as the shedding of dead skin cells and metabolic activities. This may lead to clogged pores, exacerbation of acne, and hindered skin cell turnover, resulting in a dull and rough texture.

Potential for Pore Clogging and Acne

The occlusive nature of slugging can trap dirt, bacteria, and excess oils beneath the layer of petroleum jelly or similar occlusives. This can lead to pore congestion, acne breakouts, and exacerbation of existing skin conditions, particularly in those with oily or acne-prone skin.

Risk of Dependency

Regular use of occlusives like petroleum jelly might create a dependency on external moisture sources, leading to a decrease in the skin’s natural ability to regulate moisture levels. Over time, this dependency could result in drier skin when not using occlusive products, contributing to a cycle of reliance on external hydration.

Potential for Skin Irritation

Some individuals may experience skin irritation or allergic reactions to occlusive ingredients found in slugging products. Prolonged use of occlusives without proper cleansing could lead to buildup and irritation, further compromising skin health and comfort.

If you still want to practise skin slugging despite the risks here are some tips on how to do so safely:

  1. Choose the Right Product

If you have acne-prone skin, opt for non-comedogenic occlusives. However, we strongly discourage the use of dimethicones (silicones) as, in our experience, they can sometimes cause skin sensitivity, dryness, and aggravate existing conditions.

  1. Cleanse Properly

Ensure the skin is thoroughly cleansed before applying an occlusive to prevent trapping bacteria and dirt which can cause painful breakouts.

  1. Patch Test

Always patch-test a new product or new regime on a small area of skin to check for adverse reactions before applying it to the entire face. This is especially important if you have high skin sensitivity.

  1. Appropriate Timing

The best time to slug is at night, coinciding with the skin’s natural reparative processes. Overnight slugging can maximise moisture retention during these crucial hours.

  1. Layering

Always apply lighter skincare products first, such as serums or moisturisers, before layering on your chosen occlusive.

  1. Frequency

Depending on your skin type and environment, slugging might not be necessary every night. Those in dryer climates or with naturally dry skin may benefit from more frequent slugging, while others might find once or twice a week sufficient.

Expert Opinions

While acknowledging the importance of skin hydration, Fister argues that skin slugging may be unnecessary and potentially damaging. He emphasises the significance of maintaining the skin’s natural hydro-lipidic permeability barrier, which allows for the exchange of water vapour, oxygen, and carbon dioxide with the environment.

Instead of occluding the skin with thick layers, Fister recommends oil-based creams that mimic the skin’s natural barrier such as those by Dr. Spiller distributed by Omniderm. These products offer superior hydration without hindering its ability to exchange moisture and gases.

He highlights the importance of humectants and emollients in skincare formulations to optimise hydration and maintain skin health.

In an excerpt from his article in support of this, he states:

“A well formulated oil-based cream mimics the skin’s hydro-lipidic barrier. It works on three levels. It will restrict evaporation of precious water from the skin to natural, healthy levels. It is not occlusive – it allows the exchange of water vapour, oxygen and carbon dioxide just like the intact hydro-lipidic permeability barrier does. A light oil-based cream is the perfect repair and support medium for barrier-impaired skin.

Such a cream contains humectants that help to bind moisture in the stratum corneum. Humectants include biomimetic substances such as glycerine, lactates, urea, sodium PCA, hydrolysed collagen, and hyaluronic acid. Generally, a small selection of these actives is used, as preferred and chosen by the formulating chemist.

A third category of ingredients found in a well-formulated skin care cream are emollients. These impart softness and smoothness to the skin. Non-occlusive emollients include jojoba oil, glyceryl, certain stearates, and castor oil. Suppliers of jojoba oil claim that it is remarkably similar to human sebum. It is, therefore, a very beneficial biomimetic ingredient.”

Fister’s insights challenge the notion of slugging and advocate for a balanced approach to skincare, informed by scientific understanding and tailored to individual skin needs.

Final thoughts

While skin slugging may offer short-term benefits, it is essential to consider these alongside potential long-term consequences. Alternative skin care practices that support the skin’s natural functions without compromising its health and balance may be more advisable. If considering skin slugging, it is crucial to choose the right products and follow proper skin care protocols to minimise adverse effects and optimise benefits.

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