Why I Did a Massive Beauty Purge (and What Products Survived It)

I have a hunch that we are re-entering an era of minimalism. Call it a response to Gucci mania (though to be clear, I am still very much not over jewel-encrusted sunglasses, nor will I ever retire an interest in embroidered tigers climbing down my leg), which, ironically, was a response to the minimalism that came before it (when Phoebe Philo first started at Céline and her tailored navy coats and crisp white shirts and plain-but-stellar-fit black pants seemed revolutionary), but even more frequently than usual, I am hearing people, particularly women, talk about having less.

In order to have less, the assumption is that you will capsule-ize your wardrobe — do away with the wild prints and unconventional silhouettes and one-time-only dresses that never even saw the light of day. Dressing — or doing anything — is so much easier when the choices are limited, the product is pared down and those items fall into systemic, useful categories. Can this principle be applied to a medicine cabinet?

When I moved from an apartment on Bowery to one on Grand Street in early October, you wouldn’t believe how many skincare products I gave away: unopened bottles of moisturizers and face wash, varying serums and toners and acids and oils. This does not account for the volume of makeup that followed: lipsticks, eye palettes, mascaras, pencils, brow gels, two lash curlers I gave to my mom.

I had this vision in my head of what my medicine cabinet would look like when I moved. It was pretty insignificant, with empty shelves sandwiching the one shelf, at eye level, that would hold every single product I both own and use. What resulted was the use of two shelves (one for skincare and the other for makeup), which is good enough.

On the skincare shelf, I maintain a full suite of Drunk Elephant products (for which I am an investor): two serums, an oil, a face mask, one hydrating gel, two moisturizers and, right next to my sink, a bar of facial cleanser. On this shelf, there are also La Mer products: an oil, a serum, cream, foundation and “miracle broth” (which I swear makes me look like a 12-year-old). I have two dispensers, both half empty, of Chanel’s Solution 10.

On the makeup shelf, there is a brow gela liquid eye pen and mascara. Concealer, a makeup brush, an eye shadow stick, four lipsticks, a blush, a bronzer (which apparently is “out of fashion,” by the way) and makeup remover.

It is the smallest accrual of beauty possessions that I have owned in many years, and, save for less rummaging, nothing about my beauty routine has changed. I look the same, I act the same, I feel the same way I did when I owned 10 times the amount of product. But there is more space, both physically and mentally. What a delight it is to walk into a bathroom only to find a selection of products that I actually use! How much time is saved when I’m not looking through lipstick colors and eye shadow palettes that I will never wear, but for which I want to make a case because I have good intentions and don’t want to be wasteful.

Of course, I recognize that to have this conversation and to make these observations is an absolute privilege in its own right — to decide that you will forgo your stuff because you want (not need) to “purge” is a charmed position to be in, which is why minimalism is different from essentialism. What we’re talking about here is eschewing excess, whatever that means to you. And it really makes me wonder, as I do so frequently: How much of my wardrobe, kitchen pantry, furniture, etc. do I not need? How much am I holding onto because of those “good intentions,” because someday, surely, I’ll use them? Because I am a frivolous dresser and eater and squatter who gets bored quickly?

The reason people who are lucky enough to purge rave about doing it is because it does feel that good — like you’ve completed every task on a to-do list and still have space (pun intended) to add a couple more bullet points and check those off too. Can you even imagine?

Illustrations by Stephanie DeAngelis

Leandra M. Cohen

Leandra M. Cohen is the founder of Man Repeller.

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