Q+A with Medical Esthetician, Model, and "Your Acne Big Sister" Cassandra Bankson

Cassandra Bankson the psychosocial implications of skincare, her journey with acne, and more.

Cassandra Bankson is a medical esthetician, a model, a writer, and above all, your "acne big sister." Over the past 10+ years, Cassandra has taken it upon herself to create and foster a community online for those who need guidance navigating the skincare space and making informed decisions when buying products. Passionate about always asking for help when you need it, leaning on experts to answer questions and dismantle misinformation, and reminding folks that no one is alone in their struggles with their skin and beyond, she has truly created a safe space for everyone on their skincare journey. More from Cassandra on the community she's built, the exploration that excites her every day in her career, and more below!

Q: First and foremost, we would love to hear about your time in the skincare space. How did you get started, and how did you end up where you are today?

I got started because I was insecure! Growing up, I had severe chronic cystic acne that made me hate myself and made others bully me, which just compacted the issue. I had really low self esteem. When I started in beauty and esthetic school in 2009, it wasn't actually to care for my skin, or to embrace myself or science. It was, “I’m super insecure, and I need makeup to cover this up.”

Thankfully, throughout the years of learning and experimenting, I realized, “What is the purpose of just trying to look good and constantly chasing perfection?” I was a model, and I was a model because of Photoshop and makeup. I was looking at these other models in the magazines and I was like, “None of us look like that!” We're being manipulated, digitally, in a form of art. But why are we comparing ourselves to this? As I started to dig deeper into the science and cosmetic chemistry of skincare, it was fascinating to see how all of these things in our world played around us. Skincare became something that was self-care to me, and now it's something that I get to help other people with.

Q: What do you love the most about what you do?

What I love the most about what I do is the constant exploration. There is always a person who's insecure and wants a friend to talk to. There's always a new ingredient or a new revolution in how we formulate cosmetically. And there is always a new trend or a new myth to break down. So it's constantly exciting. On top of that, the human body is just so resilient. It's this beautiful system that works all together, and our skin is really that outer shield of it. So to me, it's the epitome of something that is so personal and intimate to you, but that also faces the outside world. Getting to work with that is really cool.

Q: You've been in the skincare space for over 10 years. How have you seen skincare evolve over time, and how do you hope it continues to evolve over the years?

So many people didn't care about skincare ten years ago! Ten years ago, it was lots of the three step systems, Proactiv, and lots of marketing being shoved down your throat. I think it was more based on “Use this to look better”, fearmongering, and marketing insecurity, instead of “Use this to feel good” or “Here's an awesome ingredient that we're using, and this is why we think you'll love it too.”

I've also seen some new changes that I love, such as a focus on skin barrier support and the skin's microbiome. You know, the majority of our bacteria is in our gastrointestinal system. It's responsible for the creation of serotonin, which impacts our mood. What do we not yet know about the microbiome on our skin? What is happening there that we are stripping or not in tune with? So yeah, that's a really cool change.

A potential negative change that I try to break down and tear apart in my content is the idea that perfection in skincare exists or that flawless, poreless skin is supposed to be normal. When it comes to the trends of filters and Photoshop, I see them as a tool to create art. But a hammer is also a tool. What happens when you misuse a hammer and you clip somebody over the head? It becomes a weapon. I think that digital advertising and media manipulation are the same way. So the filters are new trends that we're trying to consume responsibly.

Q: Along a similar vein, how have you seen the realm of skincare change even within the last year or year and a half due to the pandemic?

I live in Silicon Valley. It’s definitely a hustle culture — don't sleep, work yourself to the bone. But that is not something that is sustainable, nor does it allow you to thrive. I've almost seen the same thing with this idea of self-care in the beauty space. Yes, there is totally such a thing as having self-care through skincare. But we almost have to define that, and I definitely think that some people, as with any term, throw that term around without understanding it or knowing what it means.

To me, self-care is the act of enjoying your skincare. We all identify with brands — that's why we drive a certain car, hold a certain handbag, or wear a certain watch. But the brand of your moisturizer? It could be a $500 cream with seaweed, or it could be an $8 cream with hyaluronic acid. That moisturizer is purely for you. To me, having a skincare routine is not just a routine that we go through, like putting on makeup or brushing our teeth. But instead, having that be a ritual, saying that I'm choosing to do this; it's not a chore, it's a choice. That is super important to me. That's what I think that self-care in the realm of skincare is. When people come into a dermatology clinic, you come in, and we can help you with skin cancers and mole removals. But we can also help you understand the routine and care for this amazing organ that protects you, or give you a facial with massage that helps to relax you a little bit more.

Now in media, I have seen some people, specifically brands, say “Oh, this is your self-care package! You must buy this, it’s a necessity!” So when is skincare not self-care? When it becomes consumerism or when it becomes a chase. When it becomes this thing you have to have to keep up with the Joneses. That's when I think it isn't self-care. And of course, that's only my opinion, but I hope that other people recognize what self-care means to them and what actually makes them feel good, versus appealing to the fallacies and expectations of society.

Q: Due to your own experience with acne, you understand the deep importance of a community that not only understands each other, but can share information and help each other through their skincare journeys. We'd love to hear a bit about how your YouTube channel has been able to foster that.

Oh my gosh, that YouTube channel was a giant accident. It was one of those things where I felt like a hypocrite in my own skin and I had nobody to talk to. I had seen 24 dermatologists by the time I was 18. I remember some of them being super sweet, but because of insurance, they would just rush me through. I do remember a handful that just didn't give me the time of day, or some of these guys that would just look at me and be like, “Oh, you're a teen with acne. Get over it.” That was so demeaning. So finding a place to speak about that online was this little escape, where I'm just kind of shouting into the void. I never expected other people to not only listen, but then to shout back and say, “Oh my gosh, I'm also overwhelmed!” or “This three-step kit also burned my skin!”

There was this one girl who was telling me about a very similar story. She had gone to Macy's, she'd gone to Sephora, she'd gone to all of these fancy stores. On top of that, she'd probably spent like a couple thousand dollars on skincare. But all she needed was someone to tell her that it's okay to get a new dermatologist. You're the patient, it's okay to find a doctor that listens to you. Doctors are amazing. They've got over twelve years of experience. They're fantastic and knowledgeable, but they're human. As humans, not all the time do our personalities mesh, right? And so that liberation, or that idea that it's okay to find a new doctor for her, was monumental. Also, her acne shouldn't have been treated over the counter, so she got put on an oral antibiotic, a topical antibiotic, and even a steroid because she had some eczema and psoriasis and that ended up clearing her skin! This idea of having control over her skin and having autonomy in her choices was so big for her. This is what I live for.

We have over 2 million followers online now, and there are like 100 million impressions each month on our social media. I take that very seriously because it's a huge responsibility. Hearing so many people come to terms with their beauty and embrace their skin is what I live for.

Q: You are constantly stressing the importance of looking past labels and marketing schemes in the skincare space. How do you navigate skin misinformation that you come across? What are some tips for your audience as they come across misinformation themselves?

Oh, misinformation! I feel like on the internet, it just gets worse. I was looking back at all of these magazines I used to read when I was 16. Some of them have horrible information, like to use this DIY lemon random scrub with coffee. And I’m like whoa, definitely wouldn't do that nowadays!

Misinformation is difficult. The way that I look at misinformation online is that I rely on my training. I reach out to dermatologists who know more than me and I ask them. I reach out to cosmetic chemists that know more than me and I ask them. I'm very lucky and privileged to be in a workspace where I can do that. But even if I couldn't, I've tweeted at some of my favorites like Lab Muffin Beauty Science and Dermangelo to ask them questions about what they think about things. I understand maybe not everyone is comfortable doing that, or not everyone can get a response. But I would say if you're not an expert in a certain field, and if you think that something is weird, check the comments, because people are probably speaking up.

Also, actually ask an expert or look for a second opinion. You know, I am not an expert by any means in auto mechanics; you do not want to trust me with your engine at all! I know nothing about architecture and building; you do not want me to safety-check and engineer the safety of your building — that would be a nightmare. But come talk to me about skincare any day. I think it's kind of the same thing. It's knowing who is speaking. Are they reputable? Can you trust them?

I think that one of the blessings and curses of social media is that things can go viral so quickly. There was a girl I saw online yesterday who was lighting her skincare or haircare on fire and talking about how it's safe for skin. And I'm sitting here like, this has nothing to do with safety. It's just how flammable and how much oil or alcohol content this product has. It's like, you have got to be kidding me. If you are concerned about misinformation, follow people that are reputable, have the degrees, and have the experience that you trust. Almost use them as filters and filter out the bad stuff. When in doubt, suss it out.

So again, look at comments, tweet an expert, try to look at some studies, or just make sure that you're following people who actually have reputable credentials and information.

Q: What is your best advice for someone who is struggling to find a skincare routine that works for them?

Skincare can be overwhelming. In the clinic, there are two types of people. There's one that says, “Just give me the answers. I don't want the explanation. Just make it, do it, get it done.” And then there's the other that says, “Oh my gosh, I want to know all about this. I want to know exactly how it works. I want this sort of treatment or procedure or surgery, and I want to know all the intricacies.”

I believe that people online are kind of in the same boat. So ask yourself, are you the person who wants to know and understand things, or do you just want a quick answer? If you want to know and understand things, there are some amazing resources online. Shop My Shelf has their experts panel, and each of these experts has a phenomenal social media presence. If you just look through some of their posts, you will be bewildered and amazed by how much science, chemistry, and beauty there is in the skincare world. But then there's the other type of people who say they just want the answer. You could look to magazines or to Shop My Shelf’s experts and you can see some of their favorites on their shops. But just because somebody has a favorite product, doesn't mean it's right for you.

I would say if you're overwhelmed, either look for information, or just ask for help. It is okay to ask for help. I struggled greatly with depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies when I was younger because of my skin. I never asked for help for the longest time because I felt insecure. But I recognized that asking for help is not something that you do when you're weak. It is probably the strongest, most courageous thing you can do to admit, “Hey, I'm having a really hard time and I don't want to live anymore.” When I admitted that, I got help from doctors, psychiatrists, therapists — the things I needed.

In maybe a less severe way, skincare is kind of the same. It's okay to go to a well-trained esthetician, and it's okay to go to a dermatologist. It's okay to reach out on social media! Maybe that person that you tweet at won’t hear it, but maybe other people in the comments will. So either ask, or educate.

Q: What do you wish people were talking more about in skincare right now?

Oh, I wish people were talking more about the psychosocial implications of skincare. How do we internalize the brands that we use when we see influencers or celebrities who have filters on their skin? Do we believe that? And even if we know they’re there, are they still subliminally impacting how we feel about ourselves?

With all of these celebrity skincare lines coming out, what is the psychology behind these parasocial relationships where we are following celebrities or feel like we know them? The psychology of this is fascinating. So I wish people spoke more about the tricks that go into the industry, the medical misinformation, and brought those things to the surface. The cool thing is that I kind of feel like that's starting to happen, so creating a YouTube channel or other social media platforms where we foster that growth and communication has been awesome, but also very complex at the same time.

Rapid Fire Round

Q: Favorite drugstore or budget find:

Oh gosh, that is so hard. Probably for my skin, The Inkey List Salicylic Acid Cleanser. It is one of my favorites, especially during the summer when I'm oily. Beta hydroxy acids are oil soluble and although they’re a larger molecule, they can penetrate super deep. It’s around $8 and it works so well.

THE INKEY LIST | Salicylic Acid Cleanser
THE INKEY LIST | Salicylic Acid Cleanser

Q: Latest beauty empty:

It's a face mask that looks like a poké ball. It's got grapes, hydrating oils, kale, and clay, and it's great because I feel like it really helps rebalance my skin when it's a little overly oily, but it doesn't overtly strip my skin or my microbiome. I think it's called Come Clean. It comes with this little brush, and it's basically a poké ball of skincare. It's my favorite.

BUBBLE SKINCARE | Come Clean Skin Clay Mask
BUBBLE SKINCARE | Come Clean Skin Clay Mask

Q: Recent beauty discovery:

I rediscovered a product from my routine — The Ordinary Pycnogenol. It's an amazing antioxidant serum, and it makes my skin look better even when I'm not wearing it. I've had it for a while and I'm just like, “Why did I forget about you?” It is probably one of my favorites. It smells almost like wet mulch or wet pine, and it is an antioxidant powerhouse. It’s so good under sunscreen.

THE ORDINARY | Pycnogenol 5%
THE ORDINARY | Pycnogenol 5%

Q: Product you can’t leave home without:

Sunscreen! Recently the ZitSticka MEGASHADE has been really cool because it's a serum sunscreen. I am the kind of person who literally carries sunscreen with me everywhere to reapply!

ZITSTICKA | Megashade Sunscreen Serum SPF 50
ZITSTICKA | Megashade Sunscreen Serum SPF 50

Q: Brand you wish more people knew about.

Phyla! Phyla is one of the coolest brands I've ever seen. They're a line created by a microbiologist and people who struggled with acne. They use bacteria phages inside of their skincare to actually support the skin. So they're using science, phage technology, and the skin's microbiome to rebalance and to fight acne. It's a three step system, but I really like the last two steps because the serum and the moisturizer work together. It works, it's science-backed, they put, like, 10 years of research into it, it's vegan. This is what I've been waiting for. I know it's a little pricier but I wish other people knew about just the brand as a whole and the hard work that went into it.

PHYLA SKINCARE | 3-Step Acne Fighting Phage Kit
PHYLA SKINCARE | 3-Step Acne Fighting Phage Kit

For more of Cassandra's favorite products, check out her shop below:

Cassandra Bankson
Cassandra Bankson
Skincare Expert with 10+ years of experience. Medical Esthetician. Published writer, researcher, and acne specialist.
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