In beauty, I always think of this concept when I see beginners requesting the impossible e.g. "I really want to find a foundation that's hydrating for my dehydrated skin, but doesn't look greasy, and sets to a matte finish, but also looks good topped with powder." The big lesson that most people learn over time is that you can't have everything all at once- as the saying goes, you can't have your cake and eat it too.
When it comes to beauty purchases and implementation of your beauty products, it's important to balance the priorities you have (like oil-control vs. non-drying) which are potentially antithetical. Let's take an example of foundation, one of the most commonly worn makeup items. You cannot have a foundation that is 100% oil-controlling and 100% non-drying at the same time, but what you can do is decide for yourself how to balance those preferences to find your optimal combination.
Let's simplify it and pretend that foundations have a linear relationship between oil-control vs. ability to moisturize the skin. For every percentage drop in oil control, you gain a percentage of moisturizing ability.
You would probably not be able to find a single person whose preferred position were Point A or Point D. At those two extreme points, you have 100% oil control or 100% moisture, and neither are a realistic option to wear for prolonged periods of time. Most people will find themselves between Point B or Point C on this line.
The lesson here is not that there is a "right" place to fall on the line. We are individuals with different skintypes and preferences. There is probably a person to represent a dot along every part of that line. Personally, I would probably find myself a foundation that approximated Point B. As an oily-skinned woman living in a moderately dry climate, I prefer to maximize oil control but I don't want to give up all the possible moisturizing aspects of a foundation. A dry-skinned person in the same climate as me might be around Point C. While we share a climate, her skin would need much more moisture and she would probably be less concerned with oil control. And for the last example, if I moved somewhere more humid like Southeast Asia or Florida, I would probably inch farther up the line, closer to Point A and farther from Point B, because the increased humidity might cause my skin to require less moisture and to appear more greasy.
While this graph is an oversimplification and products work differently on various people, it serves to demonstrate that you cannot maximize two variables that are in opposition to one another. Trading off means you decide exactly how much of each variable combines to give you the best value. The optimal value you find will lie somewhere on the line though- no going rogue and claiming 100% of each variable. You are optimizing (i.e. finding the option with the most value) based on the trade-offs that exist in reality, not in some fantasy. You can imagine a perfect world where your foundation does everything perfectly, but that's usually not the way reality presents.
This doesn't just apply to products, but also techniques and whole classes of ingredients and textures. Any time you can define an item or an activity by certain fundamental characteristics, you can bet that there will be some trade-offs involved when you incorporate them into your routine. Consider baking, the base makeup trend which reached peak irritating popularity in 2013-2015. It involves setting your base with a thick layer of powder, waiting a few minutes, then dusting off the excess. While the result is a bulletproof matte base with crisp lines, the pitfalls are the drying nature and the unnatural appearance up-close. I have seen many clever adaptations of the baking technique in which people lose a bit of the mattifying flawlessness but gain much-needed comfort and visual softness.
Opportunity Cost: What You Give Up
In economic trade-offs, every incremental bit you allocate toward one priority means that you give up an incremental bit of the other one. That's referred to as the "opportunity cost," which is plainly the price you pay and the loss you incur from making your decision for A instead of B. In the beauty world, there will be a cost to every decision you make- choosing to apply a drying acne treatment means that you lose some of your skin's hydrated appearance. That's the natural conclusion of a trade-off. The good thing is, when it comes to makeup and skincare, you can always add in another element to support and counteract the cost you incurred in your first decision.
Beyond Trade-offs: Making Personal Adjustments
The fact that each technique and product has inherent trade-offs does not mean you are doomed to resign yourself to one rigid way of doing things. There are many ways to capture and increase value when it comes to beauty items like skincare or makeup, by mixing and matching or generally being particular about where and what you use. One thing I struggle with is that my T-Zone is extremely oily and my jawline and chin are prone to dryness and flaking.
Instead of struggling to find the foundation that tackles each part of my face at the same time (which is unrealistic) I like to zone my makeup so that the oily areas get less moisture applied, and the dry areas have fewer drying additions.
- Apply foundation everywhere in same quantity
- Set allover with powder because I have oil control issues
- Become parched in the chin and create unsightly flaking areas
- Apply moisturizing primer to jawline and chin
- Apply foundation allover cheeks and chin, dot T-Zone sparingly where needed
- Apply powder in T-Zone and lightly over cheeks
- Leave chin and jawline with no powder
With my updated "mindful" routine that takes into account the variation across my entire face, I can usually make it an entire day without having any areas of excessive dryness or oiliness. I didn't need to buy two foundations and I didn't need to give up my favorite mattifying powders. I just needed to be more judicious in deciding where to apply what type of product, and I used a primer on specific areas to complement and change the behavior of the foundation layered over it.
It's possible to do this with any item or technique. I zone my skincare as well. The T-Zone gets less oil and more water, and my jawline gets a ton of moisturizer all the time. The result is an overall more balanced picture that feels and looks optimal for my tastes.
It's not realistic to expect perfection from any one thing. Makeup and beauty hobbies would not be as fun if every single item and trick worked exactly right for everyone. My favorite thing is to try a new technique or product and fail at using it. Because once I fail, it gives me a concrete example of what not to do in the future. It makes retooling my approach easier because I gain insight into what my face requires in order to look and feel my best.