Beauty Editors Don't Want Me to Tell You About Their Secret Serum—But Here It Is

You might think that because beauty editors have access to the best products, treatments and experts in the game that our skin is always clear and glowing. Sadly, this couldn't be further from the truth. In reality, keeping your skin in check as a beauty editor is actually quite difficult. You see, the key to great skin is actually consistency—and this is something we don't have. With it being our job to try basically every new skincare product that comes our way so that we can give you an honest review of it, we regularly have to chop and change our skincare routines. We know that sticking to one cleanser, one serum and one moisturiser is a recipe for glowing skin, but our work simply does not allow for it. 

What's worse is that trialling so many products inevitably leads to coming across some bad eggs from time to time, meaning with every new product we try, we risk upsetting our skin. Such skin upset can often feel as though it is beyond repair, which is why, if you want to be a good beauty editor and keep your skin on side, it's imperative to enlist expert help. And there is one person in particular that we beauty eds trust wholeheartedly to keep our skin looking its best: clinical aesthetician and co-founder of Mortar and Milk Pamela Marshall.


(Image credit: @SHANNONLAWLOR)

Shannon after using Mortar and Milk PHA Barrier Repair Serum for six weeks.

If I were to count on my hands the number of beauty editors I know (myself included) who rely on Marshall's expert help, I'd run out of hands. Her no-BS approach to skincare is truly what keeps us going back. Let me first start by saying the Marshall spends all day every day working with skin; she sees people's concerns and puts them on skincare routines that truly really make a difference. Marshall spends a long time trying to get to grips with your complexion, your lifestyle and, importantly, your skincare routine. Second, one of her biggest attributes is that she isn't affiliated with any brands (finding experts who aren't is very difficult), meaning she's not going to flog you product just because she's paid to.

Above all, though, the thing that draws us to Marshall is her no-holds-barred approach to advice. Her first piece of advice is always to stop trying so many products. She knows that, for the most part, we're not going to listen. (It is our job, after all.) However, when our skin is in a really bad way, she'll put us on a strict clinical skincare routine until things are back on track—and it always works. Her secret? Polyhydroxy acids, or PHAs.

Polyhydroxy acids are, in essence, a very gentle form of exfoliant. Unlike AHAs, they actually help the skin retain moisture, protecting that all important skin barrier while they work. Suitable for daily use, PHAs (which include ingredients gluconolactone, lactobionic acid and galactose) are, as far as Marshall is concerned, the secret to healthy skin. And as someone that has been seeing Marshall for approximately four years, I'd be inclined to agree. The trouble is, PHAs are hard to come by in beauty products. Often, they are formulated alongside AHAs (harsh exfoliants that Marshall fervently dislikes) or can only be found in clinical skincare products. For years, Marshall would recommend clinical skincare products that contained PHAs but felt uneasy about the fact she knew the perfect PHA product didn't exist. So she created her own—and it's totally changed the game.

We beauty editors have known for some time that Marshall was working on something code-named Pam's Groovy Serum. Marshall has been working on creating the ultimate daily skincare product for two years—and it's finally here in the form of Mortar and Milk PHA Barrier Repair Serum. And please, believe me when I say it is probably the best serum I have ever used. "The idea behind the serum was to treat really inflamed skin. I didn't feel there was anything out there that could do what I wanted it to do," she says.

If you're looking for a serum that's going to eradicate fine lines and totally change the way that your skin looks, this isn't it. However, if you struggle with stressed-out skin, whether that be in the form of breakouts, congestion, oiliness, dryness or irritation, this product will improve the appearance of your skin in a dramatic way. Containing a concoction of PHAs, it works to gently exfoliate and hydrate skin at the same time, striking that previously thought-to-be-impossible balance of exfoliation and moisture. It is, some might say, a feat. 

Beauty editors, myself included, have been lapping it up. Having used it morning and night for coming up on two months, I can say my skin has truly never looked better. It's been so good, in fact, that I've almost entirely come off my acne medication. (Although, I still have backups in case of emergency.) Whether my skin is irritated by a product, looking particularly dry and drab, or feeling as though its brewing a cystic breakout, PHA Barrier Repair Serum has got my back. And my fellow beauty eds agree. It has become a sort of secret product that we don't want anybody to know about because we want it all to ourselves.


(Image credit: @SHANNONLAWLOR)

Is it expensive? Yes. However, a few things need to be taken into account here. For starters, independently launching one skincare product with relatively rare ingredients (like I said, PHAs aren't that common) is an expensive job. Then we come to the thoughtfulness behind the sustainability of the product. Marshall always tells me, "The most sustainable beauty product out there is one that you like and one that you use." PHA Barrier Repair Serum is just that. On top of this, it's housed in a 100ml bottle, meaning you get bang for your buck and don't go through countless 30ml bottles every year. As she says, "Two less bottles, two less lids, two less boxes. Lots more for you." The packaging is entirely recyclable, the bottle is made from 35% recycled material, and the outer packaging and labels 100%. Creating a product like this doesn't come cheap. 

"I sit in treatment rooms all day with clients that are troubled by their skin. I have had years of tears flowing through my treatment room. All of these people have one thing in common....They've tried everything—every new launch, every miracle cream, every trend. Nothing worked. I can't lie to these people and tell them [a product] works when it doesn't. I told my formulator that if we go through the process and I spend all the money and all the time and we don't come up with something brilliant, I'll be okay not launching anything. I will not make something just to make it," says Marshall.

It just so happens though that Mortar and Milk PHA Barrier Repair Serum is easily one of the best skincare products I have ever owned. It's well considered (a rarity among beauty launches in 2022) in the sense that it promotes healthy skin from all angles without endorsing the sort of short-term transformative results that clever beauty marketing has forced us to crave. If you are looking to invest in one skincare product that guarantees long-term skin health, I urge you to give it a go.

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Freelance Beauty Editor

Shannon Lawlor is a renowned beauty journalist and has contributed to Who What Wear’s beauty content since 2020. As a leading beauty editor, expert and brand consultant, she has over eight years of experience working for some of the industry’s most esteemed titles, including Who What Wear (of course), Glamour UK, Stylist, Refinery29 and Fabulous. Having also worked behind the scenes with some of the industry’s biggest brands and retailers, Shannon has a unique insight into what people really want from their beauty routines. Understanding that beauty lovers seek honest, open and responsible advice, she has it made her mission to demystify the intimidating world of beauty, taking a no-frills approach to the most relatable topics. While Shannon is the first to admit she doesn’t hold the answer to every beauty question out there, she is dedicated to sharing her expert insights in a bid to help. As a self-proclaimed lazy girl, Shannon has an affinity for easy-to-use, foolproof beauty products and has made it her mission to scope out the best of the best. When she’s not working, Shannon is likely soaking in the bath or giving no-holds-barred beauty reviews on Instagram from her bathroom floor.