Cover Charlene Chew (Photo: @charlenechew/Instagram)

Get to know burns survivor Charlene Chew’s story and healing journey to self-love and empowerment as she sits down for an interview with Tatler to tell us her tips for beauty and skincare for survivors

A champion of self-love and self-empowerment, Charlene Chew has made a name for herself on the social media platform TikTok. She openly shares and details her journey to recovery after a fateful cooking accident in her Melbourne apartment in October 2020 that left her with serious burns from the hot oil splashing onto her skin.

All of a sudden, the athlete, kitesurfer and Masters student in Business Administration became mainly known to everyone as the burn survivor girl.

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With her current identity now tied to the one incident that evidently changed her life, her courage and bravery in exposing her vulnerable recovery journey online through her digital journal not only played a therapeutic role for her acceptance of her new appearance and perception of herself, but she also sought to ally with individuals watching her videos who were suffering from the same condition and to inspire and empower other audience members in their journey towards loving yourself and making the best out of every situation.

But beauty and skincare for burn survivors is still an elusive topic for the general public, and many of us are wondering what that process of self-indulgence and self-love looks like.

 

Reconstructive surgeon Dr Leo of Dr Leo Aesthetic Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery, said it is important to combat dryness in the skin that arises from the sustained burns.

“Burns survivors’ skin suffers from a few problems. The main problem is that of dry skin. This happens because the sebaceous glands that produce sebum (which naturally moisturises our skin) have been destroyed by the burn injuries. Treatment for this is intensive moisturising. Moisturising reduces itch as well as decreases the chance of blisters or skin tears,” he told Tatler.

In caring for the compromised skin on a daily basis, the doctor recommends a water-based moisturiser for skin that is not too dry. For patients with very dry skin, oil-based lotions such as products with olive oil, coconut oil or shea butter are more useful. He also warns that survivors should avoid perfume and alcohol-based products on the skin as they can exacerbate the dryness. 

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Just like how most of us advocate the use of sunscreen before any makeup, Dr Leo also emphasises the importance of sun protection for survivors. “Fresh scars are very susceptible to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation which worsens the redness or erythema of the scars. Patients should apply sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30. When they are outdoors the sunscreen should be reapplied every two to three hours.”

He addresses the importance of makeup in burn care, saying that “as the scars take time to mature and heal, makeup techniques enable patients to conceal these scars and improve the overall mental well-being of these patients. The use of foundation is important here as it helps to create an even complexion. A pigmented concealer can then be applied.”

We sit down with Chew to talk about her journey to recovery, her tips and guide to caring for her skin and how her beauty regimen looks like.

Tell us about the accident and how the process of recovery was for you.

Charlene Chew (CC): It happened when I was in my old home in Australia, where I’d lived for nearly seven years to do my bachelor and masters’ degree. It was a cooking accident and I was burnt by extremely hot oil at around 200 to 300 degrees celsius that was left on a stove for a long time. I sustained third degree burns to most of my face and after a few weeks in the hospital, I had to receive skin grafts from my own scalp as my skin was not healing spontaneously. 

Burns recovery takes at least two years, and it has just been one year. Recovery has been extremely difficult, filled with both mental and physical challenges that were novel to me. After a lot of persuasion from my family and a breakup shortly after my discharge, I made the difficult decision to return to Singapore. In retrospect, all the things that happened was a blessing in disguise because my life has also taken an unexpected turn in many positive ways that I could have never imagined.

As a burn survivor, what is your daily skincare and beauty routine like? Could you run us through a daily skincare and makeup process that you might have?

CC: For the first half of the year, I stuck to things that the doctor recommended to me. I had prescribed steroid creams and ointments, and just used Cetaphil or QV products and a sunscreen that my doctor recommended. I didn’t dare to use anything else. As for makeup, I mostly just used eye makeup on the areas that were not affected by the burn (thankfully). Today, when I am not recovering from surgery, I am so grateful that I can use commercial products I buy from Sephora. I use Vitamin C and E serums, a rich moisturizing cream, and sunscreen. I try not to overcomplicate it. I also like using a homemade turmeric mask that I make myself.

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What does the process of taking care of burns entail?

CC: At first, that looked like wearing my compression garments 23 out of 24 hours a day, every single day, and putting on my steroid creams, ointments and Cetaphil cream. It was painful both mentally and physically. It has evolved now to become more “normal” and it is extremely important to put on sunscreen, especially because I am a very active person and love water sports, which I could not do for a long time, and that frustrated me. But that makes doing the activity now even more worth it. And as for days where I am in surgery downtime, again I use my prescribed creams accordingly.

What does beauty mean to you?

CC: Beauty has evolved from purely external looks to something much more meaningful to me now. When my accident first happened, I felt like my “youth” and looks were taken away from me, because I didn’t really recognise what I saw in the mirror for a long time. It was me, yet it wasn’t. I’ve had to re-invent what beauty meant to me. It’s kind of cliche, but to me, it has become so true that beauty is a radiating of health, love, kindness, and warmth from within. I realised that relying on external beauty feels good, yes, but it is fleeting, and I never felt good enough because there wasn’t ever enough products, treatments, or things I could do to make myself feel better externally. But don’t get me wrong, I still absolutely adore a good face mask, eyelash extension and makeup look. It’s just that at the end of the day when I take it all off, do I still love and treasure myself?

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So I would say that beauty is a lot about getting to know yourself, what activities and what kind of people you surround yourself with that make you feel good internally and help your mental health that eventually contribute to this inner knowing, inner trusting and love for self that shows on the outside. 

What are some beauty and skincare products that you would recommend for burn survivors?

CC: To be honest, I wish there was a specific magical product that could work tremendously well for burns, but I would simply recommend taking care of yourself from the inside first: eating well, moving, hydrating, and taking care of your mental health by finding what works for you; and this is over a long period of time, hopefully living this healthier lifestyle for our whole lives. What can help also, is definitely listening to your doctor, and investing in a good moisturiser and sunscreen. These are definitely critical because skin grafts get extremely dry.  And as for beauty products, do your research and find products (to the best of your ability) that are hypoallergenic, water-soluble, and suitable for sensitive skin. 

How would you encourage other burn survivors in their journey of recovery as they learn how to care for their skin and find confidence again?

CC: Listen to your doctor, seek a few opinions, and don’t buy into random products that promise crazy results. The most important thing is to trust the process and give yourself a lot of time. Your body is its own healing machine, so trust it and take utmost care of it. Going through such a traumatic, life-changing and debilitating injury also takes a lot of time to heal from mentally and physically, so remember that the process will never be linear and find a good support system. And remember, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. So at the end of the day, you have to decide that you want to help yourself, remember that you can reclaim your power as a survivor, and know that you can and will grow into a better person over time.

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