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We are in a golden age of skincare. Indie brands like The Ordinary, Sunday Riley, and Drunk Elephant are feverishly dissected and discussed on Twitter, in Sephora chat rooms, on Reddit. Cleanser pH is a religion. So is P50. Korean beauty, with its multi-step regimens and unique ingredients, has gone mainstream. The New Yorker just wrote about skincare as a coping mechanism. I love putting stuff on my face, and I love talking about it. Hard stop.
As with any popular thing, a backlash is inevitable. The one against skincare argues how gullible those who indulge in it must be. It started a few weeks ago with an essay in the New York Times taking down alleged myths about K-beauty, saying Americans had been “had.” It made a few good points, and I respected the author's perspective. But today, The Outline posted a piece titled “The Skincare Con.” I waded into it fearing I was being trolled. My fears were justified.
Yes, I’m technically a member of the Beauty Capitalist Complex. My job is to write about makeup and skincare. I love, use, and believe in skincare. So I suppose that makes me biased. But let's focus on the science (more to come on this, because — yes! there! is! science!), the BS, and how to use things properly.
Please allow me to respond to a few lines from this piece:
“Like other human organs, skin has withstood millions of years of evolution without the aid of tinctures and balms.”
This makes no sense. First of all, people used to die in their 30s. My skin looked fucking amazing when I was 33. Now, thanks to modern medicine, I get to live a longer life, which also means I get to have dark spots, wrinkles, a weaker skin barrier, maybe skin cancer, and a saggy neck in my 40s. (More on the desire to not have these things in a moment.)
Second, ancient people definitely used skincare; instead of Drunk Elephant, they had ghee. A two-second search on Google Scholar turns up an Indian Journal of Plastic Surgery article that notes: “The ancient science of cosmetology is believed to have originated in Egypt and India, but the earliest records of cosmetic substances and their application dates back to circa 2,500 and 1,550 BC to the Indus valley civilization... There is evidence of highly advanced ideas of self beautification and a large array of various cosmetic usages both by men and women, in ancient India.”
Please read this Twitter thread by Heidi Moore for a very good take on this.
“At the core of the New Skincare is chemical violence.”
Wow, okay. Chemo-phobia is already rampant in our society, but this is next-level. (The only thing I sort of agree with is that P50 is too harsh and overrated. But it will not kill you unless you chug the bottle.) The examples the author gives in this section are extreme. A particular patient of dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe, who once administered a vampire facial to me with glowing results, used a loofah, a physical scrub, an acid, and a retinol, then came to her complaining of irritation. Yes, that’s bad. (Update/clarification: Because you aren’t supposed to use all those things together.) But no, that’s not the norm. I bet Dr. Bowe has had hundreds of patients come to her with clearer skin after using retinols. Which leads me to...
“And despite the scientific gestures of skincare companies, a Harvard Medical School newsletter once concluded that ‘routine skin care is a realm where there’s little science to be found.’”
There was no link provided, so I don’t know what the context of the newsletter is. (Update: We found this Harvard article which states: “Almost all the moisturizers on the market will help with dry skin, and in most cases, the choice comes down to subjective experience...”) Is there a lot of pseudo-science and snake oil in skincare? Of course. But there is also tons of science on retinoids, acids, vitamin C, and countless others. And, also importantly, there is anecdotal evidence, which means people see real change in their skin. Moisturizers don’t work? Bah. If I don’t use a moisturizer for one day my face is a shriveled, shedding prune.
“Don’t we all have friends who are fanatical about skin care and don’t… really (whispers) have great skin? How can that be?”
Why are some of your so-called (whispers) friends so judgmental and unsupportive of your hobbies? Maybe their skin looked much worse before. Maybe they had acne that they successfully treated with acids and retinoids and now have some acne scarring. (Which, yep, there is a scientific treatment for.) Maybe they’re just embarking on a regimen and haven’t figured out what works for them yet. Maybe they think their skin looks good/better. Which leads me to...
“The problem is that, within the current paradigm, a blemish seems like a referendum on who you are as a person. “
Are there societal pressures on women to look a certain way? Of course. That’s a topic that needs to be unpacked more. (Indeed, it relates to a theory set forth by the same author in this 2016 article about how we’ve been wearing the “wrong” makeup in selfies.) But studies also show that suffering from acne can have severe psychological affects on a person. I have hormonal acne, and I feel less energized and confident when it flares up. And when I’ve had a good week with my beloved acids and oils, I feel like I can take on more: My skin barrier is stronger, and therefore so am I. It’s a real phenomenon. It’s not just, as they say, skin deep. This writer beautifully chronicles how her skincare routine helps her battle her depression.
“And most skincare is really just a waste of money.”
This is a value judgment. To some, $105 for Sunday Riley Good Genes is worth every cent. But skincare does not have to be expensive. One editor here swears by $1 moisturizer pouches. Brands like The Ordinary and Beauty Pie are upending the industry by manufacturing affordable products. Korean beauty got popular partially because it is so affordable. Again, there’s a lot to unpack here about capitalism, but I’d rather spend $50 on skincare than on, say, a gadget. To each her own.
At the crux of the article is the argument that we — mostly women, mind you! — are all a bunch of silly pawns with no agency to overcome the stupidity of skincare thrust upon us by the industry. Trust me, I know what I’m getting myself into. Skincare has spawned a community of (mostly) women talking about it and bonding over it. It’s provided common ground. And it’s provided the chance for small victories, even if just over your wily pores.
I’m done now.
Update: January 30th, 2018, 3:50 p.m.
A link to a Harvard moisturizer article has been added.