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Skincare Obsessives on the Products They Think Are Scams

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Yeah, there are definitely some gimmicky things out there.

Peel-off masks, ugh.
Lena Clara/Getty Images

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The Great Skincare Scam Debate of 2018 will not soon be forgotten, at least in certain circles. As you’ll recall, The Outline posted an op-ed positing that skincare was a scam, prompting skincare enthusiasts to lob some AHA-soaked acid bombs at it for the next few days. I wrote a rebuttal in a haze of red rage, because my general opinion is that my loved ones will pry my skincare out of my cold, dead, super-moisturized-and-plumped hands.

But! I am no blind beauty-industry apologist. I recognize that the industry is not perfect, especially when it comes to marketing and claims. More level-headed writers than I have recently tackled this. Constance Grady at Vox made some great points about misogyny, exploitation, and the monetary issues in an industry largely aimed at women. Julie Beck at The Atlantic explored the science, including the issue that some of it is based on anecdotal evidence. In the parlance of skincare forums, this concept is often denoted with the disclaimer “YMMV” — “your mileage may vary.” What works for some will be the worst product ever for someone else.

With that in mind, I asked people who work in the beauty industry, as well as home skincare enthusiasts, which products they think might be scams — or, to be less hyperbolic, gimmicky. It was prompted by a tweet in which I suggested that sleeping masks — the kind that come in a jar and purport to do all sorts of wondrous things while you sleep — are actually just moisturizers. The support I got was heartwarming.

I would also like to officially add eye creams that claim to diminish dark circles. It’s such a Holy Grail item because it just doesn’t exist. I’m an eye cream supporter (some people aren’t) for moisturization and fine-line plumping, but I think the biology behind dark circles is just too complex for a topical treatment.

Here’s what others had to say. Please feel free to vehemently disagree or add more to this list. YMMV.


Lip Scrubs: “Lip scrubs are definitely one of the biggest scams going. They’re often just body scrub in a tiny pot and I have never found them to be any more effective than using a slightly damp face cloth and gently sloughing off the offending dead flakes.” Lesa Hannah, beauty director at Fashion Canada

Pimple-Drying Lotion: “I think drying lotions are terrible, the ones meant to zap your face of moisture and kill zits, but also result in you producing WAY more sebum than before. I grew up LONGING to be able to afford that Mario Badescu stuff, and when I could, I was like, ‘This is terrible.’” Nicole Cliffe, writer, co-founder of The Toast, noted skincare enthusiast

Eye Cream & Toner: “Definitely eye creams — I’m still not completely sold on them and can’t really justify their price tag. I feel like recently I’ve started to move away from toners. I just don’t see or feel a difference if I use one or not.” Siraad Dirshe, beauty editor at Essence

BB Cream: “The shade range tends to be awful, you’d end up with clown makeup if you used enough to get the stated SPF protection level, the anti-aging ingredients are dubious and usually not present in significant amounts, and many of the popular K-beauty formulas have wretched gray or peach undertones. It looks BAD. Just buy a damn foundation and stop lying to yourself that your one-stop base makeup is able to do everything.” Tracy E. Robey, journalist, frequent Racked contributor, K-beauty blogger (Fanserviced)

Charcoal Peel-Off Masks: “My opinion is the peel-off black masks that are so popular right now are a gimmicky scam. They’re not doing anything they claim to do, such as blackhead extraction. They’re very damaging for your skin and extremely painful! There are so many on the market and they’re all pretty awful, from what I’ve seen. No one should put themselves through that pain with no real results.”Courtney, writer and skincare blogger (BlackGirlGoneKBeauty)

Cleansing Brushes: “Clarisonic!!!!!!!! Gave me jaw acne!!!!!!!!!!!!!! A scam!!!!!!!” Alanna Okun, senior editor at Racked

A post shared by Drew Barrymore (@drewbarrymore) on

Lip Masks: “I love a good mask (sheet or otherwise) as much as the next person, but lip masks don’t have me convinced. I picked up a KNC lip mask from the Byrdie Beauty Lab in Soho this past fall, and when I tried it, it a) didn’t even fit over my lips b) quickly disintegrated and just left my mouth a slick mess. I’ll stick with Aquaphor.” Brittany Holloway-Brown, manager of visuals & design at Eater and founder of Vox Media’s very active beauty Slack channel

Questionable Retinol & Hurtful Masks: “‘Retinol’ products that don’t disclose actual retinol concentration in the product. It could be the merest 1ppm for all we know. I suggest people not purchase retinol products for anti-aging unless the product label or official marketing materials state the retinol concentration. Anecdotally, those ‘zombie’-type masks where they dry out and pull your face tight into a scary wrinkly caricature of yourself never do a thing for me. Neither do peel-off masks. Also, both of those hurt! I’m not into skincare that hurts.” Jude Chao, director of marketing at Beautytap, K-beauty blogger (Fifty Shades of Snail)

Face Mists: “In addition to sleeping masks (i.e. moisturizers) and lip scrubs (use a dry toothbrush), my pet peeve is those souped up water sprays for face to ‘refresh your skin’ throughout the day. With a couple exceptions, they make such a tiny difference. Beyond bringing them on a plane or using them to wet a makeup sponge when you aren’t near a sink, I can’t imagine spending money on them.” Amber Katz, beauty writer and blogger (Rouge 18)

Burt’s Bees: A Slack conversation between Eliza Brooke, senior reporter at Racked, and Rebecca Jennings, writer at Racked:

Rebecca: It like, ruined my mouth.

Eliza: Hippie bullshit.

Cheryl: All of it or..?

Rebecca: Personally re: lips. It was SUCH a status brand in high school. But it BLEW. Makes ur shit bone dry.

Eliza: I remember trying one of their moisturizers in high school and it just burning. Also their avocado hair mask? Actually gross?

Rebecca: When you think about putting bee byproduct all over your bod it just feels like a scam anyway.