Yesterday, The Outline published an article titled The Skincare Con. The author, Krithika Varagur, argues that what she has coined “new skincare” is characterized by “buying things, and displaying them for others to see – to prove that you worked hard for what you have, even if you’re, say, a model whose profession self-selects for superior genetics.” Our skin, Krithika argues, would do just fine without the products that Americans spend roughly $24 billion dollars on annually. In this age of masks, sheet masks, rubber masks, serums, moisturizers and the other myriad products you can fit into a 10-step Korean beauty (“K-beauty”) skincare routine, it is not hard to imagine that there was a widespread, strong reaction to The Outline’s article. While I largely agree with Krithika that skincare has gotten out of hand, I don’t fully share in the negative sentiment because there are pros of the skincare con.
Perfect skin is as elusive as it is indeed “the thinking woman’s quest.” It is not the thinking woman’s nature to believe that she needs a product. Nor is it her nature to believe that she can achieve the skin of an underaged model who has been blessed by Photoshop. So entire industries have emerged to convince her otherwise. The New York Times warns that K-beauty as we know it might be little more than a brilliant marketing scheme. Perhaps that is why in 2016 women were told to strive for dewey, pore-free skin. In 2017, the goal was to be flawless and have glass skin. In 2018 the goal post has moved yet again, this time calling for women to achieve cloudless skin. The pressure to look perfect, however that is defined, is real. And these perfect skin ideals are far from new. Yet somewhere along the way skincare surpassed its intended purpose. As observed by The New Yorker, skincare has now become a paradoxical coping mechanism; a form of protest, self-help and self-love driven by denial, profit and self-loathing. Skincare is about more than caring for our skin.
Before women #wokeuplikethis and were #flawless, women sought to beautify and improve their appearance. Cleopatra sat in a bath of lactic acid to perfect her beauty. Generations of Hindus have covered themselves in turmeric, rose water and sandalwood at haldi ceremonies, in part, to look their best on their wedding day. Likewise, generations of Ethiopian and Somali women have used qasil in their pursuit of clear, wrinkle-free skin. It seems that a history of women is a history of the pursuit of beauty. Why would modern skincare be any different? The only real difference in the “new skincare” is that (1) the marketing is better, (2) the chemicals are stronger, and (3) the expectations are less realistic. There is no need to pretend that consumers must approach skincare from a primarily scientific or practical standpoint.
Indulgence is often an equally motivating factor in skincare. Conspicuous, inconspicuous consumption has become a hallmark of the aspirational class, and skincare is no exception. Now more than ever skincare is aspirational. It is about looking like we belong to a certain segment of society. For example, over the past decade increasingly potent skincare has made it possible to get that microdermabrasion glow without ever setting foot in a dermatologist’s office. Expensive skincare that others might not see absent Instagram is as much a status symbol as is affordable skincare sold by trendy and aesthetically pleasing brands like The Ordinary. But that does not make modern skincare dishonest. That does not make skincare a scam.
Beautification, oversupply or misuse do not transform skincare into a con either. There may not be a need for some skincare products. And aggressive, multi-product routines can cause more harm than good. But those ills are evidence of an education problem. Consumers need to adequately inform themselves. Consumers cannot continue to use effective skincare products without knowing what they are doing to their skin. That is why, from time to time, the overzealous or undercautious may use risky products or burn a hole in their face with an ordinarily safe product. This seems like a good place for the Food and Drug Administration to step in and tighten the reins (or not, if you believe people should be free to fry their faces as they please). But for those who care to follow tradition, or read labels, do a little research and consult a dermatologist from time to time, skincare will continue to be a results-driven, pleasurable indulgence and there is nothing wrong with that.
Skincare has the power to make people look and feel good, if not beautiful. If women achieve that by purchasing beautifully packaged products that deliver results, what is the con? One important takeaway from The Skincare Con is the fact that actives are prevalent in modern skincare products. Another important takeaway is that actives deliver results. This is true both of traditional skincare and clean, or green beauty, skincare products. After all, aren’t products that don’t deliver results the ones that get abandoned?
Is it possible to achieve great looking skin by doing nothing to your face? My unscientific opinion is that for some people, yes it is. I personally know a male and a female who have great skin and do nothing more than cleanse their faces with soap. No, they are not related so it is not due to genetics. It is not for nothing that variations of the caveman beauty regimen, which calls for doing absolutely nothing your skin, persist today. But what works for one person may not work for another. Some people may need sunscreen. Others, a good facial cleanser. But for most people a minimalist skincare routine will suffice.
No matter what is done externally, as much as good skin can be due to genetics, so called “bad skin” can be a reflection of other health problems. Doing the least to your skin may not protect against acne or other skin conditions any more than doing the most. As long as acne emerges during our youth and opinions are held more tightly than facts, acne and other skin conditions will continue to be stigmatized. Whatever the cause, skin conditions can usually benefit from proper diagnosis and treatment. Assuming that the choice of treating or not treating a skin condition is harmless, why should one option be valued over the other? Knowing that people are going to cleanse and otherwise care for their skin, why not use esthetically pleasing products?
What society considers to be good skin has been known to be more attainable by following a simple skincare regimen based on understanding the products used, how and when to use them and in what combination. Sometimes less is more, but zero can feel extreme. Besides, if women abandoned their entire skincare regimen en mass what would become of all those sweet-smelling serums housed in pretty miron glass bottles? Surely products that look, feel and oftentimes smell appealing should be put to good use.
No, skincare in general is not a con. Many skincare products are not be a necessity, but they can be beneficial to many. The utility of skincare does not start and end with whether it is necessary. That is part of it, but definitely not the whole picture. The utility of skincare is also that the packaging looks lovely in your bedroom or bathroom. The utility of skincare is also that it smells enticing when you open the jar. The utility of skincare is also that it feels smooth and luxurious on your skin. The utility of skincare is also that you may slow down and even relax a little while applying it. The utility of skincare is that it also allows you to feel good, and maybe even beautiful, if only for a moment before the realities of life re-emerge. That, dear readers, is no con.