Have we, as consumers, bought into the lie sold to us by Big Skincare? Erica Bracken writes.
The cult of skincare kind of crept up on us didn’t it? I mean, it doesn’t seem that long ago when the average person didn’t own a serum, would have baulked at the idea of putting hyaluronic acid, snail mucus extract and algae on their skin, and the word ‘peel’ was solely related to fruit and vegetables.
Yet, over a relatively short period of time, the act of taking care of your skin has shape-shifted. It’s morphed from a functional necessity (splash of water, Pond’s cold cream, job done), to a strict ‘cleanse, tone and moisturise’ routine (a phrase that stuck after an incredibly successful marketing campaign) and now into what it is today, a global industry expected to be valued at $90 million by the end of 2027.
Today skincare isn’t just something you do in the privacy of your bathroom, reaching for the same stalwart brands your mother used, it has become a hobby, a duty, and, for some people, even an identity.
Nowadays, skin-savvy consumers possess the interest and knowledge to decipher a cosmeceutical ingredients list, they seek out new and usual brands just for kicks and follow their go-to aesthetician on Instagram. We diligently apply sunscreen, use chemical exfoliants routinely and we wouldn’t touch a cleansing wipe with a 10-foot pole, or even a jade roller. But rarely do we pause to ask, is it all really necessary?
Some of it certainly is. The skin is the largest human organ, after all, so keeping it in good nick, just like the rest of our organs, does require some level of diligence. Following a simple routine can keep the skin in optimal condition to function as nature intended it to, manage inflammatory skin conditions like acne, rosacea and eczema, and lessen the risk of skin cancers, among other things.
But beyond doing the basics – cleaning our skin, protecting it from the sun and quenching its thirst when feeling dry and tight – is there actually any need for all the rest – the bells and whistles double-cleanse-exfoliate-essence-serum-mist-moisturise-oil routine?
There’s a budding belief that there isn’t, that there’s something more sinister going on. The nascent view is that our wholesome skincare rituals aren’t as necessary to our skin’s wellbeing as we think, and in fact might be exacerbating skin issues. And while many consumers consider themselves more educated than ever before on skincare they are actually less in control of their decisions. Simply put, we’re all being taken for fools.
Skincare isn’t a new thing – the Ancient Egyptians first kicked things off – but the ‘industry’ wheel behind it nowadays is. Big Skincare is constantly setting new beauty standards, churning out new products, and identifying new body parts that we need to fix; ear lobes, necks, labia – yes, not even our vaginas are safe from fillers and serums. It seems the fetishisation of youth and beauty and ways to make money from it knows no bounds.
As consumers, we pay not only with money, but with our time, skin, and, most alarmingly, self-esteem. Over time, skincare has become another way to control women (but they are coming for you too, men), another stick with which to beat ourselves into a ‘better’, more youthful/brighter/plumper/smoother/tighter versions of ourselves.
Somewhere along the line, skincare switched from being a holistic functional task to a shamed-induced burden governed by capitalism, misogyny, and racism. I fear we will look back in 20 years and cringe at the prevailing skincare industry as we do now at diet industry discards like slimming teas, waist trainers and no-carb diets. As beauty-critical journalist Jessica DeFino puts it, we’ll finally appreciate that it really is just ‘dewy diet culture.’
Botox, fillers and other invasive aesthetic treatments have been subject to scrutiny for some time. There are two fairly well-defined camps on the topic: you either think people feel the need surgically fix themselves due to societal pressure to meet unrealistic beauty standards, or you think people should do whatever they want to do to feel their best, and if ‘tweakments’ do that then so be it.
Yet general daily skincare, the products and steps we carry out ritually, aren’t yet to be debated in quite the same way. For the most part, skincare is positioned as a basic wellbeing essential, an act of ‘self-care,’ and a feel-good practice that ‘empowers’ you to feel confident in your own skin, quite literally.
But you don’t need to dig very deep to see that there’s very little that separates it from toxic beauty culture generally, and all that comes with it; anxiety, depression, body and facial dysmorphia and a fixation with preserving youthful skin at all costs.
Yet, for some reason, skincare seems to live on a pedestal, escaping the same scrutiny that the diet industry is subject to, still effortlessly sitting pretty under the self-care halo despite the fairly blatant hypocrisy.
The same influencers who declare they are ‘body positive’ in their social media bios and post about loving their stretch marks also nonchalantly have a disciplined skincare routine and get a spray of baby Botox regularly – as if their faces and bodies are two entirely separate entities governed by two distinct sets of rules: controlling your body is bad, controlling your face is empowering!
To highlight a peak example of the pressure to adhere to beauty ideals, allow me to pivot to a recent interview in the New York Times with Kim Kardashian. While promoting her new skincare line Kim was quoted as saying: “if you told me that I literally had to eat poop every single day and I would look younger, I might. I just might.”
While Kim’s obsession might be extreme, we all feel an increased pressure to do more, buy more and treat an increasing list of faults on our faces and bodies. We’re told we must apply chemical exfoliants and retinol to smooth, tone and brighten, and then because these products disrupt the skin microbiome and damage the skin barrier, we need to layer on ceramides and SPF to calm and protect. It’s a vicious cycle.
Going a step further, journalist and former beauty editor, Jessica DeFino argues that all skincare is a scam. She’s adamant that even the most basic cleanse and moisturise routine gets in the way of our skin’s natural function and that the industry is thriving at the expense of individuals
In a recent edition of her e-newsletter The Unpublishable, DeFino explains how she began writing about “how beauty standards harm people” when she noticed a sinister trend: “brands were releasing ‘skin-healing’ serums daily, but chronic skin issues were on the rise. Consumers were getting laser treatments and lip fillers in record numbers, but appearance anxiety was at an all-time high.” She realised that the skincare industry was prospering, but people were not.
Arguing the case for stopping the use of all cosmetic products (I’ll admit, this terrifies me), DeFino writes: “The skin is actually self-sufficient; it has built-in mechanisms to self-cleanse, self-moisturise (sebum), self-exfoliate (desquamation), self-protect, and self-heal. Oftentimes, skincare products suppress or overwrite these functions rather than support them, which can lead to a whole host of skin issues, including barrier damage and dehydration. That, of course, makes you reach for more products — the exact opposite of what the skin needs.”
But not taking part is barely an option. In friendship circles, the media and particularly on social media, people are being made to feel as though they don’t care about their skin if they don’t spend a lot of time and money on it. Social media platforms are rife with skincare virtue signalling and shaming. Reels and TikToks berating people for not wearing sunscreen or using facial scrubs are commonplace, and there’s plenty of judgement for using ‘too much’ skincare, too.
If it seems like you can’t win then you’d be correct. There’s no money to be made from you solving skincare, finding three or four great products that work for you and sticking with them for life. There’s an ever-evolving standard of perfection to achieve, a new fault to fix, and a new product that promises to do it all, and you better keep up.
As someone who works in the industry (more on that below) and personally engages in a multi-step routine morning and evening, this deceitful decaying undertone fills me with a gnawing sense of discomfort.
I love nothing more than trying out a new product, chatting to people about their favourites and learning the science behind ingredients and how the skin functions. For me, it was all good clean fun until the hypocrisy of the industry disturbed its innocuous status.
However, although my perspective of skincare is slightly tainted, I recognise that just as the practice of medicine has evolved and improved over the years, so has the process of caring for the body’s largest organ. It’s natural and important that we’ve refined and updated our approach, adding an extra step or two to our regimes along the way.
There’s a rise, too, of companies who are addressing the very confusion the industry is causing. The virtual skincare consultancy and education platform I work with, Lionne was set up for this very reason, to be an honest, unbiased voice of reason amidst the proliferation of products, tsunami of advertising and unsolicited advice from brands, influencers and in the media.
In my role as a Lionne Skin Mentor, I help clients build sustainable personalised skincare routines to suit their skin needs, budgets and lifestyles. A lot of my work centres around undoing the damage of the industry. This ranges from scaling back a client’s 10-step skincare routine to what’s really necessary, advising them not to exfoliate every single night to culling the dozens of products they were influenced to buy, salvaging what they actually need and what suits their skin.
Personally, I can speak from the experience of having acne and eczema that by learning to take proper care of my skin, not doing too little and not doing too much, the health of my skin has improved drastically. I’m not trying to ‘anti-age’ I’m just doing what I can to keep it happy as I age – which means it won’t always look like it did when I was 25 and indeed it shouldn’t.
I would argue that in most areas of life, whether we like it or not, our minds are so moulded by consistent messaging and marketing from the day we are born that it can be hard to form a completely unbiased and original thought or opinion. Did you really organically decide to buy that moisturiser (book, holiday, laptop etc.) or did society subliminally decide for you?
But you don’t need to accept that we are but the passive mindless drones of a capitalist patriarchal system. And you don’t need to feel guilty for wanting to feel good and look good either, that doesn’t make you a bad feminist.
Instead, actively interrogate how the skincare industry speaks to you and the messaging that has already sunk in. Choose to care for the outside of your body with what suits your skin best, and not with what the industry is dictating that you need – just as you would choose to nourish the inside of your body with foods that instinctively make you feel good rather than with zero-calorie noodles and celery juice.
So, you can have your serum and enjoy it too, but before you poke and prod at your skin, take some time to poke and prod at what’s motivating you to do so.