Perfect skin has become the thinking woman’s quest. It’s normal today for people in certain circles to brag about spending most of their paycheck on serums. The latest skincare trends have a reassuring scientific cast: peptides, acids, solutions, and other things with clinical suffixes that are typically sold in small quantities for large amounts of money.
But all of this is a scam. It has to be. Perfect skin is unattainable because it doesn’t exist. The idea that we should both have it and want it is a waste of our time and money. Especially for women, who are disproportionately taxed by both the ideal of perfect skin and its material pursuit.
What I call the “New Skincare” is a break from the perceptible cosmetic looks we were sold in the past. It encompasses concepts like “no-makeup makeup,” “dewiness,” and “all-natural beauty.” It’s also a reaction to the popular and populist aesthetic of contouring, the parallel universe of much-makeup makeup that’s so big on Instagram and Youtube; think Kim Kardashian showing you how to do this directly from her smartphone to yours. Although the former has monopolized social capital today, these looks actually require the same enormous quantity of products. New Skincare is (still) chiefly about 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.
Like other human organs, skin has withstood millions of years of evolution without the aid of tinctures and balms. How could we be getting it so wrong now? The only feasible answer is: we aren’t. Imagine refining other organs, like your liver or lungs, with the kind of monomania directed at our skin. 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.” According to some dermatologists, many women can even skip daily moisturizer, the most basic skincare product; a 2016 study in the Indian Journal of Dermatology found that no one really knew what moisturizer even did. But we have come to see the pursuit of perfect skin through a rotating buffet of products as an empowering choice.
When the world is chaos, it makes sense for society to take an introspective turn. But the skincare craze isn’t introspective per se: it’s looking into yourself but stopping at the literal outermost layer.
At the core of the New Skincare is chemical violence. Skincare buffs refer to “actives” — products like retinols, chemical exfoliants, and alpha and beta hydroxy acids. Every cosmetics brand has to come out with an acid these days to keep up, and they have to reassure you, like zeitgeisty cosmetics giant Glossier just did with its rollout of an “exfoliating skin perfector” called “Solution,” that their products are “very safe.” “Acids are your friend,” purrs the Solution marketing copy. It’s simply anathema to admit the risks of prolonged or improper use of active products. Under duress one might admit, like the description of Drunk Elephant’s $90 glycolic night serum does, that alpha hydroxy acids “can be sensitizing,” though the brand highlighted to The Outline that it includes added ingredients to soothe those effects. Okay then.
There’s a wide berth for misuse given the freehand, DIY approach that consumers are encouraged to adopt with these chemicals. There is, for example, a psychotic-seeming cult French product called Biologique Recherche P50 (retail value: $101) that combines multiple different acids; one variant includes phenol, “a numbing antiseptic that has some safety concerns,” such as its propensity to cause burning, nausea, vomiting, and coma. P50 inspires in me both fear and pity, as it seems to regularly break women’s faces’ “barriers,” the slightly acidic outer layer that naturally regulates its [own] moisture. If you break your skin’s barrier, you will erupt in scaly, dry rashes for months. And you must surrender your actives.
Commenters on the reddit forum “r/SkincareAddiction” talk about building up their skin’s endurance for hardcore acids like they are preparing to summit a mountain. Can it possibly be worth it? In the rush to mainstream these products, the industry has overridden a number of warning signs. There’s a whole cottage industry of people who have been literally burned by acids.
“I had hundreds of what looked like irritated small welts all over the lower half of my face,” writes one commenter who used a combination of glycolic acid and an acne cream called Tretinoin. “My pores were HUGE, I had clogged pores all over my chin and jaw, and I had patches of this sandpaper like texture all along my jawline and and cheeks. I also developed the worst acne I have EVER had... When I finally saw my esthetician after looking at my face she explained that my face was now essentially one big open WOUND. She could see micro cracks all over the surface of my skin and said that I had deeply burned my skin.” Yikes.
The skincare craze isn’t introspective per se: it’s looking into yourself but stopping at the literal outermost layer.
Experts disapprove of such gonzo skincare. “More is NOT better!” Dr. Whitney Bowe, a New York dermatologist, told me. “Americans are results-driven. And actives can truly deliver results. However, as a result of all the options available on the market, people often haphazardly combine products not realizing that many of them are overlapping, rather than complementing, one another when it comes to mechanism of action.”
Bowe shared with me a particular horror story. “I had one patient who was exfoliating with a facial scrub, rubbing that scrub in with a loofah, and then applying a serum that contained glycolic acid, and completing her regimen by placing a cream with retinol on top,” she said. “Her skin was raw, stinging, and inflamed. That story is far from atypical in my office.”
By the way, all soap was once considered unfit for human use, because washing and bathing were categorically unhygienic before the advent of piped water in the 19th century. Even after that, soap use only became widespread because companies like Procter & Gamble spent so much advertising their product in new media that a whole genre of television came to be called “soap operas.” Perhaps our generation will yet have the serum web series.
Before you start a militant skincare regimen, it’s instructive to think about why you want one and why it seems like an intrinsic good.
“Discipline consists of various techniques, which aim at making the body both docile and useful. The human body becomes a machine, the functioning of which can be optimised, calculated and improved through the internalization of specific patterns of behaviour,” wrote the philosopher Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish.
Don’t we all have friends who are fanatical about skin care and don’t… really (whispers) have great skin? How can that be? It’s simple: the end product of a skin care regimen isn’t perfect skin, but the regimen itself — something that, in high American style, you have to steadily escalate over time, lest you stagnate. Don’t you want to improve?
Sure, some people with those meticulous regimens have great skin. And yet they still get blemishes! I guess having perfect skin still holds some IRL cachet in the magic-retouch phone camera age. But we could for once use technology to our benefit and just embrace a soft-blurred future.
The problem is that, within the current paradigm, a blemish seems like a referendum on who you are as a person. The word pimple has probably always been gendered, coming to us from old words for nipples: the Latin word papilla was "nipple," papula was "a swelling or pimple.” Pimples today are stigmata. The sin they betray is nothing as tawdry as adultery but just, well, not taking care of yourself.
It shouldn’t be like this. Real, flawed women have real, flawed skin — it’s fine. Your skin, by the way, naturally protects against diseases and foreign bodies, regulates your body temperature, prevents water loss, insulates your soft tissues, synthesizes Vitamin D, etc., etc. Give it some credit.
Within the current paradigm, a blemish seems like a referendum on who you are as a person.
Of course, anything that’s in style goes out of style: looking fresh and dewy, the ubiquitous glow of today’s woman, is a phase like everything else. Being dewy will age exactly the same way that blue eyeshadow and dark lipliner did. Which is not a bad thing, just a thing. In this vein, Glossier, whose inaugural collection was a paean to dewiness, sells a powder now. Such is the circle of life in a capitalist society.
Where does all of this leave us, the skin-havers? “Stop wanting it” is a severe directive, but I can’t imagine an alternative to the present mania for flawless skin. Increasingly the world is set up to disrupt our skin anyway: toxic water supplies, mercurial weather, ambient and valid stress.
And most skincare is really just a waste of money. The invisible investments are of a kind with today’s boring rich. Rich people used to build castles and museums; today they buy clunky smartwatches and personalized vitamins. Those with disposable income would, before we all lost our minds, buy books or art or beautiful shoes or literally anything that gives more pleasure than another useless exfoliant.
Times change. From a world-historical perspective, we have exploded ideals of skin color, body weight, and even body hair in record time. If only we could do the same for our faces.
Update: This story has been updated to reflect that Drunk Elephant’s night serum has ingredients that soothe the effects of the sensitizing ingredient Alpha Hydroxy Acid.