Is Skincare Just A Big Scam To Make Women Feel Insecure?

Sure, there are tons of products that do nothing, but that doesn’t mean the entire industry is one big con.

woman applying cream to her face for Anti-Aging Skincare Products

Photo, Erik Putz.

The title of this now-viral essay on The Outline pretty much says it all: “The Skincare Con.”

“Perfect skin is unattainable because it doesn’t exist,” writes Krithika Varagur. “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 Varagur calls the “new skincare” is an obsession with creams (or gels, or gel-creams), serums (so many serums), sheet masks (Korean-only, obvi) and the like to achieve perfect skin. She talks to dermatologists about over-exfoliation horror stories and points to evidence that the impact of moisturizer is unclear. She concludes that the new skincare is about a routine rooted in the American dream of self-improvement (not to mention out-of-control capitalism) rather than something that will actually provide desired results. And the internet made it clear that it was not pleased with her take.

While the piece has been derided as “lazy trash” on Twitter, there have also been many thoughtful criticisms. For instance, Allure editor-in-chief Michelle Lee tweeted: “My biggest problem with this anti skin care story is that it’s a poorly made argument and massive generalization. To say that ALL skin care is a scam and that there’s little science behind it is simply inaccurate.”

The most interesting reactions were from those who cast the article as an attack on millennials (don’t take away the one nice thing we can afford, okay?), women (we’re not just idiots being duped by false promises), or self-care (if it feels good to me, why do you even care?).

The charge that Varagur’s essay was misogynistic was particularly interesting to me. In a piece for Nylon, Kristin Iversen writes that we need to give women credit for making informed choices when buying skincare, and also not diminish the act of women buying stuff that makes them happy: “But easily the most frustrating aspect of Varagur’s critique, and most of the recent wellness critiques, is the condescension toward women who are exercising their purchasing power and buying things that make them happy — even if that happiness is situational, ephemeral,” writes Iversen.

While of course there is a thread of misogyny that waves away any and all attention to physical beauty as vapid vanity rather than seeing it through the lens of self-care, I’m not sure a female writer pointing out that the new (I mean, is it really “new”?) standard of beauty is a 14-year-old model with perfect skin is fuelled by misogyny. But the derision in Varagur’s tone doesn’t help sell this point. And neither does her cherry-picked research or use of extreme examples of women burning their skin by doing DIY acid mixes in a quest to Benjamin Button their complexion.

Varagur’s most glaring omission is ignoring how skincare helps people who have serious acne.

I’ve experienced terrible acne; I’ve frantically tried to figure out how to “cure” it (there’s no cure), and I did some heavy research on how to deal with scarring and its aftermath. All of this has taught me three things about the skincare industry: First, the market is absolutely flooded with garbage products that make false promises. Second, there are many amazing products backed by solid science that don’t work for me, but might work for someone else. And third, there is a large body of evidence on what works — but it’s not always easy to find and translate. That’s why, for me, having a good dermatologist was key to figuring out how this evidence should factor into my skincare regimen. (I feel like retinol is maybe for everyone over 30, but seriously, consult a derm.)

So, yeah, casting all skincare as a con is clearly inaccurate, but it’s tough to argue that the beauty industry doesn’t mine insecurities about the myth of flawless skin that it created — selling us creams to perfect our complexion in one aisle, while in another pushing foundation that will continue to clog our pores while we hold our breath to see results from the latest serum shipped from France. This isn’t a new revelation, but the fever pitch of a 21-step bedtime ritual does beg the question: do you really need all those products? The answer is probably not. But you also don’t need someone telling you you’re a slave to the man for engaging in a bedtime ritual that makes you feel good. So, whether you’re using derm-recommended Cetaphil or blocking out your schedule for your next chemical peel, you do you.