Victoria Kirby is a beauty and wellness writer and the former beauty director of Redbook magazine. Kirby has also contributed to Allure, Harper’s Bazaar and Makeup.com and is based in New York City.
Skin care is a topic that’s meaningful to me both professionally (because I write about beauty for a living) and personally (because, well, I have a face and I’d like it to look and feel as good as possible).
You may have seen the buzz online: On Jan. 30, TheOutline.com posted an article, "The Skincare Con," in which the writer suggests that skin care products simply don’t work, and goes as far as calling it a scam (in an opinion piece with only one quoted source — more on that later). She refers to it as waste of money; something rich people collect as their latest “it” purchase. In other words, the joke’s on us. The $100 billion global skin care industry is merely one giant peddler of snake oil, and we’re all blindly ravaging our skin with their fake concoctions just to keep up appearances. Mmm-kay.
The story touched a nerve in many and sparked a ton of debate online. Those of us in the beauty biz jumped in to defend the well-documented science that proves skin products do work, and scores of women shared personal stories of life-changing results that improved their acne, rosacea, psoriasis or eczema. And plenty of others cheered the writer for having the chutzpah to call out beauty brands for perpetuating unrealistic standards of beauty — which I think we can all agree warrants a discussion.
But to label the entire skin care industry a sham is a conspiracy theory on par with Area 51 and saying the moon landing was fake. To tell us that we’ve all been duped is not only inaccurate, it insults our ability to judge and care for our own health and appearance, making smart choices about what we buy. I know what my skin looked like at 22 with acne, and I know what it looked like after using acne treatments. Plus, once my acne cleared up, I wore less makeup, so I was actually spending less money on beauty. Wearing less makeup made me feel more confident about my natural looks. Remind me again why I’m supposed to hate skin care?
To overlook the many positive psychological benefits of caring for your skin is to ignore an important piece of the puzzle. A national survey conducted by Cutanea Life Sciences found that 67 percent of teens with acne have low self esteem, and we all know how we feel when we look in the mirror after a sleepless night. Yet the writer suggests that we’re all just frantically chasing perfection and exhausting our time and money on a hopeless dream. For most of us, it’s not about perfection. Smoothing on a heavenly-scented face mask at the end of a long day or having those few precious minutes to ourselves while applying our regimen is really, really relaxing. There’s a reason why face masks were the top-selling skin care category in 2017, according to research group NPD, up 32 percent from the previous year. #SelfCareSunday has taken off because — drumroll! — it makes us feel good to take care of ourselves.
Whether you agree with the writer’s viewpoint or not, this woman clearly feels conned by the industry, and we shouldn’t dismiss that. (I tried reaching out for this article, but was unable to reach her.) She makes a valid point that much of the marketing around skin care plays into our insecurities about looks and aging. The writer concludes that there’s no such thing as “flawless skin,” and I agree with her. But guess what: so does the skin care industry, which in the past several years has been shifting towards a more realistic concept of healthy, balanced skin as opposed to “perfect skin.” And big changes, like CVS getting rid of all Photoshopped beauty images in their stores, show that while there’s still much work to be done to change the paradigm of beauty standards, at least we’re moving in the right direction.
While we can debate marketing intentions, we can’t debate science and facts. And there are mountains and mountains of evidence collected over decades that prove that using skin care makes a true difference in the health of your skin.
I reached out to the only dermatologist — and only skin expert — quoted in the original article: Dr. Whitney Bowe, M.D., a professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. I found she was taken aback when she read the article. “I would never say that skin care is a con,” she said, adding: "Had I known the article’s title, I probably would have declined being in it.”
I asked her and another top-notch dermatologist, Dr. Neal Schultz, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, to address some of the more outrageous claims in the story and tell us the real deal.
Women can skip moisturizer — because a study found that no one really knows what moisturizers even do.
In fact, moisturizer is doing lots of good, like delivering water to your skin and helping keep it soft and plump. “There’s statistically proven improvement in the skin when using a daily moisturizer, especially in patients with conditions like acne,” says Bowe. I couldn’t find any study suggesting that no one knows what moisturizer does, but a study published in the Journal of Dermatology notes that people using an adapalene-based acne treatment were more likely to stick with it when used in conjunction with a moisturizer, which helped improve dryness and irritation. And a study on hand skin showed that moisturizer boosted skin’s hydration and barrier function (the outer layer that helps block irritants) and could help reduce irritant-induced skin reactions.
Your skin naturally protects against diseases and foreign bodies, so it doesn’t need any help from products.
Tell that to someone who’s battled melanoma. While sunscreen is classified as a drug and may seem separate from this discussion, it’s become part of our year-round, daily skin routine. That’s because protecting your face every day with broad spectrum SPF 30 or higher is crucial to avoiding skin cancer. “One American dies from melanoma every hour — that’s 10,000 people a year,” says Schultz. “This is completely preventable with sunscreen, which is scientifically proven to prevent skin cancer.”
The acids in skin care products are waging “chemical violence” on our faces.
Of course, too much of any ingredient can backfire, so don’t layer on anti-aging ingredient after another, and don’t use more than the recommended amount of any product (it won’t speed up results, just the likelihood of irritation). Bowe recommends exfoliating one to two times a week max. “Most people’s skin can’t handle more than that,” she says.
And remember: Exfoliants aren’t just scrubs and peels. “Make sure your cleanser is a gentle, pH-balanced formula that doesn’t contain (chemical) exfoliants like salicylic acid,” says Bowe. “Your face shouldn’t feel squeaky clean after you wash it — that’s a sign of inflammation.” And she stresses that before using a new face product, do a patch test on your neck or inner forearm first for two to three days. “If the skin there tolerates it well after those couple of days, then it should be just fine on your face.”
Skin care is a waste of money and a bragging right of the wealthy.
The article states, “Those with disposable income would, before we all lost our minds, buy books or art or beautiful shoes.” What the writer fails to realize is that some of the best skin care products that dermatologists recommend are sold right at the drugstore for a very non-indulgent price. “Brands like Dove, Aveeno, and La Roche Posay have real science behind them and create quality products that deliver results I’ve seen with my own eyes,” says Bowe.
Some women are fanatical about skin care but still have bad skin anyway, so why bother?
Putting aside the judgmental tone, let’s consider that maybe those women have other things going on with their health or lifestyle. “Your skin is a reflection of your overall health, and there are no shortcuts,” says Bowe. “Your diet, sleep and exercise habits all play a role in the appearance of your skin. A skin cream won’t give you a face lift.”
Skin has withstood millions of years of evolution without the aid of tinctures and balms, so we don’t need it now.
Actually, history shows that we humans have been whipping up skin salves since ancient times. Moreover, “the human heart has also withstood the test of time, but does that mean people shouldn’t exercise regularly?” asks Schultz. “Withstanding evolution is a far cry from having optimal skin, and the simple truth is, when we look better, we feel better. Why deny ourselves that happiness?”