Why Dismissing Skincare as a Dangerous Scam Is Condescending to Women

A woman applying cream in the mirror.
Skincare is fun and therapeutic for many. Stop shaming it! Youngoldman / Thinkstock

Usually, fights over skincare are about things like whether putting lemon juice and sugar directly onto your skin is a good idea. But, in a wake of an abrasive Outline piece this week taking on the entire practice, we’re in a full-blown war.

On one side is a team led by writer Krithika Varagur, who in her article excoriates what she calls “New Skincare.” According to Varagur, this trend is a move away from “perceptible cosmetic looks” like contouring and towards an even more ephemeral concept of perfection that requires endless serums, essences, and “a reassuring scientific cast” of ingredients. “At the core of the New Skincare is chemical violence,” she writes, referencing active ingredients like retinols and alpha and beta hydroxyl acids. On the other side: People who enjoy perfectly healthy skincare that works just fine. Varagur’s piece touches on the tension inherent in spending any amount of money on an industry that is, at face-value, predicated on women eternally chasing youth. But instead of opening up a discussion about societal expectations of beauty or malicious marketing, Varagur’s condescending argument muddies the water like the runoff from a charcoal clay mask.

Aside from her cherry-picked horror stories, the meat of Varagur’s argument is the idea that “most skincare is really just a waste of money” because most of the stuff we’re putting on our faces doesn’t really do anything. Her mom just washes her face with water! Some dermatologists say women can skip daily moisturizer! Silly women, you should be spending your money on durable things like knowledge or art or, as Varagur suggests, a pair of beautiful shoes!

To back up that core point, the author pulls some truly amazing claims seemingly out of thin air: For example, that all soap was at one point “considered unfit for human use, because washing and bathing were categorically unhygienic before the advent of piped water in the 19th century.” There are many ways in which this is wrong, but let’s start with the fact that the source she cites, an interview with the Harvard business professor Geoffrey Jones, doesn’t even say that. In describing the rise of soap as a branded product, Jones says, “The technology to make soap was known for several thousand years, but the product was rarely used for personal washing, especially by Europeans who largely avoided washing with water after the Black Death in the Middle Ages, believing it to be dangerous.” Ah yes, medieval Europeans, those paragons of cleanliness.

And the ahistorical takes don’t end there. Varagur ignores beauty rituals perfected by cultures across the world, from Cleopatra bathing in milk (probably for the lactic acid) to the prevalent use of shea butter in West and East Africa, to say “skin has withstood millions of years of evolution without the aid of tinctures and balms.”

But historical dubiousness aside, the piece is also just mean-spirited and condescending, in many ways a cynical grab at rage-clicks.

“Don’t we all have friends who are fanatical about skin care and don’t … really (whispers) have great skin?” Varagur asks. Perhaps … their not-great skin is the reason they are fanatical about skincare? Or perhaps, as in my case, their skin used to look a whole lot worse before they started their skincare routine? At the heart of this piece is a mistaken belief that women who are into skincare are all getting scammed because they don’t have the capacity to recognize the eternal appeal to perfect youth and misogyny inherent in the beauty industry while simultaneously enjoying an activity that’s relatively harmless.

Contrary to what this piece would have you believe, women have been debating the scammy nature of the beauty industry for decades: That’s why Reddit forums like the one that Varagur pokes fun at exist. /r/SkincareAddiction is a crowd-sourced tool that aims to demystify the opaque nature of much of the beauty industry. Yes, horror stories abound, but there would definitely be more if dedicated commenters didn’t try to explain what exactly the difference between glycolic and lactic acid is, or how to layer two different serums and a toner.
And they do it because, at its heart, skincare is fun. It’s fun to look at your face in the mirror, not with the intent to hide it behind make-up, but while slowly working your way through some fussy ten-step beauty routine that makes your skin feel soft. It’s fun to scour Twitter threads for the best dupe for Sunday Riley’s Good Genes. And if that doesn’t sound fun for you, no self-proclaimed skincare addict is forcing you into a sheet mask.

It’s also worth acknowledging that, for many of us, skincare can be an important form of self-care. Towards the end of 2017, Jia Tolentino wrote a piece for the New Yorker on how skincare became her coping mechanism during the first year of Trump’s presidency. She references black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde, who in 1988 wrote that, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Tolentino writes that as she bought “a cleanser that made your dead skin cells come off like eraser scraps,” she wasn’t sure if she was “buying skin care or a psychological safety blanket, or how much of a difference between the two there really is.” We can certainly examine, perhaps in therapy, why many of us feel the need to distract ourselves from the outside world, from never-ending Trump tweets, from the feeling of existential dread that seems to have pervaded our nation, with rituals that really only give us a semblance of having our shit together. But there are far worse safety blankets than moisturizers.