The Goods

My Year of Fancy Wellness Products

There are some truly terrible products out there. For everything else, the question of “does it work?” is much more personal.

A grid of wellness products, including vitamins, a neti pot in a skull, moisturizers, nail polish, a foot bath, and a SAD lamp.
Photo illustration by Slate.

For nearly a year, I’ve been writing Well, Actually, a regular column about what we slather on our skin and do to our bodies to make them “better.” I inspect shiny claims written on all the new things that are marketed at us and then comb through papers, talk to scientists, and squint at my nose in the mirror to find out if they’re any good. This is the work of separating the good from the bad, the scientifically proven from the scam, or even just the genuinely pleasant from the just fine. A big part of what I’ve learned over almost a year is something I knew when I started: There are no miracle cures. But the rest of what I’ve learned is more complicated—and helps explain why I’m ready to halt the steady stream of entries.

Far from the holy grails we’re led to believe new products are by ads, by magazines, by the urgent pace at which new potions are issued, the answer to “should you buy this?” is usually something of a shrug. There are outright duds, of course. (Natural deodorant, I am looking at you.) But just as often, the refrain that I’m left with at the end goes like this: The thing works fine, but not exceptionally well. It will make headway on your problem, but probably not as much as you’d like. It is almost certainly not unique. Do you like nice smells, do you want to feel something soft against your skin, do you have some money to blow? Then buy it.

The larger truth, the one that’s a little harder to express in any one column, might be: Finding material things that make your life better can be fun and rewarding. But you have to be constantly vigilant about what makes you feel better. And you should be awfully careful about trusting the recommendation of a product review columnist.

To that end, while I recommended a lot of things as “worth trying,” the pile of stuff I’ve actually kept using is meager. Many months after reviewing Glossier lip balm and concluding that Vaseline is just as good, if not better (seriously, the Glossier flavors are gross), I still have a minitub of the stuff on my makeup shelf. Petroleum jelly, also the main ingredient in Glossier’s balms, really is the best moisturizer there is, according to cosmetic chemists. Wouldn’t it be nice to just put a pin in that forever, as a society? Know that, like traveling to the moon, we found the best lip moisturizer, and we’re good now? Personal care technology is one area where science and the endless pursuit of knowledge really should be able to neatly wrap things up, at least once in a while. And yet, we will continue to be forced to endure evermore “kinds” of lip balms. Anyway!

After trying Peloton’s treadmill, I got really into treadmill classes (though not at Peloton—I go to a studio that’s a bit closer to me). In contrast to the near-universality of Vaseline, I can hardly think of anything that depends more on your specific personality than whether being shut in a loud, colorfully lit room for 45 minutes and sprinting well past the limit of comfort—for the sticker price of $35 a class—is fun or torture. A year ago, I would have said that these classes were a waste of money, at best. Now I treat them like a precious drug.

I’m also happily committed to flushing my nose with the neti pot, at least when colds arise, and to practicing hot yoga, in spite of the heat not really doing all that much. If I choose the pill for birth control, I’ll definitely be ordering it online.

In a twist that I couldn’t have predicted, having panned CBD products, I now regularly put a couple droppers of CBD oil under my tongue before bed. I absolutely still think CBD’s wild abundance in everything from seltzer to mascara is silly, even if some of the claims about it being reliably relaxing or reducing inflammation work out. It’s hard to say if what I’m experiencing is merely placebo or maybe some kind of cue to start a nighttime wind-down that leaves me feeling overall more well rested. But whatever is happening is nice.

On the other end of the spectrum, I still think charcoal sticks for making water cleaner is dumb, that customizable shampoo is a waste of money, and that you should only take vitamins if your doctor concludes that you have an actual deficiency. Preferably because they can see it in your bloodwork. Don’t spend your money on those things.

Then there are the gadgets that are fun at first, then lose their charm: I’ve used a fun and bubbly footbath once or twice since writing about it. I can’t say I’ve ordered more spiky acne patches. The gel manicure kit that I genuinely figured I’d use all the time has been languishing on my desk. Turns out anti-chip nail polish quickly becomes tiresome to remove.

I think about these eventual failures a lot, along with the things I’ve impulse-bought on the recommendation of other writers, only to be let down, at varying speeds (a foundation stick, a spiky acupressure mat, the Amazon coat). The annoying things about a tool or container of face goo take a while to figure out. The foundation stick didn’t work better than normal foundation and ran out faster; the mat didn’t work well enough to motivate me to fish it out from the top of my closet. The Amazon coat was luckily dead to me on arrival, and I returned it. Perhaps the biggest effect of writing this column is that I am forever more skeptical of other people’s glowing personal recommendations: How long did the writer use the thing they’re touting? Do they write a lot of articles about consumer goods—might they be meeting a quota? (Well, Actually, which we quickly realized was better on a twice-a-month cadence than weekly, will now continue on only when I feel like I have something important to say about a product category.) Would they be allowed to pan the product if they didn’t like it, or say if it’s just meh?

I’ve long known to be cautious when it comes to tall scientific claims. The premise of Well, Actually, as the name suggests, is to issue a fact check on consumer goods. We’re living in a time of science-washing, as Michelle Wong of Lab Muffin puts it. That is, companies are using jargon and offering papers, data, and metrics, to sell their goods. Sometimes they’re touting fancy chemicals and extracts. Often, the selling point is the absence of chemicals, which is a way of saying that some chemical is bad, so we’re avoiding it, and this too is often a rumor dressed up in a lab coat. I still think that carefully sorting out what’s objectively true and what’s not in the world of consumer goods is a worthwhile pursuit—it’s the basis of any good journalism.

But in the past year, I’ve come to realize more concretely that something can genuinely deliver on a promise—of relaxed feet, of longer-wear polish, of a deflated zit—and still not be all that helpful. It’s also true that something can have minimal objective purpose and still have a wonderful role in your life: the heat in hot yoga, the vibrations from a face tool, the sporadic light from a small SAD lamp. And this is probably why things like shampoo tailored down to your ZIP and needlessly aluminum-free deodorant endure, despite many smart outlets and bloggers debunking all this stuff. Because for some people, those things are useful—even if they don’t “work,” they still provide the feeling that you’re doing an extra-good job of caring for yourself, or maybe keeping yourself safe from the ills of the world. It’s important that consumers not be tricked, that they not be harmed, and that they don’t feel they have to spend their money out of fear. But beyond that, useless things can be OK, can even be great. Which brings me to a refrain that I’ve found myself saying, again and again, to friends who are worried I’m going to “Well, Actually” them on the latest thing they’ve bought, and to the readers of this column on how they should ultimately think about any particular product: If it works for you, it works.