Silicon Valley Cannot Disrupt Skin Care

All you need is a spreadsheet as intricate as your self-care routine.

A woman wears a face mask. Columns from a spreadsheet are overlaid on the image.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

What does skin care mean? The battle to extract understanding from face goop—an estimated $11 billion domestic market this year—has broken out like an acne flare-up in recent weeks. Since millennial women make up the most avid demo in that market, it’s been widely theorized that selfies and social media (aka narcissism) are driving the boom. Skin care’s champions, on the other hand, have called it “radical feminist self-care” and a salve for depression. Skeptics dismiss the overall field as a “con,” and K-beauty in particular as an example of 21st-century Orientalism. Everyone’s doing it. No one can agree why. But many think they know how it should be done.

As skin care has become, for better or worse, a generation’s passion, tech companies have tried to tap into the fad, mostly through apps. Their efforts are manifold, and highly uninspiring. The most famous of them is probably the app YouCam, which grades your “skin health” and guesses your “skin age.” (In my experience, YouCam’s results tend to vary heavily based on the lighting in the room.) Other apps recommend solutions for zits, send your selfies to a dermatologist for a consultation, suggest a drugstore alternative (or “dupe”) for luxury items, or tell you how “toxic” a product is. In other words, they’re mostly about getting you to buy more stuff.

That makes a skin care addict’s most valuable tech tool something more lo-fi: the spreadsheet. If the stereotype about apps is that they hasten the fulfillment of a wish (for, say, food), it makes sense that no skin care app has proved itself more useful than an .xls file. The current narrative about skin care, especially from its advocates, is about deliberateness, patience, research, and customizability. Despite YouCam’s claims, skin care’s effectiveness is hard to quantify, at least on demand. Each new product in your repertoire has to be incorporated into your routine slowly, given a week or two to prove its efficacy (or harmfulness). The 10-step regimens supposedly intrinsic to Korean culture—a practice none of my cousins who live in Korea have heard of, by the way—are meant to be nightly rituals, an acknowledgement of the physical body and the steady, consistent care it requires. It’s fitting, then, that an activity that forces practitioners to slow down would jibe best with a technology that’s been around for four decades.

For someone with a 50-item skin care spreadsheet, I’m pretty open to the idea that the entire industry is a sham. My skin looks pretty good, but so does my mom’s, and she manages to look two decades younger than her 60-some years with hardly anything stronger than a (personally terrifying) SPF 15 moisturizer. But I still look at my document every night, which lists every item I own, groups them into product type, and lays out my twice-daily regimen, which comprises nearly a dozen products. In the same Google Sheets doc, I have a catalog of my ride-or-die products, an inventory of my travel-ready items, and a list of ingredients I suspect I’m sensitive to. I’m far from alone: An array of beauty bloggers share their spreadsheets with their readers and recommend that the latter start their own. Some have notes on each product on their list. Others log how much they’ve gone through a bottle, or slot them into a testing schedule, or create a wish list of things they want. Still others jot down their goals for their regimen, note the most common ingredients of each product, or—as I am too afraid to do—list the price of each item. One Redditor discovered from cataloging their makeup and skin care that they’d spent more than $4,300 on their current stash.

Not all skin care listers rely on Excel or Google Sheets. My favorite blogger, Jude Chao, uses Evernote, while others use Pinterest. The “skin diary” apps that vie with one another to become the MyFitnessPal for faces, like mySkin and My Daily Skincare, arrive with a prefab set of widgets that dictate to users what kind of information they should be cataloging.

But the appeal of spreadsheets, like that of skin care, is that they are endlessly personalizable. I myself look for technology to amplify my feelings of shame and need for reassurance, and so I’ve designed my spreadsheet to do just that. Whenever I’m tempted to buy another moisturizer at Sephora, I check my files to remind myself that I already own 14 bottles and tubes of pretty similar stuff. And whenever I feel like my skin doesn’t look as good as it should, a glance at my spreadsheet tells me that I’m basically doing all I can short of having a doctor inject things into my face. (No judgment if that’s what you do.) My spreadsheet has been objectively helpful, too. When I realized some weeks ago that my skin responded poorly to niacinamide and hyaluronic acid—two highly common ingredients in skin care—it was handy to have a list of everything I owned so I could cross-reference my products with the ingredient lists on to see what I needed to toss.

If you want to start your own, you can find a template from any number of bloggers, Redditors, or commenters. I’ve never pored through another person’s spreadsheet, but just knowing that they’re out there is enough to make me feel like a part of a community of possible suckers who are still having a lot of fun smearing pleasantly scented muck on our faces. There’s nothing intrinsically useful in looking at someone else’s spreadsheet, since they most likely are working with a different set of genetic and environmental factors. But on the internet, you can always find someone who’s doing a more extreme version of whatever you’re interested in to make you feel “normal” and included. If that person for you is me, well, welcome to the movement.

Inkoo Kang writes about technology and culture for Slate.