Like so many others, it seems that my adolescence has been characterized by an ongoing and increasingly fraught battle with my own skin. It was an all-out offense against an enemy that I wasn’t even really sure I knew. I had patches of dry skin on my cheeks as well as a perpetually oily forehead, and it felt like I was in a never-ending state of redness. It seemed that when I finally got rid of the zits on my chin, they’d reappear with vengeance below my nose, and as an athlete in high school, it seemed I was constantly sweaty and oily. I’d rip gunk out of my pores with a pore strip, only to re-clog them with makeup and moisturizer. You’re not supposed to pop zits, but I would anyway and then I’d dry them out with OXY, a chemical that came in a roll-on and smelled like cleaning solution. This was obviously very astringent and harsh on my young, teenage skin, and then I’d justify it by washing my face and treating it with various products from Lush, a company I knew to be ethical — and more importantly in my teenage brain — handmade and all natural. Did this do anything for my skin? Probably not. I didn’t know what half of the products I used did, and I probably would have been just as well off had I simply washed my face every day. If we’re being honest, I still don’t totally know what half of my skincare regimen is really for. I have products I use and a routine I follow daily, but what is it actually doing for my skin? I don’t know, but it makes me feel good — like I’m taking care of myself, like I’m controlling something that I can control.
Skincare has emerged in recent years as a common form of self-care. Something utilitarian and ordinary became an easy way for people, especially women, to feel like they were living a healthy lifestyle and making themselves beautiful in the process. Skincare culture and makeup culture go hand in hand, especially in recent years. No matter how positive a spin you put on it, or how much feminist praxis you apply, these are multibillion-dollar industries that exploit the insecurities of women for a profit. Makeup has been through an image rehabilitation in recent years: “It’s an art form,” people say, or “It’s meant to highlight your natural beauty and hide blemishes.” The fact remains, however, that women are under enormous amounts of pressure to wear and spend money on makeup, often at the risk of getting paychecks cut. Skincare is a little easier to frame in a positive light: It’s all about finding your natural beauty, achieving beauty without makeup. But is it really natural beauty if you’re altering the chemical makeup of your face?
In her article “The Skincare Con,” Krithika Varagur writes about the rise of skincare in popular culture, with her thesis being, “Perfect skin is unattainable because it doesn’t exist.” She writes of women who have gone to see dermatologists after using a cocktail of products that has left their skin badly burned. One woman described her face as being “one big open wound,” with visible cracking everywhere. Dr. Whitney Bowe, a dermatologist based in New York, criticized the sheer number of products on the market, describing how people “haphazardly combine products not realizing that many of them are overlapping, rather than complementing, one another when it comes to mechanism of action.”
This results in inflamed and irritated skin, a situation she describes as “far from atypical.” The fact also remains that engaging with the skincare industry can also be prohibitively expensive. It costs money to afford all the goops and creams that are supposed to give you dewy, glowing skin (although the trend of dewy skin seems to be on the way out, a deeply unfortunate occurrence for me, a naturally shiny (read: sweaty) person). According to one survey, American women apply an average of 16 skincare products per day, and the serums the website advertised to me were $28 at the cheapest and $281 at the most expensive. Not from Costco-sized tubs, either, but little containers ranging from 1 to 7 ounces. Despite all of this nonsense, spending this money on skincare seems almost necessary. In one of her most interesting points, Varagur posits that the skincare industry frames it as an almost moral question: If you don’t have good skin, you’re not taking care of yourself.
Your skin is good. It is your largest organ (yes, the skin is an organ, don’t think about it too much) and it is protecting you and keeping you safe all the time. It protects you against diseases and foreign bodies, regulates your body temperature, prevents water loss, insulates your soft tissue, produces vitamins and is the reason you feel physical sensations. It is a complex and finely tuned machine, and it has evolved to function to protect you. A zit isn’t a bad thing; it’s your body’s reaction to protect you from a foreign antibody. The world is constantly assaulting our skin, with mineral-heavy and toxic water, ever-changing weather and the bone-crushing, soul-sucking stress that comes from simply existing in today’s society. All the flaws and blemishes that multibillion dollar companies are trying to get you to fix with their creams and serums are natural reactions from your body to keep you healthy.
So what now? Will I stop buying skincare products and stop using them all together? Probably not. Despite the fact that I know, logically, that zits are normal well into adulthood, I will almost certainly continue to rub my Lush products on problematic spots until they go away. I do think that my deep dive into the skincare industry has made me more critical, however, of the products I’m buying. I’m wary of very astringent products that wear away at skin, and I’m hesitant to purchase something that will disrupt my skin’s natural patterns too much, even if it means I’ll look like a big bottle of olive oil during the summer months. There’s no easy answer, as participation in these multibillion dollar industries seems inevitable, and indeed, mandatory at times. The only thing I can really do with any amount of certainty is to trust my body and trust the skin I’m in. It’s good skin, and I’m lucky to live in it.
Caroline Llanes can be reached at email@example.com.