How Online Skincare Routines Obscure the Privilege Required for Good Skin
The proliferation of skincare routines on social media highlights the problem of what “good skin” means — and who gets to have it.
The reign of makeup tutorials is over. A new influencer economy has taken its place – skincare. The former was responsible for the rise of “Instagram face,” as Jia Tolentino put it. The latter has shifted the ubiquitous social-media gaze away from achieving this “look” through makeup to something even better: striving for a face that has little need for it. Skincare jargon is now a form of currency, where the commodity being traded is social capital. Who are you, if you don’t know what your skin-type is?
In the new Zoomgeist, if you will, it is a marker of beauty to be able to wear minimal makeup and “glow” from within – looking distinctly flawless on video calls from home, as small talk about routines is exchanged. If makeup was an investment of time and money, skincare is an investment of time, money, and a conviction that this is a health thing, not a beauty thing – and, by extension, not as shallow.
Most of the skincare community has caught up with the fact that it is now gauche to advocate for fair skin. Once, fair skin was an innate marker of beauty and wealth, because it implied coming from an ancestry that didn’t spend time laboring away in the sun. A subtle shift in vocabulary now says that skin, in order to be considered good, healthy even, must “glow.” The implicit idea is skin that is free of pigmentation, acne, acne scars, facial hair, drynes, wrinkles, spots, oiliness, and more. But where naturally oily skin is an “issue” that needs to be solved, shiny “glass skin” is the desirable look on the results end of the skincare spectrum.
It’s important to note here that many skincare influencers have “good” skin to begin with. Although skin with mild “flaws” or “problem areas” are more visible and normalized today, overlaying the normalization is the fact that the people who are comfortable showing their “regular” skin are the ones who can afford to do something to “fix” it. It drives home the point that while everyone has regular skin, nobody must stay comfortable with it.
Although Rathnika, 23, worked through insecurities around her skin-tone and acne and follows influencers who don’t promote unrealistic skin goals, she has noticed many others who talk about acne and facial hair as the “something they’re running away from at all costs. For people who do have those things it’s like – ‘I’m the person you’re trying not to become?’”
The double-speak of good skin being “what you want it to be” makes it sound like self-reclamation, while obscuring the fact that what most people still want is to be pretty. And pretty comes with a lot of baggage – much of it cultural, with class and caste implications.
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A popular skincare influencer N*, who goes by the username ‘badassbrownbeauty’ on Instagram, is candid about what the idea of “good skin” really means. Beauty is the goal, and beauty trends have shifted from makeup to skincare as a means to achieve it, she says. Simultaneously, there is a hyper-consumerist standard that almost necessitates keeping beauty analogous to wealth and privilege.
“I question this new norm of saying that you need to have 15 products and spend tons of money to have decent skin. It is another step in shifting the meaning of “normal” and making it inaccessible,” says Isha, 27.
“There’s a sense of missing out, or the sense of trying to belong to a certain class of people,” says Banalata. To her, skincare routines are “extremely overwhelming and borderline offensive because it constantly makes me feel like I don’t have enough products to slap on my face to make it look not like real skin, and how I am not doing enough to be able to afford these products in the first place.”
Brands too have now shifted to the language of “glow” and “radiance” to sell something more than just a product – an ideal that sounds, but really isn’t, different from the ones we’ve been trying so hard to escape. “Skincare has a lot of scope to explore,” N says – the products get over faster than makeup and there’s more room to experiment.
And when influencers use the same language as brands, it turns us into an increasingly consumerist audience that’s equally anxious.
“As any normal person I have dark circles, pimples, and so on, which I thought was normal,” Garima, 19, says. But seeing skin care influencers and people with “flawless skin” who credit a myriad of products was “the time I started feeling conscious about my skin… the worst part is all of this has crept into my friend/peer circle too.”
“The stress of looking good on camera is something I see a lot in the last one and a half years – leading everybody to start very minutely examining their skin,” says Dr. Gunjan Gurav, a dermatologist based in Mumbai.
“Everybody is already using five serums, that bothers me. Sometimes I have to stop patients from all of them… there’s a lot of misinformation out there on social media.” She also adds that very few serums are helpful for everybody universally; in fact, the only people they may be helping are those whose skin is fine to begin with, and who are looking to fine-tune their appearance. When used incorrectly, moreover, they may actually lead to the issues – acne, pigmentation – that people are looking to escape. “Either use the right product, or none at all.”
Dr. Anjali Pal, also based in Mumbai, agrees. “Many terms coined for social media have come up lately, like fungal acne, retinol purging, etc. are actually misleading, and aren’t real entities according to dermatologists,” she adds.
“It is a lot more about what goes inside the body than what is applied on the skin. The skin is the largest organ of the body, and what you eat is going to reflect on it. The necessary vitamins, good fats, and hydration are important… Whatever you apply will be very temporary if you’re not getting enough vitamins or water,” explains Dr. Gunjan.
This speaks to the fallacy of skincare in general — it cannot just be fixed externally. Heatwaves, infrared radiation from screens, processed foods, and other factors also play a role in how someone’s skin looks, over what they apply on it.
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The skin, as the largest organ in the body, is also implicated in several health conditions and is affected adversely. Autoimmune conditions, PCOS, and others carry stigma primarily because of how the skin is affected – in terms of flakiness, spots, inflammation, and facial hair. Dr. Gunjan explains how judgement around these conditions and appearances cause a lot of trauma, and how a dermat consultation is often accompanied by anti-anxiety treatment and counselling as well.
The blurring of the boundary between good-looking skin and healthy skin means that people with actual health conditions involving the skin experience the added burden of anxiety over how their skin is constantly shifting further away from the new normal of what “good” skin should look like, thanks to elaborate and pricey skincare routines.
Many adherents of skincare argue that social media has democratized knowledge about skincare. But did this necessarily democratize access?
The accessibility of products, moreover, is also imbued with a classist bias. Arguably, it is skin anxiety, more than anything else, that has been democratized.
Doctors and non-adherents of skincare routines acknowledge that often, expensive brands and products are the most visible on social media, but basic skincare doesn’t actually need to be that expensive. Dr. Gunjan recommends that people just use a simple cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen.
Nobody really needs to spend a fortune to look after their skin. But people do need to come with a certain level of privilege, access to good nutrition and relatively comfortable lives to have a better chance at healthier skin in the first place.
Skincare routines thus seem to have drawn a younger demographic into an anxiety that earlier pervaded older women a lot more. Dr. Gunjan notes how younger people come to her seeking specific ingredients for skin “problems” that, as she puts it, “you can’t see even if you use a microscope.”
Clearly, what is medically considered to be healthy skin isn’t enough, and the anxiety seems to be getting worse.
There’s a difference, in other words, between basic skincare (cleansing, sun protection) which is to take care of the skin’s health, versus skincare routines as self-care and looking good, where the process is often argued to be a therapeutic end in itself — but only for those whose skin already conforms to the ideal.
Arguably, this anxiety isn’t just because of falling short of beauty. The skincare discourse is imbued with the sense of “care” and having one’s life together. Not having one, or not getting “results” from one, induces not only a sense of not achieving a particular beauty myth, but also a sense of failure in a much larger sense. If I can’t make time for skincare or achieve good skin, it must mean that my life, itself, is out of control.
Many influencers will offer “affordable” solutions to skincare for people who need it, and recommend products at “lower-price points” — but this can often come across as paternalistic for many. “I genuinely believe that this whole “skincare regime” thing is a rich people phenomenon… I think having a sustainable skincare routine depends primarily on stability, which doesn’t come that easily to a lot of people,” Banalata says.
And this is ultimately what the skincare discourse ends up concealing – that there is a baseline level of socio-economic, cultural, even genetic privilege required before taking the additional step of achieving truly “good” skin.
Rohitha Naraharisetty is a Senior Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She writes about the intersection of gender, caste, social movements, and pop culture. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.