There’s nothing I dislike more than people telling me what to do, so when That Skincare Article started doing the rounds it made me double-down on my own skincare routine.
If you haven’t read it, someone who I can only assume has never had any skin problems is writing about how we’re all idiots for caring about our skin and spending money on it. Yes, there are plenty of valid criticisms of the beauty industry. No, I don’t think this article touched on any of them.
There are already some good rebuttals on Racked and Huffington Post. But I think it’s useful to think about how we can think critically about what skincare advice we take and where we get our information from.
I’ve given some people on Twitter individual skincare advice lately, and from my perspective—duh—I don’t think I’ve steered them wrong. I’d never tell someone to trust me completely, however, nor is there anyone whose advice I’d trust completely. (I think my Mum trusts me completely with skincare advice, but mums are a different case.)
Then there are the ‘experts’, publicly deemed or self-proclaimed, to whom I have hyperbolically referred (Queen Caroline! I cringe at the memory) in the past. Caroline Hirons, Paula Begoun. Beauty writers like Sali Hughes. What makes an expert: seeing a lot of people’s skin? Running your own skincare company? Trying a lot of products? A medical degree?
So here’s where I get my skincare advice, how many grains of salt I take it with, and the biases I consider.
Product descriptions and marketing copy
I pretty much don’t pay any heed to the words that a brand is telling me directly about their own products.
First of all, of course they’re going to say good things. They want you to buy the thing.
Secondly, they’re not actually allowed to tell you it’s going to fix anything about your skin. Making drug claims is against the law and gets brands in trouble. Instead, they dance around it by saying things like “improves the appearance of fine lines”—as in, the fine lines will still always be there, our goop just temporarily hides them, and you have to keep using it forever, and did you notice it says fine lines, not all lines?
Word of mouth
The least scientific but the most emotionally resonant, word of mouth is how a lot of people hear about new things. If a friend says they like a product—or if they don’t—then right away I want to try it.
Positive word of mouth is a marketer’s dream, but it could also get pretty frustrating when I worked on a cosmetics counter. Yes, your aunt Karen might love this moisturiser, but it’s going to fuck up your skin because she’s 55 and her face is as dry as a desert, while you’re 19 and dewy-faced.
Speaking of counter staff, let’s talk about counter staff. You don’t need to be a qualified anything to work in retail, but most beauty counter employees are qualified makeup artists. In my makeup artist training, we learnt the bare minimum about skin, but I had a lot of training with the brand that I worked for.
That being said, it’s all in aid of selling their products, so brand training will focus on their hero ingredients and overlook things like the fact that many products are the wrong pH to be effective.
Also remember some stores and counters track individual staff for commission, while some operate on a counter-wide basis; either way, they have a goal to sell you something.
This subreddit gives you the satisfaction of regular, transformative before-and-afters and is guided by the fervish, sometimes misguided convictions of redditors. The active members go through waves of being big on certain ingredients and absolutely 100% swearing off others—sometimes advised by science and sometimes by a vague, unfounded comment someone made that came at an opportune time or was particularly convincingly worded. I like to search the subreddit for particular products or ingredients as often someone has already done the research I’m looking for, but take care not to take individual testimony as hard evidence.
A lot of people on the internet love Caroline Hirons. She’s a bolshy British aesthetician with a popular blog and YouTube channel, and speaks with conviction about what is right and wrong for your skin. Her blog is useful in that she evaluates products on consistent criteria (ingredients, texture, etc) but it’s easy to get swept up by her personality and overlook the fact that her opinions are still just opinion.
My personal objections: she believes ‘you get what you pay for’ with skincare which is just not the case—there’s enough in the market to find an affordable routine no matter your skin type. She’s not as firm on daily sunscreen use as someone should be when they’re advocating daily AHAs, and the rate at which she goes through products for ‘testing’ makes me dubious about how well she can really evaluate them.
Paula Begoun and Beautypedia
The other big ‘skincare queen’ of the internet, Paula Begoun is the businesswoman behind Paula’s Choice skincare and the Beautypedia website. I find Beautypedia incredibly helpful when researching ingredients and their efficacy, even just for the comprehensive product ingredients lists.
Paula’s skincare advice differs from Caroline’s significantly. Paula is pro-mineral-oil and anti-fragrance; Caroline is anti-mineral-oil and pro-fragrance.
The issue I have with Beautypedia (technically Paula has nothing to do with the reviews on Beautypedia anymore, but it’s her company, so they’re affiliated from my point of view) is that their reviews tend to penalise products for being single-function—they seem to want every moisturiser, eye cream and serum to address multiple issues and all of them effectively. Personally, I don’t see this as being as big of a problem as they do.
There are other bloggers whose opinions I am always interested in: Nikki from FutureDerm writes informative posts and reviews but also sells her own brand of skincare so there’s some bias there; Michelle also writes really educational posts on Lab Muffin; and Stephen writes (less frequent) educational posts on KindofStephen (and sometimes Reddit).
One thing to be remember with bloggers is that most of us aren’t cosmetic scientists or medical professionals, and we all come with biases of our own. ‘Green’ or ‘natural’ beauty bloggers won’t recommend a product they think is loaded with ~dangerous chemicals~, and a cruelty-free or vegan beauty blogger won’t recommend something that contains animal extracts or is sold in mainland China; none of those conditions prevent a product from being effective for the skin, you just have to decide what’s important to you.
Dermnet NZ is a medical resource for skin conditions of all types, written by dermatologists and edited by Dr Amanda Oakley, a dermatologist and Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Auckland. It’s not as thoroughly peer-reviewed as a medical journal, but it is largely authored by dermatologists and reviewed by their peers before anything is published.
It’s one of the world’s biggest online dermatology resources and while it’s not intended for a casual audience per se, it’s very useful for double-checking information and finding out about active ingredients and their efficacy.
Trawling through academic databases and trying to translate abstracts into something that makes sense to the average person isn’t my idea of fun, but I do it without fail if I’m researching a skincare ingredient. PubMed is my go-to database for scientific papers and journal articles about skincare. This is where you’ll find the raw data (and its interpretation) on clinical trials; the science!
You’ve still got to be critical in how you read things here: tests might be in vitro (on artificial cell cultures, rather than on real skin on a person) or on animals, they might be too limited or small in scope to make a reasonable assumption from, and they might be funded by companies with stakes in the results (like cosmetic companies).
Nothing online can compete with a consultation with a dermatologist in person, however, and if you’ve got significant concerns about your skin, you really should see a medical professional. I haven’t personally had issues with my skin major enough to speak to a doctor about, but for conditions like rosacea and cystic acne, off-the-shelf skincare can only go so far.
Where do you get your skincare information from?