Since Kalista Beauty is now offline, I felt it would be ok to republish one of my favourite article from my time as a writer for that blog here: my defence of skincare as pleasure over rigid functionality and needless dogma!
Note: This is an updated version of an article that was published in the now defunct Blogzine Kalista Beauty in 2020!
In Defence of Skincare as Pleasure
When Korean skincare first caught the eyes of Western beauty editors, they needed an easy, straight-forward “spin” to promote its virtues: thus, the 10 step K-beauty routine was born. During the early 2010s, elaborate multistep routines remained the dominant beauty trend, touted as the secret to flawless skin. With the rise of minimalism as a lifestyle this, however, changed drastically: suddenly the idea of a complex, long skincare routine was frowned upon, even mocked as somewhat ridiculous – too time-consuming, costly and unnecessary. Mainstream publications and skinfluencers alike now praised the minimalist “skipcare” routine: stripped down, simple, with only a few key products chosen based on functionality, ideally focused on active ingredients scientifically proven to work. Skincare now had to be “science-based” to be worthy of our time and effort.
The growing influence of science-based bloggers in the skincare community, plus more and more dermatologists entering the social media sphere, has brought many positive changes to how we evaluate skincare products, with brands being less and less able to promote dodgy claims or empty marketing promises. Easy access to scientific information about often difficult to navigate, complex skincare topics such as acne or anti-aging care has been a godsend to many in the age of misinformation. Science-based beauty bloggers such as Labmuffin aka Michelle Wong have been incredibly valuable resources for both skincare newbies and pros.
However, Michelle/Labmuffin is a poignant example of how this hyper-focus on ingredient-based, stripped down, exclusively science-backed skincare as the be all and end all can sometimes turn into rigid dogma when those not trained in the scientific method try to boil down complex issues regarding, say, skincare formulation, into a black and white/right or wrong dichotomy.
In her excellent “Myth vs. Truth” Instagram series, Michelle regularly debunks common misconceptions about beauty products. But when she published a post about fragrance in skincare, it was met with a wave of critical comments and even straight-up hostility. In her post, Michelle argues that fragrance is mostly an issue for those with allergies or bona fide sensitivities, debunking the popular blanket claim that fragrance is always harmful and sensitising for skin, whether or not allergies are present. Michelle also points towards the function of fragrance as a pleasure-enhancing, odour-masking addition in products with “stinky” raw ingredients, choosing the “hot dog water” smell of many vitamin C serums as a striking example. As a result, she was accused of being in the pocket of “Big Fragrance”, and the carefully selected scientific evidence provided under the post was ignored by most of the incensed commentators.
The fact that a number of high profile dermatologists in the comment section agreed with Wong’s take on fragrance was equally ignored, and the “fragrance is bad for all skin” stance is still deeply ingrained in the skincare community to this day, as is the idea that anything besides the bare minimum in a product formulation is basically a frivolous “filler.” Add to that the popularity of a number of start-up style skincare indie brands which primarily focus on function and high dosage active ingredients versus pleasurable textures and we have reached the peak of the functional, minimalist skincare trend.
I would also like to (somewhat nervously, given their intense fanbase) mention the growing popularity of male skinfluencers in particular here, because I believe this is a crucial part of this shift towards skincare as functional vs. fun. Skincare, like all beauty products, was largely marketed to women up until very recently, with men’s grooming only becoming a successful (and explosively growing) market in recent years. Thus, interest in skincare – just like makeup – has traditionally been coded as “feminine”, often derided as a frivolous and kind of silly interest, a hobby vs. a serious endeavour.
But, now that men are showing an interest in skincare, this of course won’t do anymore: skincare now needs to be rationalised, optimised, infused with “masculine” efficiency, so that it can be taken seriously and seen as a valid pastime. Stop all that froufrou nonsense, the pretty packaging, the relaxing fragrances, the smooth, silky textures – none of that is needed when you are trying to merely perfect your skin! Which, by the way, has also suddenly become the mythical end goal of any routine: perfect, flawless, poreless, smooth and forever young skin.
Female celebrities in particular are also more and more shamed for their skincare routines and habits presented on YouTube or TikTok. Reaction videos by “specialists” dissect every little step and hand movement, critique every single product used based on its efficiency and ingredient list. Skinfluencers get tagged in routine videos by female beauty YouTubers, often with scathing comments that dismiss the routines as too bougie, too fragrance-laden, or, god beware, too much focused on how a product feels vs. what it does. A female skincare creator enjoys a gua sha massage and shares a tutorial on how to use the tool? You can bet that there will be a white lab coat wearing male dermatologist frowning into the camera in a TikTok duet reminding everyone that there is “no scientific evidence” for gua sha doing anything at all.
Now, I am in no way saying that a minimalist approach to skincare is wrong or silly, or that skincare should not be about proven ingredients or science-based facts, far from it. Especially for younger people, easily accessible, effective skincare brands such as The Ordinary are a wonderful way to build up a routine, and I myself love to use a number of “one ingredient” products. I also want to be clear that I think it is wonderful to see more and more men become interested in skincare. To me, it has never been “feminine” to take care of your skin. I also fully respect anyone who prefers a stripped-down, simplistic routine – do what works for your skin!
What I am having a problem with is this ongoing trend – in many ways enhanced by the quick nature of TikTok’s short video format – to claim universality when it comes to this love for minimalism, this need to promote a stripped-down routine as the only valid and “correct” way to engage with skincare, and the tendency to shame people who might just want to have fun with their daily grooming routine instead of aiming for perfectly optimised efficiency. In an age where every hobby needs to be turned into a business and every business needs to be “disrupted”, where exercise and food need to be “biohacked” and your skincare “optimised”, I feel we are losing a vital part of what makes this human experience so darn wonderful: pleasure, enjoyment, doing something simply because it is fun and feels good.
The constant need to “hack” your skincare routine, to turn skincare into a productive activity that is done to achieve a goal and not just because it is an enjoyable activity in and of itself just feels increasingly uncomfortable to me, especially when this leads to more and more shaming of people who do not follow this approach. Again, this seems to be closely linked to the decisively 21st century idea that all our hobbies, loves and enjoyments need to somehow be productive to be worthwhile, and the idea of pleasure for pleasure’s sake as something frivolous and laughable (and anything laughably frivolous as feminine).
I think the black-and-white, dogmatic nature of the short video format favoured on Tiktok also plays a part here. A 1-3 minute long video leaves little space for nuance or mellowness, with shortening attention spans making us look for more and more “outrageous” content, for quick info bites to grab “on the go.” It is easier to do a one minute video telling your audience that fragrance is BAD vs. sitting down to carefully explain that it’s all a lot more complicated than it seems at first sight once you go into different studies on the matter.
Dermatologists also tend to focus specifically on diseased skin, so their tendency to dismiss any non-minimalist formulas in favour of sensitive skin friendly, fragrance- and alcohol-free products is understandable, but doesn’t maybe always take into account that not all people suffer from constant skin barrier damage or highly sensitised skin. And maybe we also shouldn’t forget that dermatologists sell highly expensive laser treatments, peelings and botox/filler injections that people may potentially not need if that little gua sha tool may just be enough for them to tighten and depuff their jawline a little bit for a few hours every morning.
For me personally, skincare and grooming has always been about far more than just getting clean and moisturised: as someone suffering from depression and anxiety, my daily morning and evening skincare routines are two much needed lifelines when things seem to spiral out of control. I may not have managed to clean my flat, or finish my work on deadline, but at least I was able to sit down calmly for a few minutes after waking up and right before going to bed to connect with my body by layering toner, essence and serum, using my hands to massage it all in. Maybe sheet masks don’t actually do anything for my skin long-term, but oh my do I feel wonderful when I use one, because it gives me a chance to lay down and just…relax. My nightly gua sha massage helps with my TMJ symptoms and works as a wonderful grounding ritual when I feel fully disconnected from my body thanks to occasional bouts of intense vertigo.
The ideal of a perfectly optimised skincare routine is comforting, of course, especially in a world that is becoming increasingly more chaotic and destabilised. It surely is no coincidence that skincare sales surged during the pandemic, and skincare YouTubers and TikTok creators have become the new “beauty gurus”, with makeup content far less popular than it used to be. Our lives may be spiralling out of control, daily routines out the window thanks to the world being upside down for so many of us, but darn it if we cannot at least control and perfect what goes onto our skin!
But humans aren’t machines, we weren’t meant to be hacked into and programmed to perfection, especially not by using the same code for every single human out there. Just like food is about more than just providing fuel to keep our bodies going, so is skincare about more than merely solving whatever imperfection we might see it having. Sure, you can eat unflavoured and unseasoned chicken breast, brown rice and broccoli every day to “optimise” your macro-nutrients, but what joyless life would that be? For many of us, using skincare is a soothing activity that connects us to our bodies and allows us to practice self-care, that pleases the senses with its delectable scents, textures and sensations when applied to our skin. We should not be shamed for this enjoyment.
Basically, it all boils down to this: do not let others shame you for what makes you happy, because happiness is not easily found in this crazy, topsy-turvy time. And do not feel guilty if your happiness comes from a nice-smelling cream or even – gasp! – one of those terrible, absolutely not acceptable sugar scrubs or high pH cleansing foams. Don’t get swept up in the dogma wars raging on social media, use common sense and watch how your skin reacts to certain products. If you suspect an ingredient makes your skin unhappy, cut it out. And don’t let people shame you over your enjoyment of taking care of your skin!
Take care guys, and stay safe – don’t forget to follow me on Instagram and Facebook for all the latest K-Beauty and skincare news, and check out my other work, e.g. my article about My skincare routine with Olive Young Global products! And guys – I have a YouTube channel now, I’d love for you to check it out and subscribe!