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The problem with ‘skin-first’ beauty

Photography by Kristina Yenko
Words by Jasmine Wallis

How does the ‘your skin but better’ approach really work?

When Glossier first came onto the scene back in 2010, it felt like the dawn of a new beauty age. 

Founded off the back of Emily Weiss’s successful beauty blog Into the Gloss, the brand championed ‘skin-first’ beauty. That is, focusing on healthy skin and selling makeup and skincare products to accompany that (serums, balms, and cleansers), rather than makeup products that cover up your “flaws”. 

With a tagline that stated ‘Skin first. Makeup second. Smile always,’ it seemed that natural beauty had well and truly arrived. 

The brand was just what consumers were looking for, and this approach carried Glossier to unicorn status — an investment term for when a start-up company is valued at over $1 billion. 

But as brands like Glossier have championed natural makeup and beauty over the last few years, the pressure to have clear, radiant, shimmering skin has grown alongside it. 

This is evident in the booming Korean beauty industry, where it’s now the new normal to have a daily 10-step skincare regime and post selfies every time you use a serum-infused sheet mask.

As someone who struggles with cystic, hormonal acne, the constant bombardment of skin-first beauty can become overwhelming. The trend isn’t just about spritzing rose water on your face at night and waking up with smooth, radiant skin, it’s just one more (often unattainable) standard that women feel they have to live up to.

My ‘to-buy’ list gets longer every week as influencers recommend the newest face oil or serum for flawless, glowing skin. And beauty brands such as Glossier and Milk Makeup use their own customers (usually young women with clear, blemish-free skin) to influence people on social media into buying their products.

Living in a capitalist society, there are millions of businesses dedicated to making you think you need more. Since advertising began, women, in particular, have been subjected to products that promise they’ll make us look more youthful, glowing and presentable to the world. 

The result? An obsession with our faces. 

It’s a fear that I can already see manifesting itself in my friends and myself, when the slightest hint of a crow’s foot (or rather, a smile line) in our early twenties sees us buying the latest eye cream as a preventative measure. 

In the same way that thinness was the beauty ideal in the late ’90s and early ’00s — a result of the glamourised, heroin chic Kate Moss look — the overwhelming desire to improve your skin or achieve a disco ball-like glow is beginning to seep into every editorial and advertorial space. Just as brands clawed over each other to join the self-care movement over the last couple of years, businesses are now capitalising on the skin-first trend.

Online New York publication The Cut heavily influences the rhetoric around good skin versus bad skin in its segment titled, “How This (Facialist, Publicist, Designer etc) Gets Her Skin So Good”. The ‘good’ skin, of course, being completely clear, smooth-as-a-baby’s-bum, glowing-yet-not-sweaty, youthful skin.

Vogue creates videos featuring flawless celebrities in their bathrooms, working through their “Everyday Beauty Routine”, persuading the audience to feel like if they just invest in that one super product or moisturise with the tears of an angel five times a day then they’ll never see a single stress line appear between their brows. 

The reality is that for a lot of people getting their skin “so good” doesn’t come down to using products at all. 

Factors like genetics, hormone imbalances, diet and lifestyle all play a major part in how your skin looks, as well as how it recovers from things like scarring and dark spots. 

The skin-first trend also taps into a huge class issue. 

The upper-middle-class influencer on your feed might be able to afford a boutique $250 facial every two weeks to have her selfie appear on The Cut’s homepage, but for a working-class person just trying to make rent, the skin-first trend can make you feel like you’re not enough.

Not everyone has the disposable income to maintain the investment of hundreds of dollars worth of product or treatments into their skin. This puts more pressure on people and can make them feel like they’re not doing enough.

I’ve felt it myself when a dermatologist says “just” three $200 treatments a month will fix my skin right up. 

We’re chasing an unattainable goal that will only work if we invest a lot of time and money into it — things that working-class people often don’t have a lot of to begin with.

For some, the only thing that might bring relief from painful, angry acne is prescription drugs. Accutane is one of the more common options and can have severe side effects such as incredibly dry skin, joint and muscle pain, a high risk of birth defects if taken when pregnant and even liver damage. Skin-first beauty doesn’t seem as glamorous when your epidermis is flaking off. 

Just like with the body positivity movement, influencers, advertisers and editors have a responsibility to show many skin types. Especially in an age where consumers want brands to be more transparent in the way they market and communicate.

That beauty editor gets her skin “so good” because she’s sent multiple free products to try out every week. That celebrity can “feel confident in their natural skin” because they’re spending thousands of dollars a year on laser treatments and Goop-recommended face masks. And sometimes people are just born with naturally trouble-free skin.

I’m not trying to say these people are ungrateful or have never struggled with upset skin. This is just a reminder that, in the same way we culturally grappled (and are still grappling) with skinny supermodels of the ’00s, you don’t have to look like the girl with porcelain skin in the Glossier Instagram post. 

Your skin should come first and (if you want to wear it), makeup second.

But getting a hormonal breakout, dark spots or scarring doesn’t make you any less.

Yes, it’s important to look after your skin, to drink eight glasses of water a day and wear SPF30+ for your health, but don’t forget to take beauty advice you read or see on Instagram with a grain of exfoliant because there’s a whole industry out there making bank on you trying to fix your “flaws”.  

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