On skincare and sanctimony

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Drummer Boy and I once had an argument about skincare so fierce that once we’d calmed down, we had to agree to never discuss the topic again. It began when I mused – innocently, I thought – aloud, “I probably know more about skincare than you, to be fair,” and ended with us shouting at each other about what the definition of true knowledge really is. Or something.

As I’ve had acne in varying degrees of severity for fifteen years now, skincare is something of a hobby of mine. So when this article did the rounds of beauty Twitter on Tuesday night and caused rather a stir, it prompted some Thoughts.

Now, I don’t want to do a line-by-line take-down of the article – life is too short for that – but there are parts of it that really needled me. Firstly, given the position she’s taking, it seems rather bold of the writer to shame people who’ve not been blessed with unblemished skin, as she does with the line: “Don’t we all have friends who are fanatical about skin care and don’t… really (whispers) have great skin? How can that be?” She uses that point to prove that having a skincare routine isn’t about results, it’s simply about buying and having material things – without appearing to consider that perhaps it’s judgemental attitudes like hers that drive others to the drugstore in search of the holy-grail product that will solve their skin woes.

I’ve tried a great many things in my pursuit for not-perfect-but-better skin, and as a result of a decade and a half of experimenting, I have a short list of things that definitely, definitely work: one is sleep. Proper, luxurious, eight or nine uninterrupted hours of sleep. Another is Adapalene, a prescription-only topical retinoid. I don’t often succeed with the former, but I always have the latter, and I gladly spend hours of my life in pharmacy queues to obtain it, because it can halt those massive throbby spots in their tracks and makes smaller zits all but disappear overnight.

You know what else works – or at the very least, helps? Cleansing my face, gently but thoroughly. I don’t just do it in the hope that it will prevent spots, though; there are other benefits. A nice-smelling oil massaged into the skin then rinsed off can perk you up on the gloomiest, most sullen of mornings. And yes, oil on oily skin sounds counter-intuitive but honestly, for the length of time it’s on your face, it’s fine. This one smells lovely and cheered me through a recent bout of mild flu when having a shower felt like a Herculean task.

It is rare I leave the flat without some sort of foundation or concealer. And there’s nothing sad or pitiable about that; I don’t feel hard-done-by, or like I’m pandering to the patriarchy by sparing them the sight of my spots. I honestly have a better day when I’ve got some make-up on; I put more of myself out into the world than I would if I were barefaced. And so, a cream cleanser at night makes short work of a faceful of slap. I genuinely love those ten minutes at the end of the day when my bra and make-up come off and my dressing gown goes on. I swear by a hot flannel with the vociferousness of a thousand grannies. Taking a few minutes purely for yourself in the morning and in the evening can make a noticeable difference to both your face and your mood; it’s a pleasant, calming way to bookend the day.

Yes, there is undoubtedly a lot to criticize about the beauty industry. Animal testing, digitally retouched images, the lack of representation of people of colour, influencers not making sponsored content clear, false advertising, pseudo-scientific nonsense on product packaging… it’s a long list. And in some of these areas, good work is being done to address the problems. Brands are expanding their shade ranges to be more inclusive (long overdue, I know), and American pharmacy chain CVS has banned digitally-enhanced images, developing its own watermark to show that photos haven’t been altered.

There’s also been a concerted effort by bloggers, traditional journalists and even some brands to unpick some of the faux-medical bullshit that gets printed on serum bottles. Caroline Hirons’ blog is a good place to start, Sali Hughes’ Guardian column is a reliably good source of thoughtful recommendations, and India Knight’s Sunday Times Style spot also tends to be refreshingly lacking in nonsense (obviously the Sunday Times link will be paywalled). One of the most talked-about brands of the last couple of years, The Ordinary, has made transparency its USP. Products are named after specific ingredients, are sold at sensible prices, and somewhat fittingly, the packaging is all glass bottles and droppers. Creator Brandon Truaxe has a personality to match his somewhat striking moniker, but has a genuine passion for the ingredients and formulations – and crucially, the strengths at which things like retinol or vitamin C will actually make a difference to the skin. He was a guest on the The Emma Guns Show podcast last year, and it’s a cracking listen.  The rise of voices like Hirons and Hughes, and the way a brand like The Ordinary has gone stratospheric, shows that people who are interested in skincare really aren’t uninformed and being seduced by pretty bottles of snake oil. Consumers are turning to voices they trust, and increasingly, those voices are independent, as opposed to being brand ambassadors.

But you know something – even if it were true that skincare is all a total con and nothing works and it’s all just useless, it would still be rude to write the whole thing off as silly women being tricked into parting with their cash. Routines are often what hold us together in times of grief and sadness. When your life feels like it’s hanging by a couple of eyelash-fine threads, if what gives you comfort is a bottle of Liz Earle cleanser, a hot cloth, and ten minutes behind a locked bathroom door, who are we to judge? People are allowed to have nice things. Women are allowed to have nice things, frivolous things, things that make no-one else happy but themselves.

It’s quite interesting that when it comes to opinion pieces on beauty and skincare, the sanctimony very rarely flows the other way. It’s highly unusual to find beauty writers looking down on people or judging them for not having a skincare routine or choosing not to wear make-up. My own personal experience of reading blogs and beauty columns and spending a lot of time and money in Boots has shown me that if you want to engage with that world, great – there’s loads for you. And if you don’t, that is also absolutely fine.

I don’t give a shit about anyone else’s skincare routine or lack thereof. Whether you’re a “splash of water and go” type of person or a “five-step routine morning and evening” sort, good luck to you. But criticising people for the harmless habits that get them out the door in the morning and into bed at night is tired and boring. Judging them for what they spend their money on is deeply unpleasant. And taking a poorly-informed swipe at an industry that both employs and empowers a huge number of women says more about you than it does about any of the people you’re criticising.

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