2.08.2019

Skincare Experts: Trust and Critical Thinking

The skincare hobbyist world is not what it was 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago. In the last few years, skincare as a hobby has exploded, and that explosion owes a lot to social media, the blogosphere, and forums like Reddit. Using these online tools, amateurs and experts alike can share knowledge and experiences with respect to skincare.

This has been a net-good for skincare hobbies, in my opinion. There are more products reviews for curious consumers, and more discussion and scientific analyses for wannabe skincare scholars. 15 years ago if you picked up a skincare item at the store, you would only have the opinion of a pushy salesperson to convince you to get it/not get it. Now you can google the product name and find dozens if not hundreds of detailed reviews and accounts of this product's efficacy.

There are hundreds of small-time bloggers, but there are also some prominent, next-level Skincare Gurus who, by virtue of their experience or their large following, enjoy a prominent expert status. In some cases, it's well-deserved and in others it's misplaced, but this post isn't about dissecting who is great and who sucks. Instead, I'm going to outline some best practices for judging opinions/reviews and placing them all in context in your index of skincare knowledge.

So you don't think I'm dissing general categories of people, I'll name some sources I personally pay attention to, and whose advice I find helpful, once taking into account the specific challenges I'll outline below. When writing this post, I particularly thought of Caroline Hirons (former esthetician and longtime consultant for beauty brands), Paula Begoun (former beauty journalist and current skincare brand owner), Sam Bunting (cosmetic dermatologist, TV personality), Jude Chao (blogger and experienced skincare hobbyist), Stephen Ko (cosmetic chemist), and Lisa Eldridge (makeup artist and expert, skincare enthusiast). And of course I'm including my fellow amateur skincare lovers on the Instagram and Reddit communities. I want to put those examples in your brain at the outset of this, because my criticisms and comments extend to all categories of skincare nerds.

Background/History


I love that I don't even have to leave my couch to read or hear the opinions of estheticians, doctors, and cosmetic chemists alike. The Internet allows people with a variety of industry backgrounds to chime in on a number of subjects. What would have taken hours and thousands of dollars for consultations/discussions is now available online from a variety of sources.There are also hundreds of genuinely well-meaning and cautious amateurs with no industry training who dispense genuinely good advice in a few corners of the Internet.

I think that only good things can come from exposure to such a vast sample of viewpoints and backgrounds. I don't prioritize one background over another. To me, an esthetician who worked for 30 years with a variety of clients likely has reliable and useful knowledge that you can't get from a dermatologist. And a brand owner's opinion should always be taken with a grain of salt, but someone who designs and sells skincare absolutely has information and suggestions that can assist you in your skincare explorations.

It only makes sense to balance your roster of skincare gurus. If you mainly follow amateur hobbyists on Instagram, try adding a few dermatologists or high-profile estheticians to your list. You will find the more opinions and recommendations you are exposed to, the more well-developed your perspective on skincare will be. Just because you saw a dermatologist and she fixed your major skin problems with a few recommendations, it doesn't mean that you won't learn useful things from other professionals (or laymen.)

The biases and knowledge specialties will vary depending on industry and background. A facialist likely has a different viewpoint or orientation toward acid peels compared to an amateur, and a dermatologist probably has strong feelings about retinoids that a brand owner for a company that produces mainly antioxidant-based skincare will not agree with. Personally, I love to listen to everyone, because there are kernels of truth and a good philosophy to be found in every category.

Among amateurs, the product and ingredient biases tend to be more split based on skin type. Because most of their knowledge comes from pure personal experience with their own faces, amateurs/non-professionals (like me!) will have recommendations based on what works for them. And that can be a good thing if you share skin frustrations, but it's always good to read opinions from people who have worked with a variety of skin types and issues. This is analogous to the difference in a YouTube Makeup Guru and a real world Makeup Artist. The former is amazing at taking care of her own face, she knows the ins and outs of exactly what colors to use and where to put them. But she would likely have no clue what to do if plonked down in front of 10 models and told to make them up. The type of knowledge gained from experience with other people's faces is not better in all cases, but it is different and necessary. I truly don't prioritize one over the other. What you hear from a facialist who has worked with dry to oily skin, 15 year olds and 70 year olds, will not necessarily be as helpful in some cases compared to what you get from one very articulate amateur who is the same age and skin type as you. In some cases you will get a lot out of the amateur's advice, because she will have tried all the options suited to your skintype, and will have some relatable insights for your exact skin. By listening to laymen and to professionals, you will gain more breadth and depth of knowledge than just sticking to one category.

I will say if you are a true skincare beginner, it is better to follow a regimen or philosophy based around an "expert." It's too difficult to know, as a newbie, who you are listening to. I've seen very earnest, serious-sounding routines given from one amateur to another, and neither was aware that it was horribly destructive and counterproductive (think: Clean & Clear scrub followed by a rubbing alcohol wipe, use aloe vera if feeling dry.) If you're brand-new to skincare, there are smart amateurs out there, but you won't be able to pick them out as easily. Stick to the basic posts and simple advice from experts where possible.

Time Spent in Industry/Hobby


A minor corollary to the above point is to consider the guru's time spent engaged in the line of work or hobby. This is not a direct measure of quality, but it does help you weed out some people who may not know what they are talking about. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, because there are people who spend dozens of years in an industry and they are not holistically well-informed or good at communicating that opinion. But in general, make sure to heed the advice of seasoned, competent, and cautious advisers over the advice you get from a super-excitable and confident newbie.

There's that old adage about the man who knows he knows nothing being wise. May sound a bit trite, but it's true. Listen to people who tend to tack on "your mileage may vary" or "proceed cautiously" when dispensing their own advice. They are aware that everyone has individual reactions and skin issues, and they do not want you to be disappointed or emotional when things inevitably go off-script. Someone who confidently assures you that you'll definitely love my routine, it's so easy, all I use is lemon juice Nivea scrub SPF 15! is probably not thinking about different skin types and variance in product tastes.

Free Products


While this is a touchy subject in general, I believe conflicts of interest for beauty gurus/influencers cannot be ignored, and so I do take it into account when a skincare guru receives free products, either as gifts or in exchange for reviews. Read the link above for a more detailed breakdown of my thoughts on the subject of conflicts of interest in the social media marketing age.

Even the most honest, trustworthy, and virtuous gurus will be influenced in some way when they receive free product. If a guru receives thousands of dollars worth of product every year, for free, their recommendations and daily routine will be skewed because of that. Even if they remain outspokenly conscientious of budget-friendliness, if you look at the products they use on a daily basis, they will likely prefer/use more expensive ones. And that makes sense. When dealing with a pool of products which are all formulated well and effectively, it's pretty easy to choose the one with sexier packaging, a nicer scent, and a slightly more luxurious texture.

The results of the Heritage Rosewater Mist ($8) and the Omorovicza Queen of Hungary Mist ($90) are likely comparable, as the main constituents of both are glycerin and water, but if I was given the latter for free, you bet your ass I'd be spritzing it and showing off the lovely frosted-glass bottle as much as possible. And it wouldn't be fake enthusiasm. I would genuinely be excited to receive such a lovely and luxurious item, and I would 100% enjoy it.

The question is- for these gurus who receive those types of products on the daily- how do we, as followers, figure out what products are in the "beautiful but would never buy if I was a pleb" category, and which are worth the expense? That's not a question I have a concrete answer to. I think if skincare is a hobby and not purely a perfunctory grooming task, it inevitably involves some element of luxury. You can choose a $90 mist and not be "wrong," but you have to always prioritize your own budget and look at a spectrum of reviews for luxury products. Do not buy a product that is raved about by your Favorite Skincare Guru Ever without checking for reviews from people who purchased it themselves. Wait and see if your Favorite Guru repurchases or continues to use it after a few months- that will show you a bit more information than just a preliminary rave.


Preferences/Strong Opinions


Something which definitely concerns me about the culture of worshiping skincare gurus is that there are people who take every word from a single person's mouth as gospel. Following one smart expert might not lead you astray, but what if you follow 20 "trusted" sources? What happens when Paula of Paula's Choice loves mineral oil and Caroline Hirons hates it? Where do you fall on the issue, and does it have to do with your own preferences, or just which woman you trust more/discovered earlier in your journey?

For me this is an issue everyone has to hash out for themselves, and it really will influence the way you consume skincare media and advice. There are certain truths in the field of skincare science, but the vast majority of "rules" are guidelines. You can cherry-pick evidence to support both sides of a black and white issue. It doesn't mean either person is wrong, nor does it mean both people are 100% right. The perspective of the person making a claim matters a great deal, and it's your job as a media consumer to account for their perspective, even if the guru believes him/herself to be making an irrefutable claim.

Again with the example of Caroline Hirons/Paula Begoun on the issue of mineral oil- I have seen nasty remarks directed at both women, as if either is being willfully deceitful and spreading bad information. These two women are actually friends, and agree on a great deal of skincare "truths." They simply have a different perspective on the issue. For one, I've seen the Hirons say that mineral oil is a lazy ingredient in expensive skincare as the MSRP would allow for more expensive ingredients and better "value" to the consumer. But of course, there is value in simple, non-irritating skincare that prevents water loss (which mineral oil does.) I've also seen her claim that mineral oil is "junk" for the skin, which is a bit more of an extreme position, and I do believe this comes from her desire for the average person to get good bang for the buck when purchasing skincare. Paula Begoun believes, as many others do, that the evidence points to mineral oil being a good thing in most cases, and that shying away from the ingredient can be detrimental for your overall routine.

In this instance, you could find a perfectly good regimen for your skin listening to only one of those women, even though they are diametrically opposed on this issue. But if you close your ears to other experts, and only listen to one as your Own Personal Skincare Jesus, you are missing out on the beauty in the noise. There is such a wide-ranging diversity of opinions in the skincare world- and if you are grounded in science and you don't make an impulse purchase based on one beautiful review, you are not going to come to much harm just listening to what others have to say.

I would say I'm less on the hippie-dippie side of things. Probably growing up around Berkeley engendered in me suspicions toward anything that smacks of ignorant do-gooders. But I still like to read interviews with brands that follow a green/hippie philosophy. There's good knowledge and wisdom there, even if it doesn't apply to me personally at that time. I can better recommend mineral oil-free alternatives to someone who refuses to use it (even though I love it) if I read a moisturizer round-up from a mineral oil-hating blogger. I'm not vegan, but I have friends who are who ask for vegan recommendations. You can decide what to believe, in all cases, but you can never go wrong hearing more opinions.

Science-Washing


After dunking on hippies, I'll venture to the other end of extremes and mention that, especially in the last 5 years, there's been a lot of science-washing in the skincare hobby world. After decades of hiding cosmetic formulary behind a veil of glamour and "ah, you wouldn't understand it" brand esotericism, finally consumers have better access to information about ingredients and formulas. But this exposure to more information does not necessarily create a better understanding or deeper knowledge for the average person. In fact, there are some people who, because of their own lack of scientific background, pick and choose the "sciencey" experts who deliver information in the cutest blurb/post and blindly parrot the information without thinking critically about the subject.

Did I just tell you to listen to experts when in doubt, but also don't listen too hard to experts? I contain multitudes, yada yada. Although many of the more science-minded Internet skincare personalities like Stephen Ko or Lab Muffin are intelligent and well-reasoned, it doesn't mean that you can read their posts and regurgitate the information in order to understand skincare better. One of the most hazardous trends I've noticed is the frantic perusal of INCI lists (ingredient lists) and the dogged insistence that if you recognize ingredients and their position in those lists, you can predict how a skincare product will behave. Blogs like Chemist Confessions have certainly contributed to this issue, though I think we humans will always find a way to take a nuanced issue and make it black and white, thereby nullifying the value in the endeavor.

You can read an ingredients list and scoff at the low position of a botanical extract in the INCI list, because, armed with your cursory reading of someone else's summary of the necessary percentage of astragalus extract for anti-inflammatory activity, you know that that extract is in there for looks, not for utility. But that would be a gross misunderstanding of how skincare ingredients are produced (there is no industry-standard rule for concentrations of botanical extracts) and also the way the formulation process works. The main reason I hated The Ordinary skincare line when it launched was that it followed that reverse-reasoning of a skincare mob: X% of Y ingredient is GOOD so our formula contains ONLY X% of Y ingredient and no other USELESS garbage. I have noticed a lot of self-appointed INCI detectives hyperfocus on the active ingredients and dismiss the unsexy things like solvents, emollients, emulsifiers, and basic humectants with a wave of their hand. In reality, the majority of a user's experience with a skincare product, as well as its efficacy (how well it absorbs, how effectively it penetrates, how well it layers with the user's makeup and other skincare) is dependent on these unsexy "fillers." The best skincare is the skincare you'll continue to use. The best skincare is the skincare that, day in and day out, makes a noticeable improvement in the quality and feel of your skin. There's an annoyingly vast gray area to individual skin preferences, but it comprises the majority of the skincare experience. 

When I've been asked how I "know" a skincare product is working, my answer is usually that I don't ever know, for sure. I have been known to use a "Holy Grail" product for a year, then take it out of my routine just to check and make sure it's doing something. Sometimes I'll add it back, and sometimes I'll leave it out. Because neither our bodies nor our environments have static compositions, sometimes what our skin "liked" last October doesn't carry over to what it likes this May...or this coming October. Hormonal changes, ways of eating, stress, age, weather, location, and many more factors are lumped into this mystery question of "what does my skin like?" And no cosmetic chemist can write a single post helping you answer that question. It's up to you to experiment and be patient with building a routine that works in reality, not in theory

Concluding Thoughts


This is a complex situation that can't be reduced to "X guru good Y guru bad, thanks for coming to my TedTalk." I think that the industry and hobbyist communities are filled with both the well-meaning and the treacherous, the informed and the ignorant. Most people have a blend of all of these qualities. Every single one of us has blind spots and prejudices, and as a consumer it is your responsibility to take information from a wide variety of sources to balance out and eliminate those blind spots as much as possible. As always, my recommendation is to build a skincare routine slowly, one product at a time, while observing how your skin reacts to individual items. Feel free to hold all the advice of skincare experts and hobbyists in your mind at the same time, but remember that your experience will be a large factor in deciding what stays on your shelf and what gets tossed in the trash. Remember that it's all too easy to misinterpret or extrapolate wild conclusions from nuggets of truth, and most skincare rules are more like maybe-sometimes guidelines.

8 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post! It's captured a lot of what's been on my mind lately, and I completely agree about following/reading/researching multiple and varied sources and using common sense and knowledge of our own skin to make our own purchasing decisions.

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    1. Thanks Grace! It's a complicated situation, and a tricky balance act. When it's your own money and skin on the line you can't be too careful :)

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    1. I've never watched her videos! I'll check em out :)

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  3. Oh man, the science-washing. Everyone thinks because they can kind of use PubMed, they can read an article and interpret it correctly, or that they've even found a good study. So much bad searching in the skincare community, and as someone whose literal job is finding best evidence to support care, it makes me weep.

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    1. So true! It's too easy to cherrypick and misinterpret.

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  4. Hi! Sorry to bother you but I found some of your pictures through Reddit and you look similar in skintone to me.

    I was wondering if you could tell me all the foundations you match to, or if there's anywhere else where you list your favourite makeup. I'm going to keep a close eye! Many thanks

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    1. Hi Jessica- I have been using the Stellar Foundation in S01 + MAC Pro Longwear Concealer in NC20 for several years now. They are my perfect matches. I also experimented with the Fenty foundation in 150 when it came out but ultimately found the formula unworkable. Shade match was fairly good. Not amazing. I post all the time on Instagram and I always mention the face makeup I'm using :)

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