It the peak of Aurora Hinz’s skincare routine, she was using 10 products, most of them on a daily basis: Two face washes, a toner, a serum, two moisturizers, sheet masks, an exfoliant, and two over-the-counter acne treatments. Hinz had struggled with breakouts for years, and when skincare came into fashion, she decided to stop covering up her acne with makeup, and instead get to the root of the problem with skincare. She typically bought the products from brands like Cosrx, Innisfree, and Tony Moly, where each item cost her between $10 and $50.
There was a sense in which it seemed more virtuous, Hinz said. Foregoing layers of concealer for “natural” cleansers and creams felt, well, natural. Besides, it was fun: Hinz, who is Korean, enjoyed getting swept up in new Korean beauty trends that were just making their way overseas when she was in high school. But after years of trying to calm her skin with several hundred dollars worth of products and few noticeable results, Hinz saw a dermatologist in 2017, and ditched the bulk of her skincare routine in favor of products prescribed or approved by her doctor. They worked.
“Honestly I think I was just a sucker for all the marketing, packaging, and branding,” Hinz, 20, said. “None of the products I tried worked as well as whatever the dermatologist has given me. My skin is clearer than it’s ever been.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when skincare—a term that’s come to signify far more than merely caring for one’s skin—became the pervasive cultural trend it is today. But Korea is a good place to start: K-Beauty began to secure a foothold in American markets around 2015, when the export value of Korean beauty products to the United States climbed by 60 percent compared to the year before. One of its most popular exports was a 10-step skincare routine, which involves, in this precise order: an oil cleanser, a foam or cream cleanser, a toner, an essence, an emulsion, a serum, a sheet mask, eye cream, moisturizer, and, finally, sunscreen. If you purchase all 10 steps together—as you can on sites like Soko Glam and Peach & Lily—the kit can cost anywhere between $199 and $273.
The lengthy regimen provided American women with the basic scaffolding to create their own personalized skincare routines, swapping out products for the next must-have items, or simply the ones friends swore by. Since then, the industry has only ballooned, inflated by influencers on Instagram and YouTube as well as the multimillion- and billion-dollar brands many of them endorse, like Glossier and Drunk Elephant, where a 1-oz. Vitamin C serum costs $90. According to a widely cited 2017 survey from the skincare retailer SkinStore, the average American woman spends about $2,900 a year on skincare and makeup, and replaces her products about every three months.
The skincare industry is still thriving and projected to scale. But there are signs of growing discontents: Women like Hinz, who once bought into the mainstream mythologies surrounding skincare wholesale, have begun to question the merits of such elaborate routines, and wonder whether they’re doing more harm than good to their skin—or if the products have any effect at all. Feeling fatigued, some have taken it upon themselves to drastically reduce their routines; others have turned to dermatologists for professional medical care.
Hinz says now the definitive advice she gives people still entrenched in complicated and costly skincare regimens is: If you can, go see a doctor.
“It turns out I didn’t have many of the issues I thought I had with my skin … it was only so irritable because of the products I was trying,” Hinz said. “I strongly believe that the best thing you can do for your skin is to skip all the craziness and save yourself the trouble by seeing a dermatologist.”
It’s the same advice 25-year-old Elena Politiski began to dole out herself once she found a dermatologist in New York. Before that, Politiski had been convinced that spending on more expensive products from Kiehl’s and Supergoop would help soothe her rosacea, a skin condition that flared up after she graduated college. For years, she continued to replenish her arsenal of products every four to six months, even though none of them appeared to have any effect. “They didn’t really make anything better or worse,” Politiski reflected.
When she finally got to her dermatologist’s office, she said the doctor told her: “None of these products are going to work for your skin.”
Of the 10 dermatologists VICE spoke to, three said it’s almost always been the case that their patients use too many over-the-counter products that aren’t right for them. But the seven others said stories like Hinz’s and Politiski’s have become more common over the last few years, as the contemporary skincare fad has come to a fever pitch. By the time patients walk into their practice, many of them have tried dozens of products and spent hundreds of dollars—often frustrated with a lack of results. Making a doctor’s appointment is usually a last resort.
“Patients will come in and tell me they have one kind of cleanser for the day, another for the night, toner, spot treatments, some sort of oil, some kind of antioxidant cream, a facial brush, which usually makes acne worse—just a ton of stuff,” Rachael Cayce, a board-certified dermatologist at the Los Angeles-based DTLA Derm, said. “I see 30 patients a day and I’m having this conversation with 15 of them. Usually what I’m doing is just decreasing their products.”
Cayce typically asks her patients to bring their cache of skincare products with them when they come to see her. She’s often shocked to find that they present her with single products that cost hundreds of dollars, when she knows at the end of the appointment she’ll probably write them a $15 prescription.
“A skincare regimen is just one part of the bigger plan to achieving your best skin, so investing excessive time and money in products is not always that productive,” Tara Rao, a dermatologist at New York’s Schweiger Dermatology Group, wrote in an email. “Often, someone with breakout-prone or inflamed skin will incorporate additional products and steps in an effort to cure the issue … While [they] can help manage the issue, there is a lot of … trial [and error] that does not always have a happy ending.”
While some patients come in eager to finally hear a professional opinion on their skin woes, others are more resistant. Cayce said her patients are sometimes reluctant to scale back their multi-step routines, or unwilling to give up the expensive products included in them. This has even been true of some members of her staff, whom she’s seen using over-the-counter products they know don’t suit their skin. Others still want to insist that their opinions on skincare are the right ones, perhaps especially if they’ve been informed by hours of reading up on serums in skincare subreddits.
“Even when I’m hanging out with people who know I’m a dermatologist, they’ll tell me what to do for my skin,” Cayce said. “They wouldn’t say that if I were a cardiologist.”
Dermatology has entered somewhat of a stalemate with commercialized skincare and its many proponents. As a member of the social media committee at the American Academy of Dermatology, one of the world’s largest organizations of dermatologists, Anthony Rossi says he and his colleagues are constantly trying to figure out how to make scientifically supported information about skincare more accessible to the public. But he admits it’s difficult to compete with the hundreds of skincare influencers across YouTube and Instagram who engage viewers with product reviews and tutorials. “No one wants to read a journal article on skincare,” he said on the phone.
The AAD has begun to try to capture an audience using a similar approach as online personalities, tweeting out short videos, or linking to a dermatologist-approved skincare routine for men.“We think of ourselves as the skincare influencers, and we would like to see the public see us as that,” Rossi continued.
There are some skincare influencers of the same mind: Rio Viera-Newton, a beauty writer at The Strategist who’s known for sharing a Google doc of her detailed skin routine, says she always makes clear that she’s speaking from the standpoint of her personal experience—not making a general statement about what products will work for everyone. And she continues to promote the value of going to see a medical professional to address certain skincare troubles; she sees one regularly.
“Dermatologists are incredible resources and have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to breaking down the science behind skin issues and how products work,” Viera-Newton wrote in an email. “I have severe eczema flare-ups that my dermatologist helps me manage with topical ointments and creams. I can’t imagine trying to deal with it without her.”
But not everyone leaving behind their skincare routines is turning to a dermatologist.
Nneka Udeagbala, who is 21, scaled back her skincare routine after a trip abroad made her notice that her skin’s appearance had more to do with climate and diet than the eight products she had been using daily. Now she only uses two over-the-counter products that most consistently produce results.
Veronica Carleton, who’s the same age, simplified her routine after she went away to college. Concerned about her daughter’s breakouts, Carleton’s mom gave her dozens of products to try— including a scrub, a cleanser, a serum, a night-repair treatment, lightening cream for dark spots, and a bleaching cream for extreme dark spots—none of which proved effective. Now, Carleton says she only uses one product, a gentle facial cleanser, and the results are much better.
“My skin has not looked this good in years,” she said.
But even though Carleton has found a new routine that works for her, she says she would never insist on someone else trying it: Fielding other people’s opinions about what would clear her skin had been exasperating, and she found carrying out their advice (following an extensive, multi-step routine) was tiring “Part of how I ended up in that deep hole is people saying, ‘ You need to do this,’” she said. “It just piled on, and I don’t think I want to be that for anyone else.”
Skepticism toward commercial skincare isn’t new, and it cropped up almost as soon as the current skincare movement gained traction. In January 2018, an Outline article headlined “The Skincare Con” became a lightning rod in debates over whether the new obsession with skincare was merely an elaborate scheme to get women to spend more money, or if it constituted a valid way to care for oneself. The piece sparked what Vox termed the “skincare wars”: The battle—which took place on Twitter, mostly—was waged not only to answer the question of whether or not skincare is a scam, but also to get to the root of much larger concerns about the myths surrounding self-care and self-improvement that we buy into to cope with our lives.
The rise in skincare has been just one result of the self-care movement, millennials’ “trendy, Instagrammable solution” to the gaping holes in our healthcare system, Tonic writer Shayla Love wrote in December. As Love explained, the current definition of self-care can validate a whole spectrum of behaviors to the point of contradiction: “Eating healthfully or indulgently; spending time alone or seeing friends; working out or taking a rest day; getting a manicure or forgoing beauty routines.” The point is to do whatever you need to do to feel good.
For many people, skincare fit the bill. In a piece for The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino dubbed 2017 “the year skincare became a coping mechanism.” Tolentino said skincare had been a “small, ridiculous” attempt to affirm that she would “outlive the Trump administration”—and a way to exert a modicum of control over the seemingly intractable political forces that had made her world-weary.
Many women VICE spoke to said skincare had also been a way of bonding with other women. Politiski said when she went away to college she would send her friends face masks for birthdays and holidays as a way to keep in touch; when they visited her in Manhattan, she would take them to the Glossier showroom in SoHo. Udeagbala said when she would hang out with friends in their dorm rooms they would often haul out their skincare collections and show each other whatever new product they’d recently bought.
Find a woman who wants to talk about her skincare routine and you might talk for hours; even as I called women to ask them about eliminating or dramatically simplifying their routines, I found myself sucked into the details of years-long skincare journeys stretching from adolescence into adulthood. Talking about skincare can be a way of finding out about other people’s lives and routines; what they do in private to try to become the person they want to be.
When skincare signifies so much, it can be difficult to let go of—whether or not it “works” in the literal sense is almost beside the point.
The Sunday before I began writing this piece, my coworker Rachel Pick announced on Twitter that she would be bringing in almost her entire skincare collection, which she was offloading after seeing a new dermatologist. “Yesterday during spring cleaning I threw out my microneedle roller,” she told me. (A microneedle roller is, by the way, exactly what it sounds like.) “It would always make this horrible creaking sound when I used it, and my husband would just be like, ‘Why?’ Why indeed.”
Like some of the other women I spoke to, Pick said she’d grown impatient when her bundle of skincare products didn’t seem to help her underlying skin condition, and exhausted by the routine. “I just want to go to sleep,” she said, “not do a 10-step Korean skincare routine.”
Some brands already seem to be preparing to accommodate people like Pick. Over the last year, bar soaps have had a resurgence, becoming the new minimalist It-item for “skincare obsessives,” according to a March article from the Cut. “Effectiveness aside, bars also appeal to the Marie Kondo in all of us,” writer Jessica Teas reasoned. “As we declutter every other area of our lives, it only makes sense that the bathroom cabinet goes KonMari too.” The same month, Amazon expanded into the skincare industry, rolling out the line Belei, which is meant to “help customers spend less time and money searching for the right skincare solutions,” as Kara Trousdale, Amazon head of beauty for private brands, said in a statement.
Recently, Vogue also extolled the resurgence of “single-dose skincare,” packaged in the form of all-in-one capsules or ampoules popularized by brands like Elizabeth Arden in the 90s, now sold by Estée Lauder, L’Oréal Paris, and, once again, Elizabeth Arden.
Of course, scaling back a skincare routine doesn’t mean abandoning all forms of skincare for good. Our skin is our largest organ; our face, the first thing people see. Most people VICE spoke to were looking for a middle ground between a 10-step skincare routine and a zero-step one. And most found it was well within reach once they let go of the idea that commercial skincare was the panacea for all complexion-related concerns.
“I’ll never be one to turn down a face-mask night with some friends, and I still have fun looking at all the new products that come out,” Hinz said. “I think that there are ways to participate in this trend without having to buy snake oil.”