In Defense of Skincare as Pleasure: It May Be Functional, But Is It Fun?

In Defense of Skincare as Pleasure: It May Be Functional, But Is It Fun?

When Korean skincare first caught the eye of Western beauty editors, they needed an easy, straightforward “spin” to promote its virtues. Thus, the 10-step K-beauty routine was born, and during the early 2010s, elaborate multi-step routines remained the dominant beauty trend. With the rise of minimalism as a lifestyle, however, this changed drastically. Suddenly the idea of an elaborate 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 by functionality, ideally with only a few active ingredients scientifically proven to work.

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 regarding 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, and beauty science bloggers such as Labmuffin, aka Michelle Wong, have been incredibly valuable resources for both skincare newbies and pros.

However, Wong is an excellent example of how this hyper-focus on ingredient-based, stripped down, scientifically proven skincare as the be-all and end-all can sometimes turn into extreme dogma when those not trained in the scientific method try to boil down complex issues regarding, say, skincare formulation into a black-and-white or right-or-wrong dichotomy.

In her excellent “Myth vs. Truth” Instagram series, Wong 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, Wong argued 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 sensitizing for skin, whether or not allergies are present. She also pointed towards the function of fragrance as a pleasure-enhancing, odor-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, Wong was accused of being in the pocket of “Big Fragrance,” and the carefully selected scientific evidence provided under the post and in a later video 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 focus primarily on function and high dosage active ingredients versus pleasurable textures and we have reached the peak of the functional, minimalist skincare trend.

 

Efficiency as the Be-All End-All

I would also like to (somewhat nervously, given their rabid 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 versus 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—was traditionally coded as “feminine” and often derided as a frivolous and kind of silly interest, a hobby versus a serious endeavor.

But now that men are showing an interest in skincare, this, of course, won’t do anymore: Skincare now needs to be rationalized, optimized, infused with “masculine” efficiency, so that it can be taken seriously. 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, also suddenly has become the mythical end goal of any routine: perfect, flawless, poreless, smooth, and forever young skin.

Female celebrities are more and more shamed for their skincare routines presented on YouTube, and 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 forbid, too much focused on how a product feels versus what it does.

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—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, as to me it has never been “feminine” to take care of your skin.

What I am having a problem with is this current trend to promote a stripped-down routine as the only valid and “correct” way to engage with skincare.

What I am having a problem with is this current trend 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 optimized 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 “optimized,” 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 it into a productive activity that is done to achieve a goal and not just because skincare is a pleasurable 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 this 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).

skincare as pleasure

For me personally, skincare and grooming has always been about far more than just getting clean and moisturized: 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 do I feel wonderful when I use one because it gives me a chance to lay down and just … relax.

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.

 

Skincare as Self-Care

The ideal of a perfectly optimized skincare routine is comforting, of course, especially in a world that is becoming increasingly more chaotic and destabilized. It surely is no coincidence that skincare sales have 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 spiraling out of control, daily routines turned upside down thanks to home office and homeschooling realities, but darn it if we cannot at least control and perfect what goes on 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. For many of us, using skincare is a pleasurable activity that connects us to our bodies and allows us to practice self-care, that soothes the senses with its delectable scents, textures, and sensations when applied to our skin.

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.

What do you think? Are you into skincare as pleasure or more about optimizing your routine?

 

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