The mainstream beauty industry is known for being fad-heavy; today’s Korean snail mask is tomorrow’s Biore pore strip (seriously, who knew those were bad for your skin?).
But the so-called “science of skincare” is a trend with staying power among many women and, increasingly, girls—these days, it’s not unusual to go into a Rite-Aid skincare aisle and hear a cluster of tweens discussing BHAs and hyaluronic acid with all the confidence and authority of mini-dermatologists.
Although the basic concept of knowing more about what you’re putting on your face sounds great, “skincare science” has drawn criticism—notably, from Jezebel and The Atlantic—for being just another marketing ploy without hard facts to back it up. The beauty industry is certainly adept at packaging its products to fit in with au courant social movements, from the greed-heady 1980s culture that assured women they were “worth it” (so long as they bought L’Oreal) to the mainstream marketing of consumer products as essential for “self-care.” It begs the question; is the skincare-science movement merely a reductive marketing gimmick out to pinkwash hard science in order to sell moisturizer, or could it create an empowering moment for women and girls seeking to learn more about the science behind the products that are being targeted at them?
Austin-based comedian Kath Barbadoro doesn’t have a quantitative science background, but you could be forgiven for thinking she did. On her popular skincare blog What To Put On Your Face, Barbadoro answers readers’ questions about everything from niacinamide to sodium ascorbyl phosphate (also known as vitamin C) with in-depth precision.
Barbadoro first embraced makeup and skincare as tools to help her appear more polished onstage, but soon developed an interest in the science at work in her skincare routine; she would browse the Reddit thread “skincareaddiction” and check that information on established beauty sites like Beautypedia and Caroline Hirons, explaining, “This is where I started learning about the importance of skin pH and the acid mantle, for example.”
Barbadoro isn’t planning a career change from comedian to dermatologist anytime soon; still, she credits her expanded understanding of skincare science with making her a more conscientious consumer, adding, “You can be a lot more judicious with your purchases when you can look at a list of ingredients in something and actually understand what you’re reading.”
Barbadoro’s sentiment is the basis behind “The Scientific Beauty,” a beauty/skincare blog run by Sophie, a self-described “20-something” Manchester PhD student in biochemistry whose posts aim to answer the rhetorical question, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the science [behind beauty products] was explained in plain English to help decode the chemicals and separate the facts about beauty from the fiction?”
Sophie uses her background in protein biochemistry to offer reviews of everything from clay masks to glycolic scrubs, busting beauty-industry myths with rigorous fact-checking (did you know there’s no scientific basis behind “detox” skincare products?).
On “The Scientific Beauty,” knowledge equals power, and Sophie is determined to offer readers increased knowledge without sacrificing the frothy fun that beauty and skincare can provide (her site’s header features Chanel brushes and lipstick kisses interspersed with chemical compounds.) Sophie encourages young aspiring scientists reading “The Scientific Beauty” to reach out to her with questions and suggestions, noting, “It would be great to encourage more girls (and boys!) to get involved and interested in science [through the blog.]”
It might seem strange to think of a Reddit thread as a breeding ground for scientific feminist conversation, but much of the dialogue that takes place on the “skincareaddiction” thread is just that, particularly for young female users. Pursuing an interest in even the science behind beauty and skincare (or anything else generally typified as “girly”) is often written off as vanity, but for many posters on the “skincareaddiction” group, having a free, accessible, non-commercially-driven place to discuss skincare and beauty—and the issues of physical insecurity and self-esteem that those topics can bring up—is nothing short of a lifeline. On a recent post titled “Acne is ruining my self-esteem and I just want to rant,” users weighed in with comments that were both supportive and scientifically sound; commenters suggested everything from double-checking the impact of birth control on acne to looking into spironolactone as a potential hormonal fix. More importantly, though, they allowed the original poster to feel heard and empathized with, a gift that can prove crucial in grappling with insecurity at any stage of life.
No, “skincare science” isn’t going to save the world (or even necessarily your complexion), and it’s worth noting that any skincare advice gleaned from the internet should probably be double-checked with a doctor. However, maybe an increased understanding of the scientific principles at work behind popular products can encourage beauty enthusiasts to take up some space in the world of science, which is still sorely in need of increased diversity. Maybe, as the “skincareaddiction” Reddit thread suggests, “skincare science” at its best can create territory for young girls and women to come together, share their stories, inform themselves and one another and end up a tad more curious for the experience. And ultimately, who can argue with that?
Emma Specter is a writer and copy-editor living and working in Los Angeles. She’s written for publications including LAist, Bustle and the New York Times, and her Twitter reflects the opinions of absolutely none of those outlets.