How Skin Care Became an At-Home Science Experiment

August 8, 2018

In the skin-care aisle at the CVS pharmacy closest to my office, there are 106 different products for acne. I lurked in the store for an hour last week tallying anything with the words “acne,” “blemish,” or “blackhead” on the packaging. I did not include products labeled “pore refining,” because that seems fake.

There are 101 antiaging products on the shelves. This includes anything that claims to fight wrinkles, or that is labeled “antiaging” or “age defying.” I did not count the following terms: “age perfect,” “lifting,” “for sagging skin,” or “for mature skin,” even though those were clearly meant to evoke antiaging effects without explicitly saying so.

There were 155 types of body lotion and 177 types of face lotion, although in certain cases it was hard to tell which category a particular product would fall under. I included anything called a “lotion,” “moisturizer,” “cream,” “gel,” “gel-cream,” “cream-gel,” “moisturizing oil,” “salve,” “hydrating mist,” “intense-hydration concentrate,” and in one case—may God have mercy on my soul— “daily liquid care.” I did not tally “cream cleansers,” “serums,” “treatments,” “fillers,” or “elixirs.”

These are just some of the over-the-counter skin-care products available at one drugstore. We haven’t even gotten into cleansers, let alone masks or scrubs or toners. Suffice it to say, figuring out what skin-care products to use can be daunting.

The skin-care industry uniquely straddles the line between health and aesthetics, between drugs and cosmetics. Acne and other skin conditions often require medical treatment and prescription drugs, yet it’s possible to treat some breakouts, or dryness, or redness, at home. Sometimes there may be nothing wrong, per se, but one’s skin could always be a little more even, a little softer, a little glowier, couldn’t it? There’s also a certain amount of care needed to maintain the status quo—to stay clean, moisturized, and protected from the sun.

All of these pursuits fall under the umbrella of “skin care.” The industry does little to help anyone make sense of it. In fact, it is often deliberately confusing.

A few common skin-care ingredients are regulated as drugs. These include those in sunscreen; salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, which are used to treat acne; and adapalene, the main ingredient in the newly over-the-counter product Differin.

The core of the subreddit’s advice boils down to a routine of two to five steps: Cleansing and moisturizing, with the “optional” additions of exfoliating (chemical exfoliators are preferable to scrubs), spot-treating blemishes, and sunscreen (“optional but highly recommended”). It has product recommendations for each of those categories (the community crowdsources its “Holy Grail” recommendations), and there are further rabbit holes to burrow into if you want to get into antiaging or specialty serums or whatnot.

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