There are shoppers who care about their skin – the ones who dutifully cleanse, tone and moisturise – and there are those that have stretched the beauty industry to new, elastic, collagen-plumped limits: for we are living in the age of “skintellectuals”. A world of 10-step skincare regimes in which acids, peptides and essences are standard, and glowing, dewy skin is de rigueur. And where science-savvy self-care swots with high levels of disposable income and even higher standards of skincare have led, it seems the rest of us are following.
Last month an online waiting list of more than 4,000 people and an actual queue of hundreds at a London pop-up store greeted the arrival of US brand Drunk Elephant. Officially launched in 2014 by Texan Tiffany Masterson, then a stay-at-home mother of four with little experience of cosmetic science, its 11-product mix of serums, acids, creams and cleansers have made it the fastest-selling brand in history for beauty store Sephora in the US.
“And it isn’t cheap,” says Jini Sanassy, head of PR for British chain Space NK, “but the vitamin C serum [£67], for instance, sells out in every store.” Sanassy has worked in the industry for 20 years and is a firm believer that “beauty has saved the British high street”; her employer has opened 15 of its 66 stores in the past two years, thanks in part to the huge demand for hi-tech, high-performance luxury skincare.
Its newest store, in Kings Cross, is a seductive shrine. Who has the time, money or lifestyle to invest in learning about this stuff, I ask sales assistant Violeta. “It’s not something you have to force on yourself,” she says, before showing an east Asian student where to find Tata Harper illuminating moisturiser (£74).
She scans my skin – decent, I think, until I catch my reflection under unflattering lights – and asks about my routine. I admit my laziness – never washing my makeup off at night – and I end up with a thorough prescription of products, mildly wobbly from their allure.
In the 50 years since Clinique launched its three-step system from a New York department store, skincare has seen a scientific revolution. Much innovation has come from the east: South Korea popularised the 10-step regime decades ago and the internet sent it mainstream in 2015, and Japan has a five-step take that Violeta says is “about layering products that help each step work better, not compete with it”. Arguably, cult Canadian brand The Ordinary has had the most impact in recent years: it sells 30ml ampoules of acids, oils and serums from about £5.
Skincare specialist Bianca Estelle says: “The internet has played a big part. Customers come to my clinic with so much knowledge about specific active ingredients.” She mentions the “skincare addiction” community on Reddit, which has doubled in a year to 750,000 active users.
Earlier this year an essay entitled The Skincare Con, published by online magazine The Outline, sent this niche corner of the internet alight and prompted responses from writers on The Cut, Vox and the New Yorker. In it, Krithika Varugur wrote: “Perfect skin is unattainable because it doesn’t exist. The idea that we should both have it and want it is a waste of our time and money. Especially for women, who are disproportionately taxed by both the ideal of perfect skin and its material pursuit.” That perfect skin had become “the thinking woman’s quest” was, to Varugur, the most affronting aspect of all.
Estelle says: “People forget that our skin is our biggest organ and we should look after it – and not feel bad about looking after it. It’s not a con, because women can see visible results. And the daily steps are a ritual that can be soothing and therapeutic. Paying yourself that much attention will feel good even if you are sceptical.”
According to research firm Mintel, the proportion of women who use a single cleanser has fallen from 31% in 2017 to 21% in 2018. Meanwhile the proportion of women who use five or more skincare products daily has jumped from 19% to 28%. Senior beauty analyst Alex Fisher notes: “Where before women were putting a lot of effort into their makeup, the trend now is for embracing a natural glow and radiance – and that takes a lot of energy into taking care of your skin.”
Despite the success of smaller brands, which often grow via Instagram, Fisher says: “The facial skincare market has hit peak maturity as there are very few new users to recruit.” So the beauty industry continually attempts to reinvent itself. “Millennials are very much about discovery and supporting smaller brands they feel have a personality. But all of these brands – major legacy ones and the indie ones – are trying to generate interest. If they stuck with the three-step mantra, the industry would stagnate, so they think ‘what else can we bring to this category? How do we break this down?’”
And so the old guard like Estée Lauder have launched an Instagram friendly “edit” and even Clinique has expanded to sell a “moisture surge” collection. “It’s a very clever way to serve the discerning women who want to know more and retain those who want to benefit from that knowledge.”
The idea of skincare as resistance rather than capitulation has gained ground online. Thirty years ago, when black lesbian activist and poet Audre Lorde wrote: “Caring for myself is not an act of self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”, she can’t have imagined her words – written when she was fighting liver cancer – would be used by skincare enthusiasts. But bloggers claim 10-step regimes have helped them through depression and are a meditative way to heal – albeit while looking that much perkier and fresher-faced.
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