Is 'Skinimalism' Just Minimalist Consumerism?

The industry is finally acknowledging the importance of using less stuff — while selling more stuff.

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It’s 2021, “skinimalism” is officially A Thing, and I should be happy. I’ve been preaching about minimal skincare for years! So why do I feel so ugh about it?

Maybe because I have a bad attitude and I’m never satisfied and I can/will poke holes in literally any/everything. (I’m working on it.) Or maybe because the industry’s pivot to “skinimalism” feels a little like this:

It’s one part mea culpa, one hundred parts marketing — a trend designed to sell the public a whole new set of minimal-minded products (see: the 26 unopened emails in my inbox from PR people promoting new “skinimalist” launches) while appearing to address the many, many, many issues the industry has created and exacerbated through the promotion of maximal skincare routines and constant product launches over the past five years or so.

Issues like:

  • Skin damage! Particularly of the skin barrier and microbiome. The overuse of products weakens the uppermost layer of the skin (the barrier), making it more susceptible to inflammation, environmental damage, and more. Thanks to brand new advances in microbiome research, we now know that almost any product — even “gentle” ones intended to repair the barrier! — can disrupt this delicate balance of microorganisms living on and in the skin. These microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi, yeasts, et al) do almost everything we rely on products to do anyway: They balance sebum levels, maintain the skin's ideal pH, produce peptides and antimicrobial compounds, protect from UV light and pollution, inhibit acne-causing bacteria, and so much more. Products with preservatives —which is almost all of them, considering water-based products need preservatives in order to inhibit bacterial growth — particularly interrupt the microbiome, precisely because preservatives inhibit bacterial growth. While inhibiting bacterial growth is great for a product, it's destructive to the microbiome.

  • Environmental damage! The arrival of climate change is harder and harder to ignore with each passing day, even for Fake Ted Cruz. The beauty industry is a major polluter, with all of its little plastic bottles and non-recyclable parts — pumps, springs, droppers, caps — packaged in boxes within boxes stuffed with paper inserts and peanuts and bubble wrap and stickers. If an overabundance of products hurts our skin and the spinning sphere that birthed it, what's the point?

  • Consumerism! Over the years, “shelfies” have become baby billboards for consumerism — the go-to way for beauty enthusiasts to display their adherence to the industry's “more is more is more” maxim. “An anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist ideology becomes more mainstream, it's harder for consumers to justify buying so much unnecessary stuff, and harder for brands to get away with using shelfie imagery to promote their products without seeming out-of-touch and insensitive,” as I told Dazed Beauty in an interview last month.

For individuals, the solution to this three-pronged pitchfork of a problem is to pare back on skincare: use less, buy less.

For the industry, though, the solution is to ramp up production and press coverage of “skinimalist” products: “better” products, multi-use products, “eco-friendly” products. I just Googled “skinimalism” and from the first page of results alone I counted 14 products linked in Vogue UK’s article on the topic, 14 products from Refinery29’s feature, 11 from the Chicago Tribune, nine from The Zoe Report, six from Town & Country… which kind of defeats the purpose of minimalism, no?

**I interrupt this article for a brief Duality Check! There are conscious companies making actually-minimalist skincare products that will inevitably adopt “skinimalist” marketing language in order to boost searchability and sales, and this is not a bad thing. That’s late-stage, digital-age capitalism, baby. Do what you gotta do! As I was saying…**

The easiest way to avoid getting caught in the pseudo-minimalist-cum-consumer trap — 13 Ways To Buy Into Skinimalism! — is by abandoning “skinimalism” for the basic- and boring-sounding “minimal skincare.”

I see the latter as an enduring philosophy for using fewer topical products, or even no topical products at all. (It’s also about using fewer ingredients, because one cream with 42 individual ingredients is just as disruptive as four creams with 10 ingredients. Picture the waste that comes from sourcing and shipping 42 natural ingredients, or the water/air pollution and hazardous waste that results from synthesizing 42 ingredients in a lab. And then your face gets hit with a little bit of 42 ingredients, enough to slightly alter the chemistry of your microbiome but not enough of any one ingredient in particular to really “benefit” your skin — honestly, you probably get less than 1% of each when you account for water content and stabilizers and such — so, like, what are we doing here???)

“Skinimalism,” on the other hand — to me, so far — is all optics. A wink from the industry, a condescending pat on concerned consumers’ heads. “You can have a little minimalism, as a treat.” Even the name itself is cutesy and time-stamped; a blip on the trend cycle radar, a guarantee that beauty will circle back to maximalist routines eventually. (The kicker of Town & Country’s skinimalist explainer pretty much predicts it: “Even if my regimen does balloon back to excess,” the author writes, “it will be my choice, not the beauty industry’s.” Oh, if only our beauty choices were actually our own.)

Who knows, though. There’s a rebellion brewing against consumerism and its ties to capitalism and colonialism, against environmental pollution that disproportionately affects people of color, against an industry that tells us, “Everybody is beautiful!” while it sells us products that purport to change the way we look (but mostly just pummel our skin barriers). Maybe “skinimalism” is a way for the industry to sort of brunt that rebellion, to make it seem like it’s prioritizing people and the planet, to acknowledge the importance of using less stuff without selling less stuff…

But maybe we won’t buy it.

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