The ‘Science of Skincare’ Isn’t Science or Care
A while back, I read a profile of a prominent beauty industry personality known for “breaking down the science of skincare.” She teaches her followers to focus on “what actually matters,” the article said: “What’s inside the bottle.”
This, perhaps unwittingly, is a perfect illustration of how the “the science of skincare,” as defined by the beauty media, is not about science or care. It’s about products.
Over the past few years, Big Beauty has strategically co-opted science as a sales tactic. “Science-backed” has eclipsed “clean” (and “natural” before it) as the marketing term of the moment. Brands with single-ingredient offerings (The Ordinary, The Inkey List) taught customers to cosplay as cosmetic chemists, and dermatologists used their medical degrees to market self-branded skincare companies. Beauty publication Allure released an Ingredient Index styled after the periodic table of elements, and a podcast called “The Science of Beauty.”
As the industry’s sole goal is to sell stuff, all of the above present science as the study of purchasable products and procedures. Customers rarely question the conflation. After all, in an era when “follow the science!” is both a health directive and moral imperative — in this case, one goading you to fill your medicine cabinet with face crèmes or face the aesthetic and ethical consequence of “bad” skin — who would dare dismiss “science-backed” skincare?
The $155 billion sector is thriving as a result. You can buy charcoal facial cleansers to get rid of your skin’s natural oils and cold-pressed chia seed serums to replace them. You can use alpha-hydroxy acids to eat away at your skin barrier and ceramide-spiked barrier repair creams to build it back up. You can purchase benzoyl peroxide treatments to eliminate bacteria and probiotic toners to add more. There is no shortage of studied ingredients to smoosh into your skin-holes: stem cells, squalene oil, ceramides, peptides, collagen, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, lactic acid.
“Sure, there are clinical studies that ‘prove’ these ingredients do something,” Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist and founder of The Beauty Brains, tells me in an interview for Slate. “But most of these are not really science.”
Really, science says your skin doesn’t need most pre-bottled skincare products. (Dermatologists, common sense, and your over-exfoliated epidermis agree.) It’s equipped with the ability to self-cleanse, self-moisturize, self-exfoliate, self-heal, and self-protect; and it can produce all of the aforementioned ingredients on its own, thank you very much.
The beauty industry has confused the science of aesthetic manipulation for the science of skin health.
“As far as cosmetics go, these ingredients don't ‘measure up’ when applied topically,” Romanowski says of the factory-born versions of various internal compounds (collagen, epidermal growth factor). Marketing claims are often based on how a certain molecule behaves within the ecosystem of the body, which bears little resemblance to how it behaves in an inert bottle of goo. The stem cells in your body create thousands of new skin cells daily; lab-grown stem cells sold in face creams are “pure marketing gimmickry,” Romanowski says. Internal hyaluronic acid aids in full-body hydration; the HA in your moisturizer is mostly there to lend an air of legitimacy. “It is illegal in the United States for cosmetics to have a structure or function effect,” the cosmetic chemist elaborates.
Mary Schook, an aesthetician and product formulator, clarifies that per guidelines from the country’s Food & Drug Administration, “a cosmetic brand can only enhance or beautify, not treat or cure.” This is why skincare brands often employ aesthetic-focused marketing language; for example, “makes skin look healthier” or “reduces the appearance of acne.” Health — legally — is not the point. (It’s important to note that this F.D.A. policy does not apply to sunscreen, which is considered an over-the-counter drug rather than a cosmetic, and which must go through appropriate, actually-scientific testing.)
Research on beauty products, then, acts as little more than a litmus test for beauty standards, seeking to see if a certain product or ingredient can manipulate the skin’s appearance in some socially acceptable way. Rarely does industry-cited research ask, “Should this ingredient manipulate skin’s appearance in this way?” or “What are the downstream consequences of manipulating the skin’s appearance in this way?”
HA is an excellent example. Short-term, the humectant draws moisture from the inner layer of the skin to the outer layer, creating the surface-level look of hydration. The beauty industry calls this “effective.” However, that surface-level moisture soon evaporates. Over time, continued use of HA slowly siphons the skin’s internal moisture stores, leaving the dermis dehydrated and dependent on a cocktail of other creams and oils and essences to retain basic moisture levels (a cocktail determined by industry “science”).
“In truth, companies have very little incentive to investigate ingredients further than initial, promising results,” Romanowski says. “They almost always will find that the effectiveness isn't real. And if they find that it is real, they don't get much extra marketing bounce. There is no financial incentive for a marketer to determine what is really true.”
What is “true” about products is often irrelevant — or even harmful — when compared to what is true about the skin itself, anyway. For instance, the science of products says charcoal has the ability to “draw out oil and bacteria” and “remove dead skin cells.” These claims are true. But the science of the skin says oil, bacteria, and dead skin cells actually belong on your face. Oil is the skin’s inherent moisturizer. Bacteria make up the skin microbiome, an essential part of the body’s immune system. Dead skin cells absorb external hydration from the environment and keep internal hydration from evaporating.
Think of it this way: The science of fossil fuels tells us where, when, and how to best extract and use these materials. The science of the earth tells us we should not be extracting or using these materials at all. Similarly, the “science of skincare” tells us where, when, and how to best manipulate the skin’s appearance. The science of the skin tells us we should not be manipulating the skin’s appearance at all.
The “science of skincare” offers nothing but a way to intellectualize the physical manipulation of one’s appearance; a way to justify the submission of the body to current cultural beauty ideals.
To be fair, much of the science of the skin is fairly new — which is, after all, the nature of science. It evolves. (It’s why the phrase is “follow the science,” not “stand next to the current science until the end of time.”) Over the past decade or so, studies on the skin microbiome have debunked almost everything experts once believed to be true about skin health. This surface-level ecosystem of bacteria, viruses, mites, and more is essential to the maintenance of the skin and the body as a whole. It kills invading pathogens, produces antioxidants and fatty acids, prevents “bad” strains of bacteria from taking over, and may even repair sun damage. When the microbiome is disrupted, its diversity is lost, and these inherent functions take a hit.
Almost any topical product can alter the delicate balance of the microbiome, injure the skin barrier, and impair the skin’s inherent abilities. Recent research shows that microbial imbalance is very often at the root of inflammatory skin conditions like rosacea, psoriasis, eczema, and acne. “In the case of eczema, Staphylococcus aureus is too dominant versus other microorganisms, and the microbiome can not function properly,” explains skin pharmacologist and microbiome expert Dr. Elsa Jungman. In the case of acne, p.acnes is overly abundant. In all cases, fostering a diverse microbiome helps.
In his 2020 book “Clean: The New Science of Skin and The Beauty of Doing Less,” Dr. James Hamblin writes, “The ecosystem does not need to be maintained in any elaborate way that we didn’t already know made our skin look good: sleeping and eating well, minimizing anxiety, and spending time in nature.”
In other words: The science of the skin refutes the science of skincare.
This isn’t to say the skin doesn’t need day-to-day support. It does! That support rarely needs to touch down on the dermis, though, since — disruption from topical products aside — the root cause of skin conditions is rarely surface-level. Take acne, for example: The condition is tied to gut issues, stress issues, hormonal issues, or genetics. No matter how “science-backed,” no serum goes that deep. The buzzy beauty ingredients inside said theoretical serum can all be otherwise obtained, anyway, from sources that leave the skin barrier and microbiome blissfully unbothered. Eating salmon and nuts supplies the skin with essential fatty acids. Exercise elevates antioxidant activity. Sleep stimulates self-exfoliation. Facial massage boosts lymphatic drainage. Meditation increases moisture (seriously). Vitamin D regulates oil production and vitamin C contributes to collagen production.
Cue the chorus of skincare influencers: “Well actually, the skin stops producing sebum and hyaluronic acid and collagen as you age, so you’ll need more skincare eventually!”
That’s true, in part. The skin’s production of these chemicals does slow over time. But churning out less hyaluronic acid in your fifties is no less “healthy” than, say, entering menopause or going gray. It happens. It’s fine. It’s life. Bodies change. Collagen levels drop. Trying to compensate with collagen crème “doesn’t help,” Romanowski says. “It’s like trying to fix a hole in a cotton blouse by dumping strands of yarn on the shirt.”
“We can try to control or coat it with topical products, but [skin] is ultimately a force of nature reacting to the constant signals coming from underneath and outside of it, as it evolved over millions of years to do,” writes Dr. Hamblin.
As it turns out, it’s not “what’s inside the bottle” that really matters. It’s your skin.