“The peptides are a big scam,” Cukrowski says.
Indeed, skin care, like any trend, has seen its share of backlash. In her Outline article, “The Skincare Con,” Varagur questioned the purpose of the entire industry: “All of this is a scam. It has to be. ... Most skin care is really just a waste of money.” There certainly are ample opportunities to waste one’s money on insanely pricey serums and lotions.
But just because there are some dubious claims floating around doesn’t mean we should throw our baby-smooth skin out with the bathwater. There are also things like sunscreen, and acne medication, and moisturizer, that are uncontroversially effective.
“As we get older, skin gets thinner, it gets drier,” Sachs says. “The barrier is not as good as it used to be. Whenever there are breaks in the barrier, that’s when you are more prone to infection, that can lead to inflammation in the skin. Moisturizing the skin is really key to keeping it in good shape. Now does the type of moisturizer matter? I don’t know the answer to that.”
What that leaves you with, in many cases, is anecdotal evidence, and trial and error-ing products on your own face.
“Obviously the problem with that is you have one face, so it’s like an n=1 trial,” Wong says. “You don’t know if the product works or if it was sunny that week, so you got more sun, or you started exercising that week as well.”
There’s an element of trial and error in medical dermatology, too. People have different skin types, and some are more irritated by certain ingredients than others. “It’s not like shooting in the dark,” Sachs says. But “that’s the art of medicine. It’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all for every person who comes in, otherwise, we wouldn’t spend as long training as we do. There are not cookbook recommendations for all the things out there.”
Of course, any would-be citizen skin-care scientists should practice lab safety. It’s possible to overdo it and injure yourself with harsh scrubs or exfoliating acids, or to have a bad reaction to an ingredient that you didn’t patch test before rubbing it all over your face. And despite the popularity of 10-step Korean skin-care regimens, there’s also a threshold past which adding more products to your routine isn’t likely to yield additional results.
“You really just need a sunscreen, a cleanser, and a moisturizer,” Wong says. “On top of that, if your skin isn’t already quite good, then you might need an antiaging or anti-acne product. But once you have the right products, a lot of it is just fiddling, [getting] decreasing marginal returns.”
The skin-care craze is sometimes derided as just another unattainable beauty standard—now women are supposed to look flawless without makeup?—to which others respond that it’s a form of self-care. A ritual, a devotional. It can be all of those things. But it’s also an at-home science project, one with results you can see in the mirror.