"How do I get my skin to glow like this?" read a recent text message from a friend, accompanied by a picture of an influencer. Although clearly wearing makeup, her skin shone in all the right places and appeared entirely poreless without a bump or blemish in sight. "Excellent genes, million-dollar facials and a live-in makeup artist? Also, most probably a filter, but I could be wrong," I replied.
While the quest for luminous skin is nothing new, it is definitely evolving. Radiance-enhancing skincare trends such as "slugging" (covering your skin in petroleum jelly overnight) or "mirror skin" and "glass skin" (skin so dewy, it's almost reflective) are taking Pinterest, Instagram and TikTok by storm as we buy into skincare products and hacks that promise to impart an otherworldly glow. Of course, there's nothing wrong with wanting to take care of your skin or even wanting it to look a certain way. But never has flawless, glowing skin felt more unrealistic than in the midst of a global pandemic.
Last week I caught myself complimenting a colleague on her radiant sheen during a Zoom call. My camera, on the other hand, was turned off to hide a painful cluster of chin spots which had sprung up after a tough week. I know I'm not alone. Internet searches suggest many of us are dealing with bugbears like breakouts, oily skin and rashes as COVID-induced stress and anxiety take hold. Team that with cranked up central heating, being cooped up indoors and face masks becoming a firm fixture in our day-to-day lives and those glowing 'skin goals' feel pretty impossible to meet. Even more so if you're grappling with a skin condition such as adult acne, rosacea or eczema, as so many of us are.
As a beauty editor contending with hormonal breakouts, even I'm guilty of putting flawless, glowing skin on a pedestal. After all, the hundreds of skincare products I get to try every day, from vitamin C to glycolic acid, have one main aim: to make skin luminous. But it feels as though the pandemic might be ushering in a new way of thinking about skin texture. Lately, we've slowed things down, placed a focus on self-care, made time for our mental health and generally tried to give ourselves a well-deserved break. Is it time to do the same in regard to our skin? London-based consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk certainly thinks so. She believes that many of the clear, glowing skin trends which are currently popular are neither attainable nor realistic.
Many modern skincare trends are impossible to follow
"When people refer to 'glowing skin', they often mean an even skin tone with no blemishes and a smooth surface, which reflects light in a flattering way," says Dr Kluk. "But clever lighting and filters are often needed to create the appearance of 'glass skin' for instance, and it would be impossible for most of us to replicate this look in real life." Dr Kluk explains that being flooded with images of perfect skin on social media doesn't do much to persuade people that they are good enough as they are, particularly those who are young and impressionable. "It also sets the expectation that this is the norm," says Dr Kluk. "All skin has pores and if this is a beauty standard, most people trying to achieve it will meet with disappointment." Dr Kluk confirms my thoughts: your skin is neither glass nor a mirror. It's skin, and it really doesn't need to gleam.
Lex Gillies, rosacea and skin positivity campaigner, agrees and explains that the goalposts of what constitutes 'good skin' are constantly moving. Because of this, it might feel like you're struggling to keep up or even doing something wrong. "When I was a teenager, 'good skin' was classed as 'not getting spots' but this has now evolved so that we have to have a face clear of spots, wrinkles, hair, texture, pores, scars, pigmentation, visible veins, discolouration and so on." Lex cites the barrage of glowing skin trends born out of social media. "I think these types of trends purposefully skim over a basic truth about skincare: 'good' skin is mostly down to genetics and luck," she says. "Yes, you can use all of the products listed in an article; you can overhaul your diet; you can meditate your stress away. But for most people, that 'flawless' look is always going to be out of reach. You might feel as though your skin is the problem, instead of the unattainable goal."
Refinery29's health and living writer, Sadhbh O'Sullivan, knows this feeling all too well. In an open letter to every woman who suffers with adult acne, she recently wrote: "When a skincare brand describes its products as acne 'busting', or celebrities say the secret behind their good skin is just drinking water, what it implies for the rest of us is that we're not doing enough. We're not putting up the good fight." Sadhbh continued: "We know that isn't true; if it were, I'd have skin like Jodie Comer. Instead, we can form our own nuanced take. No, we don't need to be ashamed of our skin and no, it doesn't make us less of a person."
Glowing skin does not equal healthy skin
There is a common misconception that glowing skin equals healthy skin. It implies that any type of skin texture outside that ideal suggests you're not doing things right, which is a potentially damaging notion. "Although eating a nutritious diet, getting sufficient sleep, moisturizing regularly, wearing sunscreen and avoiding smoking are better for our general physical health and benefit our skin, skin glow is not an accurate indicator of health status," confirms Dr Kluk.
"People who have blemishes or other skin conditions like eczema, for example, may be perfectly healthy," Dr Kluk continues. "Images of healthy people have traditionally also showed tanned skin but we now know that a tan is a sign of sun damage and a risk factor for skin cancer, so some of these images have a lot to answer for." In other words, your skin isn't a true indicator of how healthy you are and not having seamless skin doesn't mean you're falling short.
Glow-enhancing skincare products could actually be hurting your skin
Mintel reports that 48% of people are currently spending more money on skincare compared to the first lockdown in March 2020. While there are countless products which can boost brightness and sheen, flawless skin trends may actually contribute to the multitude of issues experts are seeing. This is especially true when it comes to brightening ingredients such as vitamin C, retinol and exfoliating acids, all of which have the potential to irritate skin when overused. "There is so much on offer," says Dr Kluk, "and it's easy to feel overwhelmed by choice and to try and incorporate all of the promising products and ingredients you read about into your skincare routine," but you could be doing more harm than good.
"There has been a tendency in the past few years to either have fussy, 10-step routines or to aggressively combine ingredients, such as acids and retinoids," continues Dr Kluk. She pinpoints red, dry, flaky, irritated skin, as well as a damaged skin barrier (which constitutes redness, inflammation and sore, itchy skin) as issues that can arise. 'Slugging' is also popular among TikTokers for achieving soft, glowy skin using Vaseline as moisturizer. But experts have identified clogged pores and aggravated skin as side effects of the Korean beauty trend.
Dr Kluk's advice is to keep your routine simple. "Think about what you would like to improve most about your skin and incorporate a product that has a track record for tackling that particular aspect," for example salicylic acid for breakouts and blackheads, or glycolic acid for hyperpigmentation. "Once you've reached that goal, look at your other priorities and see if there is anything else you can add in to help with that," adds Dr Kluk. "If you try to tick off all the boxes in one go, you're much more likely to end up overdoing it."
Flawless skin doesn't exist
When it comes to skin conditions, Lex explains that acne, rosacea and psoriasis affect millions of people. In fact, they seem to be more common than ever. That's why a lack of representation in the media and more of a focus on flawless, glowing skin is an issue, particularly how it may affect mental health. "It perpetuates the belief that it is us (the 'normal' consumer) who is the problem," says Lex. "It makes us think that perhaps we're not spending enough on treatments and skincare. We're made to believe that poreless, blemish-free, hairless skin is the norm and anything outside of that is wrong. How could that not have an impact on our mental health?"
Dr Kluk mentions that it would be beneficial to see a more even playing field in how skin is depicted, especially on social media, as this might relieve pressure and self-criticism. Just last week, the BBC reported that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) told influencers not to apply filters to social media adverts if they exaggerate the effect of skincare or cosmetics. In another hopeful leap, movements like skin positivity (which champions confidence and self-love) and skin neutrality (being at peace with your complexion) are also gaining traction, as we're spending more time online.
Lex has also recently launched the Real Skin Club (@therealskinclub on Instagram) which aims to spread skin positivity to those who need it most. "It's a space open to anyone who is struggling with their skin, wants to learn how to treat it with kindness or wants to embrace resilience, difference and positivity," Lex says. "All of the content and products (including skin positivity affirmation cards) are designed by people who have a skin condition or visible difference as we wanted to tell the authentic stories of those who have actually lived them. You are much more than your appearance."
It's important to be realistic
Dr Kluk, who has experienced acne herself, says that taking a level-headed approach is the key to accepting and being happy with your skin. It's hard but try not to compare your appearance to others, especially online. "This is important particularly if the pictures are digitally enhanced or edited," says Dr Kluk. "They can have a profoundly negative impact on body image. The more pictures we post of our events, activities, new haircuts or holidays on social media, the more time we spend looking at ourselves through the eyes of other people and judging ourselves." While Dr Kluk says she doesn't have the magic antidote, she too touts skin positivity and skin neutrality as forces for good.
However, Dr Kluk explains that if you have a skin condition which is getting you down, it's a good idea to seek professional help. "Especially if your skin condition is itchy, uncomfortable, painful, causing scarring or making you feel self-conscious," says Dr Kluk. "Getting the right advice and support early on could potentially alleviate a lot of unnecessary suffering. Your first port of call is your GP," she says. "They are able to give first-line advice about most skin conditions and if they are not able to help, they can refer you to an NHS dermatology service. It is also possible to book an appointment directly with a private consultant dermatologist during the coronavirus pandemic, as many are offering online consultations." Dr Kluk concludes that if you have a skin issue which doesn't have any negative impact on your physical or emotional wellbeing and you choose not to seek treatment, that's okay too. "It doesn't mean that people who ask for help are weak or letting the side down," she says.
While glowing skin trends are going nowhere fast, it seems we're starting to question them more. I have to admit that, like a magpie, I'll probably always be a little impressed by a new skincare or makeup product that makes the light bling off my cheekbones. But I'll try not to hate the days when my skin doesn't look the way we've all been told it should: impossibly, absurdly flawless. From now on, and to quote one of the Real Skin Club's positive affirmation cards, "I only speak kindly to my skin."
This piece was originally published by Refinery29 U.K.