Meet The 'Skintellectuals', The Brains Behind The Future Of Beauty

Artwork: Georgia Murray
In 2018, skincare is a serious business. Long gone are the days when women blindly bought whatever product someone behind a counter told them to, and instead, a new era of intelligence, transparency and information has arrived. While makeup has become more democratic – think Rihanna founding the hugely successful Fenty, or Into The Gloss’ Emily Weiss creating Glossier, a brand that’s just received $52 million more investment capital – skincare has become more expert-led.
Now, it’s not just diehard skincare fanatics who know their vitamin C from their cannabinoids, their AHAs from their vitamin A; customers are savvier than ever. As Alexia Inge of Cult Beauty explains: “We are entering an age of ‘skintellectualism’ whereby consumers are adopting a much more investigative approach to their routines, and educating themselves about the best ingredients for every stage.” With consumers no longer content with generalisations and indefinite promises, they’re looking for solutions to specific skincare issues – acne, anti-ageing, dehydration – which require the knowledge, research and science of experts.
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Not only are those buying and using skincare products swotting up on the latest buzzworthy ingredient (like algae, hyaluronic acid or moringa), but the brands creating said products are marketing their own doctor-backed, lab-formulated ethos more than ever. You won’t find the vague sentiment ‘dermatologist-approved’ on the bottle containing the most hyped serum these days, but rather a detailed ingredients list, the time spent formulating the product in a high-tech lab, and where the ingredients were individually sourced.
One such brand taking this approach to skincare is world-renowned aesthetic doctor Barbara Sturm, whose uncomplicated yet potent offering has attracted the likes of Kim Kardashian West. “Today’s customer is deeply educated, and long past vague promises in a jar,” she explains. “They have tried a lifetime of products already and are mostly unsatisfied with the results. They want to find products that work, and before trying them, they want to understand why, which is a scientific inquiry.” Sturm began her career as a practising orthopaedic doctor focused on anti-inflammatory research. Once she made the connection between inflammation and the ageing process, she applied her knowledge to the skin and used it as a foundation for her skincare line. “I spent years developing my skincare in close consultation with my professors from Pittsburgh and Harvard; I think it is important to have a very deep understanding of ingredient science, as well as of the functions and scientific processes of skin.”
Daniel Isaacs, formulation and development director at Medik8, agrees: “The skin is the body’s largest organ and it needs to be looked after just as you would the rest of your internal organs. It is vital to understand the biology of the skin and chemistry of its functions to establish the mechanisms by which skincare works.” Medik8, fast becoming the authority on vitamin A thanks to its 'time-released, low-irritation retinols', has science at its core – hence the brand name. With before and after photographs from clinical studies and patented, professional-strength products, it’s established itself as a skincare authority that people can trust. “We have a rigorous approach to our formularies and products, which are critically evaluated prior to launch.”
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‘Skintellectualism’ has another name for Dr. Phillip Levy: 'Medi-Luxe'. “Medical-grade ingredients and results, combined with a delightful luxurious experience, are what I envisioned for my products,” Levy tells Refinery29. An example of this is the brand’s Booster Serum; it went through 30 formula overhauls to finalise the texture and scent before becoming the product we now know. Its Stem Cell line? Levy developed it over three decades of working as a dermatologist. “My laboratories have spent years developing patented and powerful formulas,” he explains. “You will rarely find such a level of successful improvement for skincare using totally independent clinical data.”
If you’re inclined to believe that this is all well and good within the bubble of doctors and dermatologists, with little impact on what your average woman is putting on her skin, think again. The ‘skintellectual’ output of these brands is without a doubt impacting customer behaviour. Dr. Dennis Gross explained that customers coming to his brand had “literally doubled in the last 12 months” while Previse’s Sean Patrick Harrington said: “Our customers, whether patients in a clinical setting or shoppers in-store and online, consistently share their preference for a brand anchored in dermatology.” Perhaps this is because the internet has turned skincare from recommended-by-friends or passed-down-from-mum into a playground of inquisitive exploration run by consumers with high, industry-level standards.
Social media’s role in the beauty industry has been fundamental to the rise of 'skintellectualism', which has been seen firsthand by beauty leader Caroline Hirons. “I’ve changed the depth of my product reviews from ‘this is really nice, it’ll be out next week’ to me listing whether something is vegan, if it’s appropriate for certain allergies, who the ingredients would be suitable for,” she told Refinery29. “It’s because of the readers’ demands – they give me my best questions.” Dr. Sturm also recognises a rise in her customers' standards: “I’ve seen a significant rise in consumers coming to me as an expert, which can also be attributed to the rise of social media. I spend at least an hour every day answering questions sent via social media – I love doing so as I get to receive real feedback and questions, plus an insight into their skin concerns.”
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At a recent Cult Beauty panel on adult acne, Alexia Inge said: “Our customers are now really, really well-researched and -read. For them, it’s not about being green or not, it’s how the formulas are put together. They catch me out sometimes and I have to put them in touch with the brand founders.”
‘Skintellectualism’ shows no sign of waning. “Our dermatology and sustainability credentials aid a dynamic audience of women and men pursuing worry-free, highly efficacious skincare products,” Harrington states. Savvy, switched-on customers are more clued-up about skincare than ever, whether it’s regarding everyday SPF application or the type of acid suitable for oily skin. As Levy says: “If they’re investing in a treatment or product, they expect the best, and will not compromise on quality or value for money.” Long live the ‘skintellectuals’, making our evening skincare regime more credible – and therefore effective – than ever before.

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