The Problem With The ‘Clean’ Makeup Trend

Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty Images.
From rainbow contouring to purple blush, TikTok is home to all manner of intriguing makeup crazes. Some are game-changing (like the glasses concealer hack) and others aren't so good (applying foundation with a jade roller). If you're a beauty lover, it's likely that one particular trend has invaded your feed recently.
Enter: 'clean' makeup.
At the time of writing, 306.7 million people had watched the #cleangirlmakeup hashtag, with #cleanmakeup coming in at 171.4 million views. On TikTok the look consists of seamless and glowing skin, a lifted highlight, sun-kissed bronzer and blush, full and fluffy brows as well as plump and glossy lips. Compared to Instagram's obsession with heavy contouring and intricate, cut crease eyeshadow looks, it could be considered a touch more minimal. But 'clean' makeup poses something of a problem.
A quick scroll through TikTok proves that 'clean' makeup wearers have one thing in common: clear, poreless faces. With the help of beauty influencers like Rikki Sandhu, Izzie Rodgers and Constanza Concha, not to mention brands such as Skin Proud and Selfless by Hyram, beauty enthusiasts have worked hard over the years to dismantle the outdated notion that skin should be flawless. All skin — even with makeup applied — has texture, including pores, blemishes, scars and facial hair. It's entirely normal. But glance through the comments underneath plenty of 'clean' makeup tutorials and you'll notice that TikTok users are hinting at one thing: the trend maintains an unrealistic beauty standard.

It's obvious that people feel excluded from the 'clean' makeup trend, especially those with skin conditions like acne and scarring.

"Step one: look perfect with perfect skin and features," wrote one TikToker underneath this video, while another commented: "I don't understand anything. All I know is you have to be beautiful first 🥺." It's obvious that people feel excluded from the 'clean' makeup trend, especially those with skin conditions like acne and scarring.
"The recent social media trends promoting unrealistic beauty ideals of 'glasslike', smooth and poreless skin without any texture are extremely unhelpful and damaging," says Dr Ana, cosmetic doctor and skincare expert. "Healthy skin is not perfect. We all get blemishes, breakouts and various lesions on our skin — even dermatologists and skin practitioners."
Dr Ana explains that there is no such thing as perfect skin. "It is really unhelpful to be promoting this, especially as patients with skin conditions such as acne, rosacea, hyperpigmentation and eczema already struggle with significant stigma and self-confidence implications from the appearance of their skin." Dr Ana suggests that social media influencers — who have more of an impact on the public than they realise — should take this into consideration, especially when promoting trends and products.
@evarankiin Reply to @yoodaddydre how to achieve the ✨clean✨ look ib: @millieleer #cleanmakeup ♬ Manhattan - Ella Fitzgerald
Lex Gillies, rosacea advocate, skin positivity campaigner and founder of Real Skin Club, says that the 'clean' makeup trend isn't accessible to the majority of people, "especially when you consider the prevalence of skin conditions like acne and rosacea." Lex adds: "It feels like an extension of the Glossier look from a few years ago, which actually alienated me to such an extent that it was years before I tried any of their products, assuming that they were not for someone like me."
Lex says that 'clean' makeup took the cool girl, no-makeup makeup look and somehow made it even more unobtainable. She asks: "If you take into consideration any 'tweaks', lash lifts, brow tints, facials and filters, is this look any less high-maintenance than the full Kardashian face?"
That said, Lex believes that 'clean' makeup is even more insidious. "At least when you looked at a Kardashian you could see and understand that amount of makeup and time that went into that look. On the other hand, a look like this implies that the person in question is clean and natural." In fact, it's quite the opposite. Videos reveal layer upon layer of concealer over skin which already appears to be dressed with light-reflecting skincare products, primer and foundation.

If the main trend in makeup is considered 'clean', that instantly renders anything that isn't​ as 'dirty'. After years of hearing that my skin condition is related to my hygiene (or lack of it), it's a dangerous line to tread.

Lex Gillies
We all know that social media can be deceiving but TikTokers are calling 'clean' makeup creators into question for using filters to make their skin appear airbrushed, further pushing an impossible beauty ideal. Others like @elisevbelleghem rely on another skin-perfecting secret: filming on a sunny day, directly by a window. In response to a follower asking her which filter she was using to look so "extra clear and crisp", Elise said: "I filmed it with my IPhone 12 Pro Max in direct sunlight (that's why it’s so clear)."
There's nothing wrong with that of course but it's easy to be tricked by clever lighting. Eventually, all makeup — even the most luxe and expensive — will collect in pores, fine lines and creases throughout the day. What we're seeing on TikTok is a quick snippet of a look. It's no wonder you might feel disappointed when recreating it.
A scroll through the #cleangirl hashtag isn't great for self-esteem. "The women currently being heralded as the prime examples of this trend all look pretty much identical," says Lex. "They have plump lips, tiny noses, catlike eyes and poreless and flawless skin. It's no surprise that the most famous examples of this look are Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner. Wealth, genetics, youth, filters — all of these play a huge part that cannot be ignored."
Dr Ana says that it's incredibly important to remember that all skin has texture and pores. "We should be promoting healthy skin rather than perfect skin, as there really is no such thing as perfection when it comes to a living, ever-changing organ such as the skin," she says. "Normal and healthy skin has pores, texture, blemishes, occasional breakouts and even reactions. Pores in particular are an essential anatomical structure of the skin, and are even present in baby skin." Dr Ana adds that it's extremely unfair to expect skin to be textureless under makeup. She says: "Makeup often can accentuate texture, leading to patients feeling the need to utilise unrealistic filters to achieve this impossible beauty standard."
Aesthetician Alicia Lartey, who has been vocal about her own experience with acne and scarring, agrees that the 'clean' makeup trend derives from the minimalist, model-off-duty look that we've seen before. It's just been repackaged under a different name. Alicia knows that not all beauty trends can include everyone but her main issue is with the word 'clean'.

It's no surprise that the most famous examples of 'clean' makeup are Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner. Wealth, genetics, youth, filters — all of these play a huge part that cannot be ignored.

"Personally, I would never use the phrase 'clean girl' because it sounds offensive," says Alicia. Lex adds that it's unhelpful for those who experience acne, rosacea and other skin conditions. "It immediately gets my back up," she says. "If the main trend in makeup is considered 'clean', that instantly renders anything that isn't​ as 'dirty'. After years of hearing that my skin condition is related to my hygiene (or lack of it), it's a dangerous line to tread."
Dr Ana says that this is a big issue and a damaging misconception when it comes to understanding skin. "One of the widespread and most persistent myths across skin health centres around acne and breakout-prone skin being 'dirty'," she explains. This kind of misinformation does more harm than good, both mentally and physically. "The cause of acne is so much more complex and is not to do with cleanliness."
Rather, explains Dr Ana, it is down to chronic inflammation of the hair follicles and oil glands, which can be caused by hormones, for instance. "If anything, over-cleansing will damage the skin barrier and cause further breakouts," she warns. "I hear so often from my acne patients that they receive hurtful comments regarding their cleanliness on a regular basis from friends and family. I think it comes down to a lack of insight and education about this condition."
Dr Ana thinks that social media, especially filters, are hugely detrimental to the perception of normal and healthy skin. "I always advise my patients to look at their skin in the mirror no closer than an arm's length distance," she says. "There is really no positive outcome of so closely inspecting your texture and pores, especially when other people won't be looking closer than this anyway."
The 'clean' makeup trend shows no sign of slowing down. Happily, a handful of influencers are adapting the various makeup steps and creamy product textures to their skin type, proving that minimal makeup isn't just for those with clear, smooth skin. @laviniarusanda is just one example and her followers are inspired. "You just made my day so much better. I have acne 5 years now and I've never felt more confident," wrote one. Another commented: "Slayyy ma’am this is the perfect representation of the clean look." @jessicvpimentel, @fayeseager and @veraxvrieswijk have followed suit with viral makeup looks on acne-prone skin.
Lex keeps in mind how often beauty standards have changed in the past few years. She tries not to feel excluded or upset by these kinds of trends. "Reminding myself that most images and videos on the internet might have at least some kind of filter, clever lighting or more permanent tweaks behind them means I can keep a level head when consuming online content." She adds: "It's about sticking with what suits you and what makes you feel great, whether that's a face full of glam makeup, a time-consuming but minimalist aesthetic or no makeup at all. It's the easiest way to stay sane in a world trying its best to make us compete and compare ourselves to ideals that will always be outside of our reach."
Dr Ana says it's helpful to look at images and videos with a critical eye to protect your mental health and to support healthy beauty standards. "We must keep reminding ourselves that any textureless appearance of skin seen online may be misrepresented by a multitude of factors like distance and retouching, for example." Lastly, she says it is sometimes helpful to speak to a skin practitioner or dermatologist for reassurance and support. "Half of my job consists of convincing my patients of how beautiful they already are."

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