Original beauty influencer and skincare doyenne Paula Begoun is alight with energy when I meet her in London's Soho Hotel. After 40 years in the beauty industry, you might expect a degree of jadedness, but there isn't any – she's full of vigour and passion ("Look, I’m swearing a lot but because I really care about this!"). Paula is hailed on Reddit as a beauty goddess, and her eponymous line, Paula’s Choice, frequently clears up at the industry’s most prestigious awards. In addition, she heads up the website Beautypedia, which inventories reviews and in-depth ingredient dissections for over 45,000 beauty products. Sample review: "This cleansing scrub is likely to do more harm than good." In an industry that often relies on marketing fairy dust, she pulls no punches. She may be controversial, but there’s no doubting her influence; on asking my go-to facialist for a good retinol suggestion, she turned to her laptop and said: "Let’s ask Paula."
Paula tells me that her new range, Defence, was in part born out of a frustration with a common beauty catechism: that skin needs different ingredients at different times of the day. "Skin is in repair mode around the clock. Sure, there’s a greater need for environmental protection during the day. Your skin is the largest organ on the body, so it’s crying out for protection, it’s so hungry for that. But there’s no research showing what those 'special ingredients' would actually be. It’s not so clear cut," she explains. She’s quick to tell me that as opinionated as she seems, she’s not stubborn. "I have no beliefs, per se. I’m agnostic: it’s either in the research or it isn’t."
Research could be Paula’s middle name. Her range, her website, her 21 books and her other website (derived from the "Cosmetics Cop" moniker that Oprah gave her) are all rooted in research. The entire line is focussed around paring back women’s routines, and avoiding fluff and filler. "We never take up space in our products with things that don’t contribute to skin health. A pink product does not contribute to skin health. And fragrance, well, eau de cologne is not skincare. It’s sensitising. Have you ever shaved your legs and then applied a scented body lotion and then you never did it again because it burnt? Right, well, there you go," she tells me firmly. Also in Paula’s crosshairs? The natural movement. "Look. I get it," she begins, tentatively. "It all sounds so romantic, you know, I made this small-batch product using my grandmother’s recipe and she looks so young. But we know that the best option is a mix of natural and bioengineered ingredients. The research is clear. For example, antioxidants. Grapes are great, there’s good research behind them, they’re not irritating. The active antioxidant in the grape is resveratrol. When you bioengineer it, you get a more stable and potent version that can get into skin and interrupt inflammation and oxidative damage. Plants alone aren’t stable! How long does a head of lettuce last in your fridge? Given pollution and sun damage, wholly natural can’t deliver."
UV protection comes up several times; I tell Paula that given the current preoccupation with natural skincare, I’m worried that people are missing out on adequate sun protection. "Absolutely," she concurs. "You simply can’t make a good enough broad spectrum SPF with totally natural ingredients. The natural companies say, oh, some vitamin D is good for you, sunscreens are killing you, they’re so evil. Otherwise they look like assholes – for not selling you a sunscreen. And if you leave a beauty counter with some new skincare and don’t have an SPF, you don’t have a routine at all." In fact, Paula is spending more time than ever navigating the waters of natural and organic skincare. "It’s a question of perception, really. Naturals are recognisable. You want to see lavender oil on an ingredient list because you know what that is, unlike some long chemical name," she explained. It’s the dictum we were told to apply to our diets: Avoid processed foods, and if your grandmother wouldn’t recognise the ingredients, don’t eat it. But in beauty, that means forgetting that even water has a chemical name. Paula adds: "It’s also a question of getting the right molecular weights, which has to be crafted. Don’t get me wrong, I need plants, I need some of those extracts. But I can’t readily get the benefits they offer. It needs tweaking." Plus, we face unnatural aggressors: pollution, glycation from sugar-loaded diets, smoking, alcohol... It’s a tall order to expect a wholly natural solution to all that. "Some of the best ingredients for skin – niacinamide, retinol, ceramides, peptides – they aren’t natural! You can’t make them natural and get them into your skin. But you can bioengineer them to make them seem natural to your skin and be absorbed efficiently, so your skin thinks, 'Aha! I know what to do with this'."
I hate sheet masks. They’re a waste of time.
Paula also has bones to pick with another millennial favourite: sheet masks. "I hate sheet masks. They’re a waste of time. Even a well formulated one is a waste of time. Ingredients are going to penetrate based on their molecular size. Nothing else. Having that sheet on your face does not form enough of a barrier. It’s bullshit that the sheet helps ingredients absorb. We barely have enough time to clean our teeth, let alone spend 20 minutes with our faces cold and wet! You have all the things you need to get done to have a good life and a nice dinner, but you also probably have a good-looking partner in bed waiting for you, what are you at the sink for? Fucking get into bed and relax! I would rather you floss your teeth than bother with a sheet mask."
She’s not big on eye cream, either. "My sister’s friends, who are all academics and very erudite, they say, 'Will you put some face cream in a pot, and label it eye cream?' That made me realise how bad people wanted eye cream! If you’re going to buy one, I want you to buy one that has no fragrance, no colouring agents, no essential oils." Or peel-off masks: "The benefits are overstated." Or even having a time-consuming routine: "You don’t need to wait between layers of skincare, that’s a myth, your face can feel as sticky as anything, it’s fine, just slap it on."
You’d think that much of her tenacity would come from her background in investigative journalism, but Paula tells me she was deeply affected by the acne she developed at 11. "Everything I tried for my skin just hurt. It would make it worse, it would be so inflamed and sore I would cry. So the idea of using products now that are not going to get you anywhere, it just drives me nuts," she explains.
Twenty-three years after the launch of Paula’s Choice, she says there’s more consumer misinformation than ever before. "Fearmongering in beauty is nothing new," she says. ‘‘For example: parabens [a preservative]. Consumers started demanding paraben-free, and brands went with it because they want to make products consumers will buy. The study that got everyone worked up wasn’t even about skincare. Besides, it turns out parabens break down enzymatically on the skin and then they’re denatured. Parabens are natural to plants, like berries, that’s how they fight off bacteria and dirt – they have their own antimicrobial defences which is why they make good preservatives! They’re a food-grade preservative and they’re abundant in plants, but look where we got! People are terrified."
Before I leave the interview, I ask for the key skincare advice she’d give to young women. "Protect, cleanse and exfoliate. Use antioxidants, use skin-replenishing ingredients, stay protected from the sun. Don’t buy anything in a jar. Remember that a good skin diet takes layers. I like BHAs like lactic acid, they’re hydrating and exfoliating. Niacinamide stimulates ceramide production. And keep an eye on any brown spots that appear."
I sit through a lot of presentations as a beauty journalist and I’ve lost count of how many of these involve whimsical brand origin stories involving mythical rare ingredients or inspiration taken from a bygone era. It’s certainly sexier and more appealing to a lot of us than bioengineered antioxidants and ceramides, but as Paula says with a shrug: "A lot of the truth in beauty is disappointing."