My friend, whom I’ll call Cyndi because that’s her name and she isn’t ashamed, was the C.E.O. of a beauty retailer when the coronavirus hit. She made sure her team had time off for mental health, got her company ready for an acquisition, and promptly booked a face-lift and laser peel. She also snapped Invisalign trays on her teeth for 20 hours a day. When we met for dinner 10 months later, she was radiant, and I swear I couldn’t see a single scar.
My lockdown routine was a little more prosaic. There were no surgical instruments, no vats of imported snail mucin, no beauty fridge to store everything at a crisp 48 degrees, no Excel sheets to track my progress. Sad.
But I was industrious enough. I bought a micro-needling roller spiked with pins that pierce the skin over and over in a very mortification-of-the-flesh way. It’s supposed to encourage sluggish collagen, the substance that makes skin look plump and full. I was excited about it until I saw a doctor on TikTok run a similar roller over a banana. Poor, poor banana.
I recharged my Ziip facial-stimulation device and passed electric current over my jawline and cheekbones religiously for three entire days, maybe four. Every other night, I smoothed on the requisite pea-size blob of retinol, welcoming the red flaky aftermath because … what else did I have to do?
And I’m no fool. I pushed the “touch up my appearance” setting on Zoom to max. The days passed this way: my skin-care habits giving shape to the mornings and a sense of completion at night. They felt like a discipline. I believed I was making progress.
It’s logical to look at skin care as a surface issue, a way to fight blemishes, redness, dryness, oiliness, and lines fine and deep. Some believe skin care is a colossal waste of money, an exercise in futility, vain. They might have a point, but I clearly don’t share their view. A few see the entire skin-care-industrial complex as a plot to keep us in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. Could be.
But many people are now turning to skin-care products for exactly the opposite motivation: to relieve their worldly dissatisfaction. During the original lockdown and the ones that followed with each new variant of the virus, I joined the virtual crowds who applied serums as if they were balms for the soul.
Perfection wasn’t my aim, because I knew that wasn’t going to happen. After decades of reporting on beauty, I never believed that perfection was what skin-care products really offered anyway, despite the retouched models in the ads. Being a journalist makes you a realist, even if your beat is only realist-adjacent.
What draws me, day after day, decade after decade, is the chance for improvement, however slight. The only hitch is the elusiveness of that goal. Sure, the blemish disappears, but is that the result of the salicylic-acid acne patch or the body’s natural healing process? Improvement is a matter of belief and perception as much as it is of active ingredients.
I joined the virtual crowds who applied serums as if they were balms for the soul.
In medicine, the placebo effect is so compelling that patients assume colored capsules are more potent than white ones. In beauty, if the product stings or burns (acid peels, retinoids, Biologique Recherche Lotion P50), then it must be working. If it’s stinky (the vinegary, cultish Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 again; the beloved SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic, which has the aroma, some say, of hot-dog water), even better. If it makes your skin red or peel-y, then yay! And belief can be so powerful it enhances the results. You may face the world with a little more confidence, a little more swagger.
During lockdown, skin care became one small activity that felt good, productive, even nurturing. In the process, it gained the halo of self-care, a mental-health-preserving activity.
Beauty marketers have always turned to a less frivolous discipline to legitimize their products. In the 1970s, as women entered the workforce in greater numbers and increased their use of makeup, beauty gained a professional gloss. In the 1980s, skin-care companies linked their products with the fitness boom, mimicking the elaborate steps, programs, and discipline to achieve healthy skin. By the 1990s, the pharmaceutical industry had jumped in with Botox and vitamin-peptide complexes, giving beauty products the extra heft of scientific research. Now skin care as self-care as self-love casts beauty products as solutions for what they were once blamed for eroding.
We put on sheet masks in the middle of the day to soothe our anxiety, to feel ridiculous, to keep from drinking. We slip into the tub to feel the heat on our skin. During lockdown, the bathwater flowed. An influencer friend made a theme out of bath posts, where she wore red lipstick, sunglasses, high heels, and several pounds of bubbles. Madonna recorded a video in a milky, flower-strewn tub rambling strangely about how the coronavirus is the great equalizer.
As everyone posted their skin-care-as-self-care routines, I began to feel like a slacker. I was accustomed to beauty’s diminishments, the way the ads, the products, the models and influencers can seep under your skin until you suddenly feel warts growing on your nose and hair sprouting from your ears. You aren’t quite symmetrical enough, young enough, clean, exfoliated, chiseled, contoured, or firm enough. I certainly never felt quite diligent enough.
Now skin care as self-care as self-love casts beauty products as solutions for what they were once blamed for eroding.
As Helena Rubinstein, the beauty mogul who made piles of money selling skin-care products, said, somewhat threateningly, “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” Part of me wished I’d been a little less lazy during lockdown and followed my friend Cyndi into the plastic surgeon’s office. But the results could have been ugly.
I’m now at an age where the before picture will almost inevitably be better than the after, no matter what I do. But I still keep at it, just in case. Skin care is an expression of hope for a better future, and I’m not giving up on that.
Linda Wells spent 25 years as Allure magazine’s founding editor in chief, authored Confessions of a Beauty Editor, served as Revlon’s chief creative officer, and launched the beauty brand Flesh