The Very Blurry Line Between Skin-Care And Self-Care

Can a serum or moisturizer meaningfully contribute to self-worth as much as beauty brands want you to believe?

by Jessica DeFino

When philosophers first philosophized on the concept of self-care — this was circa 350 BCE, in the text Alcibiades I, thought to be penned by Plato — "care of self" was seen as care of the soul. It involved introspection and inner work, self-exploration in the name of self-knowledge and self-worth.

Today, self-care seems to be synonymous with care of the skin. It involves Instagrammed routines and refrigerated jade rollers, sheet masking in the name of soothing surface-level stress. Not that there's anything wrong with all that — chilled facial massage is lovely. But the question needs to be asked: Can skin-care-as-self-care contribute to the self-worth part of this philosophical equation? The beauty industry would like you to believe it can. In fact, it's banking on it.

The idea that skin care products and the results they purportedly deliver (clear, glowing, glass-like skin) will make you feel better about yourself (happy, whole, worthy) has been at the heart of the industry for centuries. Sometimes it’s implied, with the beatific smile of a Neutrogena girl or the “after” picture in a Proactiv commercial. Sometimes it’s overt, like L’Oreal’s “Because you’re worth it” tagline. And sometimes, it’s so obvious it’s uncomfortable. See: IT Cosmetics Confidence in a Cream, Philosophy Hope in a Jar, and Dermelect Self Esteem Serum, three products that call out customers’ lack of confidence, hope, and self-esteem, then suggest these things can be found at the bottom of a bottle of moisturizer.

“I recently encountered [Self Esteem Serum] in a FabFitFun box, and I was completely shocked and horrified that the company would let a product like that into its box,” Mazz Hanna, celebrity nail artist and founder of her eponymous nail care line, tells NYLON. To Hanna, the product name felt manipulative — predatory, even. “Beauty brands are becoming more and more comfortable using women's insecurities against them as a marketing tactic, and it's not OK.”

Sofia Grahn, the skin-positive influencer behind @isotretinoinwiths, agrees. “If you scratch the surface of any skin care commercial, it’s evident that oftentimes a product is marketed through only having models or influencers with [perfect] skin showcasing the cream, with the message that this is/was the ultimate solution to their skin issues and, in turn, helped them regain their confidence,” she tells NYLON. “I just think it's unethical to be so incredibly blunt about it.”

Others I interviewed for this story didn’t bat an eye at the name Self Esteem Serum. “That’s just marketing,” says Dr. Amy Wechsler, a board-certified dermatologist and psychiatrist. In other words, the industry has always attempted to sell self-esteem in serum form, so outright acknowledgment doesn’t come across as anything out of the ordinary. And to be fair, she adds, there is a link between clear skin and confidence.

“In 85 to 90% of my patients, their self-esteem is affected by their breakouts,” Wechsler notes. “That’s very normal. Almost everyone with acne feels like that’s all anyone can see about them, and it affects their confidence and how they go out in the world.”

As is the nature of philosophy, arguments can be made for both sides.

Here’s where a modern, skin-savvy Plato might ask: Does clear skin breed self-esteem inherently, or does clear skin breed self-esteem in response to society’s beauty standards? And is the self-esteem precipitated by clear skin true self-esteem or a surface-level approximation of it? As is the nature of philosophy, arguments can be made for both sides.

Grahn, as an active member of the skin-positive community and a champion of acne-acceptance, believes the relationship between skin and self-worth is a construct of cultural ideals. “The whole discourse of confidence equals clear skin and clear skin alone is beyond toxic,” she tells NYLON. “By branding products that aim to attain clear skin [with words like ‘self-esteem’], you’re actually saying that confidence can’t be found in any other state of one’s skin. You’re ruling out the option that confidence is actually found within.”

To this point, the influencer recently launched the hashtag #smilingwithacne. The goal? To flood social media with images of bliss and blemishes existing simultaneously; to illustrate that joy is an inside job. “I realized that I didn’t need to hide or alter myself because of my flaws; I had to face them,” she says of her inspiration. “I had to question societal structures and how entire industries profit off of the lack of our confidence due to our skin. And lastly, I needed to accept my skin, no matter what state it is currently in.”

Counterpoint: Wechsler believes that the relationship is inherent, to a certain extent. “The thing about acne is that it usually starts in adolescence when self-esteem forms,” she explains. “A woman in her 30s might feel she has ‘bad skin’ because she’s internalized that feeling from when she had acne in high school and her self-esteem was forming.” Disentangling one’s confidence from one’s complexion isn’t easy, the psychiatrist says — and maybe not even worth attempting. “Telling the majority of people that they should just accept their acne and feel good about themselves is going to make the majority of people feel like failures because they can’t do it.” Still, that doesn’t mean the path to self-esteem is paved with skin care products.

“I do think clearer skin breeds true confidence — but is that specific cream going to give you clearer skin?” Wechsler asks.

Considering the fact that there are millions of serums, sheet masks, and spot treatments on the market and none of them have proven universally effective (if just one ingredient or product or prescription — any ingredient or product or prescription — actually worked, we wouldn’t need all that skin-care, right?), the answer is probably no. But to play an optimistic devil’s advocate, let’s pretend Confidence in a Cream and Self Esteem Serum, or any of the less-obvious options, do, in fact, deliver on their promises. Your skin is clear! You’re confident! You’re brimming with self-esteem! The question then becomes, is it lasting confidence? Is it true self-esteem? Or is it fleeting, one foot out the door, biding its time until the next breakout?

“Unless these brands conduct studies that prove their products can increase self-esteem or confidence, they shouldn't be allowed to make them,” says Hanna, who comes from a background in pharmaceutical marketing. The irony is, studies like this do exist — and they suggest the opposite.

Psychology platform Good Therapy summarizes a 2010 study of beauty industry marketing methods saying, “Beauty product marketing … makes female shoppers feel bad about their appearance by suggesting that without the product, they are not as attractive as they should be.” What’s more, this effect wasn’t limited to ads that featured Photoshopped, impossibly perfect models. It extended to packaging, too. Simply seeing a bottled-up beauty product is “‘likely to remind consumers of their own shortcomings,’” as the New York Times reported. “This, in turn, makes them view themselves more negatively.” Herein lies the problem with limiting self-care to the superficial self.

“Just as acceptance is a constant work in progress, I find that feeling confident in whatever skin you’re in is far more fruitful than always chasing the ever-changing beauty standards to feel that temporary and reliant confidence,” Grahn says. And that is what the larger skin-care-as-self-care movement is: chasing a moving target. There’s always another problem to fix, another product to try, another Botox appointment to make. We repeat these behaviors as we age because there’s no satisfying conclusion. Self-worth derived from products is provisional. Self-worth derived from within is not.

“I do think a skin care routine, especially during times of stress, is really key to feel like there’s some control in your life."

That’s not to say that skin care isn’t a necessary part of self-care. “I do think a skin care routine, especially during times of stress, is really key to feel like there’s some control in your life,” Wechsler says, if not necessarily for the skin care benefits. “I don’t think products are actually penetrating by the time you get to the ninth or 10th step in a 10-step routine — it’s more about the act of [applying] it and focusing on yourself.” But the keywords above are part of. The surface is part of the self, but it’s not the whole self — and that deeper, inner self needs care, too.

Of course, “care of self” in the philosophical sense isn’t as easy as slapping on a serum-soaked sheet mask. It might involve therapy, or meditation, or a gratitude practice. It could mean sobriety or spirituality or self-expression through art. It’s work — hard, messy, constant work — but how’s this for motivation? Beyond contributing to self-knowledge and self-worth, many of these exercises in introspection (meditating, gratitude journaling, deep breathing) can “support radiant physical beauty,” as well, Wechsler says.

Studies have shown the above to decrease skin-damaging stress hormones, bolster the skin barrier, “turn off” inflammatory genes, oxygenate skin cells, and encourage lymphatic drainage. So while skin care can’t always reach the self, self-care can reach the skin. No refrigerated jade roller necessary.