10 steps to per­fect skin, but you might need a chem­istry de­gree

The pur­suit of a flaw­less com­plex­ion has gone far beyond cleanse, tone and mois­turise. Nosheen Iqbal ven­tures into the baf­fling world of high-end skin­care

The Observer - - Focus -

There are shop­pers who care about their skin – the ones who du­ti­fully cleanse, tone and mois­turise – and there are those that have stretched the beauty in­dus­try to new, elas­tic, col­la­gen-plumped lim­its: for we are liv­ing in the age of “sk­in­tel­lec­tu­als”. A world of 10-step skin­care regimes in which acids, pep­tides and essences are stan­dard, and glow­ing, dewy skin is de rigueur.

And where sci­ence-savvy self-care swots with high lev­els of dis­pos­able in­come and even higher stan­dards of skin­care have led, it seems the rest of us are fol­low­ing.

Last month an on­line wait­ing list of more than 4,000 peo­ple and an ac­tual queue of hun­dreds at a Lon­don pop-up store greeted the ar­rival of US brand Drunk Ele­phant. Of­fi­cially launched in 2014 by Texan Tif­fany Master­son, then a stayat-home mother of four with lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence of cos­metic sci­ence, its 11-prod­uct mix of serums, acids, creams and cleansers have made it the fastest-sell­ing brand in his­tory for beauty store Sephora in the US.

“And it isn’t cheap,” says Jini Sanassy, head of PR for Bri­tish chain Space NK, “but the vi­ta­min C serum [£67], for in­stance, sells out in every store.” Sanassy has worked in the in­dus­try for 20 years and is a firm be­liever that “beauty has saved the Bri­tish high street”; her em­ployer has opened 15 of its 66 stores in the past two years, thanks in part to the huge de­mand for hi-tech, high-per­for­mance lux­ury skin­care.

Its newest store, in Kings Cross, is a se­duc­tive shrine. Who has the time, money or lifestyle to in­vest in learn­ing about this stuff, I ask sales as­sis­tant Vi­o­leta. “It’s not some­thing you have to force on your­self,” she says, be­fore show­ing an east Asian stu­dent where to find Tata Harper il­lu­mi­nat­ing mois­turiser (£74).

She scans my skin – de­cent, I think, un­til I catch my re­flec­tion un­der un­flat­ter­ing lights – and asks about my rou­tine. I ad­mit my lazi­ness – never wash­ing my makeup off at night – and I end up with a thor­ough pre­scrip­tion of prod­ucts, mildly wob­bly from their al­lure.

In the 50 years since Clin­ique launched its three­step sys­tem from a New York depart­ment store, skin­care has seen a sci­en­tific revo­lu­tion. Much in­no­va­tion has come from the east: South Korea pop­u­larised the 10-step regime decades ago, and Ja­pan has a five-step take that Vi­o­leta says is “about lay­er­ing prod­ucts that help each step work bet­ter”. Ar­guably, cult Cana­dian brand The Or­di­nary has had the most im­pact in re­cent years: it sells 30ml am­poules of acids, oils and serums from about £5.

Skin­care spe­cial­ist Bianca Estelle says: “The in­ter­net has played a big part. Cus­tomers come to my clinic with so much knowl­edge about spe­cific ac­tive in­gre­di­ents.” She men­tions the “skin­care ad­dic­tion” com­mu­nity on dis­cus­sion web­site Red­dit, which has dou­bled in a year to 750,000 ac­tive users.

Ear­lier this year an essay en­ti­tled The Skin­care Con, pub­lished by on­line mag­a­zine The Out­line, sent this niche cor­ner of the in­ter­net alight. In it, Krithika Varugur wrote: “Per­fect skin is unattain­able be­cause it doesn’t ex­ist. The idea that we should both have it and want it is a waste of our time and money. Es­pe­cially for women, who are dis­pro­por­tion­ately taxed by both the ideal of per­fect skin and its ma­te­rial pur­suit.” That per­fect skin had be­come “the think­ing woman’s quest” was, to Varugur, the most af­fronting as­pect of all.

Estelle says: “It’s not a con, be­cause women can see vis­i­ble results. And the daily steps are a rit­ual that can be ther­a­peu­tic. Pay­ing your­self that much at­ten­tion will feel good even if you are scep­ti­cal.”

Ac­cord­ing to re­search firm Min­tel, the pro­por­tion of women who use a sin­gle cleanser has fallen from 31% in 2017 to 21% in 2018. Mean­while the pro­por­tion of women who use five or more skin­care prod­ucts daily has jumped from 19% to 28%.

De­spite the suc­cess of smaller brands, which of­ten grow via In­sta­gram, Min­tel beauty an­a­lyst Alex Fisher says: “The facial skin­care mar­ket has hit peak ma­tu­rity as there are very few new users to re­cruit.” So the beauty in­dus­try con­tin­u­ally at­tempts to rein­vent it­self. “Mil­len­ni­als are very much about dis­cov­ery and sup­port­ing smaller brands they feel have a per­son­al­ity. But all of th­ese brands – ma­jor legacy ones and the indie ones – are try­ing to gen­er­ate in­ter­est.”

The idea of skin­care as re­sis­tance rather than ca­pit­u­la­tion has gained ground on­line. Thirty years ago, when black les­bian ac­tivist and poet Au­dre Lorde wrote: “Car­ing for my­self is not an act of self-in­dul­gence, it is self-preser­va­tion, and that is an act of po­lit­i­cal war­fare”, she can’t have imag­ined her words – writ­ten when she was fight­ing liver can­cer – would be used by skin­care en­thu­si­asts. But blog­gers claim 10-step regimes have helped them through de­pres­sion and are a med­i­ta­tive way to heal – al­beit while look­ing that much perkier and fresher-faced.

Bianca Estelle, above right, says a daily rit­ual is ther­a­peu­tic. In­set: Drunk Ele­phant facial oil, £34 for 15ml.

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