"How do I get my skin to glow like this?" read a recent text message from a friend, accompanied by a picture of an influencer. Although clearly wearing makeup, her skin shone in all the right places and appeared entirely poreless without a bump or blemish in sight. "Excellent genes, million-dollar facials and a live-in makeup artist? Also, most probably a filter, but I could be wrong," I replied.
While the quest for luminous skin is nothing new, it is definitely evolving. Radiance-enhancing skin-care trends such as slugging (covering your skin in petroleum jelly overnight) or mirror skin and glass skin (skin so dewy, it's almost reflective), are taking Pinterest, Instagram, and TikTok by storm as we buy into skin-care products and hacks that promise to impart an otherworldly glow. Of course, there's nothing wrong with wanting to take care of your skin or even wanting it to look a certain way. But never has flawless, glowing skin felt more unrealistic than in the midst of a global pandemic.
Last week I caught myself complimenting a colleague on her radiant sheen during a Zoom call. My camera, on the other hand, was turned off to hide a painful cluster of chin zits which had sprung up after a tough week. I know I'm not alone. Internet searches suggest many of us are dealing with issues like breakouts, oily skin, and rashes as COVID-induced stress and anxiety take hold. Team that with cranked-up central heating, being cooped up indoors, and face masks becoming a firm fixture in our day-to-day lives and those glowing "skin goals" feel pretty impossible to meet — even more so if you're grappling with a skin condition such as adult acne, rosacea, or eczema, as so many of us are.
As a beauty editor contending with hormonal breakouts, even I'm guilty of putting flawless, glowing skin on a pedestal. After all, the hundreds of skin-care products I get to try every day, from vitamin C to glycolic acid, have one main aim: to make skin luminous. But it feels as though the pandemic might be ushering in a new way of thinking about skin texture. Lately, we've slowed things down, placed a focus on self-care, made time for our mental health, and generally tried to give ourselves a well-deserved break. Is it time to do the same in regard to our skin?
London-based consultant dermatologist Dr. Justine Kluk certainly thinks so. She believes that many of the clear, glowing skin trends which are currently popular are neither attainable nor realistic — and we're not doing ourselves any favors by endlessly pushing for perfection.
Many modern skin-care trends are impossible to follow.
"When people refer to 'glowing skin', they often mean an even skin tone with no blemishes and a smooth surface, which reflects light in a flattering way," says Dr. Kluk. "But clever lighting and filters are often needed to create the appearance of 'glass skin,' for instance, and it would be impossible for most of us to replicate this look in real life."
Dr. Kluk explains that being flooded with images of perfect skin on social media doesn't do much to persuade people that they are good enough as they are, particularly those who are young and impressionable. "It also sets the expectation that this is the norm," says Dr. Kluk. "All skin has pores, and if this is a beauty standard, most people trying to achieve it will be met with disappointment." She confirms my thoughts: Your skin is neither glass nor a mirror. It's skin, and it really doesn't need to gleam.
Lex Gillies, rosacea and skin positivity campaigner, agrees, and explains that the goalposts of what constitutes "good skin" are constantly moving. Because of this, it might feel like you're struggling to keep up or even doing something wrong. "When I was a teenager, 'good skin' was classed as 'not getting spots,' but this has now evolved so that we have to have a face clear of acne, wrinkles, hair, texture, pores, scars, pigmentation, visible veins, discoloration, and so on," Gillies says. She cites the barrage of glowing skin trends born out of social media. "I think these types of trends purposefully skim over a basic truth about skin care: 'Good' skin is mostly down to genetics and luck," she says. "Yes, you can use all of the products listed in an article, you can overhaul your diet, you can meditate your stress away. But for most people, that 'flawless' look is always going to be out of reach. You might feel as though your skin is the problem, instead of the unattainable goal."
Refinery29 UK's health and living writer, Sadhbh O'Sullivan, knows this feeling all too well. In an open letter to every woman who suffers with adult acne, she wrote: "When a skin-care brand describes its products as 'acne-busting' or celebrities say the secret behind their good skin is just drinking water, what it implies for the rest of us is that we're not doing enough. We're not putting up the good fight," she says. "We know that isn't true; if it were, I'd have skin like Jodie Comer. Instead, we can form our own nuanced take. No, we don't need to be ashamed of our skin, and no, it doesn't make us less of a person."
Glowing skin does not equal healthy skin.
There is also a common misconception that glowing skin equals healthy skin. It implies that any type of skin texture outside that ideal means you're not doing things right, which is a potentially damaging notion.
"Although eating a nutritious diet, getting sufficient sleep, moisturizing regularly, wearing sunscreen, and avoiding smoking are better for our general physical health and benefit our skin, skin glow is not an accurate indicator of health status," says Dr. Kluk. "People who have blemishes or other skin conditions like eczema, for example, may be perfectly healthy. Images of healthy people have traditionally also showed tanned skin, but we now know that a tan is a sign of sun damage and a risk factor for skin cancer, so some of these images have a lot to answer for."
In other words, your skin isn't a true indicator of how healthy you are and not having seamless skin doesn't mean you're falling short.
Glow-enhancing skin-care products could actually be hurting your skin.
Market research firm Mintel reports that 48% of people are currently spending more money on skin care compared to when stay-at-home orders first took hold in March 2020. While there are countless products that can boost brightness and sheen, flawless skin trends may actually contribute to the multitude of issues experts are seeing. This is especially true when it comes to brightening ingredients such as vitamin C, retinol, and exfoliating acids, all of which have the potential to irritate skin when overused.
"There is so much on offer, and it's easy to feel overwhelmed by choice and try and incorporate all of the promising products and ingredients you read about into your skin-care routine," says Dr. Kluk. With that said, loading on the active ingredients could be doing more harm than good. "There has been a tendency in the past few years to either have fussy 10-step routines or to aggressively combine ingredients such as acids and retinoids," continues Dr. Kluk. She pinpoints red, dry, flaky, irritated skin, as well as a damaged skin barrier, as issues that can arise.
Dr. Kluk's advice is to keep your routine simple. "Think about what you would like to improve most about your skin and incorporate a product that has a track record for tackling that particular aspect," she says — for example, salicylic acid for breakouts and blackheads, or glycolic acid for hyperpigmentation. "Once you've reached that goal, look at your other priorities and see if there is anything else you can add in to help with that. If you try to tick off all the boxes in one go, you're much more likely to end up overdoing it."
Flawless skin doesn't exist.
When it comes to skin conditions, Gillies says that acne, rosacea, and psoriasis affect millions of people all over the world; in fact, they seem to be more common than ever. That's why a lack of representation in the media and the focus on flawless, glowing skin is an issue, particularly in how it may affect mental health. "It perpetuates the belief that it is us, the 'normal' consumer, who is the problem," says Gillies. "It makes us think that perhaps we're not spending enough on treatments and skin care. We're made to believe that poreless, blemish-free, hairless skin is the norm and anything outside of that is wrong. How could that not have an impact on our mental health?"
Dr. Kluk mentions that it would be beneficial to see a more even playing field in how skin is depicted, especially on social media, as this might relieve pressure and self-criticism. Just last week, the BBC reported that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) told influencers not to apply filters to social-media adverts if they exaggerate the effect of skin care or cosmetics. In another hopeful leap, movements like skin positivity (which champions confidence and self-love) and skin neutrality (being at peace with your complexion) are also gaining traction as we're spending more time online.
Gillies also recently launched the Real Skin Club, which aims to spread skin positivity to those who need it most. "It's a space open to anyone who is struggling with their skin, wants to learn how to treat it with kindness, or wants to embrace resilience, difference, and positivity," Gillies says. "All of the content and products, including skin positivity affirmation cards, are designed by people who have a skin condition or visible difference as we wanted to tell the authentic stories of those who have actually lived them. You are much more than your appearance."
It's important to be realistic.
Dr. Kluk, who has experienced acne herself, says that taking a level-headed approach is the key to accepting and being happy with your skin. It's hard, but try not to compare your appearance to others, especially online. "This is important particularly if the pictures are digitally enhanced or edited," she says. "They can have a profoundly negative impact on body image. The more pictures we post of our events, activities, new haircuts, or holidays on social media, the more time we spend looking at ourselves through the eyes of other people and judging ourselves."
However, Dr. Kluk advises seeking professional help if you have a skin condition that's getting you down, especially if it's itchy, uncomfortable, painful, or making you feel self-conscious. "Getting the right advice and support early on could potentially alleviate a lot of unnecessary suffering," she says. If you have a skin issue that doesn't have any negative impact on your physical or emotional wellbeing and you choose not to seek treatment, that's okay, too. "It doesn't mean that people who ask for help are weak or letting the side down," says Dr. Kluk.
While glowing skin trends are going nowhere fast, it seems we're starting to question them more. I have to admit that, like a magpie, I'll probably always be a little impressed by a new skin care or makeup product that makes the light bling off my cheekbones. But I'll try not to hate the days when my skin doesn't look the way we've all been told it should: impossibly, absurdly flawless. From now on, and to quote one of the Real Skin Club's positive affirmation cards, "I only speak kindly to my skin."