The pseudoscience of skincare

No matter how much you spend, you’re still going to get old

By 2025, the global skincare market is estimated to be worth $189.3 billion. But even sooner than that, by 2020, a subset of skincare dubbed “skin tech” is expected to be worth $12.8 billion. Beauty devices such as LED masks, electronic face scrubbers and microneedlers, facial massagers, smart mirrors, skincare cameras, and handheld machines that deliver a microcurrent to your skin are just some of the at-home skin tech that people are investing in these days.

Buying youth

Fueled by concern over both premature aging and skin diseases (and, of course, a good dose of vanity), more and more people are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars to closely monitor and treat their skin. But many of these devices have little or no reliable scientific evidence to back them up. Even research done by the manufacturers themselves isn’t terribly convincing since it usually involves very few test subjects and includes no other lifestyle information about participants for context. But most consumers never see that research anyway.

Now, the fact that there’s little independent research on beauty tech is partly because the only people who want to pay to prove that a device works are the ones selling it. And some devices simply don’t lend themselves to double-blind placebo-controlled studies – how are you going to administer a placebo for a microneedler, for example?

There’s no doubt that our obsession with beauty and with the “quantified self” is driving the propagation of questionable beauty tech. But is this really letting us live our best lives or is it adding an extra layer of anxiety about how we should look?

Putting aside the cultural issues at play, the main question is whether this tech does any good. In cases where it helps detect skin cancer, sure. But how about when it gives you a wrinkle score? Who are you being scored against?

Our faces, ourselves?

Nevertheless, beauty tech companies continue to capitalize on our obsessions with ourselves and our trust in anything that sounds like it’s based on scientific evidence. Their marketing schemes tout devices as the means to achieve personalized care and advice. The “experts” they employ to help legitimize their products are not scientists but celebrities, aestheticians, and, often, dermatologists not involved in legitimate scientific research or with their own brands to market.

The “evidence” that beauty tech devices “work” is often measured in terms of whether or not the client sees improvement, a less-than-objective measure of efficacy. But that doesn’t stop the press from helping market this beauty tech and parroting meaningless phrases such as “clinically tested” or “dermatologist-approved.” This isn’t science.

In fact, skin tech is the very definition of pseudoscience. Companies that make skin tech devices use statements and practices that scientists use but don’t follow the scientific method, especially when it comes to replicating or challenging results. Now, this doesn’t mean nothing on the market can change the way your skin looks – you might have had great luck with a device. No one is telling you not to use what makes you happy.

To be fair, much of the tech is physically harmless (partly because it doesn’t do much of anything at all). But what do we make of the psychological harm that the constant measurement of beauty does to us? And how do we become more intelligent consumers of other goods when we’re so easily duped by pseudoscientific claims?

In the end, we’re all going to age (if we’re lucky).

Further reading:

The pseudoscience of beauty products: Why the dubious claims of so many skin-care companies go unquestioned and untested (The Atlantic, 2015)

The dark side of high-tech skin care (Allure, 2019)

Scientism or “science washing” in beauty (Lab Muffin, 2019)

Olay walked me through its connected skin products, and now I’m terrified to age (The Verge, 2019)

How skin care became an at-home science experiment (The Atlantic, 2018)

Just assume most skincare science is grade-A bullshit (Jezebel, 2014)