The US’s fourth-biggest website, Reddit, is a proudly mixed bag. On the news aggregation and discussion forum are threads dedicated to mini-marshmallows in ice-creams and streets that look like penises, alongside discussions about Donald Trump, men’s rights and feminism. Recently, too, it has become the unlikely home of a thriving beauty community, with the subreddit Skincare Addiction now boasting nearly half a million subscribers.
Since its launch six years ago, Skincare Addiction has reached No 215 in the Reddit metrics of most popular communities. If this doesn’t sound especially high, consider that there are 1.2bn communities on Reddit. Posts on Skincare Addiction range from a callout for subscribers to give their best backpacker beauty tips, to a chat about pillowcase hygiene, to the question of whether rosehip oil is “good or bad for those with sebaceous filaments”.
This subreddit – and others, such as Asian Beauty – is flourishing because of the millennial obsession with skincare. Over the past few years, quickly and surely, many people have become more and more fastidious. Whereas the Clinique-approved cleanse, tone and moisturise once seemed enough, some Korean routines now advocate up to 10 steps, and there is a trend, too, for double cleansing: washing your face twice, with two different products. The skincare market grew 9% in 2017, compared with 6% for makeup, according to the NPD group. By 2020, skincare is expected to account for 26.8% of the beauty and personal care market. It is now one of Net-a-Porter’s biggest categories in beauty, with sales up by a third in the last year, with Asos also reporting a big sales increase. Cult products include Sunday Riley’s Good Genes treatment, Drunk Elephant’s Acid Trip set and Vintner’s Daughter’s serum, which costs £175.
Then there are the brands that define this boutique market. Glossier, with the strapline “Skin first. Makeup second”, was launched in 2014 by blogger Emily Weiss. It now has a devoted following of women who love products wrapped in Insta-friendly pale-pink packaging – and it is set to grow much bigger. In February, the company raised £38.8m in a round of capital funding. The Ordinary is another increasingly popular brand. Launched in 2016, it strips out all the trimmings to create what its makers call “clinical formulations with integrity” – acids and serums – often for less than £10 a product. Last year, the brand’s parent company, Deciem, received investment from Estée Lauder.
The skincare boom tallies with the times, of course; with the trend for wellness, clean eating, clean sleeping and exercise. Looking after your skin and making it the best it can be is seen as nurturing, a vital component of self-care (the New Yorker magazine called 2017 “the year that skincare became a coping mechanism”). Once there was an obsession with the artifice of the Kim Kardashian contoured look – one that required the use of 25 products before leaving the house. Now the quest for the flawless face has been usurped by the quest for perfect skin. The holy grail – or HG, in Reddit speak – is no makeup at all (as seen in countless #iwokeuplikethis selfies).
The women – and it is mostly women, despite a sizeable male minority – on Reddit communities form a new demographic of beauty consumers, not only focusing on skincare, but engaging with the technical aspects of lotions and potions. They proudly know their AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) from their UVAs, and are committed to buying the right product in their pursuit of better skin. The website The Business of Fashion calls them “skintellectuals”. The product descriptions on The Ordinary give an idea of the technical language used to appeal to these consumer. A serum is sold as “highly-stable, water-free solution of 0.2% ester of all-trans retinoic acid”, a long way from the “will help to reduce dark circles” that used to be written on face creams.
“I think beauty geeks, myself included, are on the rise,” says Joely Walker, the beauty and health director at Grazia. “People are so much more clued up on ingredients.” This is arguably why Reddit communities work. While Walker is careful about some of the advice that comes from consumers rather than experts, she says women are “really interested in that peer-to-peer advice and want to know what other people are using. I have become obsessed with looking at people’s products on Instagram.”
There is certainly power in other users recommending products – rather than a brand or an expert. It is easy on Reddit to find yourself in a deep dive of recommendations, ones that feel somehow more trustworthy or authentic, like a tip from a friend. “Whatever is going to come through these forums is only what people really use and really believe in and trust,” says Walker.
The power of Skincare Addiction, and the skintellectual demographic, is obvious in the number of articles dedicated to hacks from the community now found on sites such as Refinery29 and Cosmopolitan. And there is evidence that it is encouraging brands to address neglected demographics. Teen Vogue credited Reddit this month with the success of Black Girl Sunscreen, a product designed specifically for women of colour that went viral on the site. Katrina Fulluck, a senior face and body buyer at Asos, says engaging with these communities enables the company “to scope out key emerging ingredients trends”.
Newby Hands, the beauty director at Net-a-Porter, says skincare forums are also making a difference in marketing. “It means the smoke and mirrors has decreased,” she says. “Now they have to be upfront about ingredients because somebody, somewhere, will find out. It’s like with food – we all want to know where it’s from now, don’t we?” Walker seconds this. “That thing when you’re sold hope in a jar and you’ll look 10 years younger in a week – that’s never going to happen,” she says. “Now people are clued up.”
Anna-Marie Solowij, a longtime beauty journalist and the founder of Beautymart, says this is affecting how brands engage with customers. “It’s a two-way conversation now. The consumer is starting to lead brand directions,” she says. Solowij says Glossier is a perfect example. “When they launched [in the UK], they actually asked their followers which products they wanted and launched those first.” Glossier still regularly shares customers’ posts, using these to show how their products work on “real people”.
But for all its association with natural beauty and self-care, is this trend really healthy? In January, the website Outline published an article about “the skincare con”, in which Krithika Varagur wrote that the products bought to achieve perfect skin are “a scam”. “It has to be. Perfect skin is unattainable because it doesn’t exist.” Varagur went on to argue that the trend exploits women, who are, she says, “disproportionately taxed by both the ideal of perfect skin and its material pursuit”.
This is a familiar issue, of course. In the book Living Dolls (2010), Natasha Walter argued that “throughout our culture it is constantly suggested that women’s journey to self-fulfilment will inevitably lie in them perfecting their bodies”. Susan Sontag wrote in her 1972 essay, The Double Standard of Ageing, that “the single standard of beauty for women dictates that they must go on having clear skin. Every wrinkle, every line, every grey hair is a defeat.”
That debate continues. Efrat Tseëlon, the chair of fashion theory at the University of Leeds, who has written extensively about beauty, calls Reddit groups “a supportive virtual community, a combination of self-help group and support network”. But she believes that those involved have – effectively – swallowed the Kool-Aid.