How skin care became a balm for millennials' existential dread

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It's safe to say that a large percentage of us are obsessed with skin care, so much so that Vogue recently dubbed it “the new makeup.” A report by market research company NPD Group found that skin care product sales rose 13% last year, whereas makeup sales saw a modest 1% bump, CNN reports. Indeed, the number of “get unready with me” videos of beauty influencers washing off their makeup and slathering on skin care products now seems to rival makeup application tutorials. Their skin care routines can reach dizzying levels of complexity, all the way up to 10-step Korean routines to attain “glass skin”— a radiant, translucent complexion, Allure reports.

Millennials seem to be fueling much of the growth in skin care, according to a number of media outlets. Why are we so into skin care, though? For many, myself included, a step-by-step skin care routine gives us a sense of control in the face of burnout, debt, a post-truth era, the climate crisis, and the many other stressors our generation faces. Spending a half-hour once or twice a day on ourselves feels like a long-term investment that may actually pay off — the way investing in a student loan was supposed to help us land lucrative jobs. This just hasn’t been the case for many of us, as Anne Helen Petersen points out in her viral BuzzFeed essay.

Of course, other, less existential factors have also helped feed our skin care obsession. Stephen Alain Ko, a cosmetic formulator and skin care expert whose Instagram account boasts more than 41,000 followers, owes it partly to the trend of dewy, glow-y skin. This aesthetic, in turn, stems from the rise in Korean beauty products and practices, “no makeup” beauty brands like Glossier, and athleisure, per Quartz.

Social media has not only brought this beauty ideal to the masses — straight men included — but has also made it easier than ever to watch or read about someone’s skin care regimen and use it inform your own. (That said, although skin care brands like The Ordinary sell products at drugstore prices, several other products, like those by Sunday Riley, remain too pricey for many people.)

But the easy availability of what seems like credible, direct information may also explain why many of us turn to skin care in the first place. It's been challenging for young people to get in touch with their own intuition, and what it is they believe and want — for instance, what career path they want to follow or whether they want kids, says Tess Brigham, a therapist in San Francisco whose clientele consists largely of millennials. “Trying to answer those questions in a world with so much information can become overwhelming.” The debt many millennials struggle with, not to mention the apocalyptic news cycle, doesn't help, either.

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As a result, many millennials will try to find something they feel they have complete control over — something healthy and good for them, like skin care, Brigham asserts. At the very least, they can point to their skin care regimen and say, “I can take care of this one area of my life really well,” says Cathie Gordon, a therapist in Napa, California who also sees mostly millennials and Gen Zs.

The shifting nature of work may have also explain our desire for skin care routines. A generation ago, work was more routinized, with relatively fixed start and end points. In contrast, many millennials work freelance or remotely, and are expected to respond to work emails as long as their phones remain within reach. A skincare routine may emerge from a desire to “create some sort of a routine in a world that feels like there are no boundaries,” Brigham says. “It feels nice to have some sort of daily routine that anchors you in the beginning and end of the day.”

Indeed, Ko sees his skin care routine as “centering.” “It’s something you can sort of do every day… an accomplishment you can tick off,” he says. Plus, “it’s a way to wind down and spend some time with yourself.” He has an elaborate morning skin care routine that begins with cleansing his face with a toner or micellar water. Next, he applies a moisturizing liquid with a hydrating ingredient like hyaluronic acid, followed by a product that contains vitamin C and other antioxidants. If his skin is dry or irritated, he also uses a moisturizer containing emollients and waxes. Finally, he rubs a sunscreen stick around his eyes and on his lips. His slightly simpler nighttime routine starts with an oil-based cleanser or micellar water, followed by a hydrating toner, a moisturizer with lipids, an exfoliating or renewing product, and lip moisturizer.

I also turn to my skin care routine to feel grounded. I employ it as a preventative measure too, which makes me feel more in control of my future, even when it seems more tenuous than ever.

As a freelancer with a hard-to-predict work schedule, I also turn to my skin care routine to feel grounded. I employ it as a preventative measure too, which makes me feel more in control of my future, even when it seems more tenuous than ever. Every night, I wash my face with a salicylic acid cleanser to keep the subclinical acne that tends to dot my forehead at bay. Then I rub on vitamin C serum to ward off the dark spots that run in my family. After I wait a few minutes for the serum to absorb into my skin, I slather on moisturizer containing hyaluronic acid, so my skin stays hydrated, supple, and youthful.

Like me, Ko views skin care as a long-term investment whose returns you can literally see, much like fitness, which he says also seems popular among millennials for similar reasons as skin care regiments are. “It’s nice to be rewarded by something that pays you back if you do it over the course of months and years,” he tells Mic.

Brigham agrees. “You can look in the mirror and see the fruits of your labor,” she says. “I think that’s a little more interesting and encouraging than looking at a bank account.” It’s also an investment whose terms you can personalize and modify to suit your needs.

At a time when traditional adult milestones like buying a house or starting a family remain out of reach for me, and many other millennials, building a routine based on an intimate knowledge of my skin is another way of seeing myself as an adult. Even if I can't afford a house, at least I'm making the adult decision of committing to myself and my overall health, something that, as Brigham points out, I can do through a skin care routine.

And, let’s be real: "This generation is more visible than any other generation before them,” Gordon says. Our lives are on display, so skin care seems to be a natural outlet for our anxieties. If a skin care routine makes me feel like I have my life together and also happens to make me look good on Instagram, then I’m here for it.