First, it came for our exercise habits. Then, it came for our lunch choices. And now, the insatiable beast that is the wellness industry is rifling through our bathroom cabinets, too.
Yes, the hot new way to be your best self is by investing in a clean beauty routine. While fashion has been expanding voraciously into athleisure, leaving those who don’t exercise feeling positively un-chic, beauty has simultaneously staked a claim on inner wellbeing. A pristine, disciplined way of life is 2018’s designer handbag and these are the consumer must-haves of our times: not trophy purchases like Mulberry Alexas or posh pieces of jewellery, but "non-toxic" sun creams, vitamins and elixirs for your hair and even crystal-infused moisturisers (which, I am sure, come with complimentary good vibes).
The unifying claim for all of these products is that they’re about treating your appearance as an extension of your overall health – physical and spiritual. So far, so appealing; it’s no surprise that this approach to beauty has become big business. That’s why legendary make-up artist Bobbi Brown has reinvented herself as a lifestyle guru, with a line of smoothie powders and probiotics known as Evolution_18. It’s why brands like Neom Organics are selling essential-oil products targeted at “wellbeing” and it’s also why Harrods has opened a wellness clinic with a focus on “integrative beauty” (you can pop by for an intravenous vitamin drip or get a moisturiser designed just for you on the basis of your DNA).
There’s logic to the fact that the wellness movement has now seeped into so many areas of our lives (not to mention our shopping lists). Its proponents have always argued that health should be holistic – not only about a nutritious diet or a strict Pilates regime, but also about embracing meditation, mindfulness and all the other accessories of self-care, too.
“I think wellness-focused beauty products are particularly beneficial for helping people to understand how everything works together,” says Kate Light, who trained as a beauty therapist and now practises a body and mind treatment that combines massage therapies with reiki. “A physical ailment is sometimes a symptom, rather than a problem. It’s about looking at a person’s overall wellbeing, rather than just one aspect.”
But, while many wouldn’t argue with the logic that we should look after ourselves inside and out, is beauty’s preoccupation with wellness giving us less peace of mind, rather than more?
It’s no longer enough to fake a glow with bronzer or blusher – if you’re not authentically glowing from the inside out like a Renaissance cherub, you’re forced to conclude that you’ve let yourself down
One particularly thriving area of the industry is the beauty-supplement market, which is worth around $4.7bn and expected to keep growing rapidly, according to a recent study by Persistence Market Research. If you’ve bought capsules from Lumity Life, which promise to “help protect your body against oxidative stress” and “keep skin elastic, radiant and supple”, or if you’ve been tempted by Ouai’s medical-looking “Thin” supplements that promise thicker, healthier hair, you’re part of that market. But are you getting the benefits or are you simply paying out for 2018’s equivalent of snake oil?
I ask Helen Bond, a registered dietitian. “Ideally, what is good for you tends to be good for your skin, so you should always look first at whether you’re having a healthy balanced diet,” she says. “That should pretty much cover the nutrients we need for our skin and hair and would eradicate the need for a supplement. But if you need a top-up in a particular area, then supplements do have a role to play.”
It can be a rather expensive habit – those Lumity Life products cost £90, and the Ouai tablets are £26. High prices aren't necessarily a con, explains Bond; with fish oil capsules, for example, the more expensive varieties sometimes contain higher quantities of omega-3, which can be good for skin. But sometimes the high cost of a supplement simply reflects a lot of extra ingredients without proven benefits. Collagen might be one of these – a protein that your body produces itself. It’s much-hyped in the beauty world, but Bond points out that there is no compelling evidence that taking it orally has any effect on your skin or hair. “Could that money be better spent on improving what you eat?” she suggests. For a no-BS guide to supplements, Bond recommends looking at NHS Choices and The British Dietetic Association.
Wellness products and treatments play into our neuroses, of course. It’s no longer enough to fake a glow with bronzer or blusher, which is a trick that actually makes life easier for women (how many of us have thanked the make-up gods as we prepared for work after a bad night's sleep?). Now, if you’re not authentically “waking up like this”, glowing from the inside out like a Renaissance cherub, you’re forced to conclude that you’ve let yourself down (and I can tell you that, personally, my skin looks like stale Ryvita first thing in the morning). It’s all rather exhausting, even putting aside the impact on your bank balance.
There’s also an argument that the movement pathologises normal processes of ageing and encourages a vague hypochondria. The “worried well”, Bond says, are enthusiastic customers, often signing up for more than they should. “There’s a danger when you’re on a multivitamin, a probiotic and a skin supplement that you might be taking too many vitamins and minerals," she warns. "You shouldn’t take too much zinc, for example, because it can inhibit the body’s absorption of copper. I’d always recommend looking at your diet and your hydration levels instead – take care of that and the results are that you tend to glow anyway.”
So, while the modern beauty industry, with its emphasis on looking at the whole picture, might represent a step forward for wellness, health itself hasn’t really changed. Eat well, get enough sleep and drink plenty of water, and you’re likely to look your best; it might sound simple, but it's a claim that no probiotic smoothie powder can compete with.