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Why are we all so obsessed with skincare?

Reports show that British women are spending more on skincare than ever before. So, why have we all become so preoccupied with our skin? Hannah Banks-Walker investigates

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By Hannah Banks-Walker on

Skincare is the new black. Or, at least, it’s where we seem to be spending most of our money. Mintel, the market-research agency, released data earlier this year that showed women are spending more than ever on facial-skincare products, with this only set to increase. The £1.15bn spent last year is likely to have risen by 3% by the end of this year, while Mintel also predicts that by 2023, expenditure will have increased by a whopping 15%, bringing the total to £1.36bn. That’s a lot of cleanser. It’s also not a surprise, given the rise and rise of cult face creams, serums and multi-step routines. Where, once, women were sold expensive moisturisers, gloopy face masks and bottles of “essence” with unidentified purpose, now a whole new world has exploded into existence – one of sheet masks, hyaluronic acid, face oils and under-eye serums. We’ve experienced the beauty equivalent of the Big Bang.

A key shift that has contributed to the sales of skincare products has been the marketing strategy around them. Where, once, skincare was typically about one thing and one thing only – anti-ageing – most women have now, quite rightly, rallied against this term. It is now all about “glow”. This rather elusive concept is a cash cow for the world’s leading beauty brands at the moment. It has altered the entire lexicon, with terms like “dewy”, “fresh” and phrases such as “lit from within” now common parlance in most women’s media and among the brands themselves. 

As Business of Fashion pointed out in an entire article dedicated to the phenomenon that is “glow”, it is now “more popular than terms like ‘bronzing’ or ‘contouring’. Indeed, at last search, #Glow had over 8.5 million tagged posts on Instagram. (In comparison, #Contour had 5.1 million while #Bronze was at 3.5 million.)” It seems, then, that the cosmetic trends that were quickly absorbed into the mainstream (contouring, strobing etc) are gradually being usurped by a more “natural” look. As Jo Osborne, concessions and beauty buying director for Harvey Nichols, says: “There’s definitely a growing interest in the pared-back look right now. Women are investing money in good-quality skincare products and lighter, multi-use make-up textures that look like your skin, but better.” For Harvey Nichols, sales of skincare rose by 9% last year, outperforming cosmetics sales, which increased by only 6%.

Interestingly, the big business that is “glow” is actually not a rejection of selfie culture, but rather a different approach to it. As Charlotte Tilbury told BoF: “We are now in the digital age of high definition where [photos are taken and posted constantly] …. it’s a megapixel mega-pore nightmare.” Of course, social media – mainly Instagram – plays a large part in the evolution of beauty trends. South Korean beauty, for example, has had an overwhelming impact on the global industry as a whole. As more people began sharing Korean products, brands and the meticulous 10-step regimes used to achieve “glass” skin on social media, the industry sat up and paid attention. If, a few years ago, a friend had recommended a sheet mask, you’d likely have written them off as a bit bonkers. Now, though, you can buy them in your local supermarket with your weekly food shop. Face masks in general, in fact, have become incredibly popular, only heightened by new marketing and advertising strategies that see certain products seemingly invading your entire online life. One – Glow Recipe’s Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask (another Korean export) – even managed to amass a 5,000 waiting list in just one day when it launched in May last year, while Australian brand Sand & Sky’s Porerefining Face Mask sold 50,000 products during its first weekend. Skin is, it seems, the new status symbol. 

Beauty halls were built on the premise that, the more money you spend, the more effective the product will be. Now, not so

The world’s “wellness” obsession is undoubtedly part of this. Rather than a fad diet, it has been packaged as a lifestyle, a moral standard by which to live your life. Glowing skin feeds into this – it is the visual signifier of good health. But, as Alexia Inge, Cult Beauty’s co-founder and co-chief executive, told BoF: “Some people are willing to go the whole hog and live the lifestyle of a mountain goat in order to attain this naturally occurring luminescence, while others just want to buy really good make-up that fakes it — and there are products that do both.”

There are currently hundreds of products on the market with the word “glow” in their title and, like most beauty products, some are more effective than others. But a key development within the world of skincare and its popularity is a democratisation of sorts. Beauty halls were built on the premise that, the more money you spend, the more effective the product will be. Now, not so. While brands like La Mer and Sisley offer high-end products (a pot of Sisley moisturiser is £134 while tubs of the famous La Mer cream can fetch up to an eye-watering £1,520), the market has opened up considerably, offering a more diverse range of skincare products at increasingly lower prices.

There are the cult brands like The Ordinary (renowned for its hyaluronic acid, at £5.90) and a new brand for 2018, Garden of Wisdom (which picked up a huge following on Reddit, where more and more women are posing their beauty questions). Household names like Primark, Lidl and Aldi are getting in on the skincare game, too, with their own budget ranges. Aldi’s £3.99 Miracle Cream from its Lacura range sold out almost instantly when it launched and has been said to rival Elizabeth Arden’s Eight Hour Cream. And beauty stalwart Avon says it sells the equivalent of a moisturiser every minute. For the big department stores, too, skincare is a winner at the moment. Liberty has seen skincare sales increase by 30% in the last year, meaning it’s now the store’s second-biggest category, behind fragrance. For Net-a-Porter's beauty contingent, skincare is the number-one category overall, with customers spending more on higher-end products than they were this time last year. 

When it comes down to it, it’s very easy to be cynical about an industry that has capitalised on telling women they need certain products to improve their appearance. But perhaps this is why skincare has become the force it is currently. There is something very personal about it – regimes have gone from a “one size fits all” approach to something more tailored to the individual. It’s also a lot more to do with how it makes your skin actually feel than, say, cosmetic products. As Jia Tolentino wrote for The New Yorker at the end of last year: “There’s also something perversely, unexpectedly hopeful about skin care in today’s political context. Traditionally, skincare represents an attempt to deny the inevitability of the future. For me, right now, it functions as part of a basic dream in which the future simply exists.”

She goes on to speak of “self-care”, a concept perhaps at the heart of the issue: “The writer Arabelle Sicardi wrote to me in an email. ‘We want to be able to not have our suffering visible.’ Beauty is a tool that tends to serve those in power, she wrote, and, at the same time, it fundamentally involves acts of witnessing the body, helping it to endure its conditions.” Skincare isn’t just about appearance, it’s about the act of applying it, the ritual, the experience. Indeed, this is something Liberty, and many other department stores, is hoping to capitalise on, with a new experiential approach to skincare, launched earlier this year and offering new and innovative services to its customers like Skin Laundry, a 15-minute laser light treatment.

Skin is, it seems, the new status symbol

The customer is perhaps the final piece of the puzzle. We are not simply spending billions on unidentified lotions and potions, the ingredients of which remain a mystery. We are more clued-up than ever when it comes to beauty, and skincare in particular. We’re becoming “skintellecuals”, as Lisa Niven, beauty editor of, wrote in July last year: “Customers today are clued-up on what works for them and won’t stand for anything less.” Certainly, more and more brands aren’t afraid to market a new product using the language of science, which would have previously been a significant turn-off for the customer.

Now, though, as Niven explains: “Being authentic and honest with customers is what sells these days – a steep price tag without the science to back it up simply won’t make for a sale in the same way that it used to.” In other words, the generalisation that buying into a product makes you susceptible to marketing doesn’t hold as much sway as it once did; we know what we want, and why we want it. Or, as Tolentino put it, it’s “the idea of beauty as a site of resistance, rather than capitulation.” Whether Mintel’s predictions about our future spending are right obviously remains to be seen. Wherever we go from here, though, it seems inevitable that we’ll be taking our skincare obsession with us.


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