The Dark Side of High-Tech Skin Care

Illustration of skincare tools on vanity counter in front of mirror

Until a year ago, Maggie* was as sacrilegious about skin care as one can get: she barely washed her face, regularly slept with makeup on, and used only the most basic drugstore products when she remembered to use them at all. Nevertheless, she had great skin: “I didn’t spend too much time thinking about it,” she says.

Those in her orbit, however, had become increasingly obsessed with skin care — a widespread phenomenon that’s been documented in publications like The New Yorker and The Cut, and attributed to everything from a chaotic political landscape to our growing obsession with wellness. When some of her closest friends began blogging about their favorite beauty products, turning into “total skin-care devotees,” she began to second-guess her laissez-faire approach and reversed course with a K-Beauty inspired 10-step routine.

With her interest in skin care now piqued, she began testing every skin-care tool she could get her hands on: face scrubbers like the Clarisonic and Foreo Luna, electronic microneedlers, facial massagers, and at-home LED light therapy products like those from LightStim and Neutrogena.

The results of all this trial and error fell into two categories: non-existent and horrible. In the latter case, she was waking up with swollen and irritated skin for days on end. “The tools were just not made for my sensitive skin,” she says, but her newfound skin-care obsession made it difficult to fully let them go.

“I spend an inordinate amount of time staring at my skin in the mirror now, and, consequently, find a lot about my skin to take issue with that never occurred to me before,” she says. At only 27, she is considering Botox, for example, after trying out a smart mirror that highlighted some minor wrinkling on her forehead. “The tools have created this insanely frustrating game of whack-a-mole with my skin where I’m constantly trying to ‘fix’ something,” she says.

That creates a vicious cycle, one that convinces her the only solution is to try more tools and more products.

Sheena Franklin knows this struggle well. She soft-launched the Well-Kept Beauty app this past November in an effort to help consumers avoid the downward spiral that using too much beauty tech can create. Like telemedicine apps before it, Well-Kept Beauty allows users to have direct consultations with aestheticians and, later this summer, users will also be able to speak with dermatologists and use photo-recognition technology to analyze their skin for issues like dehydration. But unlike many beauty tools already on the market, including many smart mirrors, the app does not weigh each user against the average, idealized 20-year-old, nor against each other.

“A friend of mine received a poor grade from a popular smart mirror that compared her skin to that of women in their twenties,” Franklin explains. “That’s totally unhelpful!”

Instead, Well-Kept Beauty remains focused on analyzing the consumer and the consumer alone, a move which Franklin feels creates a less negative experience. Grades, which evoke punishment and reward, are avoided.

Unlike many beauty apps and smart mirrors on the market, the app does not push certain brands simply because they paid a special sum to be featured. Instead, it first tells users what ingredients they should look for and why, and then suggests a few relevant products that they can then purchase. Tools are recommended occasionally, too, after a full consultation is complete, and users are encouraged to log both positive and negative reactions they have to the prescribed treatments so that Well-Kept Beauty can keep track of what’s working and what isn’t.

“There’s nothing wrong with these technologies, but with how you apply them, and what your end goal is as a company,” says Franklin.

The market for these perfection-driven tools is only set to grow as our notion of what’s beautiful continues to evolve along the lines of our hyper-filtered selfie culture. By 2020, the beauty device category is expected to be worth $12.8 billion, according to Research and Markets.

“These tools drive an algorithmic definition of beauty that is less about embracing diversity and individuality and more about trying to attain a certain type of beauty ideal,” explains Victoria Buchanan, a senior futures analyst at The Future Laboratory, a global foresight consultancy firm.

At a time when a whopping eight out of 10 women are already dissatisfied with their looks, the thought that that number could rise in step with the growing beauty tech market is a frightening thought.

But for those brands distributing these beauty tools, shame and obsession are not seen as the goal.

Frank Yang, the CEO of Simplehuman, which sells its own line of light-up sensor mirrors that feature Google Assistant, says that the goal of the line is simply to perfect the traditional mirror and give people “the best possible view of their faces.”

While some older women with vision issues note that they can see their skin clearly for the first time in years, according to Yang, other consumers have complained that they’re emphasizing imperfections in an uncomfortable way.

“Magnifying mirrors are the absolute worst,” says Charlotte*, who’s had a similar experience to Maggie with beauty tools that’s led her to write them off altogether, leaving her skin in a much better state than before. “The less time I spend inspecting my skin, the less I find minuscule flaws to pick at.”

Going forward, experts like Franklin and Buchanan believe the onus is on beauty tech companies to hold themselves more accountable for the effects their products can have on consumers.

“You can’t hide from the impact these technologies are having on our self-image,” says Buchanan. “We need to design ways to engage with it that support our long-term health and well-being.”