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The fall of “anti-aging” skin care

Brands are still selling the idea of trying to look younger — they’ve just changed the vocabulary.

“We’re not anti-aging.”

This might seem like a revolutionary claim from Neutrogena, which put the tagline on its website alongside pictures of 41-year-old Kerry Washington, 46-year-old Jennifer Garner, and 51-year-old Nicole Kidman. After all, Neutrogena is a big and important brand in an industry that has been promising women it can reverse the signs of aging for decades.

But then you read the rest of the message: “We’re anti-wrinkles.” And you look more closely at the women smiling next to these words — flawless celebrities with not a wrinkle in sight.

Suddenly it doesn’t seem so revolutionary anymore.

The tension in the Neutrogena ad can be found everywhere in skin care right now. The industry claims to be moving away from anti-aging language, and yet it’s selling the same products and ingredients.

Kerry Washington, Nicole Kidman, and Jennifer Garner on Neutrogena’s website.  Neutrogena

L’Oréal has an “Age Perfect Cell Renewal Rosy Tone Moisturizer” that contains a mild acid and common moisturizing ingredients. Clinique’s Repairwear Laser Focus serum “helps plump skin so expression lines are visibly reduced,” mostly via its moisturizing agents.

Take a look at any drugstore aisle or Sephora shelf and you’ll see terms like “regeneration” and “renewal” and “radiance” all over skin care bottles. Positive words. Hopeful words.

For decades, beauty companies have sold youthfulness under various guises to a primarily female consumer group, brilliantly exploiting their concerns — or concocting new ones — while twisting legitimate science about how ingredients work. We’re now in a moment where women’s fears about the aesthetic effects of aging continue to be stoked, but buying something explicitly marketed as “anti-aging” has fallen out of favor. The industry that invented the term is going through contortions to mute that messaging, though they’re of course still suggesting that you need these products.

The ideas of self-care generally and skin care specifically are ascendant. But the shift away from anti-aging language is a window into how the modern beauty industry and marketing work. It fits into a larger trend of brands moving away from old-fashioned, negative concepts because of a consumer push; the phasing out of the so-called “ethnic” hair care aisle and an embrace of body positivity are two examples. Aging, and the fight against it, seems to be next.

But is this progress or just more of the same?


A wholesale marketing shift from “anti-aging” to “glow” and “radiance”

The modern anti-aging industry started in the early 20th century, when two female beauty pioneers competed to get their potions onto women’s faces: Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. In his 2011 book Branded Beauty: How Marketing Changed the Way We Look, journalist Mark Tungate writes of this competitive duo: “On the one hand, their products pleased, pampered and, yes, beautified millions of women. On the other, their advertising copy contrived to persuade their customers that ageing was not only undesirable, but somehow shameful.”

This set the tone for how skin care was sold for much of the next century. Elizabeth Arden, which is now owned by Revlon, has enjoyed success with its Prevage line. It launched in the early 2000s as a partnership with Allergan, the manufacturer of Botox, and claimed to reduce fine lines and wrinkles. Anti-aging is part of Arden’s DNA.

Olay brought anti-aging creams, previously a department store purchase, to the drugstore. The brand’s Total Effects line launched in 1999 and promised to fight signs of aging seven different ways. The words “anti-aging” are still emblazoned on that line’s bottles.

In 2010, an analyst told the Wall Street Journal, “There’s a large niche of women out there who want to buy anything with ‘anti-aging’ on it.” But that’s right about when things started to change. There wasn’t dramatic pushback to the idea of anti-aging, per se. Instead, there was an explosion of indie beauty brands like Saturday Skin and Herbivore, which marketed their products to a younger cohort of women who weren’t interested in anti-aging language. Since none of the brands were tethered to huge marketing teams and decades of history, they could use messaging that seemed fresh and authentic, often speaking to customers via social media and getting traction on forums like Reddit.

These new brands, in contrast to traditional, slower-moving corporations like L’Oréal and the Johnson & Johnson-owned Neutrogena, became favorites of skin care consumers partly because of the way they talk about skin. They use more holistic and positive language like “glow” and “radiance” and “luminosity”, rather than positioning skin as something that requires a fight to maintain. They’re not clinical words but are vague enough to hint at the kind of skin you might achieve — well-hydrated, free of blemishes.

Glossier, founded in 2014, has risen to the top to become the ur-millennial beauty brand. Emily Weiss, founder of the popular beauty blog Into the Gloss, seemed to know instinctively how her generation wanted to use skin care. Glossier’s serums and exfoliators never even hint at wrinkles and aging, instead talking about “tired” skin and “even” skin tone. (The brand is sometimes criticized for being marketed to people who already have “perfect” skin.) This caught on, resulting in an increased focus on brightening and glowinstead of aging.

In early 2016, the beauty industry did a bit of hand-wringing after recent data suggested that millennials were not buying traditional anti-wrinkle/anti-aging products, according to the trade publication WWD. Growth for that category was slow. Two years later, skin care in general is in an explosive growth phase. Sales of masks and facial exfoliators, products meant to provide quick, glowy results, were up a combined 44 percent in 2017, according to the NPD Group.

It’s also worth noting that millennials are not teens anymore. They’re in their 20s and 30s and are likely starting to see the first more permanent signs of aging showing up on their skin. But they’ve been trained to think about all that in a different way than previous generations, due in part to how the industry has positioned the products.


Allure banned “anti-aging” in its pages

How you define the term anti-aging is a matter of semantics. Michelle Lee, the editor-in-chief of the beauty-focused Allure magazine, sees the term as one that has negative connotations and is not inclusive. She compares “anti-aging” to a phrase like “throws like a girl.” Taken on the surface, the words are merely descriptive. But “throws like a girl” is often used in a derogatory way that implies a girl can’t actually throw. It’s deeply rooted in sexism. Lee sees the term “anti-aging” similarly, albeit for ageism.

“The world has really moved into this space of acceptance and not shaming people,” she says. “We see so many things like hashtags about acne acceptance and size acceptance and gender and hair texture and everything else. But for some reason, the conversation around aging still hadn’t necessarily been there … I equate ‘anti-aging’ to the word ‘diet.’”

In a skin care context, she views “anti-aging” as a marketing construct. “When you’re talking to your friends, you say, ‘What vitamin C serum are you using?’ or, ‘What eye cream are you using?’ You don’t ever say to somebody, ‘What is the anti-aging product that you’re using?’”

There are still many brands that use anti-aging language or hedge their bets like Neutrogena. But last August, Lee made the decision to ban the use of the term from Allure. She wrote in an editor’s letter, “Changing the way we think about aging starts with changing the way we talk about aging.”


But how big a change is this, actually?

Let’s compare two similar products: One, Skinceuticals CE Ferulic, was launched in 2005 and is considered the beauty industry’s gold-standard vitamin C product. It’s packaged in a clinical-looking dropper bottle. The copy on the Skinceuticals website uses the words “aging” or “anti-aging” 15 times. “Visible anti-aging benefits, such as the improvement of the appearance of lines and wrinkles, loss of firmness, and brightens skin’s complexion,” reads one bullet point.

Then there’s Drunk Elephant’s version, C-Firma, which is commonly recommended as a cheaper “dupe” for the CE Ferulic since it contains similar active ingredients. Launched in 2013, Drunk Elephant is one of the buzziest skin care brands around. Its products are among Sephora’s best sellers, and its rabid fan base constantly posts Instagrams of the brand’s peppy, brightly colored bottles. Nowhere on Sephora’s site is aging or anti-aging mentioned in the product description. (On Drunk Elephant’s site, there is one mere mention of “photoaging,” which means sun damage.) “The result is a noticeably diminished appearance of photo damage, replaced by incredible radiance and luminosity,” the copy on Sephora’s site gushes. In other words, you’ll glow.

Tiffany Masterson, Drunk Elephant’s founder, does not consider it an anti-aging brand, partially because of the ingredients she chooses not to use in its formulation. “I consider Drunk Elephant to be a pro-skin brand,” she said in an email to Vox. Like Lee, she doesn’t think much of the term “anti-aging.”

“There is no such thing as ‘anti-aging,’” she said. “Aging is inevitable. There is such a thing as making healthy choices across the board and aging gracefully. There are so many marketing terms floating around that don’t actually mean a whole lot, really.”

A bottle of Skinceuticals CE Ferulic and Drunk Elephant C-Firma, two similar products.  Skinceuticals/Drunk Elephant

Tungate, the author of Branded Beauty, said in an interview with Vox that beauty is one of the few industries that still rely heavily on using a lot of words to sell product. “What’s funny about beauty advertising is that nearly every other kind of advertising has now dispensed with copy as a way of communication. One of the things that I find entertaining about the marketing aspect of beauty is that there is a kind of poetry about it, where there’s a vocabulary that they use to try and convince consumers. It’s quite creative, actually, what they do,” Tungate says. “They stop short of lying, but they are certainly economical with the truth.”

Well, sometimes they lie, or at least, mislead. The Federal Trade Commission keeps tabs on beauty companies to make sure they aren’t making claims their products can’t support. This is why you’ll see creative wording such as a product that can “show a reduction in the appearance of wrinkles,” as CE Ferulic supposedly does, rather than saying outright that it will actually reduce wrinkles. It’s a fine distinction.

In 2014, the FTC slapped L’Oréal with charges that it had used “deceptive advertising” and “unsubstantiated claims” when it said in ads that its Lancôme Génifique and L’Oréal Paris Youth Code products could “boost genes’ activities.” “It would be nice if cosmetics could alter our genes and turn back time,” an FTC employee wrote cheekily in a press release about a settlement it reached with the company.


Regardless of what they’re called, do the products do anything?

To understand anti-aging products, you have to understand how the signs of aging manifest on your skin. Collagen, the protein that forms a matrix in between the skin’s layers and helps it look taut and plump, starts to break down. Years of sun exposure can lead to dark spots that no longer disappear like those cute summer freckles used to. (Hyperpigmentation, darker spots on the skin, can also occur after an acne breakout.)

“In studies, the first signs of aging — meaning what others notice — is loss of uniformity of color. When I look at people’s faces, I look at pigment, redness, skin laxity, skin texture, and loss of volume, all of which become more pronounced as we age,” says Dr. Heather Rogers, a dermatologist in Seattle.

Because there are so many different and distinct signs of aging, “there is not a single treatment that can improve everything.”

Many ingredients that brands use in products that promise glow and radiance are the same ones that have been used in products that are explicitly billed as anti-aging. To address the (drunk) elephant in the room, do anti-aging or radiance or self-care products or whatever we’re calling them now even do anything?

Studies tell us that the best thing you can do to minimize the signs of aging is make healthy lifestyle choices. Don’t smoke. Try to exercise. Eat a healthy diet. And the cardinal rule espoused by every single dermatologist: Protect your skin from the sun.

Sure, prevention is good, but we humans like to think we are in control of our bodies and can fix past mistakes. We believe we can improve our lot — or skin texture — in life.

This is where the science comes in. Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives that promote cell turnover and increase collagen production to mildly correct fine lines, fade dark spots, and unclog pores. They’re one of the most studied ingredients out there because tretinoin, best known by its brand name Retin-A, is a prescription retinoid used for decades as an acne and fine line fighter. Since it’s classified as a drug, it has been subjected to the Food and Drug Administration’s rigorous drug approval rules. Many dermatologists prescribe it as a first-line anti-ager. (From an FDA regulatory standpoint, cosmetic ingredients don’t have to go through the same testing that prescription drugs do to ensure they’re efficacious.)

Then there’s retinol, tretinoin’s over-the-counter cousin. It’s less effective than tretinoin and less well-studied, though there is evidence that it improves the skin’s appearance. This is complicated by a lack of agreement about what concentration is best, and the fact that different companies use different formulations of retinol in products.

Cosmetic chemists and dermatologists interviewed for this story also all pointed to vitamin Cniacinamide, and acids as ingredients that have both some hard science and clinical evidence of effectiveness behind them. Vitamin C (the star ingredient in CE Ferulic, Drunk Elephant’s C-Firma, and countless other products) and niacinamide, a B vitamin, are both popular as antioxidants to prevent damage caused by free radicals. They also provide that nebulous result of brightening the skin.

Acids, like glycolic acid and salicylic acid, exfoliate the skin to help slough off dead skin for, yes, an immediate glow. Dermatologists have long used acids in in-office procedures (and this is where a lot of the scientific evidence comes from), but they show up in lower concentrations in over-the-counter skin care. Acids, because of their degunking effects and subsequent ability to produce a temporary glow after one use, are one of the most popular categories in skin care right now.

None of the above ingredients will dramatically change your face, and some, like retinol, take weeks or months to produce changes. Still, you can sometimes see results right away for another reason.

“These products will generally work. All products will — as moisturizers. They’ll make your skin, at least temporarily, look better,” says cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski. “When you talk about stuff like getting rid of wrinkles and skin lightening and rejuvenating your skin, that’s where all the bullshit comes in.”

Moisturizing ingredients “work” to make us look a bit younger. “Dry skin is unhealthy and can age faster, so well-moisturized skin is healthier-appearing because the skin’s barrier is working better — and it appears less wrinkly, for sure,” says Dr. Amy Wechsler, a dermatologist in New York City who is also board-certified in psychiatry and advises Chanel on its skin care line.

The ubiquity of glycerin in products supports Romanowski’s point. Glycerin, which draws water to itself and thus to your skin when applied to it, is one of the cheapest and most common moisturizing ingredients used in skin care products. It’s often listed high up on ingredient labels. (The FDA requires manufacturers to list ingredients “in descending order of predominance,” meaning that the first ingredients on a label are present in the product in the highest concentration.) Start flipping over labels and you’ll often see glycerin listed within the first five ingredients, in everything from those anti-wrinkle-not-anti-aging Neutrogenaproducts to CE Ferulic and Drunk Elephant’s C-Firma.

Helen Mirren on the cover of Allure’s September 2017 anti-anti-aging issue.  Scott Trindle/Allure


Bottom line: is it a good or a bad thing that we’re moving away from “anti-aging”?

Allure’s anti-aging ban prompted a conversation for weeks afterward both within and outside of the beauty industry, including a scathing New York Times article by Amanda Hess, whose biggest criticism was that not using the term “anti-aging” would just encourage the industry to use other euphemisms to sell products. Hess wrote, “This is not to say that [Lee] will stop promoting products that promise to make women look younger: As she puts it, ‘No one is suggesting giving up retinol.’ What Lee wants to change, at least to start with, is the ‘packaging and marketing’ used to sell retinol.”

The point is valid because that’s exactly what brands are doing, but they were doing it before Allure banned the term. The ban essentially formalized and codified what was already increasingly happening. Shortly after the ban was announced, Hazel Cills at Jezebel posited that it was just a smart business decision. Millennials weren’t buying anti-wrinkle creams anyway.

To look at it cynically, marketing these products without the focus on age is a savvy and diabolical way to get younger women to buy more, while also subtly feeding them an anti-aging agenda. Sure, some women might not care about looking younger now because they are actually young, but brands can get them hooked into the system with gateway drugs. What happens when it gets harder and harder to get that glow promised by the products? Buy some more products, of course.

A UK public health organization released a report in June recommending that the cosmetics industry ditch the term anti-aging for good, citing “prejudicial attitudes towards older people.” A better way to combat some of these prejudices might be to hire older people in starring TV and movie roles and in advertising, and to celebrate their accomplishments alongside those of their “30 Under 30” cohorts. Normalizing people who have wrinkles and dark spots via representation is a good step toward normalizing their aging skin.

While there does genuinely seem to be a consumer push to be less ageist when we talk about skin and older women, we’ve seen what happens when companies try to co-opt these efforts. The push for size inclusiveness and body positivity embraced by consumers has led to questionable decisions by magazines and retailers trying to capitalize on these themes. Same with the growing mainstream embrace of feminism, which has encouraged the launch of brands that proclaim to be feminist on T-shirts but treat their female employees poorly. This is a setup for brands telling you it’s cool to age but also not to have wrinkles, just like Neutrogena has done.

What is clear is that no one is ready to give up on putting stuff on their faces — the booming skin care sales numbers confirm this. Skin care feels good. We think it makes us look good. And yeah, possibly we’ve all been brainwashed by a patriarchal, sexist society and a complicit beauty industry to internalize the message that dewy, clear skin equals good skin. We’re just not there yet as a society to give it up.

Even if these gestures by brands seem superficial, talking about it is still a step in the right direction. Lee took the criticism she received in stride, and says she also received plenty of positive feedback on her magazine’s anti-anti-aging initiative, including from AARP. Allure’s November issue will be devoted to the topic of anti-aging again, though Lee declined to provide more details. “I do think that words have power,” she said. “To me, it’s a positive thing for us to explore how our words and our actions can affect people.”

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