Anti-aging creams and how the skin care industry makes you a customer for life
In late June, I sat in on a conversation featuring three models, all over the age of 50, about aging and beauty. “We need representation of spring, summer, fall, and winter,” one of the panelists, Swedish model Paulina Porizkova, declared. Model Yasmin Warsame spoke about how aging is treated as a sign of wisdom in her birth country of Somalia. The discussion’s moderator, Allure editor-in-chief Jessica Cruel, brought up the magazine’s much-publicized decision five years ago to axe the term “anti-aging” from its pages. “How are you going to be anti-living?” she asked.
The takeaway of the panel, hosted by the Aspen Institute, was supposed to be that women should demand to be seen, regardless of how old they are, and that society needs to accept all versions of beauty, no matter someone’s birth date. But some mild discomfort with the premise was evident. Christie Brinkley mentioned a specific wrinkle that bothers her multiple times and the steps she’s taken to minimize it. All of the panelists acknowledged at least the temptation to get some work done, and the conundrum that you’re “shamed if you do, shamed if you don’t,” as Porizkova put it. I left thinking it’s probably time to start looking into fillers.
We’ve learned to pretend to celebrate older women, but we haven’t learned to accept what happens naturally to their skin. We celebrate older women but not the un-intervened-upon face. This fuels a multibillion-dollar cosmetic and skin care industry dedicated to helping people — mainly women — stay young, or rather, try to look like it. According to data from Euromonitor International, the anti-aging market grew from $3.9 billion in 2016 to $4.9 billion in 2021 in the United States alone. The global anti-aging market went from $25 billion to nearly $37 billion during the same period.
“Anti-aging is probably the most popular and lasting promise of any sort of skin care brand or injectable,” said Jessica DeFino, a beauty writer and author of The Unpublishable, a newsletter focused on the darker sides of the beauty industry. “Youth is the ultimate goal, and obviously very convenient for the industry, because it’s an impossible goal.”
Dermatologists say that a lot of this stuff is a scam anyway and doesn’t work. Many companies fail to back up their claims of reversing the forward march of time, and some products wind up irritating the skin and making it more vulnerable to the elements, not less. But even for the products that actually make a difference, whether it be a sunscreen to try to slow skin damage or retinol to try to reduce some wrinkles, there’s really a limited amount they can accomplish. Marketers know some consumers will spend a lot of money hoping they’ll do anything, and they’ll do so for years.
The minute women hit their 20s (and in some cases, even younger), they’re told they’re in a race against time they’re destined to lose. And still, they’re encouraged to spend thousands of dollars to try to win.
Feel weird about getting older? You are not alone.
The tone of the message around aging from advertisers has shifted over the years. Throughout much of the 20th century, it was delivered with a hammer, a warning — always to women — that the man in your life won’t love you as you age. God forbid your husband appear younger than you do. In recent years, the message has come more in the form of an enthusiastic but ultimately empty hug. As Amanda Hess outlined in the New York Times magazine in 2017, it’s no longer so much packaged as hiding wrinkles but instead is cloaked in language about radiant, brighter, healthier-looking skin. It’s not about denying the passage of time but defying it. You’re supposed to feel empowered to look your best at any age.
Whatever the tone, the goal remains the same: to remind consumers they’re not comfortable with aging and prompt them to spend money accordingly. Repackaging anti-aging in a wellness frame carries the same old price tag — and the same psychological weight.
There are a lot of individual differences in how people age and how susceptible they are to external influences such as ageism and age discrimination, Candace Konnert, a psychology professor at the University of Calgary who studies aging, told me. It depends on who they compare themselves to, how the issue is treated among their families and partners, what media they consume, and their mental health, among other factors. Still, the clear message across generations has been that the beauty ideal is “young, thin, and toned,” she said. “Where did boomer women learn about their bodies? They learned from their mothers, who were raised in the era of Mad Men.”
There is also a stigma around men aging — there’s a growing market for men’s anti-aging skin care too — but it’s historically been to a more limited extent. The older a woman is, the more invisible she becomes, and the more our capitalistic society views her as less productive and less valuable.
Polls show women express concern about looking old when they are quite young, in their 20s and 30s, and begin to take action to combat it. In fact, some surveys suggest older women feel better about their bodies as they age than younger women. That young women start to worry so early helps companies to sell more.
“The target group for anti-aging products has gotten younger and younger,” said Kayla Villena, industry manager for beauty and personal care at market research firm Euromonitor. She noted that now, the target age for anti-aging products — which often aren’t called that anymore — starts at around 25. “That’s for more prevention.”
“Once they sell you on the idea that you need to anti-age, they have a customer for life,” DeFino said. “You always need another product or syringe or surgery.”
It is also worth hammering home that these products are often exorbitantly expensive. NuFace, a cream-and-contraption combination endorsed by multiple celebrities, costs hundreds of dollars just to get started. Even creams you can find in the pharmacy aisle are pricey — the relatively basic suite of skin care products sitting in my bathroom cabinet right now cost me more than $100 to acquire. One survey found that women will spend some $225,000 on their appearances across their lifetimes, a quarter of that going toward their faces.
It’s hard to blame anyone for using a cream, or anything really, to try to look younger and, more importantly, to make themselves feel better if it does. At the same time, as DeFino put it, you feel joy when you do that “because you felt like shit beforehand,” in part because society and marketers said you should. “Beauty culture makes you feel lesser than first, so that you feel better when you have a product.”
There’s no denying pretty privilege exists. That does not mean it is good. It sucks that people looking at themselves so much on Zoom during the pandemic led some to seek out plastic surgery, and that apps such as Facetune have made younger generations paranoid about how they look.
Underlying the cosmetic anxiety is a much more fundamental and human fear of decay and, ultimately, of death. Selling youth is easy, in part, because its decline represents a much scarier prospect.
Good for Jennifer Lopez that she looks young, but maybe not good for society or your wallet
The skin care and cosmetics industry would very much like consumers to at least feel like we’ve moved on to a new, more progressive era, where beauty is celebrated at any age. It holds up examples of women such as Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Aniston as 50-something hotties, and Helen Mirren, Diane Keaton, and Jane Fonda as aspirational septuagenarians and octogenarians. That’s all fine and good, except the thing that those women have in common about their age is that they don’t look it.
“Part of the problem with the marketing is that the models don’t really match reality,” Konnert said. “The new message is: ‘It’s okay to age but not to have a wrinkled face.’”
Martha Stewart has become something of a skin care influencer on TikTok. Should that be celebrated? It’s hard to say. “That’s not better,” DeFino said. “You’re celebrating this 80-something-year-old woman, but you’re celebrating her because she doesn’t look like she’s 80-something. You’re positioning this as age positivity and it’s not.”
The ways that these women have accomplished these age-defying appearances is not accessible to most people, as in expensive procedures, products, and airbrushing. Not to mention that most of how you age has nothing to do with what you put on your face — it’s about exposure to the elements, hydration, drinking, smoking, genes, etc., etc.
“My view is that one product is not going to solve your aging,” Villena said.
Companies know that, which is why they always have another thing to sell you.
We live in a world that’s constantly trying to sucker us and trick us, where we’re always surrounded by scams big and small. It can feel impossible to navigate. Every two weeks, join Emily Stewart to look at all the little ways our economic systems control and manipulate the average person. Welcome to The Big Squeeze.
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