Cocaine used to be God’s way of telling you that you have too much money. Now it’s SoulCycle and skin serums. Over the last decade “wellness” has become a luxury item and serums, which tend to mix health claims with beauty promises, have ridden the wellness wave with spectacular success.
Serums are everywhere; a search on Sephora brings up 547 results. And while serums tend to come in small packages they’re big business: a report by the NPD Group earlier this year found that face supplements like serums “have grown more than fivefold over the past two years, becoming a $4.1m market in 2015”. As if there weren’t already enough serums to choose from, Glossier, the cult beauty brand, brought out a new range of three “super” serums earlier this week.
But what exactly is a serum? Serums, as defined by the beauty industry, are concentrated skincare products designed to target a specific skin issue, be that ageing, acne or dullness. You apply them after cleansing and before moisturizing and the idea is that their tiny little molecules penetrate deep into your skin to deliver a strong hit of “active ingredients”. Ingredients depend on the problem being targeted but common components include Vitamin C (to increase collagen), hyaluronic acid (for moisture) and niacinamide (improves skin elasticity).
Serums tend to be pricier than other skin care options. Dr Sebagh’s signature serum costs $830 for 30ml – which works out to about $138 a teaspoon. Sephora has options from $5 to $590. As well as being potent and pricey, serums tend to be full of sketchy science. Indeed, detractors might say they are the purest distillation of beauty industry BS: a cocktail of vague claims in pretty packaging.
For every detractor, however, there’s a consumer who will swear to you that a serum changed their skin and transformed their life, it really did! Earlier this week the Benchmarking Company, a US beauty consumer research firm, polled 2,400 female beauty consumers and found that 85% of them used a facial serum. Of these women 70% said that they feel their facial serum is somewhat effective at addressing her facial skincare concerns, and 22% say their serum is extremely effective.
An increasing number of dermatologists have their own skincare line or another vested interest in shifting product
Many dermatologists would back up these effectiveness claims. Dan Dhunna, for example, one of the UK’s leading cosmetic doctors, touts serums as being a “critical part of 21st-century skincare”. But it’s hard to know just how objective medical professionals really are; an increasing number of dermatologists have their own skincare line or some other sort of vested interest in shifting product.
Back in 1998, before serums really took off, Dr Ernst Epstein wrote a letter to theJournal of the American Medical Association Dermatology titled Are We Consultants or Peddlers? Epstein wrote: “There is a price paid by the dermatologist who sell cosmetics … It is our integrity … Our patients are deluged with ads proclaiming the special qualities of … magic rejuvenators of aging skin. Scientifically, this is all nonsense; we know that while some of the ‘cosmeceuticals’ may temporarily plump up the skin a bit more than others, the differences are trivial and temporary.”
Timothy Caulfield, a health law and policy professor, said there is a broader “beauty industry efficacy bias”. Caulfield cites the rollout of the new Glossier line as a great example of it, “Everyone’s lined up on the side of wanting it to work.” First there are the clinicians: it’s in their interest that it works. “And then you have the patients and the public who desperately want it to work. And then you have that whole beauty media infrastructure and bloggers who have an interest in having an exciting story to tell and maybe have advertisers who are selling the products. All of those interests are aligned to telling a story of effectiveness.”
Indeed, if you look at the coverage of Glossier’s serums, it’s glowing.
- Glossier’s New Serums Are Basically Magic Potions to Transform Your Skin wrote Glamour.
- I Test-Drove Glossier’s New Super Serums and This Is Why I’m Freaking Out [Prayer hand emoji] said Marie Claire.
- Bustle said: “Their [sic.] pretty much super heroes for the skin. Yeah, basically.”
Here’s the thing: hype is fun! Hope is good! You know what’s a real downer, particularly for advertisers? Articles that say: “a new product has launched in an already super-saturated market. It is probably 99% nonsense but, hey, the bottles will look great in your bathroom, make you hate your life a little less for a few minutes and rack up some likes on Insta.”
While serums may make claims of clinically proven effectiveness the bottom line is that none of these studies really stand up to scrutiny. As Caulfield explains, the “studies are often small, they use a very particular kind of compound, and the endpoints are often quite subjective”. But perhaps this doesn’t really matter.
Perhaps the idea that we can keep our inevitable march to the grave at bay with some nice cream is worth the money. As Caulfield observed “many women and, increasingly, men, use these products even though they know they don’t work. There’s almost a ritualistic aspect, that it makes you feel better about yourself, that you’re doing what you can”.