The Problem With Beauty Advice on Social Media
We love how much access there is to beauty advice, but not all content is created equal.
Social media: a classic case of can’t live with it, can’t live without it. When it comes to the world of beauty, social media has completely transformed it. Whether it’s tutorials via Youtube, hacks on Reddit or recommendations on Instagram, the social media platforms we all use have democratized the industry. However, it’s a double edged sword. On the one hand, access to leading makeup artists, skincare experts, and hairdressers makes beauty accessible to everyone, on the other, the sheer volume of advice now available at our fingertips makes it near on impossible to sort the wheat from the chaff. Subsequently, misinformation is widespread.
It’s when beauty blurs into health that problems really arise. Case in point: sun cream. It’s undisputed that wearing a broad-spectrum high factor SPF is crucial if spending time in the sun and despite DIY sun cream sounding rather risky, recipes are rife online. On Pinterest, there’s thousands of posts detailing how you can make your own natural sun cream using ingredients such as shea butter, coconut oil and carrot seed essential oil. Although the recipes often include zinc oxide, a legitimate UV filter, according to research published in the Health Communication journal, it’s not sufficient. The study surveyed a number of recipes on Pinterest, and the majority offered insufficient UV protection to protect skin from sunburn and increased skin cancer risk. A piece of research by the University of Glasgow looked into misinformation in the health space and found a similar issue. They concluded that just one out of nine UK fitness bloggers making weight management claims actually provided accurate and trustworthy information.
It’s a scary trend and one that concerns experts in this field. When I speak to Dr Anjali Mayhto, Consultant Dermatologist and author of The Skincare Bible, she tells me how online misinformation can manifest in a number of ways. “Worrying at home DIY skincare trends that may damage the skin, glamourising of beauty supplements and injectables, unnecessary food restriction as people manipulate their diet in an attempt to control skin disease, as well as an irrational fear of chemicals.”
Scaremongering around ingredients is something that you see time and time again online. The reason many consumers are choosing to make their own suncream is due to fears about two key ingredients: oxybenzone and octinoxate. While the jury’s out on whether they are damaging to the body (environmentalists are sure they’re harming coral reefs), there are plenty of effective products that avoid these two ingredients while still offering sufficient UV protection.
With the term ‘Clean Beauty’ rising to fame in the past five years, ingredients outside this category have been lambasted by some corners of the internet. The definition itself is wishy-washy but tends to refer to products in the natural and organic beauty space that eschew so-called nasties (another undefinable word) such as silicones, sulphates and alcohol. Mayhto attributes this so-called “Chemical-Phobia” to a number of factors. “Firstly there is a misplaced idea that if something comes from Mother Earth it is automatically safer or better for us. Science and critical thinking are poorly taught on a population level and there is a failure to recognise that everything is a chemical – it is simply the dose or concentration of the chemical which makes the poison. Thirdly, the internet and social media allow very quick propagation of bad information.” Dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting, founder of the brand of the same name, echoes this viewpoint: “Scaremongering is a symptom of the clean beauty marketing machine. The reality is that every ingredient in skincare is a chemical – even water. In the end it’s about careful dosing of well-researched ingredients.
However, much like the clean eating movement that came before it, a backlash is brewing. It’s quickly become clear that such polarising terms (i.e. clean or dirty) is rather reductive. One person that is very vocal on this topic is Sam Farmer, founder of the eponymous brand and cosmetic scientist. “Clean beauty is an invented marketing term. It has no definition in cosmetic science or cosmetic legislation. It’s meaningless. What it does succeed in doing is creating a fear and misconception in consumers. This fear is then used to exploit the consumer.”
He argues that words like ‘clean’, ‘natural’, and ‘nasties’ appeal to us instantly but simplify what is a very complex topic. “It’s difficult to communicate the science so marketing departments really on simple single words that unfortunately cause confusion and mistrust.”
The advantage of online spaces is the freedom for anyone to share their views. While some are shouting from the scaremongering corner, increasingly more rational, expert-led and science-backed voices are coming to the fore. In a time of too much information, consumers are seeking out their expertise and curated edits. For instance, both Dr Mayhto and Dr Bunting use their social media platforms to debunk skin care myths and make evidence-based skincare advice more accessible. “I hope that with my channels I cut through the noise and help take away the guesswork and confusion that has crept into shopping in the skincare arena,” Bunting commented.
And across social media there’s a growing number of experts bringing their beauty knowledge to the masses. Take Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu, two chemists who founded beauty platform, Chemist Confessions. “We were pretty frustrated with how convoluted and confusing it is for the average consumer to shop for skincare. We wanted to share our chemist perspective on skincare products to see if it could help our friends and family find better products that fit their skin and their skin quirks,” Gloria said. They take hefty topics and untangle them for their beauty loving audience. “We try to break it down into bite size factoids, inject our quirky humor, and add a couple silly sketches,” VIctoria added. Additionally, chemist Stephen Alain Ko leverages his knowledge via his account, Kind of Stephen while the likes of facialist on long-time beauty expert Caroline Hirons and renowned Beauty Editor Nadine Baggot are both excellent to follow for no BS advice. Like everything on social media, you have the power to create your own feed. When it comes to beauty, make those choices wisely.