’90s Kid Unleashed: Does this face mask make me look happy?

Sometime within the last five years, skin care became synonymous with self-care. Before then, it was simply an activity. I waged the typical teenage war on my blemishes with Bioré blackhead strips and Neutrogena pink grapefruit face washes. 

Now, skin care is a bonafide lifestyle. I have a meticulous routine optimized for the best results. Gone are the days of selecting my face washes based on their brightly-colored logos or celebrity endorsements. Now, I know my alpha hydroxy acids from my ascorbic acids, and I pick out my face washes based on careful research, celebrity endorsements be damned. 

Inevitably, the amount of time — and money … oh so much money — I spend on skin care triggers a process of self-reflection. Because I simply can’t accept that I put all this time and money into my own vanity, I look at it as something else: self-care. I’m caring for myself! I’m giving my skin the TLC it deserves after a long week!

I’m certainly not alone in this thinking. Look no further than Reddit, the self-proclaimed front page of the internet, where the subreddit “r/SkincareAddiction” has an impressive 1 million members who obsessively mine each other for information as they pursue the ultimate fantasy: radiant, poreless and perfect skin. This unachievable luminosity is big business. Within the last year, sales of skin-care products doubled. 

From The Cut to The New Yorker, many news outlets have attempted to demystify the sudden popularity of skin care as self-care, with The New Yorker declaring 2017 as “The Year that Skin Care Became A Coping Mechanism” and The Cut unpacking the performativity of the simple sheet mask. 

Without a doubt, aspects of skin care do function as an important part of self-care. After all, our skin is our largest organ. It deserves some attention! When I look my best, I certainly feel more confident and happy. Moreover, doctors have identified mental benefits that arise from the sense of control offered by the routine of skin care, and one survey found that 15% of women use skin care to relax.

But a problem arises when a cheap sheet mask becomes the pinnacle of self-care culture. Sure, moisturizing is good. Great, even! But not when it becomes a crutch. You can’t depend on a sheet mask to fix a bad lifestyle. That is to say: Putting a little more effort into one’s skin does not replace the real work necessary to self-care. 

That work could be anything — daily exercise, meditation, a balanced diet or therapy sessions — but the point is that self-care is work, not a healing clay mask someone can put on and wash off ten minutes later. Rather than throwing on a sheet mask to escape the stress of daily life, self-care is about building a life that you don’t constantly need to escape from. 

Everyone gets stressed sometimes. Everyone needs a little consumerist escape. But why has skin care become a hallmark of millennial culture specifically? To put it plainly, this is an especially stressed-out generation. A 2019 study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found astonishing increases in rates of depression and suicidal behavior among millennials and their younger counterparts, Generation Z, with social media being one possible contributing factor.

I have no way of comparing my experiences to those of my parents’ or grandparents’ generations, but anecdotally, I can confirm my generation’s reputation for stress. We grew up with the Great Recession, making the stark realities of economic downturns especially clear to us. As adults, headlines admonish us for killing whichever industry or product of the week, while also promising us that we will have no social security to look forward to — that is, if climate change doesn’t swamp us first. Meanwhile, our faith in our political institutions deteriorates with each new scandal and with the startling inaction of our elected officials. 

All of this is amplified by the torture chamber of social media and the 24-hour news cycle that traps us, something earlier generations certainly did not have to contend with. Who wouldn’t yearn for some semblance of control, even just over one’s pores, among all this chaos?

To evoke Freud, maybe the cigar is just a cigar. Maybe that sheet mask is just a convenient mode for a daily dose of moisture. Or maybe it is a crutch, a way for us to play at self-care without actually committing to the process of self-reflection that it necessitates. 

Maybe the perfect storm of social media and our especially stressed-out generation has given rise to a megamarket that promises us control over our physical exterior, if nothing else. I, for one, will continue to enjoy the relaxation of my weekly skin-care routine — just not at the expense of the legitimate work of self-care.

Ellen Murray is a senior writing about being a millennial. Her column, “’90s Kid Unleashed,” runs every other Monday.