If you’ve been to a Sephora, Ulta, or any department store in recent years, you’ve likely come across Philosophy’s skincare products. Maybe you’ve even stopped to read one of the inspirational quotes on its bottles, like “Create the miracles you want to see,” found on the brand’s Clear Days Ahead acne treatment line or Hope in a Jar moisturizer — and for days that are especially dark, When Hope Is Not Enough anti-aging skincare.
The feel-good language set Philosophy apart in its early days in the ‘90s, but nowadays, the brand is just one of many equating how we look on the outside with how we feel on the inside.
For a long time now, the skincare industry has sold products under the guise of taking care of oneself rather than conforming to beauty standards. But the usual vague platitudes around self-care feel positively quaint, as the beauty industry has moved from squishy language to coopting actual psychological terms.
Our beauty standards have shifted from conformist perfection to inclusive "inner beauty," and skincare brands have responded accordingly. As pop psychology terms around ideas like “attachment theory” become more commonplace, their popularity also makes them more appealing to marketers looking to capture the zeitgeist. But what happens when psychological terms get watered down into brand marketing? Why and how are certain scientific or psychological terms appealing to today’s consumers?
It's true that the ritual of applying face products can be a restorative practice for many. It is also true that meeting beauty standards, like that of plump, glowing skin some products promise, might in fact make us feel less stressed in the short term. But long-term effects on our mental health is another story.
Loum for instance, which launched in 2020, has built its brand around the field of psychodermatology, as in how our inner state affects our skin. Selfmade, founded in the same year, calls itself an “emotionally intelligent brand” with products like Secure Attachment Comfort Serum+, a hydrating serum that also promotes “a feeling of safety and comfort with self.” The Nue Co.’s Functional Fragrance, which launched in 2019, is not just a perfume, it also “instantaneously impacts your emotional state.” Alicia Keys’ namesake beauty brand does not even call itself skincare but “Soul Care — a daily reminder to seek what replenishes us in order to bring peace to our inner world.” By comparison, Philosophy’s musings have the depth and insight of a fortune cookie.
The industry’s shift from external to internal benefits speaks to a growing awareness of the harms of restrictive, narrow beauty standards. In the past, brands may have promised that looking good will help you feel good, skincare as self-care has flipped the equation: you will feel good, and therefore look good.
Looking good is still very much part of the equation, it just may not be enough to sell a product on its own. The escalation in claims around internal and external benefits may reflect increased expectations we place on our purchases. “Wellness is a more aspirational state than hydration,” notes Deborah MacInnis, Professor Emeritus of Marketing at University of Southern California. “By linking brands to wellness, marketers are appealing to this higher goal. Given tight wallets [and] inflation, consumers are likely choosing bundles of products and services that can help them achieve this goal, and eschewing brands that focus on more mundane benefits.”
The promised claims have also evolved to speak to a consumer base more attuned to the language of psychology and self-care; the same audience buying serums and overnight masks has potentially also read Attached, or listened to Dr. Orna Guralnik on Couples Therapy, or tuned in to mental health accounts on TikTok.
As such, many consumer habits have adopted the language of wellness. Even investing in real estate can be fashioned as self-care. But it’s an especially apt application for beauty; these products shape not just our immediate surroundings and daily routine, but penetrate our very selves (if you apply your creams and serums in the right order, anyway).
“We are using beauty as the lens to think about emotional well being, because so much of our worth is tied to it,” says Stephanie Lee, founder of Selfmade. “If we talk about self-worth, it's an easier way to connect with someone on how they're feeling emotionally and do that exploration.” The brand’s Instagram also shares mental health resources, as do Loum and The Nue Co.
For Lee, Selfmade is a chance to make the “lessons of therapy” accessible to consumers. “We don't want to solve mental health crises. We're very much focused on a person who is looking for tools for self-exploration to actually feel good to themselves. Each product is named for and embodies a psychological concept because one of the first steps in self-awareness is expanding your emotional vocabulary,” Lee says. “I wanted to focus on attachment styles because I think that's something most people who are starting that journey, whether they're in therapy or doing their yoga and meditation, are focused on.”
For some, changing the goalpost of beauty to be centered on mental health does not necessarily challenge the value we place on accessing beauty. “There are a lot of well-intentioned beauty brands out there,” says Jessica DeFino, beauty journalist and author of The Unpublishable newsletter. “There are a lot of beauty founders who really do want to make women feel better, and are looking at the world that we're living in that punishes us for not living up to an ideal of beauty. They say, ‘Look, here's this beauty product, I'm helping you.’ They have great intentions, but they're working within a really harmful and predatory system.”
Introducing wellness into the beauty sphere means the pursuit of good skin has come to be seen as a sign of health, rather than an act of vanity, and thus perhaps more difficult to opt out of. “Beauty standards have been medicalized and pathologized to the point that even healthcare providers [and] dermatologists, promote beauty standards and tell us that they are talking about health,” DeFino says.
Though the standard of holistic well-being can seem like a more positive ideal, DeFino adds that the conduit to that state still largely consists of the same products as before: moisturizers, toners, cleansers, and serums that position clear, glowing skin as the ideal. “These messages, just the words, sound a little healthier, and sound a little more fulfilling. But when you compare it to the function of a product, is it anything different?” she asks.
It’s not surprising that so many are searching for tools to understand mental health: As they reach adulthood, Gen Z reports higher rates of mental distress than previous generations, and professional intervention remains inaccessible to many. That makes affordable, everyday products that might appear to fill that void an attractive option. “If you're someone that can't access therapy, you're probably going to look for other ways to do that,” says Shani Tran, LPCC. Tran uses TikTok as a platform to offer education on therapy, but she notes that the popularization of psychological terms in social media and marketing can have an adverse effect. “If you see this beauty product that's marketed in a mental health way, someone who is vulnerable that may need those sorts of services that they can't access, may look for alternatives which aren't going to be helpful in the way that therapy would be.”
A beauty ritual can bring momentary feelings of happiness, Tran says, but she is cautious not to equate those benefits as therapeutic. “Happiness is an emotion, and it is fleeting. Your beauty routine is maybe 30 minutes out of your day. What do the other 23 and a half hours look like?”
Brands should be careful not to over-promise on internal benefits that a face cream or serum will never be able to fulfill. But the hope that they can fulfill those more emotional and mental needs is still a powerful force, whatever the fine print says. “One outcome of hope is that consumers are more likely to engage in what we call ‘motivated reasoning,’” Professor MacInnis says. “That is, believing what they want to believe about what a product or service can do for them.”