Beauty influencers, DIY hacks & misinformation: The not-so-pretty side of the skincare industry

By: nabeela khan&
November 13 2023

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Beauty influencers, DIY hacks & misinformation: The not-so-pretty side of the skincare industry

In the current age of social media, beauty trends have taken center stage, with a surge in popularity driven by influencers and DIY beauty hacks. However, beneath the surface of “picture-perfect” beauty lies a thick layer of mis/disinformation that poses potential risks to the unsuspecting.

So, if YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels are your go-to for skincare tips and solutions, then you are not alone. The dominance of social media and influencers in shaping beauty standards worldwide is undeniable.

According to Unilever's "The Simple Truth Report," 79 percent of participants feel overwhelmed by the skincare industry, and a staggering 62 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds rely on social media for skincare advice and inspiration. This reliance on influencers has led to a surge in sales of questionable beauty products online, driven by reviews and recommendations that are heavily compromised and often scientifically uninformed.

Over the past few years, the pursuit of information regarding skincare, beautiful hair, and radiant skin has also given rise to influencers committed to elucidating the 'science' behind the beauty industry — discussing what works, what doesn't, reasons for premature aging, and more. Not only that, but it has also paved the way for AI beauty filters, online sessions with beauty influencers, questionable at-home skin peeling solutions, and various other tips and DIY hacks. While these may appear benign, there are potential risks associated with these seemingly innocuous hacks. 

A study conducted in 2021 delved into the evolving consumption patterns of the beauty market, emphasizing the impact of social media on purchasing behaviors post the pandemic. The study noted that consumers increasingly turned to reviews and sample products influenced by social media influencers.

The Retinol rage

To understand why the online consumption of beauty science can occasionally be misleading, let's delve into a popular product on social media — Retinol. Retinol, a favored ingredient among dermatologists, has gained popularity among social media users as well.

Retinol and retinoids, derivatives of Vitamin A, are employed to address acne and early signs of aging. However, it's crucial to recognize that not everyone requires retinol, and despite its numerous benefits, studies indicate that the topical application of retinoids may lead to irritation, burning sensation, pruritus, erythema, peeling, or dryness. 

Dr. Jushya Sarin of Sarin Skin Clinic, a dermatologist and skincare advocate, maintains an Instagram page where she dispels myths and discusses skincare routines. According to her, the "side effects of using active ingredients have become increasingly common recently.” She says, “I encounter many patients with skin burns."

She underscores that while some brands portray their products as miraculous, skincare cannot halt aging or reverse signs of damage; rather, it aids in general skin protection and prevention of further damage.

In our exploration, we spoke to Shreela Sen from Bhilai, who fell prey to a dubious product promoted on social media. Sen, who prioritizes cruelty-free products, discovered a brand on Instagram and purchased a depilatory cream online, attracted by its herbal claims. However, after a single use, she experienced rashes and folliculitis, prompting her to consult a doctor. 

She highlights several issues with the product, stating, "Cruelty-free doesn't mean releasing untested formulations in the market. And the product falsely claimed that neem and fennel are depilatory, which is misleading, as they do nothing for hair removal."

Social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube are a breeding ground for videos on beauty tips. DIY Dermaplaning and at-home microneedling emerged as highly popular practices, alongside DIY homemade masks and period blood face masks.

Online beauty trends and their potential hazards

Microneedling, a practice involving the creation of micro-injuries in the skin with tiny needles to stimulate an immune response, has gained popularity as a DIY beauty hack. Videos demonstrate how to "achieve a radiant and even skin tone" at home using this method, however, many who try this beauty hack are left with jagged marks and inflamed flare-ups on the skin.  

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Screenshot of a TikTok video with 11,500 likes explaining how to practice microneedling at home. (Source: TikTok/Screenshot)

The American Academy of Dermatology Association advises consulting a dermatologist for microneedling, cautioning that "at-home microneedling can accidentally spread warts, herpes, and other viruses across the skin."

(Source: American Academy of Dermatology Association)

DIY dermaplaning, another widespread trend, involves using a facial razor to mimic a surgical cosmetic procedure performed by dermatologists. This procedure utilizes scalpel-like blades to scrape dead skin cells, exfoliate the skin, and remove facial hair, commonly referred to as peach fuzz.

Screenshot of a YouTube video about at-home dermaplaning illustrates the popularity of this trend. (Source: YouTube/Screenshot)

Dr. Chytra Anand, a celebrity cosmetic dermatologist based in Bangalore, warns that incorrect dermaplaning can result in nicks, cuts, and irritation. She emphasizes the potential for scarring and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation from DIY attempts.

“There have been cases of individuals experiencing adverse effects from at-home dermaplaning attempts. It's crucial to consult with a healthcare professional or dermatologist before attempting any new skincare procedures,” Anand warns.

YouTube is replete with dermaplaning tutorials. A YouTube channel with 2.1 million subscribers uploaded a video two years ago, garnering 2.4 million views to date, explaining how to shave your face to remove dead cells and peach fuzz. Another video on a skincare and haircare channel outlines dermaplaning and its effectiveness, providing instructions on safely practicing the technique at home with beginner razors.  

Screenshot of a YouTube video explaining how to remove peach fuzz. (Source: YouTube/Screenshot)

The trend's popularity has prompted some dermatologists and influencers to caution against at-home dermaplaning and emphasize the importance of professional help.

Dr. Sarin emphasizes that skincare is a double-edged sword. “Skin is the largest organ of the body, and a lot of skincare products, such as those containing certain acids, can be damaging to your skin. One would not attempt to do something to their gut, liver, or kidneys at home. Similarly, just because the skin is approachable doesn’t mean you can try what you see online.” 

Beyond the latest trends, perennial at-home skin-lightening solutions continue to attract attention. Videos suggesting mixing lemon, honey, and coffee are abound on social media platforms, with one even recommending toothpaste mixed with lemon. Dermatologists caution against applying lemon directly to the skin, citing potential irritation.

Dr. Bhagyashree, a skin and lifestyle educator, emphasizes in an Instagram video that while toothpaste contains ingredients designed to maintain oral hygiene and prevent dental issues, its application to the skin doesn't guarantee similar benefits. She points out that the chemicals in toothpaste can potentially irritate the skin.

Screenshot of a YouTube video explains how to make a lemon face mask, promoting the use of natural ingredients. (Source: YouTube/Screenshot)

Even jade rollers and gua shas, often lauded for their skincare benefits, can potentially cause acne due to over-massaging, according to Dr. Sarin. “Always meet an expert before you try out anything new,” she reiterates. 

Another trend involves using period blood as a face mask, purportedly to brighten the skin and reduce aging. However, there is no scientific evidence supporting the cosmetic benefits of using whole blood on the skin.

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Screenshot of an Instagram post that suggests that period blood contains nutrients to help the skin rejuvenate. (Source: Instagram/Screenshot)

Dr. Sarin warns against this practice, debunking the idea that skin absorbs stem cells via physical application of period blood. “There are far more hygienic alternatives to this; period blood may lead to skin infections if one has a vaginal infection,” she said.

In the realm of DIY skincare, individuals are increasingly experimenting with kitchen ingredients, some of which may contain harmful elements. A community on the internet advocates for chemical-free alternatives, perpetuating a fear of skincare chemicals.

To sunscreen or not to sunscreen?

There's also been a buzz surrounding the purported harmful ingredients in sunscreen on social media, prompting a closer examination of these claims.

While the importance of using sunscreen daily has gained widespread acknowledgment, apprehensions about safety arose when a study revealed that certain ingredients in sunscreen could be absorbed through the skin.

A 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) observed the absorption of four active ingredients over four days in 24 participants. It's crucial to note that the study acknowledges several limitations, emphasizing the need for further research to determine any potential health effects resulting from this absorption.

The Harvard Health Blog weighed in on the debate, stating, "There has been no conclusive evidence that oxybenzone (a sunscreen ingredient) is harmful to humans. Organizations that have raised concerns about oxybenzone typically cite studies done in rats, where the rats were actually fed oxybenzone. It would take an individual 277 years of sunscreen use to achieve the equivalent systemic dose that produced effects in these rat studies.” 

Dr. Sarin adds to the discussion, stating that “studies have established that sunscreen ingredients are not present in sufficient quantities to reach a threshold capable of disrupting hormonal cycles. Moreover, there is currently no evidence supporting the notion that these ingredients can cause harm.”

Evaluating the impact of AI on beauty industry

Beauty tricks and hacks are not limited to DIY videos and offering alt-solutions, there is also reliance on beauty filters on social media platforms.

A study conducted at the City University of London sheds light on the pervasive use of photographic filters and editing software, revealing that 90 percent of young women employ these tools to adjust their photos before posting. The alterations include evening out skin tone, reshaping jaw or nose, slimming down appearance, brightening or bronzing the skin, and whitening teeth.

The extensive use and reliance on AI contribute to the creation of unrealistic beauty standards, influencing how young users perceive beauty and prompting concerns about privacy.

Breaking the cycle and protecting yourself 

While AI enhancements offer impressive options for users, they also raise ethical concerns regarding data privacy and consent. AI beauty filters analyze and store facial data, so one needs to be mindful of what they share. 

A 2023 study highlighted an additional concern, noting that AI tends to generate oversized and sexualized images of breasts, especially in response to prompts for "beautiful" or "perfect" breasts. The study emphasizes that AI will significantly influence our cultural norms.  

“Care must be taken in the following years because AI is at the point in which soon it will be creating content for entertainment or education for younger generations,” the study said.

When faced with choices among beauty products, Dr. Anand advises conducting thorough research on product ingredients, opting for products with proven and well-studied components, reading reviews, and being skeptical of products promising miraculous results or instant fixes.

"To stay informed and shield yourself from misleading claims, it's crucial to be a discerning consumer. Seek scientific evidence supporting product claims and consult a dermatologist or skincare professional for personalized guidance based on your specific needs and concerns," advises Dr. Anand.

(Edited by Nitish Rampal)

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before