samiha alam

Surface Tension is an informal research project that was done through Graphic Design 4 at MICA. As a class, we were told to find a simple subject and then expand on it through our research. This is a webpage component of the editorial part of the project. Previous research and posters will be added to the bottom of this page later and so will links to the other classmate’s projects.


What is Skincare?

“My skin is terrible today” is a phrase that is frequently thrown around on most college campuses. Usually, it is answered with positive reassurment or, even better yet, a skincare product that might be able to solve the issue at hand.

Skincare is a range of practices that support skin integrity, enhance its appearance, and relieve conditions. People around the world have developed routines over thousands of years in order to have a beautiful face. It is with the idea of beauty that skincare has become intertwined with the politics of the human body.

The first step of a modern skincare routine is the cleanser. Its job is to remove dirt, oil, and other substances. Like other steps of the skincare regimen, one can have several different cleansers such as make up remover, oil cleanser, foam cleanser and gel cleanser. After this step comes the toner. A toner is a liquid that hydrates and removes some dead skin. Toners are also very diverse in purpose. A person with dry skin might get one that is thick and used to hydrate skin while a person with acne prone skill might get one that has acne fighting properties. The next step is serums: which are concentrated treatments for issues one might have with their skin. Serums are a powerful tool; usually one to two drops of it is effective. Finally, the moisturizer is put on at the very end. It is the step that holds the rest of your products and moisture onto your skin.

Even though this routine seems long and tedious, humans have historically had long and, sometimes, strange skin remedies.

Lighten Up: A Shared History

Wanting a flawless healthy face is not a new idea; it has been around for thousands of years. The earliest documented skincare practices are from ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptians used natural products such aloe, sodium bicarbonate, myrrh and frankincense to treat their faces. Using milk, women would lighten their skin. In Asia, diet and circulation were a key part of maintaining beauty. Back in Europe, the Romans had female slaves called “cosmetae” who make their skincare. This is where modern English gets the 
word “cosmetic.”

With the history of skincare being as long as it is, there is one thing all cultures and time periods have in common.  Associated with wealth, higher status, and racial “superiority,” light skin was  and still is a coveted trait. Let’s see how techniques and contexts have changed throughout the span of the last 2000 years. (Most years are approximations)
So, What does this have to with skincare now? While it is easy to laugh at how obsessed our ancestors were light skin and the methods they used for it, we should recognize that our current society still values the light skin just as much. Elizabeth influenced Europeans during her reign as England’s Queen. European people desperately wanted her white almost translucent complexion. Soon enough, this white translucent skin symbolized nobility and purity. As the colonial era started and Europeans started forcing their ideals onto other cultures and peoples, already existing notions of colorism became worse globally. To this day people bleach their skin and companies constantly market new products for “fairer” complexion outside the West. As discussions around colorism and bleaching become more prevalent, one can only hope that this practice dies down.

Ironically, in the West, people now want to have a tan and go to lengths to have it. This is not a because they value dark complexions but because they want to exhibit that they go outdoors and can afford vacations in warmer climates.

 Capitalism, Insecurities, and Morality

Modern skincare has several components that are customized to suit individual needs. With new science and technology, humans have been able to narrow down how to best take of their skin. The new discoveries have created new products and new routines.

The modern skincare routine involves toners, cleansers, serums, moisturizers and masks. Sound like a lot right? Well, it is a lot and skincare manufacturers are making a massive profit.

In 2017, the skincare industry reported its highest earnings ever. In 2018, skincare’s revenue surpassed makeup in most major American cosmetic companies. Not only had it overtaken makeup in revenue but also in growth: skincare’s year-over-year growth was 16% while makeup’s was only 3%. This growth seems to follow the new trend for wellness and companies recognize this. Trendy brands such as, Glossier, have almost an equal ratio of skincare products to makeup. Brands that have been traditionally focused on makeup are adding more and more skincare to their lines. Even Kylie Jenner has recently applied for skincare patents.

If costs so much, why do so many Americans from all backgrounds invest in skincare? Of course there are people who care beyond the surface and are more worried for the largest organ of their body. But, the main reason for using skincare by far seems to be for beauty and then for health. If an alien species looked at our catalogs, magazine spreads, and shows, they would think that all humans had clear skin and absolutely no blemishes. “My patients often feel that when they have a breakout, it’s all people can see and it consumes their mind,” says Josie Howard, MD, a San Francisco-based dermatologist and psychiatrist, in an article about how to date whilehaving acne. The title of the article might seem ridiculous, but many people lose self esteem by just having one pimple and others think that seeing acne their date’s face means that the date does not take of themselves.

These attitudes stem from a neovictorian wellness culture where physical health and morality are

Being in a culture that mainly venerates those with perfect skin can add to the confusion. Countless “women’s” magazines and self help pages have all sorts of tips and products that can apparently help. Sometimes celebrities, with their beautiful powerless smooth faces, give away their “secret” to beautiful skin. The issue is that they are not actually giving away their secret. Celebrities do not just use product; they have dermatologists, estheticians, and consultants helping them maintain their face. How can a person of average income even aspire for that level of care?

So health? Appearances? Both?  Why do you care so much about what your skin looks like? In the end, it is good to take care of your skin. Just remember not to feed into the culture of shame associated with it and to love your skin for what it is.

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