Alex Casey on the Feel Bad Inc. brand of skincare
An obsession with skincare leads to a painful lesson.
The single worst piece of skincare advice I have ever received in my life came during the most expensive skincare treatment I have ever paid ice-cold cash for. I was lying awkwardly on a posh table in a posh room in a posh Auckland clinic, feeling less like the smooth happy lady on the pastel pamphlet and more like the alien on the autopsy table in Alien Autopsy.
Martian or not, I was paying hundreds to have goo lathered onto my beet-red face, so I thought I’d get my money’s worth. I sheepishly asked the skincare technician why she thought I had been cursed with bad skin for the past 15 years. She looked both ways, channelling a suspicious dog in a cartoon, before leaning down to whisper in my ear. “I’m not supposed to tell people this,” she began — always a good start to any piece of advice — “but I think that you still have pimples because you have too many secrets.”
I have spent my whole life being blamed for my skin problems. Don’t eat so much chocolate! Don’t wear make-up! Use silk pillows! And clay masks! Not that clay mask! Double cleanse! Stop cleansing so much! But it was being told at the age of 29 that it was my untold secrets that had caused decades of painful cystic acne that tipped me over the edge. I paid my $250 bill at the skin clinic, and swore I would never let myself get owned so hard ever again.
That was, of course, until the world fell apart and we were all left clinging to any semblance of routine from The Before Times. Some decided to feed their sourdough starter as a coping mechanism, others turned to quilting. I returned to the little bottles of stuff in the bathroom drawer that had ruled most of my life — potions, lotions, control. A lockdown renovation project on the most important part of the home, the deteriorating skin sack in which I will one day die.
I wasn’t alone. With people forced onto video calls and into face masks, the cosmetic industry had its own Covid makeover around the world. Lipstick purchases plummeted while at-home skin treatments spiked, along with futuristic gadgets like that Daft Punk LED mask and that curious vibrating rubber glove thing. An Auckland cosmetic surgeon reported the number of new patients quadrupled after lockdown, in what came to be referred to as the ‘Zoom Boom’.
During this time, I became transfixed by the glowing, poreless women on Instagram and their simple 10-step skin routines. Such heavy-duty acids and peels began arriving in the mail that I feared our letterbox would blow up the whole street, leaving everyone very flawless but sadly dead. No-frills brands like The Ordinary made these purchases feel less motivated by self-loathing and more like I was a scientist on the cusp of a historic squalene breakthrough.
That was, until my private science fair came to an extremely painful and ugly end. As someone who failed fifth-form chemistry, turns out I had no right to mess with that many ingredients that rhyme with cyanide. The result was a chemical burn so severe that I still remain frightened to use anything that comes in a dropper bottle. Massaging my sizzling-hot cheek and sobbing at the sting, I realised I had allowed myself to be hoodwinked by Feel Bad Inc. yet again.
In the following weeks, I retired from Dexter’s Laboratory to allow my skin to recover, reverting to traditional, salt-of-the-earth, unsexy gentle cleanser and unsexy gentle moisturiser in giant unsexy bottles. As my angry face peeled and healed, I also undertook a digital purge, deleting Instagram and ending the parade of flawless foreheads and sponsored snake oils — although I hear snake extract is actually great in the fight against free radicals.
As it turns out, cutting off Instagram entirely is one of the best things I have done for my skincare routine, my wallet and my life. Now, when I wake up, I don’t scroll through endless beautiful, flawless faces. I am free from the perpetual gaslighting of influencers and celebrities, who boast about how their morning collagen makes their skin so plump and line-free, only to film themselves getting #gifted fillers and facials that same afternoon.
It’s now been months adrift from the online world of beauty and skincare, and I have to say it still feels pretty great to have burned bridges with the same forces that saw me literally burn part of my own face off as penance for not having whatever the hell ‘dolphin skin’ is. When I see my friends IRL now, I am constantly wowed re: how beautiful they all are, and I spend way too much time staring at people on the train now that I have nobody to stare at on my phone.
Of course, there remain constant reminders that, especially as a woman, the lifelong project of Getting A Slightly Better Face Forever isn’t one that can be so easily opted out of. I recently sought a second opinion on whether I could wean myself off the harsh acne medication I had been taking for the past year. It had helped to clear up my skin, but was giving me a distinct lack of clarity, brain-wise. The doctor leaned back in his seat, scanning every pore.
“You’ve made a good start,” he conceded, “but what are you going to do about all that scarring?”