For more than a decade, the subreddit r/SkincareAddiction has attracted skin-care devotees from all over the web. Its 1.8 million members include amateurs and professionals, offering everything from tretinoin tips to wholesome memes and product hauls. There’s a positive community aspect to the forum, where online friendships can be formed based on something as simple as a dupe for a discontinued “holy grail” item. It also serves as a completely free (though not always accurate) resource guide for anyone looking to dive into an overwhelming world of intimidating-sounding ingredients to build an effective personal routine.
recommendations, to be found within r/SkincareAddiction. (The message board has since almost doubled in size.) That story noted that the name could certainly be considered offensive to people battling “real addictions.” And while I would still take issue with lighthearted use of the word addiction, in the four years since we've come to see a darker side of this board and the skin-care culture it gives us a window into. It's a culture that actually can feed addictive behavior, or at least unhealthy obsession.
In Ione Gamble’s 2022 book Poor Little Sick Girls, she connects our culture’s relatively recent fixation on shopping and self-care with volatile world events such as political unrest, climate change, not to mention the pandemic. These experiences can cause fear and anxiety, which can lead people to develop coping mechanisms — like excessive shopping. In 2020, the year our lives were uprooted by the pandemic, the global skin-care market generated approximately $136.4 billion as the world shut down and, apparently, turned its attention to scrubs, serums, and lotions. According to the Consumer Market Outlook, that number will rise to roughly $187.68 billion by 2026. Beauty continues to be one of the few industries that is consistently booming despite incredible economic challenges in recent years.
Self-care sells. But is it selling too much? Amid the rise of social media and shopping features integrated within various platforms, it has never been easier to click “add to cart.” Shopping addiction is nothing new, but the rise in spending specifically on skin care — and the internet’s obsession with it — could be fueling a more particular, product-based habit.
Meet the experts:
- Tamara Lazic Strugar, MD, is a New York-based board-certified dermatologist.
- Evan Rieder, MD, is a New York City-based double-board-certified psychiatrist and dermatologist.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines an addiction as “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.” Much like alcohol, drugs, and sex, shopping is a known object of addiction, and online forums such as Reddit, with its barrages of new recommendations, can be triggering for those who may be more inclined to impulse purchasing.
The pressure to keep up with the constant rollout of new releases can be a trigger for those with preexisting mental health issues. Erica,* 25, is a Texas-based beauty enthusiast and r/SkincareAddiction user who also has ADHD and bipolar disorder. While impulse spending is a known indicator of ADHD, Erica says bipolar disorder is the real culprit when it comes to her purchasing compulsions — especially if the pharmacy runs out of her medication and her symptoms resurface. “This happened last month and I wound up with 30 new products,” she says.
“Reddit is probably the biggest contributor to my overspending besides my mental illness,” Erica continues. “Haul photos, review posts, and the ‘my poor wallet’ jokes encourage me to try more things that I don’t truly need.” She says she has used money for paying bills to pay for skin care and makeup instead, and that she’s taken advantage of bill-payment grace periods more than once due to spending on products.
Evan Rieder, MD, a New York City-based double board-certified psychiatrist and dermatologist, tells Allure: “Some people can be vulnerable to impulse buys if they are already part of a community that shares information, some of which may be considered privileged ‘intel’ that the general population doesn’t have access to. [That] offers exclusivity and excitement.”
Dr. Rieder goes on to say that those involved in the skin-care community specifically — including dermatologists — are always looking for the next “it” ingredient. “It can be intoxicating to feel that you have made a discovery, particularly if the rest of the beauty world and general population are not on to [newer skin-care discoveries] yet.”
Carrie,* 28, a contemporary artist from New York City, believes that her obsession with skin care started with the subscription boxes she signed up for during the pandemic. “At first I was good at resisting,” she recalls, “but I eventually slid into shopping every sale and reading about other subscriptions and everything snowballed.”
Everyone is different, but Dr. Rieder says that sometimes these boxes can be a low-stakes way to scratch the skin-care shopping itch. “Subscription boxes are largely harmless, and for most people, a fun way to experience a new, curated selection of products on a regular basis,” he explains. “They can offer the same dopamine surge that comes with shopping but require much less work.” He adds, however, that there can always be too much of a good thing. “I don’t think of these as problematic unless someone is subscribing to multiple services, accumulating a bunch of products that they don’t use, and the behavior is leading to financial, relationship, or emotional stress.”
This temptation and pressure can also lead to debt. Mia,* 22 and from London, dabbled in interest-free credit cards to purchase products for an acne flare-up in her late teens. “I spent hours researching routines online, on the Skincare Freaks Facebook page in particular. The routines and reviews became an obsession. I enjoyed being part [of an online community], so I definitely spent out of my means,” she explains. She accumulated a lot of debt, not wanting to miss out. “It seems ridiculous now, but as a student [at the time], I figured I’d begin paying it back once I started working full-time.”
Some dermatologists say they have definitely noticed changes in the routines of their patients over the past few years. Tamara Lazic Strugar, MD, a New York-based board-certified dermatologist, tells Allure that she has witnessed an increased proportion of the younger population adopting 10-step (or more) skin-care routines. “I personally support a minimalist routine — a moisturizing SPF in the morning, a retinoid at night, and perhaps an antioxidant product,” she says. “The rest is unnecessary for most people, unless they are addressing specific issues such as acne, hyperpigmentation, et cetera.”
To give credit where it's due, social media can also be a force that looks at excessive beauty purchasing habits critically, with an eye to change. In 2018, Hannah Louise Poston was one of the first YouTube content creators to document her “no buy year.” In 2019, she allocated herself a monthly “beauty budget” — essentials only — in the hopes of influencing her ample following to cut back on their own consumption.
Frequenting online communities can also be a great tool to exercise accountability, as long as these communities do not promote overspending. Dr. Rieder recommends support groups and behavioral therapies that use techniques like stimulus control and exposure and response prevention, which, according to Psychology Today, are designed to gradually reduce the anxiety that feeds obsessions and compulsions.
Says Dr. Rieder, “If you are constantly thinking about buying skin care, spending lots of money, and putting yourself in a financial bind, having guilty feelings after spending or relationship difficulties [as a result of it], then it might be time to seek help.”
We are all worthy of self-care, but our peace of mind shouldn’t suffer for the latest viral serum. Online forums can be a great resource for expanding knowledge and serving up inspiration, but they should never drive us to spend beyond our needs or put our mental health at risk.
*Not their real names.