You’re a grown-up. A busy one. You’re fitting your job, home, relationships, perhaps children, your watchlist and a social life into the same 24 hours as everyone else. You’ve got some skin issues: acne, sun damage, fine lines, the eternal hunt for that elusive ‘glow’. You’re time-poor, but skincare intrigued. And that’s where TikTok comes in. Yes, you read that right. TikTok. Home of banana peel body buffing, ‘skin slugging’, DIY injectables and worryingly high thongs. Not long ago, TikTok (which has only been around since 2017 and is squarely aimed at Gen Z), defined itself by the millennials (and their side partings) that it didn’t welcome. No longer. Filtering out the cutesy choreographed dances and intentional drawn-on eye bags filling their #ForYou feed is a wave of clued-up, skincare-obsessed women wanting informed expert advice. And the ‘derm-fluencers’ are serving it up. With followers in the hundreds of thousands and multiple PhDs in their bios, dermatologists are social media’s unexpected celebrities. Your best friend who knows more about glycolic acid than Caroline Hirons? Her secret source is probably TikTok.
‘During the pandemic, we saw the platform ageing up,’ confirms Antonia Baildam, TikTok’s head of brand partnerships for beauty. ‘A recent survey showed that 67% of our global audience was over 25.’ It shouldn’t be surprising: TikTok’s USP is its snackable, speedy videos. Who are they perfect for? Adolescents with no attention span on an endless scroll, and adult women with a few minutes to spare between Zoom conferences, childcare, core workouts and the odd cocktail. It only takes a few seconds to swipe up and learn about the latest face mask hack or hotly tipped ingredient. When it comes to consuming content, convenience is king, whether you’re 14 or 41. ‘Initially, I avoided it completely on the grounds that it’s for teenagers,’ says 43-year-old Alice Wignall – who also happens to be ELLE’s Executive Editor. ‘But then ELLE launched on TikTok, so I created an account, and that was my gateway drug. I’d had a skincare disaster – too many actives and acids – and my skin was dry, tight, red and itchy. So, I searched TikTok for advice on damaged skin barriers, just to see what was there. And I was hooked.’
TikTok is more focused than Facebook and less fake than Instagram; an easy-breezy, commitment-free way to dip in and out of dermatology advice. It’s probably relevant that TikTok doesn’t think of itself as a social media platform, but an entertainment business. It sees its competitors as Netflix and Amazon Prime, not Instagram. The (extraordinarily powerful) algorithm rewards content accordingly, meaning users can quickly curate an informative and entertaining feed. It’s no accident that bite-size information packaged up as your favourite 30-second TV show is a win-win for skincare pros and knowledge seekers alike. In fact, TikTok actively rewards it. ‘The algorithm is the secret sauce of TikTok,’ says Baldaim.
In short, our enjoyment is their priority. For TikTok’s new beauty bubble, that comes down to authenticity. ‘There’s something compelling about a platform where you can watch a video and see a person’s skin – it feels more real,’ says Alice. ‘The advice is good; it sorted my skin out. But it’s also fast and funny. I find it addictive.’
From the other side of the camera, Dr Angelo Landriscina (@dermangelo) agrees: ‘I try to include a bit of comedy in what I do,’ he says. ‘That’s a big part of my brand, not taking it so seriously.’ With more than 260,000 followers and four million likes for his droll dermatology advice, including why you shouldn’t use vodka on your skin, we’re clearly buying what he’s selling.
It’s a notable feature of TikTok that big audiences can be built quickly, which is another reason why experts are setting up on the platform. Take Dr Joyce Park (@teawithmd) who joined TikTok at the beginning of the pandemic. In less than a year, Park’s pithy videos debunking dodgy skincare myths attracted a following of almost 400,000. ‘I posted a video about food that could cause acne flare-ups and it totally exploded,’ says Park. ‘The last time I checked it had more than 13 million views. In 24 hours I went from 2,000 followers to more than 80,000. I realised TikTok had this opportunity for huge growth and that there’s a hunger for accurate skincare and information from experts.’
A shift towards education with the #LearnOnTikTok movement – likely an attempt to shake off its bad rep for irresponsible beauty trends such as DIY teeth filing – and you’ve got TikTok’s new ‘edu-tainment’ mission statement. ‘The key is wrapping this information in a way where we’re still learning but it’s not so heavy, even if the topic is serious,’ explains Emma Chiu, global director at trend forecaster Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. For those who want to find a like-minded community of skincare aficionados, TikTok is available 24/7 with a worldwide audience eager for information. ‘Before joining the app, I thought we were doing a good job of communicating to our patients,’ says Dr Camille Howard (@dermbeautydoc). ‘But I realised that we actually do a terrible job. I had no idea about #SkinTok and that people were so interested in skincare. I’ve learnt that my followers don’t like when things feel staged, so I rarely wear my white coat. I want my videos to feel light-hearted and authentic.’
It’s a chicken and egg skincare situation. The more dermatologists created content on TikTok, the more we sought out advice on the app. In turn, this meant that more dermatologists joined TikTok… One fed the other until more and more women started seeking out solutions to their complexion problems on an app originally dominated by teenage girls doing choreographed dance routines. Whether it’s Katie Holmes’ dermatologist Dr Barbara Sturm holding #SkinSchool sessions or down-to-earth Dr Sam Bunting discussing the dos and don’ts of retinol, TikTok is a one-stop shop for authoritative advice in short 30-second instalments. ‘When I was younger my skin was fine, but recently I’ve started to get adult acne,’ says Liv, a late-twenties convert. ‘I started using social media to find skincare advice; that’s how I got really into TikTok. I’ll type in a hashtag such as “blemishes” and find pages that are dedicated to dermatologists, then I’ll scroll through as many videos as I can. The derms talk about specific ingredients such as salicylic acid and retinol, so I feel like I’ve learnt how to differentiate between serums and acids and what they’re good for, which I didn’t know before. If I see three people recommend a product, I’m sold. My entire skincare routine comes from TikTok, and I recommend it to other people now, too.’
Where sceptics might accuse TikTok of replacing traditional regulated dermatology with jolly videos of pros with products, the reality is more akin to democratisation than deletion. ‘Education and accessibility are why millennials are turning to professionals on TikTok for advice,’ says Chiu. ‘There is this level of being able to break down barriers so pros can reach the audience in a way they may not have at their clinic.’ NHS referrals can take months, and private appointments can be expensive and exclusive. TikTok is filling the information gap, providing initial guidance and expertise that might be all you need. ‘We’re building this network of super-empowered older consumers who know what’s in their products,’ says Baldaim. ‘We’re really proud of the fact that we’ve done that, but the next stage is to go and have a one-on-one consultation with a dermatologist.’
As accessible as the information may be, by its brief and broad nature, it lacks a certain personal touch, which is where the old and new can work together. For Landriscina, his presence on the platform has led to an uptick in clients, with 20% sourcing his clinic from social media. Other cases of meme-to-derm transition can be life-changing. ‘I make a clear distinction that I can offer general advice on social media, but I can never offer patient- specific advice and always recommend going to a dermatologist,’ says Park. ‘Last week, I received an email from a TikTok follower with pigmentation who said they wanted to thank me for encouraging them to see a professional when they were too ashamed to go because of their use of sunbeds. They said I was so kind and non-judgemental about their transgressions that it gave them the confidence to go. After years of being afraid of the results, she found out that she had nothing to worry about. It actually brought me to tears.’
In a perfect world, we’d all be booking our dermatologist appointments empowered with our new-found knowledge. But is a white coat and ‘Dr’ in someone’s bio enough to filter the factual from the fake? ‘I understand the argument that dermatologists are on TikTok to counter misinformation with credible data, but the space is so saturated, there’s no way you could counteract it all. It’s like playing skincare whack-a-mole,’ says consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto, who, unsurprisingly, isn’t on the platform.
Worryingly, it’s not just the ‘regular’ users sharing suspect skincare advice that Mahto is concerned about. ‘I used to push the narrative of following derms online, but I don’t anymore, because there’s a lot of misinformation that comes from them, too.’ The fact is, even those with more academic qualifications than most of their followers put together can be lured by the promise of increased engagement. ‘No matter what your qualifications are, there is sometimes a temptation to do the thing that will go viral,’ discloses Dr Angelo. ‘Even if it might be based on shaky facts. Take almost everything with a grain of salt.’ Yes, the account might have that elusive blue tick, the bio says ‘board-certified’ and they look the part, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to ‘likes’. Dermatologists are just humans, after all.
Even ELLE’s in-house TikTok fan Alice is wary of the power of the platform: ‘I’ve never known anything change my behaviour like it,’ she says. ‘And – keep in mind I’ve worked in media for decades – I’m pretty hype-resistant. But I’ve bought products, changed the way I apply them… It’s dramatic how much influence it has on me.’ Overall, she’s not worried: ‘Apply your common sense: if something sounds crazy, it probably is. The bottom line is my skin looks better than it did before, and that’s the result I’m interested in.’
So, next time you find yourself scrolling through endless videos of homemade turmeric masks and face shaving, just bear in mind the winning skincare formula: take at least three derm-fluencers, add a pea-sized amount of unbiased information, a few pumps of ingredient specifics and layer with the kind of cynicism that only comes with age.
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