I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve retreated into a corner at work or in public, nervously covering a hormonal breakout on my cheek. It seems easier to pretend breakouts don’t exist on people past puberty than to acknowledge they’re a common part of most women’s lives – and, given the way skincare companies still market to us, this is hardly surprising.
Adult acne is on the rise, and prestige brands are lining up to sell to women exactly like me: women who have outgrown the wealth of teenage-targeted skincare lines out there, and are happy to invest in premium products, yet are more concerned about breakouts than fine lines. With clinical studies suggesting that 40-55 per cent of the adult population aged 20-40 have low-grade, persistent acne and oily skin, it’s a lucrative market to tap.
Clearly the industry is now bigger than a tube of spot cream to be stashed under the sink (never displayed on-shelf, of course), yet most brands are still getting one crucial thing wrong: representing women with complicated complexions in their campaigns and communications.
There’s still a significant absence of models in skincare ads, from TV to Instagram, that have anything other than flawless skin – whether it’s down to jackpot genetics or Photoshop. Progress has been made in other areas – most brands no longer use a 20-something celebrity as the face of a night cream for the over-60s – yet we still can’t seem to shake the stigma of skin ‘imperfections’. Even the terminology, like ‘anti-ageing’ before it, is problematic.
How so many brands can fall short in this area shows a lack of understanding about what women like me want from their skincare. We want products that are just as luxurious as the ones used by our clear-skinned friends, and our standards are high: performance is paramount, but the pampering aspect equally appeals. And yes, we’ll pay for it: between 2019 and 2025 the global market for cosmetic acne products is forecast to grow by a CAGR of 3.8 per cent, according to Market Study Report LLC.
What we really want, though, is to see skin we can relate to. Now that would really grab our attention.
For me, the lack of adult acne representation is frustrating, but I’m lucky to be resilient. What’s more worrying is the fact that Google's predictive search algorithm, which is powered by popular search inputs, throws up questions such as 'are there models with acne?', and 'can you still be beautiful with acne?', bringing to mind swathes of self-conscious women of all ages, feeling unworthy of inclusion in the beauty world.
There are corners of solace to be found online, with the ‘acne-positivity’ community blossoming, particularly on Instagram. Lou Northcote is a leading voice, with her Free The Pimple movement providing an encouraging space for teenagers and women to discuss and improve their relationship with their skin.
“I was a model from the age of 10-16, and I lost my modelling career because of my acne,” Northcote tells me, “I was sick of seeing photoshopped images everywhere and 'perfect' photos on social media: models wearing make-up in skincare ads and so on. I was suffering so much and just didn't see anyone with skin like me, so thought maybe if I posted something on social media, someone might contact me and say their skin is like mine too. I posted a make-up-free selfie and created the hashtag #freethepimple, so people around the world could use it and see it.”
The acne-positivity movement is fuelling promising progress, and the impact is starting to show at brand level, with a few clever newcomers such as Starface and Squish targeting the acne-accepting Gen Z with efficacy. But it’s frustrating that the movement doesn’t seem to have caught on in the premium skincare space, implying that luxury products are only for those with ‘luxury’ skin to match.
One brand setting the standard, however, is Augustinus Bader. To date, it's the only luxury brand to have included a model with acne (Northcote herself) in a campaign for a premium product designed to help with acne among other common skin complaints.
Refreshingly plain-talking, the campaign shifted the focus back onto the science of skincare, with eight models having their skin filmed, close up, over the course of seven days, during which they solely used Bader's The Cream.
“This was the first time a model with acne had been part of a campaign like this. I loved how honest and true it was,” says Northcote, who describes the experience as a clinical study, rather than a photoshoot. “It was a campaign about skin and really did use real skin – this is something that seems to be so hard to find when it comes to beauty and skincare ads.”
Northcote’s collaboration with Bader sparks hope that luxury brands are beginning to notice women struggling with acne, and chimes with the shifting demands we have for skincare today. As we become more invested in the mechanics of skincare and how each formulation works (or indeed, how it doesn’t) science begins to outweigh sex appeal. We’re less seduced by a weighty gilded bottle and more excited by a flawless fusion of actives – just look at the rise of typically clinical Dr-led brands, including Dr. Anita Sturnham’s Decree and Dr. Sam Bunting’s Flawless.
As the skin-positivity movement gains momentum and skincare regains a science-first stance, it feels like the right time to reveal skin with spots, along with pigmentation, rosacea, and all the other unique skin issues people across the world are experiencing.
Northcote’s advice is simple: “If your product is for acne-prone skin, use someone with acne. It is as simple as that. No one has perfect skin – we have pores, veins, lines, hairs, spots, scars and, thanks to the skin-positivity movement, that has become a conversation.”
The obvious irony is, if women didn’t have acne, there’d be no market for legions of blemish-preventing products (especially the ones creeping into triple-figure territory). So if our money’s good enough, can our faces please be, too?
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