Do people still consider pursuing beauty a superficial act? At 13, I followed a strict skin care routine behind closed doors. But outwardly, my only personality, from Quicksilver shirts to Avril Lavigne hair, was rejecting physical beauty standards. Beauty, as middle school me understood it, was shallow and cheap.
But as I got older, beauty, specifically my skin care routine, became a source of security.
While I tried to find my community in university, my skin stayed the same. When I studied abroad in London and turned down a cigarette from a successful playwright, a few years my junior, she said, “Of course you don’t smoke. Your skin is too nice.” When I started smoking due to a high-pressure internship, my skin care routine still brought order in my chaotic LA life.
Over the past two years, I’ve come to understand that beauty is rarely a self-serving end goal. For most people I know, and the hundreds of thousands I’ve virtually encountered, beauty is a long journey where we tackle multiple routes of healing. A routine is curated, developed, and enacted in hopes of lessening the mental load that people’s reaction to our appearances take on us.
In some ways it’s about simultaneously decreasing the value “looks” have and increasing the confidence we have in ourselves. We’re constantly bombarded with messages that we need no wrinkles or just a few “happy” wrinkles to look natural; bigger lips or undetectably plump lips; higher cheekbones or highlighted cheekbones.
A condition is never just acne. With every skin concern, there are layers to carry, stigmas that dive under our skin and convince us our core is imperfect until our skin isn’t.
Beauty, and specifically beauty via control, doesn’t come easy
Anyone who has spent five minutes in Sephora knows how overwhelming selecting skin care is. You can go in with a problem in mind, swatch, test, and read the ingredient list until your senses are overwhelmed. But ultimately, I’ve found that all brands and products are shouting the same message, “I work!” And between all that visual screaming, it’s hard to decipher exactly why I should trust the copy.
I used to base it on recommendations and reviews, sample sizes, and my wallet. I’d follow the familiar pattern most skin care and makeup aficionados are familiar with: I researched, tested, and most importantly, budgeted.
Then The Ordinary came along, asking we consider skin care differently.
“[After The Ordinary] a lot more consumers were interested in the science behind how skin care products work, and there was a lot more demand for more technical knowledge,” says Michelle Wong, reputed blogger behind the science beauty site Lab Muffin.
This focus on individual ingredients was the beginning of a new trend (that could be said started from the boom of Reddit’s educational subreddit Skincare Addiction, which many beauty outlets borrowed from to create performing stories) of understanding how science, not hype, could give the answer to healthy skin.
Before we dive into The Ordinary, we have to acknowledge Brandon Truaxe
Truaxe, the brain behind The Ordinary and its parent company, Deciem, passed away earlier this year. Although toward the end of his life he was known more for his behavior on social media, his rise to fame and impact on the beauty industry is stuff of the American dream. (For the record, Truaxe was Canadian, but dictating international cultural impact often requires success in the United States.)
Truaxe reportedly approached marketing differently than other beauty or skin care brands. According to (now-shelved) Racked, The Ordinary spent no money on advertising, except on social media. Truaxe has also famously rejected the status quo, calling the beauty industry “a scam.”
And he crafted his products to reflect this belief. From packaging to single-ingredient marketing, Truaxe understood what we ultimately desire when dabbling in skin care: consumer confidence.
While Wong has noticed a difference in how consumers approach beauty, she also sees a change in how other brands market their products. “There were brands that marketed based on the scientific benefits of their ingredients before, but there’s been a lot more focus on individual ingredients and what they do,” she says.
Even within Deciem’s other brands (NIOD, Hylamide, Hand Chemistry, to name 3 of 10), none focused on single-ingredient marketing. On top of that, they weren’t an affordable answer to experimentation and research. If beauty is about control every single step of the way, then brands can’t just promise an end goal. They have to make it accessible from the start, too.
And that’s how The Ordinary helped us understand beauty as so much more
Hopping on The Ordinary bandwagon sends a message different than being a fan of any other beauty brand. It changed the game of product recommendations because it didn’t restrict people’s access to healthier skin. When I recommend their hyaluronic acid, I don’t have to make my friends feel like the answer is out of their budget. They can take a look at the packaging and understand what makes the product work.
Wong agrees this was a factor for success in The Ordinary’s approach: “I think the two main reasons were that the low price made active ingredients a lot more accessible, so the number of consumers who were interested in trying out more powerful skin care ingredients increased, and that their product names didn’t shy away from technical terminology, so everyone became a lot more familiar with ingredient names.”
Ultimately, The Ordinary appeals to the ultimate wellness mindset — making informed health decisions — but they also offer people the chance to dabble in what makes skin care fun: experimenting and splurging.
For $50, I can layer and test five different products and oils. I can stick with a single-ingredient bottle and figure out if it really works. And if it does, I now know what to look for in other products and feel smarter about my purchases.
But more than ever, The Ordinary changed how beauty brands communicate with us
“There’s also been a sharp increase in the brands that are marketing using the veneer of ‘science’ to try to legitimize themselves, even when the scientific evidence doesn’t support what they’re saying,” Wong warns. “There’s also an increase in brands educating people about skin care science and getting it very wrong.”
One example that comes to mind is the rise of CBD and brands using the term “cannabis sativa seed oil.” By never saying hemp oil, which isn’t the same as CBD or hemp CBD, and placing the word cannabis next to words like “high” or images or a marijuana plant, the intention is misled.
However, I think there are still cumulative benefits to this change.
As a teenager, I understood the magic of Clean & Clear was the promise that it would clear my skin. As an informed reader, I know it’s because of the core ingredient salicylic acid.
Today, the active ingredient doesn’t get lost in the fine print. It’s often highlighted front and center on the bottle, if not in the title of the product itself. For example, when you visit Clean & Clear’s website, you’re met with an ad that boasts the core ingredients of its latest line, lemon and vitamin C.
Another one of my favorite, newer skin care brands, Reissue, exponentially grew their Instagram following through product and ingredient education.
As consumers get smarter and more knowledgeable about creating their own expectations, beauty will become less superficial.
And after all, what is beauty but pleasure?
Finding pleasure, whether in the routine or reshaping, isn’t superficial. If you perceive it as a pursuit for more, you could also see it as a chase for less — less pain, less burden, and less stress. What I know about The Ordinary, as an informative brand, gave me that.
In its low cost, I got more financial freedom; through its single-ingredient offering, I got to get creative; and with science-backed descriptions, I got smarter about what I’m putting on my skin.
The Ordinary succeeded and changed how millions participate in beauty because Truaxe affirmed our skin health as more than a superficial goal.
Christal Yuen is an editor at Healthline who writes and edits content revolving around sex, beauty, health, and wellness. She’s constantly looking for ways to help readers forge their own health journey. You can find her on Twitter.