Till 23 March, Aparna Trevedi indulged in a “hobby”: trying all the cosmetic products her favourite beauty influencer endorsed on Instagram. In six months, she had spent around ₹30,000 on serums, creams and lotions.
“I knew she (the influencer) used some (photo) filters but I wanted that glassy skin,” says the Mumbai-based architect, 25. “I was on Insta for over half a day and ads (for skincare products) kept popping up…there are so many things available... How do you stop the temptation?”
The outcome was mixed. An under-eye cream that promised results within a week did nothing. A shampoo helped fight hair loss but resulted in dry hair. Then, in early February, an anti-ageing serum left Trevedi with rashes. “That was the first time a product the influencer talked about didn’t suit me. It was confusing because she and I have the same skin type, and my friends’ skin (they also tried the same product) was also fine.”
It didn’t stop her, though: The influencer had 275,00-plus followers for a reason, she told herself. On 23 March, Trevedi followed yet another recommendation: a face mask. It left dark patches and she had to see a dermatologist. “When the doctor told me I have burnt my skin, I felt like slapping myself. She (the influencer) might be endorsing the right products but clearly many weren’t suiting me,” says Trevedi. She unfollowed the influencer and started rationing time on Instagram. “The dermatologist said to me, ‘Social media is not the place to go for skincare,’” she says.
In Shillong, Dianne Hasan’s skin doctor told her something similar when she had a sudden breakout of acne after using an anti-ageing cream she saw on YouTube. “In all of my 35 years, I never had acne but after using this cream twice, my face was covered with pimples.”
Dermatologists say a growing number of consumers, especially women in the 18-45 age range, seem to trustingly, and unthinkingly, use products they see influencers promoting on social media. The problem seemed to increase during the pandemic, with people keen on beauty tips turning to influencers for guidance in a market awash with products.
Kashish Kalra, head of dermatology at the Max Smart Super Specialty Hospital in Delhi and owner of Dr Kalra’s Skin Clinic, describes these as a “social media skin problem”. Over the past two years, at least two people have been visiting his south Delhi clinic daily with complaints of acne and extreme redness after using a product they saw on social media. “While living in the confines of their homes, people have gained a lot of knowledge about different ingredients and serums but they don’t know what works for their skin. They are using products because they are trending,” says Dr Kalra.
He mentions a patient who watched a YouTube video and tried a chemical peel, which is generally done under medical supervision. “The peel she had used included 30% of a particular chemical which should have ideally been around 5%. Her skin was burnt completely. When I asked her why she did it, she said she wanted skin with no blemishes and this method seemed quick.”
Rajesh Shetty, periodontist and implantologist at the Dazzle Dental Clinic in Bandra, Mumbai, was surprised when he got a call from a 25-year-old, asking if he could increase the length of his teeth by 3mm. He gets such “strange requests” at least five-six times a month. “People have got a diamond stud fixed on the side (of the teeth) and it has permanently disfigured or created a hole in the tooth, but they don’t want it to be rectified because it looks nice in pictures.”
He, too, has seen an “unprecedented increase” in the number of patients who come with complaints after learning about a product online. A big reason, he says, is that campaigns don’t explain the technique or the way a product should be used. “Many influencers who are promoting these products don’t study the product they are offering. In an Instagram reel, it’s not possible to explain things at length.”
Malvika Sitlani Aryan doesn’t agree. A digital creator with over 550,000 Instagram followers, who posts reviews of skincare and beauty products regularly, she says she starts using the products at least two weeks before posting about them. Aryan, who recently walked the Cannes film festival red carpet, says: “I have had accidents as well. Once a product was so fragrant that it resulted in acne, so I didn’t promote it and gave my feedback to the company. You have to be transparent about your work and what you endorse, otherwise I will lose whatever I have built. And most importantly, skincare is subjective. What works for me might not work for you and I always say that.”
It’s not that brands are not transparent about ingredients. “It’s so competitive right now that you have to be transparent,” says Mini Sood Banerjee, assistant director and head of marketing at Amorepacific India, an arm of the South Korean cosmetics company that oversees popular brands Laneige, Sulwhasoo, Etude House and Innisfree.
As a L’Oreal spokeperson told Lounge: “With deeper penetration of social and digital media usage, consumers are also choosing products depending on current viral trends, influencer recommendations, and word of mouth. Beauty brands are doing their due diligence, educating the consumers on the product efficacies, ingredients, and usage via influencers, and experts on digital platforms, and in offline stores to help them make an informed choice.”
Adds Banerjee: “To stay ahead in the game, you have to study trends, and see what works. What’s also important is educating the consumer.”
Spend that extra time
The problem is that the customer doesn’t spend the extra minute to read the fine print, says Geetika Mittal Gupta, aesthetic physician and founder of the Isaac Luxe skin clinic, which has a presence in Delhi and Mumbai. Over the past two years, she has started getting at least three patients a week with complaints of itchy, dry and peeling skin after they have experimenting with products. “I never had such patients before the pandemic. People have their micro labs at home now and do a cocktail of products, which ruptures their natural skincare barrier. With more brands, more influencer marketing and the pandemic, it’s a mess really.”
It’s not just a big city phenomenon. Kiran Tirthani runs the Dermaway Skin and Laser clinic in Gujarat’s Gandhidham. Since October 2020, she has seen a steady rise in people with “social media skin” complaints. “I see at least 10 cases a week where a patient has had an accident with a skincare product. People just don’t get that trending retinol can dry their skin if it is sensitive.”
A common culprit, she says, is the anti-ageing cream. “It’s no longer about fairer skin because they have realised that’s something they can’t change.... They want clear and wrinkle-free skin. And so, they are now invested in vitamin C serums, actives, peels, laser. People are buying cosmetics and skincare products and services now like they are shopping for clothes.”
The other problem is the use of skincare products that include steroids. “We prescribe some medicines (in the form of lotions) for skin diseases like eczema that result in making the skin lighter (they actually make the skin thinner). Since it makes the skin clearer, people continue to use it without prescription,” she says.
Chemists, too, don’t insist on prescriptions for skin products. This is something the government needs to pay attention to, says Neha Meena, a dermatologist at Jaipur’s Central Hospital, North Western Railway. “Almost 20 years ago, the government banned products with steroids but they are still available.” Of the 10 patients a day she sees with problems related to social media-promoted skincare experimentation, at least one confesses to using a cream with steroids.
While brands must raise awareness about their products, she adds, consumers too need to be more vigilant, for social media can be “very misleading”. Aparna Trevedi, still yearning for “glassy skin”, would agree.
Do’s and don’ts of skincare
Product overuse may cause irritation and redness, leaving a filmy or greasy residue on your face in some situations. “Everyone should prioritise quality over quantity when it comes to their skincare routine. A pea-sized amount of any form of retinol or eye serum is usually the holy grail, whereas a quarter-size (of a coin) amount is more than enough for a face and neck cream. Following skin layering is important,” says Geetika Mittal Gupta, aesthetic physician and founder of Isaac Luxe skin clinic.
Keep your beauty routine as simple as possible, says Blossom Kochhar, chair of Blossom Kochhar Group of Companies. “Cleanse, tone, moisturise. The Indian skin is, believe it or not, made for more natural products. And always, before buying a product, read up enough about it and check if it works for your skin.”