For Akanksha (who prefers to go by her first name), skincare is a self-care practice that grounds her and provides her with the me-time at the start and the end of every day. “Skincare, as an activity, is a way of showing up for myself daily. It is like saying to myself ‘I care for you’,” says the Delhi-based content creator, who posts skincare and beauty-related tips on her Instagram.
As someone who struggles with anxiety, she says that just washing her face and doing her skincare allows her to feel better even on difficult days. Similar to what skincare means for Akanksha, it can be a self-soothing activity that can help people get in touch with themselves and manage the different aspects of their mental health.
For instance, a limited study on the impact of skincare on the body image of ageing people published in the Heliyon journal in March 2023 concluded that it helped improve self-body image and positive emotion in ageing female residents of Japanese nursing homes. "As one of the means to live with dignity in oneself throughout life, it is necessary to recognise the importance of personal cosmetic care in clinical practice," it said.
So, what is the viability of taking up skincare for improving self-esteem and mental health? Does it come with some pitfalls?
"Self-care is essentially anything you do to take care of yourself that allows you to be better physically, mentally, and emotionally," says Gurgaon-based counselling psychologist Shevantika Nanda, who uses cognitive behavioural therapy and person-centred therapy in her practice. It can range from taking the time out for yourself to go to a salon and get your hair done to completing your chores and reflecting on your feelings and emotions to process them.
In that sense, Nanda explains that skincare can absolutely be considered a self-care ritual. Psychologist and mental health advocate Srishti Asthana who works as a researcher at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi agrees.
"People can utilise skincare as a self-care practice because anything that is a consistent, stable ritual allows us to be connected with our lives and feel grounded. At that moment, it is an act of showing yourself, “I am taking out time to pay attention to myself and my body,” explains Asthana.
She adds that it might present something like a routine for you even if you do not realise it consciously, which can be good for your mental health in an otherwise rushed day-to-day existence.
That's one of the reasons why Akash Singh Shah took up skincare as well. After working night shifts, he found that his face looked dull and lifeless. So, he started with a basic routine of cleaning, toning, and moisturising twice a day and experimented with more products like Vitamin C and hyaluronic acid serum after he saw good results. "However, I found myself getting overwhelmed with the vast amount of products available, which led me to obsess over certain brands and struggle to keep up with my routine," shares the Delhi-based mortgage professional.
That's where skincare as a self-care practice can go wrong. What brought joy and boosted Shah's confidence, at first, later made him feel pressurised to follow the beauty standards for men. "Even slight changes in my skin would upset me, making me unhappy with my routine," he says. It has reached a stage where he hardly practices it anymore.
Nanda agrees that this can happen with the amount of misinformation on social media due to the rise of the skin influencer culture. "Very often, these "skinfluencers" already have great skin or a great body, and [they are] obviously showing the most perfect version of their lives," she says. It can negatively influence many people, especially younger women, who may develop certain expectations of how their skin should look at different ages or stages of life. It's not too different from what fairness creams did back in the day, she says.
Awasthi further cautions against the generic information shared by social media "experts". For instance, she expresses her surprise at teenagers and early 20s influencers promoting anti-ageing products. "The unregulated influencer culture is a big problem, and it is leading to unrealistic body image and beauty standards. It is going to impact the self-esteem of people," says Awasthi, adding that it can put teenagers, especially, at risk of mental health challenges like eating disorders.
So, how can one utilise this self-care practice and counteract the negative impact of the skin care culture online?
Both Nanda and Shruti suggest consulting a professional for your queries about skincare and getting customised advice that applies to you if you are worried about it. It's better than following advice from influencers who may only share surface-level information or buying all the products advertised in your feed.
"One can also sort of practice these forms of self-care without negative impact by making sure you are doing what's right for you, what works for you, and what's healthy for you," says Nanda. She adds that it is a good idea to avoid the beauty or skincare trend of the day and other fads that can negatively impact your skin and, hence, your mental health.
Awashti strongly suggests looking beyond the consumerist nature of self-care, where you are spending lots of money on products and services. "The pressure on a young person to buy expensive cosmetic products in order to do self-care may even be a flawed message because you don't always need something super expensive to spend time with your bodies and yourself," she says.
Furthermore, she advises working on having a better relationship with your body for your mental health and seeking help from a mental health professional if you need it.
As far as self-care practices go, Nanda suggests that one must be cautious of not holding onto them with so much rigidity that they start causing you anxiety. "Whereas it should be followed as a structure, it should definitely not become a source of stress for you," she concludes.