The Flawless Fallacy: A Pharmacist’s Guide to Skin Care in the Digital Age

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Drug Topics JournalDrug Topics May 2024
Volume 168
Issue 04

Cutting through the noise of social media is key when educating patients on how to make better choices for their skin.

In today’s digital age, people spend a lot of time looking at their own faces. If someone isn’t looking at their own face, then chances are high that they’re looking at someone else’s. The rise of social media and influencer culture has led to a rise in body dissatistfaction1 and has sparked a cultural near obsession with meeting certain standards of beauty—especially when it comes to skin care.

Various skin care products on blue background / IRINA - stock.adobe.com

Various skin care products on blue background / IRINA - stock.adobe.com

Platforms like TikTok and YouTube are rife with influencers who boast flawless skin that is attributed to multistep regimens full of high-end products. Although an appreciation for skin care is good—the skin is the body’s largest organ, after all—these videos can easily tempt followers to splurge on similar items without considering their individual needs or the potential downsides. Blindly following an influencer’s skin care advice can be harmful: Luxury skin care products aren’t suitable for everyone, and what works for one person might not work for another.

“Anytime people are being paid to promote things, they’re going to promote them,” said Patricia Farris, MD, cofounder of the Science of Skincare Summit, host of the podcast Skincare Confidential, and clinical associate professor in the Department of Dermatology at the Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana. “Unfortunately, the consumer doesn’t understand the difference.”

But what consumers may not understand about the differences between various skin care products, pharmacists do. Using their expertise and leveraging their high touch point to patients, pharmacists can effectively guide patients toward products that are safe, effective, and address their specific concerns in this new era of skin care.

The Dangers of Trend-Driven Skin Care

Social media and influencing have made access to skin care information easier than ever. All it takes is a search of a key word on a social media platform to ignite a never-ending scroll of skin care content, reinforced by algorithms that curate social feeds with trendy videos where influencers showcase their favorite products and brands.

Caught in this never-ending scroll, consumers become hyperaware of every product and trend ripping through social media, leaving them constantly wanting to revamp their own routine. This fear of missing out on trends, combined with a “more is more” mentality, can lead people to create overly complex skin care routines. However, these regimens often do more harm than good.

“Most of what we see with patients is overzealous use of things,” Farris said. “It’s not as common to see true allergic reactions. If you’re using harsh scrubs that can compromise the [skin] barrier, and then you put something like a retinoid or hydroxy acid on, that’s going to be a problem because you’re going to get a dysfunction.”

Although piling on creams, serums, scrubs, and toners might seem like the key to perfect skin, it can actually damage the skin’s barrier. This can lead to irritation, as the products may penetrate deeper into already-compromised skin. If a patient comes into the pharmacy with irritation, Farris recommends that pharmacists advise them to simplify their regimen. “When it comes to active ingredients, I usually tell people to keep it to 2 steps in the morning and 2 steps in the evening,” she said.

Some skin care ingredients have a higher potential to irritate skin, particularly when users prioritize the benefits and overlook the potential drawbacks. Retinol is one such ingredient that has earned its time in the spotlight. Not only does retinol help control acne, but it also stimulates collagen production, improves skin elasticity, and encourages skin cell turnover, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and combating signs of aging.2 Although influencers often tout retinol use and its role in their flawless complexions, integrating retinol into a skin care routine requires an adjustment period that many other skin care ingredients do not. Retinol also increases sun sensitivity, requiring the regular use of sunscreen to minimize the risk of sun damage.

“If someone comes in with a red, itchy, or burning face, pharmacists should ask them [whether they’re] using a product that contains retinol,” said Zoe Diana Draelos, MD, research and clinical board-certified dermatologist involved with research in OTC, cosmeceutical, and cosmetic drugs. If the patient is using retinol, “pharmacists should [recommend] that the product be discontinued until the skin can heal, and that maybe it should be used every other day or every third day to minimize irritation.”

The same goes for peels and exfoliators, which are also gaining popularity as a way to promote smoother-looking skin. “The idea with peels and exfoliants is that you remove dead skin, and doing so can make the skin smoother and softer. It’s like taking a piece of sandpaper to a piece of wood that feels smoother and softer after you’ve sanded it,” Draelos said. “But you can only sand your face so much. If you’re exfoliating aggressively every night, you’re eventually going to get to the point where you’re irritating your skin, and you have sensitive skin induced by the overuse of peels and exfoliators.”

Although exfoliating peels and scrubs are beneficial in removing dead skin cells, they can also diminish the skin’s natural sun protection. Draelos recommends that pharmacists advise patients using these products to consistently apply sunscreen, limit exfoliation to once a week to minimize irritation, be gentle when applying exfoliators, and follow up exfoliation with moisturizer to allow the skin barrier to repair.

The good news is that there are many effective OTC options available for people who come into the pharmacy with skin care issues. For pharmacists, knowing which ones to recommend is key.

“Anyone who has a pretty significant irritation can benefit from simple treatments, like adding a moisturizer or using OTC hydrocortisone,” Farris said. “There are a lot of things that pharmacists can access to help the patient very quickly.”

The Concern for Young People

Social media influencers can be particularly dangerous for young people—who may be more trusting of online content—especially when they promote products that aren’t age appropriate or don’t consider the specific needs of a younger demographic. A report from Wunderman Thompson Commerce & Technology found that 55% of children between the ages of 6 and 16 years want to buy products based solely on whether their favorite YouTube or Instagram influencer uses or wears it.3

In particular, social media influencing has fueled concerns of aging among young people. This past holiday season, antiaging products containing retinol from expensive brands such as Drunk Elephant and Glow Recipe topped many tweens’ and teens’ wish lists,4 even though many dermatologists generally recommend that patients wait until their 20s to begin incorporating these types of products into skin care routines.2

Although Farris agrees that using these products on young skin can be problematic, she sees a silver lining in the buzz generated by skin care influencing on the demographic. “If we can use this new awareness of skin care as a teaching moment to inform young people about wearing a good sunscreen, washing your face with a gentle cleanser, and using a good moisturizer—these are such good habits to impart in a young kid,” she said.

When it comes to guiding young people toward appropriate skin care products, Draelos explained that the most important product a pharmacist can recommend is sunscreen. By practicing good sun protection, young people can effectively maintain their skin in its current state. “Prevention and maintenance of what you have is much better than reversal or treatment,” Draelos said.

Education is Key

In the ever-evolving age of trends and influencing, how can pharmacists know which skin care products to look out for? Just as patients keep up with social trends, so should pharmacists.

“The cosmetic market and luxury skin care market is very fast moving. It thrives on new, new, new, so it is hard to keep up,” Draelos said. “I would recommend a pharmacist to Google new skin care 2024 and see what [trends] come up. Right now, it’s snail mucin, but I’m sure if you look 6 months from now, it will be something else.”

In addition to a simple online search, both the American Academy of Dermatology and Cosmetics Info—a database maintained by scientists and subject matter experts—can provide pharmacists with a wealth of information about all things skin care. By staying informed through credible sources and understanding the science behind skin care ingredients, pharmacists can cut through the noise of social media to empower patients to make informed choices about how to take care of their skin.

READ MORE: Dermatology Resource Center

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References
1. Engelin R. How influencers make young women feel bad. Psychology Today. September 25, 2023. Accessed April 15, 2024. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beauty-sick/202309/how-influencers-make-young-women-feel-bad 
2. Ludmann P. Dermatologist-recommended skin care for your 20s. American Academy of Dermatology. Updated February 23, 2023. Accessed April 15, 2024. https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/skin-care-basics/care/skin-care-in-your-20s
3. Christie D. 55% of Gen Alpha want to buy what their favorite YouTube, Instagram influencers wear. MarketingDive. September 18, 2019. Accessed April 15, 2024. https://www.marketingdive.com/news/55-of-gen-alpha-want-to-buy-what-their-favorite-youtube-instagram-influen/563158/
4. Hallett R. ‘Sephora baby’ trend: teens, tweens buying expensive, powerful skincare a growing concern for health professionals. Updated January 10, 2024. Accessed April 15, 2024. https://www.fox10phoenix.com/news/parents-are-warned-to-think-twice-before-buying-these-products-off-their-kids-christmas-list
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