Skin scare tactics

Are you sure you don't have age spots? Companies hawking skin creams find new ways to freak women out.

Published August 7, 2006 10:28PM (EDT)

If by chance you've made peace with your skin -- pores, pits and all -- the latest news from the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) warns of a new sales tactic that threatens to awaken your inner critic. According to the Journal, sellers of beauty products are installing fancy skin-analyzing machines in drugstores and retail outlets that will expose your skin's worst flaws. They're hoping that just as you're rounding the skin care aisle, you'll use one to get a good look at your face and then shout, "Holy cow! My skin is so aged and dull! I wonder if there's a new cream that can help that. What's this by L'Oréal?

"I can tell you that when you have a photo of what's happening underneath your skin, you get committed to preserving it," Helena Foulkes, senior vice president of marketing and advertising at CVS Corp., told the Journal. That undoubtedly means buying more bottles and jars to line up on your sink. The executive claims that the Vichy video microscope and hydrometer by L'Oréal helped boost sales in drugstores three years in a row. Other companies are getting in the game: Procter & Gamble plans to put microscopes in stores by winter. Estée Lauder will launch a new skin-analysis tool by next year. (Its Rodan & Fields division already uses cameras to show sun damage and other skin maladies.) And this week, beauty giant Sephora is unveiling devices that will evaluate your complexion and teeth brightness.

All this "science" is clearly meant to motivate consumers to fix things they weren't aware needing fixing. (Take your pick: age spots, dryness, texture, pore size ) What's interesting is that the companies must strive for just the right amount of alarm -- such as prompting subtle self-doubt rather than a full-fledged panic attack. For example, P&G used a test a few years ago that assigned an "age" to one's skin, but some women were so upset they didn't purchase any products, reports the Journal. (Now, the company simply shows women scans of their facial skin compared with their inner forearm to highlight damage.) The Vichy machines are less subtle; they magnify your skin by 50 times to really drive home the point about clogged pores.

As expected, dermatologists weigh in with warnings about how much stock to place in such tests and how much good all these creams will do, since aging is, you know, normal. This marketing trend is disguised as consumer empowerment when it's nothing more than consumer humiliation. Sometimes, a pore is just a pore.

By Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at

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