Shattering deceptive mirrors: Younger generations have the chance to buck the beauty industry scam

The Millennial aunties’ letter to our Gen Z nieces: don’t let cosmetic companies win

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published January 22, 2024 5:30AM (EST)

Female influencers applying face cream while making tutorial for social media (Getty Images/Westend61)
Female influencers applying face cream while making tutorial for social media (Getty Images/Westend61)

My darling Gen Z girls, it’s your aging Millennial aunties here. The childless, over-educated divorcees in skinny jeans who dyed your hair with Manic Panic, bought your first deck of tarot cards, drove you to the Women’s March and didn’t tell your parents about the pot (so long as you kept your grades up.) We’re so proud of you. You’ve shouldered burdens far heavier than we did at your age, have keener convictions and are a hundred times funnier. We love you ferociously. And now that you’re coming of age, as 23% of the world’s population and taking the lead in consumer spending, you’re finally ready to learn the most ancient Millennial art: how to brutally murder a luxury industry.

You’ve been treated with contempt by cosmetics companies. And they’ve gotten away with it too long. Enabled by insidious social media algorithms and inescapable surveillance of data-broker ad-tech, they subject you to billion-dollar psychological manipulation campaigns to keep you scrolling and buying crap you don’t need. The latest trend is “skin care” snake oil. Cosmetics companies have done little more than make so many of you starve, hide and hate yourselves. These companies deserve to die — so let’s kill them.

And who better to show you how than us? You see, the Boomers may not have realized it at the time, but when they plunged us into two Bushes and four recessions they turned Millennials into the apex predators of America’s economic ecosystem. A bit like the 40-year-old vagrant Wolverine from X-Men, we’re the eerily resilient PTSD byproducts of military-industrial experiments, filled with anger issues and toxic metals. We can’t pass down any financial tools (your Gen X grandparents got the last) but we can give you our deadliest financial weapon: The ability to break those who make you broke.

Grooming us for makeup

A 2023 Lending Tree survey of 1,950 US consumers found Millennials spend about $2,670 and Gen Z spend about $2,048 annually on beauty products. Mostly, it’s cleansers, toners and serums. Social media influenced 67% of Millennials’ and 64% of Gen Z’ers’ purchases. But you ladies are sharp. About 31% of Gen Z knows online skinfluencers are full of it.

Back in 2017, one marketing whitepaper found 68% of Gen Z girls felt “appearance is a somewhat or very significant source of stress.” Now that burden is laid on Gen Alpha girls, born 2010 and later.

“With the US beauty market reaching an impressive $71.5 billion in 2022, experiencing remarkable 6.1% year-over-year growth, there is immense potential to capitalize on the current inclusivity zeitgeist,” wrote Coresight Research last year, citing a survey of 5,690 teenagers with an average age of 16.

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″[We] know from some of our proprietary research, as we enter into the holiday season, that skin care is one of the categories that is at the top of their list,” Ulta Beauty’s chief merchandizing officer told CNBC of Gen Alpha.

So do your aunties — and your younger sisters — one favor. Take a look at the skin care products used by tweens in the pictures of that CNBC article. Notice the shapes and colors of the packaging, how they are designed to be held and applied. Look at how the bottles and objects are visually indistinguishable from lipstick, eyeliner, mascara and foundation. It’s plain as day: the kid-targeted skin care cosmetic genre is just training wheels for makeup, disguised as being healthful rather than alluring, in order to avoid alarming your mothers and aunties.

“63% of female teenagers are in Ulta Beauty’s Ultamate Rewards Program,” wrote Coresight Research. “Teens’ core beauty wallet (cosmetics, skincare and fragrance) stands at $313 annually, a 19% year-over-year increase. This increase was driven by a 32% annual increase in spending on cosmetics, up to $123 annually … surpassing skincare spending for the first time since 2020.”

These companies know exactly what they’re doing. They’re grooming girls for makeup by easing them into it with “skin care” snake-oil. And it’s working. It worked on us. It worked on our parents. It worked on you. And now it’s working on your younger sisters.

A machine for self-hatred

We don’t want to preach about social media like hypocrites. But you’ve got to know what you’re up against, and we’d never ask you to stand on anything without receipts. It’s not hard to find peer-reviewed studies confirming links between social media, unhealthy body image and mental health problems in girls. They’ve spiked since COVID-19 lockdowns pushed more kids online.

In the Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine in 2020, researchers found girls’ body dissatisfaction directly related to time spent on social media. A 2022 study from the University of Delaware found teen girls’ body anxiety connected to other depressive symptoms (with a towering citation list). Studies in Obesity Reviews and Current Psychology found associations between social media exposure, mental health and teen diet in 2023. The same year, a Clinics in Dermatology study found social media can “hinder body dysmorphic disorder patient treatment, leading to excessive use of cosmetic procedures.”

Unsurprisingly, a 2023 review of 21 articles in the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services concurred, as did a 2023 review in PLOS Global Public Health.

“Evidence from 50 studies in 17 countries indicates that social media usage leads to body image concerns, eating disorders/disordered eating and poor mental health,” researchers wrote.

We need your help to stay independent

Finally, University of Western Australia researchers said in 2022:

“Adolescent girls appear more vulnerable to experiencing mental health difficulties from social media use than boys ... Sexual objectification through images may reinforce to adolescent girls that their value is based on their appearance.”

Are we saying abandon all social media? Not at all. We know you often have to be there. We do too. But caveat emptor, as they say — or “buyer beware” for those of you whose schools slashed Latin studies. Online platforms are Rube Goldberg machines for self-hatred. They pimp our attention spans to companies paying for ads — no matter how it harms our mental health— and then train us to perform for perpetual surveillance. Never underestimate their greed, never forget they conspire with the enemy.

Enough is enough. Makeup for fun and artistry sake is one thing, but we’ve lost too much money and self-esteem to digital con-artists who call us ugly. Your murderous Millennial aunties are with you. Now, let’s rip this industry apart and use its blood for lipstick. 

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Salon's Lab Notes, a weekly newsletter from our Science & Health team.

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at 


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