In the face of a pandemic, economic collapse, and climate change, Instagram photos of shelves crowded with skin-care products appear out of touch
“Less is more,” declared famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1947. Clearly, Mies van der Rohe never endeavored to architect the perfect shelfie.
“Perfect” is subjective, of course, but even a shelfie of average aesthetic allure needs numbers on its side. Take a recent post from Into The Gloss — the platform that started all of this Instagrammable-if-impractical arranging of beauty products in the early 2010s with its Top Shelf series — featuring more than 125 products piled into a single human being’s bathroom. Regular shelfies from influencer Matt Woodcox, who notes he is “not a minimalist” in his Instagram bio, boast 52, 75, 81 bottles and boxes and jars at a time. A display from aesthetician Despina Daniilidis spreads at least 67 hair and skin-care products over a three-tiered shelving unit.
All of the above include beauty brands that skin-care devotees are probably familiar with: Drunk Elephant, Tatcha, Glossier, Herbivore Botanicals, Biossance. If you’re familiar with them it’s probably because of all of the above, actually. “Companies are leveraging the shelfie craze to grow their businesses,” Beauty Independent reported in 2018, calling the styled social media posts “word-of-mouth in photo form.” And in the beginning, that’s exactly what they were.
In the past decade, though, the shelfie has evolved. No longer an “intimate and voyeuristic” view of the must-haves in celebrity medicine cabinets, today’s shelfies reveal little more than our collective obsession with stuff — an obsession that’s good for the skin-care industry, but arguably less good for the skin, the psyche, and general sustainability. And given the larger threats of pandemics, climate change, and economic collapse the shelfie is on its way to becoming a relic of American overabundance.
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“Five years ago, that was me — with an overflowing beauty cabinet and an extensive routine,” Neada Deters, the founder of minimalist beauty brand LESSE, tells me. “I also had chronic acne and developed sensitized skin.”
Her experience is hardly unique. As the New York Times announced in an article titled “All Those Products Are Making Your Skin Worse,” all those products are, in fact, making skin worse. Acne, rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis are on the rise, in lockstep with the number of skin-care offerings on the market. “When you overwork the skin in the way you do with a 12-step regimen, it can be detrimental,” Deters says. (Dermatologists agree.) “We are often just stripping away skin’s natural oils and then replacing them with layers of products.”
Perhaps it starts with a pore-clearing cleanser that dries out your skin. You exfoliate the flakes away with a daily application of acids, but since dead skin cells actually hold more moisture than other skin cells, the underlying issue gets worse over time. With the moisture barrier effectively “damaged,” subsequent ingredients sink deeper into the skin — where they don’t necessarily belong — and potentially cause inflammation. Maybe you add essences and serums and moisturizers and oils to calm and compensate, maybe they clog your pores, maybe you reach for a zit-zapping spot treatment. “Skin experiences a whiplash of products and actives and is never able to balance itself,” explains April Gargiulo, founder of Vintner’s Daughter, a brand built on the power of a single serum. The cycle starts anew, but oh, the products are pretty.
Today’s shelfies reveal little more than our collective obsession with stuff — an obsession that’s good for the skin-care industry, but arguably less good for the skin, the psyche, and general sustainability.
“This is a construct of the industry that wants you to buy more,” Deters says. “I finally worked it by [simplifying] my skin-care ritual. Now I have healthy, incredibly clear skin.”
Dermatologists often caution against a product-heavy approach, as well. “There [are] so many things people are using on their skin that make it irritated,” says Aimee Paik, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with the personalized dermatology platform Apostrophe. “I focus on evidence-based skin-care and skip trendy ingredients or products that may be irritating or are just unnecessary.”
It’s complicated. Like selfies before them, shelfies have come to represent something deeper than décor; to “communicate one’s perceived identity,” as psychologist Nneoma G. Onyedire writes. “My shelf is the first thing I see when I wake and when I drift at night,” Daniilidis tells me over email. “My shelf is my safe space more than anything. Like, each product is my baby, you know? They all have a home with me. And they’ve protected me and been there for me through many big life moments.”
The influencer is one of many who feels emotionally tied to her skin-care collection. Beauty is inherently emotional, after all; there’s an entire field of dermatology dedicated to exploring the relationship between the skin and the mind. But it could also be argued that this kind of shelf-identification shifts the focus from truly caring for the skin (by giving it what it needs: less inanimate “skin-care,” more support via sleep, hydration, nutrition, exercise, and stress-reduction) to merely appearing to care for the skin (by amassing a mountain of picture-perfect products and needlessly refrigerating them).
“The skin-care craze isn’t introspective per se: It’s looking into yourself but stopping at the literal outermost layer,” wrote Krithika Varagur in The Outline’s viral article, “The Skincare Con.” The shelfie craze stops short of even that: Relatively few products make the jump from photo to face.
As one curious follower commented on an Instagram of roughly 107 products, many of them “backups” — beauty blogger speak for multiples of the same item — “How do you get rid of all this before it expires?” The answer, coming from someone who once amassed a beauty closet bursting with gifted items and influenced purchases of my own, is you don’t, at least not by yourself. Even a twice-daily application of a 10-step routine for two years straight wouldn’t empty 107 bottles. Shelfies are for show.
“When I started, everyone was doing shelfies — Glossier, all of that — and I was like, I want my product to be on someone’s shelf!” says Abena Boamah, founder of shea butter beauty brand Hanahana Beauty. At one point, she even staged a faux-shelfie photoshoot. “We may have posted one,” but something felt off, she says. “I don’t know many people who are standing in front of their bathroom mirror and that’s where they’re getting ready. Sometimes you’re just sitting on the floor and putting shea on.”
To Boamah, a styled shelfie doesn’t reflect real life. “I’d rather you have Hanahana in your hand and take that photo instead, or just right next to your bedside where it doesn’t really look that nice, than a shelfie,” she shares. As the industry moves toward more transparency in marketing — no to retouching, yes to information about ingredient sourcing — Boamah predicts the shelfie trend will end.
Like selfies before them, shelfies have come to represent something deeper than décor; to “communicate one’s perceived identity,” as psychologist Nneoma G. Onyedire writes.
“It’s become more and more rare that we’re tagged in photos with dozens of products,” Deters agrees. The result of shelf-inflicted shame?
In the midst of a long-standing climate crisis, it’s difficult to scroll past an overflowing shelfie without wondering about the waste that went into making, shipping, and unboxing each individual item; or considering the environmental impact of the consumerism it promotes. Nancy Schnoll, the founder of single-SKU skin-care company Reflekt, goes so far as to say it makes her “really sad” to see Reflekt included in customer shelfies. “How could it not? I just don’t subscribe to that whole concept of more and more and more,” she tells me. (The Reflekt 1 Daily Exfoliating Face Wash cleanses, exfoliates, and hydrates in one step.)
LESSE, Vintner’s Daughter, Hanahana Beauty, and other “hero product” brands — Augustinus Bader, Supernal, C & The Moon — similarly shy away from typical shelfie setups on Instagram. “It might be a bit subconscious,” muses Deters. “Those images often project a need for a vast collection of products, and that just isn’t our message or mission.”
But as the industry adapts to accommodate eco-conscious consumers, what’s “subconscious” for a skin-care brand built on sustainability will no doubt become a deliberately assumed aesthetic for others. Just as Net-a-Porter distanced itself from ostentatious boxes in the face of the 2008 recession, today’s content creators may eventually distance themselves from over-the-top shelfies in the face of climate change (and a pandemic coupled with economic collapse) — or risk appearing out-of-touch. Daniilidis admits, “As packed as my shelf is, declining excessive PR requests is becoming more common for me.”
“I think people are starting to realize, you have all these things, and are you really going to use all of them?” Boamah says. “And why, if I know a product works for me, would I need to use another product?”
The signs are there. The shelfie is over, or will be soon; a passé symbol of unnecessary products in unnecessary packaging, of burdening the skin and burdening the planet, of where the beauty industry went wrong — and, incidentally, of what Mies van der Rohe got right.