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How Anti-Aging Cosmetics Took Over the Beauty World

Anti-aging became marketing gold—and entered activists' crosshairs.
Shiseido's anti-aging sheeted mask, which contains liquid pure retinol, promises to remove crow's feet and darkness around the eyes.

Shiseido's anti-aging sheeted mask, which contains liquid pure retinol, promises to remove crow's feet and darkness around the eyes.

In some ways, insecurity is just as central to modern beauty industry profits as BB creams and matte lips. Making women feel as if they're not good enough is central to the sale of all those two- and three-figure backlit skin creams, all of which come in tiny opaque bottles and promise to contain at least a touch of Aphrodite's magic.

Over one-third of women over 60 say they've used these anti-aging products in the last three months, and the industry is expected to be worth nearly $11 billion by 2018. For decades, feminists such as Naomi Wolf and Toni Calasanti have fought back, arguing that anti-aging creams create an untenable beauty standard for women to live by and reinforce a patriarchal, heterosexual hierarchy.

Now, one cosmetics magazine is joining the feminist fight. A little over two weeks ago, American make-up title Allure announced that the magazine was banning the term "anti-aging" from its pages because the descriptor reinforces "the message that aging is a condition we need to battle," editor-in-chief Michelle Lee explained in a statement. Lee said she hoped the magazine's decision would "change the conversation" on aging and encourage other organizations to ban the term. (The magazine will still cover anti-aging products with different descriptors, and include advertisements that use the term.)

Days after Allure's announcement, the magazine got some of what it hoped for: The American Association of Retired Persons, the non-profit devoted to Americans over 50, announced that it too would eradicate anti-aging from its written materials, and a Care2 petition requesting that L'Oréal and Estée Lauder stop using the term gathered over 17,000 supporters. This new movement against anti-aging suggests the future of beauty will include more positive language about growing old—even if it is likely to still cater to, and define, women's insecurities.


Even before Allure's announcement, industry experts found that anti-aging cosmetics were losing popularity with consumers. From 2010 to 2015, the anti-aging sector fell from being worth $2.2 billion to $1.9 billion, according to a report from Mintel; a 2015 report from market research company the NPD Group found that anti-aging skincare sales were falling among prestige brands. NPD has credited Millennials, which account for 47 percent of all heavy buyers, for these shifts: Instead of investing in prevention and treatment creams, they're shelling out for preparation products (CC creams, make-up primers) and cosmetics.

But should we expect anti-aging products to continue their fall? The history of these cosmetics suggests that critics have improved advertising copy over time—but haven't significantly changed the consumer demand.

Anti-aging remedies have been around since at least the Indus Valley Civilization (2500-1550 B.C.E.), which developed powders to improve complexion and herbal remedies to prevent hair loss and graying. Later civilizations followed suit: The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, reportedly sent members of his administration on a quest to find immortals and their "herbs of everlasting life," and Cleopatra is said to have bathed in donkey milk daily in an attempt to maintain everlasting beauty, a feat that required 700 donkeys to accomplish. In ancient times, as today, the elderly weren't considered hot stuff.

In the 16th century, academics attempted to prove that old age was, if not sexy, at least fulfilling. The influential Italian book The Art of Living Long, released in 1550 (and subsequently translated into English, French, Dutch, and German), promoted moderation as a means of achieving a long life, and argued old age "is the time to be most coveted." Within the same century, Enlightenment thinkers Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush promoted the notion that old age could bring new wisdom. But these theories evidently didn't transform Western beauty standards: In the 1600s, Elizabethan women in England placed slices of raw meat on their faces to reduce wrinkles, and, in the 1700s, French upper-class women treated their frown lines with aged wine. (The French, at least, were on to something: The boozy facial is "now recognized as helping in exfoliation, since wine contains certain kinds of acids," historical beauty encyclopedia author Victoria Sherrow wrote in 2001.)

In the 16th century, academics attempted to prove that old age was, if not sexy, at least fulfilling.

The 19th century spawned the anti-aging skincare industry and its legendary advertising scare tactics. In a departure from their 16th-century academic predecessors, scientists in the West began to classify old age as a progressive disease that ate away at the mind and body. A small but well-publicized group developed invasive procedures to re-boost sex glands, whose decline was believed to be linked to aging: They performed human testicle transplants, animal gland grafts, and injections of animal sex glands, among other bad ideas.

Drawing from the claims of sex gland-obsessed scientists, "hormone creams" became a staple anti-wrinkle product in the 20th century. Early ads for these creams weren't afraid to use fear-inducing copy to get readers to shell out. Twentieth-century skincare juggernaut Helena Rubinstein advertised that her "Hormone Twin Youthifiers" "overcome, most amazingly, the dread signs of facial aging ... dull, sallow color—eye lines—deepening wrinkles—flabby contour" in 1932. A 1948 ad for the Endocreme hormone cream asked, "How long since he said 'I love you'?" and promised that, by purchasing the cream, romance would ensue in "advancing years."

As the 1930s gave way to the more gender parity-oriented '70s, cosmetics advertising sold products with more empowering images. The women's movement of the 1960s and '70s criticized the beauty industry for emotionally manipulating women, especially picking on their insecurities about age. Women's Lib "made no headway in convincing the great majority of female consumers that the use of beauty products was so exploitative that they should stop buying them," Harvard Business School professor Geoffrey Jones writes in 2010's Beauty Imagined: A History of the Global Beauty Industry. Nevertheless, the industry did respond by showing more strong-willed and independent women in their ads, "a step towards an equality of sorts," Jones writes. (Some of these more empowered images still objectified women: In the 1980s, the New York Times refused to run an ad for Revlon's Charlie perfume, arguing it was sexist and in poor taste.)

The 1990s saw new changes to anti-aging advertisement messaging, reframing older women as appealing and beautiful. As Baby Boomers aged, international beauty juggernauts P&G and L'Oréal built up their skincare lines and adopted a softer tone to target these prized customers. For its 1992 "Truly Beautiful Woman" campaign, the Brazilian direct-sales company Natura used real women over 30 as models and linked beauty to self-esteem, rather than youth. In 2005 Dove launched its "Campaign for Real Beauty," which featured "real" women of different ethnicities, body sizes, and ages posing for ads and billboards. Older spokespeople for beauty brands—Karen Graham, Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda—became commonplace at major cosmetics brands in the late '90s and early '00s, even if they were often mugging for products with names like "Miracle Blur," "Age Defying," and "Age Miracle."


While the Allure announcement is a step in the anti-ageist direction, it seems unlikely to shift centuries-old beauty standards that lionize youth.

Millennials have diminished the anti-aging cream market, but they're not immune to societal pressures about looking younger. A not-insignificant proportion of their older cohort is still attempting to prevent wrinkles with invasive treatments. Thirty percent of women between the ages of 30 and 44, for example, have tried injectables, as opposed to less than 6 percent of women between the ages of 50 and 70, according to a survey conducted earlier this year by injectable service Skin by Lovely.

Moreover, Millennials are willing consumers of "cosmeceuticals," or beauty products that allege they have medicinal benefits, a category into which anti-aging products often fall. Doctor-branded beauty products are popular among the age group, according to NPD, and beauty supplements—essentially, vitamins that claim to improve hair, complexion, even sleep—is a booming industry. And new trends in skincare keep coming—in recent years, multi-step Korean beauty routines have made headlines at sites read by young make-up consumers, like the Cut and Into the Gloss. It's not hard to imagine that, in 20 years, Millennials will pair futuristic, doctor-approved skin creams with their more holistic wellness routines.

Though advocates who protest ageist cosmetic ads can transform the cosmetics industry's language, societally induced insecurities about aging will take far longer to overcome. In a study of women's perceptions of anti-aging products in 2010, one British and one Canadian researcher found that the majority of women studied were skeptical about the effectiveness of anti-aging products; nevertheless, the majority of the sample was at least somewhat willing to buy them. "While the effectiveness of the anti-aging products may be suspect, women may still purchase them just in case they turn out to be effective," they suggested as a reason why. To truly begin moving the needle on ageist beauty standards, Allure and the AARP will have to be joined by many other powerful individuals and organizations. The influencers who define what beautiful means in 2017 and beyond—including fashion stylists, Hollywood, make-up artists, and other magazines—would be a start.