Ask Ugly: Is a makeup routine really mindfulness?

<span>‘I’m realizing that when I do my relaxing eight-step skincare ritual every night, I do not feel relaxed or mentally well.’</span><span>Illustration: Lola Beltran/The Guardian</span>
‘I’m realizing that when I do my relaxing eight-step skincare ritual every night, I do not feel relaxed or mentally well.’Illustration: Lola Beltran/The Guardian

Hi Ugly,

I’ve been obsessed with makeup and beauty products for years and have read a lot (and seen a lot of TikToks) about how a beauty routine can be a form of meditation or mindfulness. I felt that way for a really long time.

Lately, I’m realizing that even when I do my relaxing eight-step skincare ritual every night and have my little mental health morning setup with makeup and coffee “girl therapy” I do not feel relaxed or mentally well most of the time. (Not in a “seek treatment” way, but in a general malaise way.) Am I doing it wrong? Do you think makeup can ever be a therapeutic practice or mindfulness tool?

Girl Therapy Isn’t Working

The line between the beauty and wellness industries has blurred to the point of nonexistence. It is from this place of nothingness that we get the concept of “makeup as meditation”. Maybe it’s the beauty industry’s attempt to monetize mindfulness, or maybe it’s the industry’s attempt to sabotage mindfulness, lest customers rise above beauty culture brainwashing.

Related: Ask Ugly: I’m addicted to lip balm – but it doesn’t work. What’s a better alternative?

Whatever the origin, it’s everywhere now. See: How to turn your beauty routine into a meditation session, How applying makeup can serve as a built-in form of daily meditation, or “Makeupfulness” is where makeup and mindfulness merge.

Makeupfulness. MAKEUPFULNESS? It does not surprise me that this is not working for you, Girl Therapy.

For one, meditation is the search for the unconditioned self, and beauty products are often, in modern contexts, tools of the conditioned self. When you “meditate” by looking in the mirror, hyperfocusing on your hyperpigmentation and covering it up with concealer, you’re essentially acting out your social conditioning – and methodically internalizing beauty standards.

I’m also not convinced that “meditation” through makeup nets any stress relief. The idea that the slow, deliberate application of blush and contour paired with deep breathing relaxes the nervous system seems plausible at first; some forms of meditation do center the sensation of touch.

However, the point of such methods is to feel into the body as it is, not alter the body to appear as it is not. And while “pleasant touch” (hugging, holding hands) has been shown to soothe the nervous system, other forms of touch may have the opposite effect. In The Body’s Edge, the medical ethicist Dr Marc Lappé points out that traditional meditation methods tend to encourage stillness, as “excessive cutaneous [skin] stimulation can be the bane of healthy psychic functioning”.

My personal takeaway from all that? The physical stimulation of so-called “makeup as meditation” most likely negates the benefits of traditional meditation – a practice that’s supposed to center your spirit, not even your skin tone.

I don’t mean to be an absolutist here. Sometimes makeup is a pure, divine, artistic expression of the self, and that’s beautiful. It is not meditation, though, and I think equating the two devalues the spiritual practice of meditation.

As you’ve started to suspect, obsessively applying skincare products is not quite the mindful ritual social media has made it out to be, either.

“Rituals are processes of embodiment,” writes the philosopher Byung-Chul Han in The Disappearance of Rituals, and the average Instagrammable skincare routine is more like a process of disembodiment: the body’s innate oils are washed away and replaced with moisturizers. Beneficial bacteria are killed with benzoyl peroxide and restored with probiotics. Epidermises are thinned with acids and replumped with peptide creams.

These products compound the pressure consumers feel to meet inhuman beauty standards (ageless faces! hairless bodies!). This unrelenting pressure can manifest as stress, and stress can manifest as – conveniently for the market – inflamed, irritated, sensitive skin. This can make you feel like you need more products, and subsequently feel more stress, forever and ever and ever, amen.


You mention that people call this “girl therapy”, but I would argue it’s more likely a path to needing therapy.

You get it. You’re living it! You’re exfoliated and anxious; you don’t want professional help but you do want to feel better. I’ve been there myself, and I know exactly what you need. So do you: mindfulness.

My favorite definition of mindfulness comes from Deepak Chopra, who once explained it as “being aware of who you are and what you are doing at any given moment. It’s the opposite of acting out of habit, old conditioning and automatic reflexes. You no longer are a brain puppet reacting.”

Mindfulness is consciousness on purpose. It’s observation without judgment. It’s immersing yourself in the present moment. It’s also simpler and cheaper than the beauty and wellness industries would have you believe.

To start, I recommend researching the origins of mindfulness in Buddhism and Ayurveda to see which practices speak to you. Some solid beginner options: meditation (sans concealer), mantra work, deep breathing, gratitude journaling. All have been shown to soothe the nervous system and calm the mind; none will cost you any money.

Related: Ask Ugly: I’m getting ads for beauty products for my baby. Infants don’t need skincare – do they?

You say your makeup and skincare routines aren’t making you feel better, Girl Therapy, and yet you feel compelled to complete them anyway. Mindfulness can help with that, too. One of my personal favorite awareness exercises involves taking a basic beauty norm, removing the marketing language (the lie), and re-explaining it to myself in plain terms (the truth).

When I am mindful and aware, a whitehead is no longer an unsightly, anxiety-inducing disaster that I need to destroy immediately with an antibacterial (a lie) but a 1mm-long manifestation of a natural immune response that will self-resolve in a few days (the truth).

When I am mindful and aware, products and prescriptions that promise eternal youth are no longer a necessary component of skincare (a lie) but an ultimately fruitless attempt at skin control (the truth).

When I am mindful and aware, makeup is no longer something I wear “for myself” (a lie) but something that I wear to alleviate the societal pressure I feel to have perfect skin, full brows and fluffy lashes (my truth, though not necessarily yours).

Consistently cultivating awareness of your beauty habits will make it easier to detach from the ones that aren’t actually enriching your life.

You also ask if applying makeup or skincare can ever be part of a mindfulness practice. Personally, I don’t think so – at least, not when it’s in service to overconsumption or oppressive appearance ideals. There are certain skincare practices that can be good for you and supportive of your overall health (wearing sunscreen, for instance), but I wouldn’t call them part of a “mindfulness” routine any more than I’d call your daily bowel movement (also good for you) part of a mindfulness routine.

Here’s a fun twist, though: meditation, deep breathing and gratitude journaling have all been shown to strengthen the skin barrier by reducing trans-epidermal water loss, thus improving the skin’s ability to protect you.

So while moisturizer is not mindfulness, mindfulness is, technically, moisturizer.