If you know Reddit only in a peripheral sense—it’s the sixth most-trafficked website in the country so, yeah—you might think it’s just a message board on which celebrities occasionally do a thing called an AMA and users post a seemingly endless supply of memes and “aww”-inducing animal pics. Maybe you've heard about the alt-right Redditor who made the Pizzagate conspiracy theory go viral during the 2016 election or the thousands of users who banded together to successfully name a humpback whale Mister Splashy Pants back in 2007.
Dark, dirty, delightful—it’s all there, via the site’s clunky, often confusing interface. But Reddit is, of course, not just another weird corner of the web: top subreddits (i.e., user-created forums dedicated to specific topics) have serious influence on our culture. One shining example of a place where people can access years of digestible, science-backed information not easily found anywhere else and receive an outpouring of support when they’ve hit rock bottom? SkincareAddiction (ScA, for the savvy), a community of one million users that’s revolutionizing the way a generation of people understand their own skin.
Recent posts in SkincareAddiction come from a woman with full-face cystic acne sharing transformational before-and-after photos after just two months of using retinoids, a transgender man asking for help with his hormonal acne, and a Redditor whose emotional battle with their skin has left them feeling disconnected from their body.
But for every heartfelt or heartbreaking post (search “suicide” within the group if you need more evidence confirming the link between acne and depression), there’s another post presenting matter-of-fact research on, say, oral isotretinoin and inflammatory lesions (ahem, Accutane and zits) or the supposed scam of ceramide-based products, with a comment section full of enthusiasts, medical students, cosmetic chemists, and, yes, even the occasional dermatologist offering sound advice and having the kind of back-and-forth you might hear at a medical conference.
Whatever the issue is that brings you to SkincareAddiction, you’re greeted by not only other newbies in your shoes but also a collective of self-taught experts armed with the latest clinical studies and data and, most important, the time and patience to help you, free of charge. For many, this subreddit isn’t just a discussion board, it’s a way of life—and frequently, an actual lifesaver.
“I was in a really dark, depressive state a few years ago when I found SkincareAddiction,” says Chloe, a 28-year-old beauty editor at a magazine that rhymes with schmosmopolitan. “My historically clear skin was suddenly breaking out in cystic acne and rashes, and the one derm I saw didn’t help, so I spent months obsessively googling answers, trying products, and crying when nothing worked.”
By the time she found the subreddit, her skin barrier was, as she puts it, “totally f*cked,” and she spent the next six months obsessively poring over ScA routines and recommendations, slowly healing her skin in the process. “It’s crazy, but I learned more about the actual pathology of skin issues from Reddit than I did through my actual career,” she says. “I ended up completely overhauling my routine and trying things that were kind of contradictory to what I thought I knew and what I had been told by experts in the past.”
Soon, she was cutting out the acids and toners she’d been using to treat her zits, swapping her cleanser and moisturizer for simple fragrance- and sulfate-free formulas recommended by users with her skin type, slathering Vaseline on her face overnight (it’s known as the “slug life” on ScA, and it’s helped many with acne achieve skin nirvana), and organizing a Google Doc to track all the ingredients she was putting on her face, noting any reactions she had in an attempt to eliminate triggers—all steps she learned to do via SkincareAddiction. “Everything about my skin felt truly hopeless and powerless, but engaging with the ScA community gave me a huge sense of control and comradery,” she says.
Of course, in an ideal world, someone who felt hopeless about their skin would (1) promptly see an amazing, empathetic dermatologist, (2) be prescribed an effective regimen devoid of side effects, and (3) wake up with crystal-clear skin a few months later. Unfortunately, reality rarely looks like that. Although SkincareAddiction users are frequently instructed to visit a doctor, they’re often resistant, recounting bad experiences they’ve had with derms or prescription medications in the past. While it would be easy to write off these complaints as basic online ranting, even dermatologists admit there’s truth to some of these concerns.
“I think part of the issue is that patients often don’t get enough personalized attention from derms,” says Jeremy Davis, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology at UCLA. “We’re extremely busy because there’s not enough of us, which can mean patients don’t feel listened to or seen.” Dr. Davis, who actually discovered and dabbled in SkincareAddiction during his residency, says that reading the subreddit has even helped to inform his practice: “I really put a lot of emphasis on getting everyone’s questions answered and trying to think about what their needs are,” he says.
But while some Redditors may be avoiding their derm out of frustration, other users aren’t visiting a dermatologist because they simply...can’t. For many people living in rural areas or without health insurance and for those around the world where the referral process is lengthy, access to a dermatologist can be a luxury—or straight-up impossible. In a thread titled “How long does it take to get a derm appointment where you live?” multiple users from Canada agree that six months to a year is the average wait time, while other users in the UK report waiting at least six months to see a derm—both staggeringly long countdowns if you’re struggling with a condition that affects your self-esteem on a daily basis.
Another user writes, “Not every person on Reddit has access to even the most basic health care….Sometimes asking strangers on the internet is the only way to get an answer or make a decision on how to move forward.” Basically, for the hundreds of thousands of people who don’t have the funds or access to a dermatologist, ScA isn’t just a support group—it’s health care democratized. And the leaders of the subreddit are all too aware of the responsibility it bears, which is why accurate, science-based information has been the sub’s top priority since its inception in 2012.
SkincareAddiction’s ten moderators act as the gatekeepers, filtering out spam and dangerous advice while also enforcing a list of rules that includes, “Don’t ask for or hand out medical diagnoses. We are not doctors, so we can’t diagnose your skin condition.” (Not that they need to do too much policing at this point: “Ask your pediatrician, not Reddit,” wrote one user to a mom asking if a product would work for her young daughters, while another user warned, “Don’t just post here, go see a doc if something looks off,” in regards to sudden skin changes).
Kristen, 29, was one of the subreddit’s earliest moderators and says that “from the start, the mods wanted everything to be very focused around the science of skincare.” She worked to make it an empowering, educational forum by posting lengthy breakdowns of what she was reading in medical journals along with ensuring information was always properly sourced to studies, like in this guide to AHA and BHA exfoliants. Although Kristen now spends more time writing for her blog, Skinologist, than SkincareAddiction, she feels the sub has retained its original facts-based spirit. Proof: This post about an Australian doctor who claimed only white people need sunscreen quickly gained more than 450 comments disproving the absurd notion with current research.
It’s here within this results-driven, science-backed community that people find refuge for their own skin anxieties. Nicole, 31, discovered SkincareAddiction two years ago while searching for alternatives to spironolactone (a prescription drug commonly prescribed to treat hormonal acne), which she’d recently stopped taking. “My skin was breaking out and I had no idea what to use, so I was rubbing on all these harsh acids and overdosing on benzoyl peroxide until I was a dry, flaky, inflamed mess.”
It was SkincareAddiction that eventually got her skin to its best place. “The Ordinary’s Azelaic Acid, Curology, and Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay are three things I learned about on the subreddit that did wonders for me,” she says, noting that although “it took a while, I learned literally everything about my skin through this group.”
And in a forum where everyone from teens to seasoned experts intermingle, the learning curve can, admittedly, be a slow one. Sam, 26, was initially put off by ScA because she’d never heard “half the terms people were using, like KP, purging, and milia,” but she admits to becoming “somewhat obsessed” with educating herself. “One of my biggest takeaways from SkincareAddiction was learning that a brand may advertise something as being the main ingredient in a product but then you’ll see that it’s second to last in the ingredients list, which makes it virtually nonexistent in the formula,” she says. “I’ll never be the girl my friends ask to do their makeup, but I’m definitely the skincare guru of the group now.”
Of course, there’s no substitution for a licensed physician with decades of schooling, practice, and experience: “A coworker recently asked me if her mole was skin cancer, and that’s definitely where I drew the line in my internet-learned capabilities,” says Chloe. “Dermatologists exist for a good reason.”
For those who have no idea where to start when it comes to skincare or are venturing onto SkincareAddiction for the first time, it’s fairly easy to catch up to the conversation by first studying the subreddit’s Wiki—i.e., an index on everything from niacinamide (vitamin B3) to sebaceous filaments (fake blackheads) to the tried-and-true ScA skincare routine itself.
In fact, says Dr. Davis, if everyone spent some time on SkincareAddiction, it would make his job a whole lot easier. “It’s come to the point where, when I’m talking to a patient I feel is really savvy, I’ll ask them if they happen to visit SkincareAddiction,” he says. “They’re usually like, ‘Yes, how did you know?!’ and it’s because they’re really well-informed and use terms like AHAs and oil-pulling.”
While he says he cringes at some of the advice he sees promoted on Instagram, he hasn’t found that to be the case with this corner of Reddit: “I was so impressed with the amount of accurate information ScA had. It seems like a very high-level skincare discussion that isn’t normal among general patients.”
But although most beauty editors, skincare enthusiasts, and Dr. Davis himself swear by the merits of ScA, it would be irresponsible to oversell what is, at its core, a bunch of strangers chatting on the internet. And Reddit is not without its flaws: Bad advice does get posted, even if it’s eventually downvoted or debunked; questions and pleas often go unanswered due to the sheer volume of content; and trial-and-error missteps are almost a rite of passage for any new user (not so much the fault of ScA itself—which warns users “your mileage may vary”—but still a side effect many already-desperate newcomers have trouble accepting).
“I found SkincareAddiction a few years ago after having an I want to be into skincare! streak, and I totally wrecked my skin for a bit,” says Amelia, 31. “To be fair, I didn’t really follow any of the guidelines, I just used all their holy-grail product recommendations and then broke out in zits like I never had before.” Although her skin has since returned to normal, Amelia says she hasn’t been back to the subreddit: “I only listen to my derm now.”
And that kid-in-the-candy-shop scenario is exactly what has dermatologists, rightfully, skeptical. “There’s a lot of information online, but you need to couple that information with experience, which is what physicians do to find the correct diagnosis,” says Shari Marchbein, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. “Acne is not always acne, a cyst is not always a cyst, and if everyone thinks they’re an expert, they could be delaying the correct treatment and causing more damage.” Because no matter how knowledgeable someone on the internet appears, they’re not a licensed physician who spent years training to properly treat a patient holistically. “It takes a lot of school and science to be a derm, and there’s a reason for that,” echoes Dr. Gohara.
Still, with its 1 million members and counting, it’s hard to imagine SkincareAddiction growing any less influential, especially when these days, even major skincare brands use Reddit for ideas and feedback. “We’ve been involved with the subreddit communities since we started Glow Recipe,” says cofounder and co-CEO Sarah Lee. “We’ve treated Redditors as if they were influencers, and for many reasons, they are.”
Reddit also seems to keep brands in check, too, and its product discussions don’t stay confined to the forum for long. Most notably, the community’s long-held and very vocal grudge against St. Ives Apricot Scrub coincided with a 2016 lawsuit that alleged the scrub’s key ingredient, walnut shells, was damaging to skin (note: the lawsuit was eventually dismissed). News coverage put claims from both dermatologists and Redditors equally at the forefront of the conversation, and ScA has been the subject of skincare think pieces, viral stories, and product development ever since.
Of course, at the end of the day, SkincareAddiction is just a website, not a medical school. But in the age of fake news, viral marketing campaigns, and self-promotion, it’s refreshing to witness a community of people whose only goal is to help each other take back control over their own skin in a safe, smart, credible environment. It may not be the dermatological experience each skin fanatic deserves, but at the very least, it's the friend who's going to make you feel better at 1 a.m. when you're crying over your skin in the bathroom mirror. And for thousands of people on ScA, that just may be enough.
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