The skincare mega-brands and supermarkets seem set on reminding us women and men are completely different, but our skin has more similarities than we think. Is it time to think skin-type not sex-type when it comes to choosing our bathroom products?
Walk down any cosmetics aisle, and it’s clear that the gender divide is alive and well. Turn one way and floral notes still combine with pinks and purples to replenish, conceal, defy-age and restore skin. Turn the other, and deep, moody blues and browns bring control and strength, offering anti-fatigue and energy to skin. No prizes for guessing who these each of these products are aimed at.
Yet, while the broader societal discussion so often steers towards the removal of overly gendered stereotypes and a more individual, inclusive society, men (typically) remain resolute in looking for male brands and women (typically) remain convinced of the need for female-oriented products. So, while we might fight the good fight against overly gendered toys for our kids, it seems that when it comes to skincare, men really are from Mars, and women from Venus. But why is that?
Male versus female skin
There is some truth in the differences between male and female skin. But not from the start.
Ever compared a baby boy’s skin to a baby girl’s? Found the boy’s skin a bit rougher? Or seen a girl showing signs of smile lines around her 7-year-old eyes? Of course not – I find myself feeling ridiculous even writing this. Until the age of puberty, our skin is essentially the same.
The changes come largely from testosterone. When boys begin producing this hormone, their skin thickens by up to 25%, compared to women. As well as being thicker, more collagen in the middle skin makes its appearance tougher in men than women. Other by-products of this process are the increase in the production of skin oils, and greater stimulation of hair follicles over a man’s face, body and legs.
As we age we lose moisture and collagen, creating thinner skin and signs of wrinkles. As women's skin is typically thinner to start with, it shows this change earlier. For men who start with thicker skin, as they lose collagen they get deeper, more prominent wrinkles.
Skin-type, not sex-type
About now you might be asking yourself, what has this got to do with gender-neutral skincare or beauty products? You’d have a point, I do have a tendency to waffle. But here it is:
There is a lot that unites us when it comes to skin – the elements that make up skin are the same. So barring thickness and parking skin-type for now, the proof is (almost) plain to see. Just compare ingredients between male and female skin products, ignore the aromas or ‘token’ ingredients for gender-effect (like caffeine in some men’s skin cream but not the women's equivalent). The core elements of a lotion vs balm vs gel vs serum are often the same. And skin-tightening or moisture-boosting is as to men as it is to women.
Skin type (dry, sensitive, oily, etc.) is more important than gender
The more medical your condition is, the less likely it is that there will be a male or female version of skincare treatment. Think about it. When marketing is less involved, gender is less important. This pushes against what we’ve been coached to understand. But while conditions like eczema or rosacea sometimes see variations in where people suffer, there’s very little in terms of gender divide when it comes to their treatment.
Aroma is the wrong way around
It’s always fascinated me that women wear ‘male’ scents, and men wear ‘female’ scents, to attract the opposite sex. Why not go more universal? More neutral? More natural? It's more appealing, and more of a win-win.
What about those ‘looking for the middle’?
The debate around gender diversity is an intense one, but the move towards a more open definition of gender is unquestionable. The self-named “Fact tank” Pew Research Centre found 35% of Gen Z-ers (born between 1995 and 2015) say they personally know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. This compares to 25% for millennials, 16% for Gen X, and boomers at 12%. Gender identity is being recommended as part of the 2021 ONS census consultation, to reflect this. And as 16-24s increasingly become parents, so we will also see a shift away from gender stereotypes in baby names, toys, and clothing choices as millennial parents buck the binary. So for those looking for something in the middle (or either side), or to parent children in a more inclusive ways, how do traditional Mars and Venus depictions of gender fit in their bathroom shelfies? Who's talking to them?
Why take two bottles into the shower?
The bottom line is, the overly convenient and stereotyped Men v Women product lines are making less and less sense in today’s society. If the ingredients are largely the same, the aroma and packaging crafted to create difference, and the macro trend is to move to a more inclusive, less wasteful society, then why have two of everything?
And yet we still do it – we stick to the brand that reassures us with ‘borrowed belief’ that there must be something that makes these products unique and specific, and that men need man, and women need woman.
Universal natural skincare, let’s split the difference
This piece isn’t meant as a hatchet job on skincare companies and products. There is no doubt that ingredients vary and are adapted to skin conditions. Textures too vary, as do the aromas, and formats are adapted to what we say we want. There are really great products around that people love. But the inevitable result of this is more products, more bottles in our bathrooms, more plastic and more ‘stuff’. I just question whether men might love that ‘woman’s’ product just as much - or vice versa. Do we need it all, or could we simplify things a little?
Here are a few tips for you to think about:
Shampoo: style or substance
The lazy conclusion is men don’t typically care about shampoo (let alone conditioner), but having numerous products in the shower – is it really worth it? A well scented universal shampoo and conditioner could halve the clutter, and be an easy win.
His and hers razors
The move towards zero waste shaving and metal razors is really asking questions of the Gillette monopoly by duopoly (Gillette for men, Venus for women). As more women (and men) turn to DE razor shaving and testify that it’s an easy jump, perhaps you can have a re-think too.
Skincare: Give universal a go
Next time you’re looking to switch up and try something different, give a universal skincare product a go which offers more than one benefit. And if you’re not feeling quite that brave, give it as a gift instead. It’s safer that way…
Embrace the end of ‘more’
The big trend for 2021 is a now established belief in the need to remove unnecessary packaging and stop buying more stuff. ‘Buy less, buy better’ is the motto. See if that can be applied to skincare. Buy quality products with eco-packaging, and less waste. And if more people in the house are using the same products, that’s an added win.
By focussing on what unites us, and keeping things natural, we get to a more simplified place. Take a fresh look at natural skincare, shaving and bathroom products with less ‘extras’. No need for discussions of five blades versus four, or micro-niche serums that are more marketing than meaning.
Final thought: remember the little fish
The skincare business is dominated by massive established brands whose financial focus is on sustaining their sales growth. It remains in their interest to bring new niche products tailored to as many separate segments as possible. This keeps us all buying more individual products; more more more. But there are smaller companies wanting to take the battle to the big guys and say that it doesn’t need to be this way. Natural is just fine. Simple is better. Universal works – and we are more alike than many would have us think. All I can ask is that you give it a second thought and see what can be found hidden smack bang in the middle.