The power of TikTok cancel culture

If we’re talking about influence, Gigi Hadid has praised St. Ives Apricot Scrub as a “love” of hers since childhood, saying just a weeks ago that she used it “‘til pretty recently, actually.” The pandemic, however, brought this $4 product to the forefront of the mind of every beauty purveyor on TikTok — and Hadid has nothing to do with it.

As content creators have emerged in popularity on the video sharing app, “skinfluencers” have become some of the instant breakouts. The pack is led by Hyram Yarbro, aka @skincarebyhyram, who has 6.8 million followers. Yarbro is a skin-care enthusiast, who spent years studying ingredients, brands and the people who formulate them. His word is gospel to young Gen-Z fans, who know him for his playful demeanor yet brutally honest commentary. Yarbro’s appeal is on-brand for his generation — he’s 24 years old — which is driven by ethics and ingredients, as opposed to millennials’ attraction to popularity and aesthetics.

While once under-the-radar drugstore brand CeraVe seemingly gained celebrity-level hype on the app overnight (initially thanks to Yarbro), St. Ives’ reputation was demolished in about the same amount of time and for the same reasons. Yarbro bashed the Unilever-owned brand for its “harsh” scrub ingredients, overuse of fragrance and low formulation of “good ingredients” in its products. In his accompanyingThe Truth About St. Ives YouTube video, with more than 1.2 million views, he declared he’ll “never, ever, ever want to support St. Ives—ever,” pointing out that the walnut shell-infused apricot scrub is “a perfect embodiment and representation of everything I dislike about skin care.”

Other household names in TikTok’s skin-care critic space followed suit. Among them was Dr. Muneeb Shah, known as @dermdoctor, with 4.4 million followers. He posted a sample of the scrub under a microscope, illustrating the jagged edges and different-sized particles that he said can lead to uneven exfoliation of the skin. This video has more than 800,000 views. Since, St. Ives has become the butt of every TikTok skin care “in” joke. Bashing the heritage brand is like an initiation, bringing you one step closer to the Yarbros or Shahs of the platform. Another skin-care critic who wields power is Cornell University marine biology student J.C. Dombrowski, with 2.8 million followers.

“I decided to debunk information, so consumers could be informed and make better decisions about their skin,” said Dr. Shah. “On TikTok, I can reach millions with a single post. Most people don’t have access to a dermatologist, and these videos help those people. I receive private messages all the time from [followers] who have noticed huge improvements in their skin and their overall confidence.” 

For St. Ives’ part, the brand hopes critics recognize that everyone’s skin is different. “What works well for someone’s skin may not work for someone else. Needs and preferences vary by consumer, which is why we’ve seen both positive and negative reactions to our products on the platform. This only underscores that skin care is not a one-size-fits-all approach,” said a St. Ives spokesperson via email.

The spokesperson declined to comment on TikTok’s impact on the brand’s sales or social presence. But in terms of updating St. Ives’ branding approach, the spokesperson said, “We’ve always had an agile marketing model that allows for real-time optimization to reach people who are curious about skin care. TikTok has offered another window into the wants and concerns of people today, and our marketing strategy is always evolving to best address the skin-care needs people are searching for and actively seeking out.”

While St. Ives has certainly taken the most heat from the skin-care critics of TikTok, there are other beauty companies that have felt the effects of TikTok skinfluencers. Millennial go-to Mario Badescu experienced its own version of “cancel culture.” Dombrowski listed the brand’s collection of popular facial sprays among “the five worst skin care products ever created.” Thayers is another longstanding trigger brand for these influencers, because of its signature witch hazel toner that’s often combined with fragrance.

Newly acquired by L’Oréal, Thayers has had to go on the offensive, partnering with “brand advocates Young Yuh, Edward Zo, and Adaleta Avdić to educate about what makes Thayers unique and to show that not all witch hazel is created equal,” the brand said in a statement.

“As many skin-care experts and professionals have confirmed, our facial toners are unique because they are alcohol-free and contain soothing ingredients like aloe vera and glycerin to hydrate the skin, as well as certified organic witch hazel,” the Thayers statement said. 

Dr. Shah, who included Thayers in one of hisWorst Skincare Trends videos, justified his critique by saying, “Their unscented, alcohol-free product isn’t a bad option for those who like witch hazel. I personally just don’t think it has a place in the average person’s skin-care routine.”

People would tag me in videos to verify their accuracy, and I became aware of how much misinformation was out there,” he said. “I decided to debunk information, so consumers could be informed and make better decisions about their skin. My intent was never to have a cancel effect on brands, but I do think they’re paying attention to us and starting to change some of their tactics, which is an unintended positive consequence.”

While there hasn’t been notable rebuttal from these brands, the ridicule hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“TikTok is a living, breathing feedback line,” the St. Ives spokesperson said. “It has also brought to light many misconceptions around our products and usage. All of our scrubs are safe to use, dermatologist tested and developed by skin-care experts. We’re taking steps to ensure consumers are aware of how to properly use our scrubs and understand the benefits of physical exfoliation. We know consumers look for different levels of exfoliation, which is why we incorporated three levels into our scrubs portfolio.”

While they said St. Ives doesn’t plan on changing its current products, for now, Morise Cabasso-owned Mario Badescu, which launched in 1967, feels the weight of the criticism.

“We’re launching new skin-care products this year that cater to the ever-changing skin-care space,” said Joseph Cabasso, vp at Mario Badescu Skin Care Inc.. “We’ve seen the feedback across TikTok, and understand the skin-care market has changed. We value influencer and consumer opinions on TikTok and always want to do better for our consumer.”

In the last two years, the cruelty-free brand launched five products that are vegan, and also free of parabens, synthetics, fragrances, sulfates and phthalates. They include Hyaluronic Dew Drops, Hyaluronic Dew Cream, Deodorant, Caffeine Eye Cream and Super Peptide Serum. 

As for Dombrowski, he encourages a running dialogue with the brands he’s critiqued. He said he’s open to learning, which is something he experienced with Glow Recipe when he called out the brand for using fragrance in its Pineapple-C Bright Serum. 

“I’ve changed my opinion and actually appreciate fragrances in Vitamin C products,” he said. “If there isn’t anything, it usually leads to products smelling absolutely horrible, like the SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic or the Kylie Skin Vitamin C Serum.”

When Glow Recipe reached out for an informational phone call, they were “very transparent with their formulations and the reasons behind them,” Dombrowski said. “Now they’re one of my favorite brands featured in my personal routine every single night.”

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