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The Kylie Jenner skin care backlash, explained

It has to do with the vilification of St. Ives Apricot Scrub, the most controversial product in the drugstore.

Kylie Jenner at the Met Gala on May 6, 2019.
Kylie Jenner at the Met Gala on May 6, 2019.
John Shearer/Getty Images for THR

This week, people on the internet have been outraged and horrified about a substance that’s been allowed to proliferate in the marketplace unchecked. No, I’m not talking about the weedkiller Roundup, whose manufacturer just lost a $2 billion lawsuit over its alleged toxicity. I’m talking about walnut powder face scrub.

On Wednesday, Kylie Jenner, the owner of an almost-billion-dollar beauty business, announced that she was adding a skin care line to her makeup empire. This is not at all surprising, because skin care is doing big numbers now, with brands posting $1.4 billion in sales in the US in the first quarter of this year alone. Skin care has become a cultural touchpoint, a form of self-care, a fandom. Consumers have never been more educated about products and ingredients. As such, people are incredibly outspoken about it.

So when Jenner dropped a video on her new @KylieSkin social media channels demonstrating her new “walnut face scrub,” the skin care hive lost it. It reminded many people of St. Ives apricot scrub, that drugstore staple that anyone who was a sentient, face-washing human being in the 1990s or later likely knows. St. Ives now has a reputation for being too harsh for skin, and this point is hotly debated whenever the product comes up in certain circles. The online chatter this week sent “St.Ives” trending on Twitter for a time. That product, and its subsequent successors like Kylie’s, has a controversial history, and a trajectory that went from extreme trust to derision.

What is St. Ives scrub?

St. Ives is a mass brand sold at places like drugstores and Target, owned by the multinational conglomerate Unilever. It was originally launched in 1955 as an independent company in California, but its “Swiss formula” (with no clear Swiss origins) was eventually sold to Alberto-Culver, then to Unilever. Its apricot scrub ($3.69 for a tube) is the best-selling facial scrub in the country. It smells delightful — fresh and just slightly sweet. It is adolescence in a tube.

The thick beige cream contains suspended particles of powdered walnut shells, which provide a rough texture for exfoliating skin. For a long time, the thinking was that you should vigorously scrub the dead skin cells off your face for softness and to really clean gunk out of your pores. It became a favorite of people with acne and is practically a rite of passage for teens. As Julie Beck wrote at the Atlantic in 2017, “If the thing that makes you hate yourself is on your surface, it makes sense to try to scrub your surface away.”

The classic St. Ives apricot scrub.

As a colleague and I detailed at Racked in 2016, people started catching on in the early 2000s that maybe scrubbing your face with a product that feels like tiny sharp rocks was possibly not a great idea. On a beauty forum as early as 2001, one user wrote, “This was the worst stuff I ever put on my face. All I can say is ouch!” These types of reviews continued all through the 2000s, but the product remained popular, winning beauty awards year after year from magazines like Allure.

Then came the dawn of a new age in skin care, around 2015. An article at the Cut quoted experts saying that scrubs could cause “micro-tears” in the skin, and many dermatologists have gone on the record saying that scrubs, as a form of physical exfoliation, can be too harsh and irritating. (Though this is by no means unanimous; some preach moderation and say that scrubbing gently is fine. Particle size also matters.) Subreddits like r/SkincareAddiction (now with almost 950,000 members) started declaring St. Ives apricot scrub product non grata, a position that Slate amplified in an article about the subreddit in 2016.

Then that December, two women filed a lawsuit against St. Ives, alleging the scrub causes irritation and accelerates the aging process. Two years later, a judge tossed out the suit because the plaintiffs couldn’t produce any evidence of their alleged injuries. Still, though, it remains a pariah product in certain passionate circles.

The exfoliator wars

In the meantime, skin care aficionados have embraced the wonders of chemical exfoliation, in which various mild acids (there’s even a Vox video about it) are applied to the skin to eat away dead cells. That quite possibly sounds just as barbaric as vigorously rubbing skin with walnut shells, but it’s where we are now as a society.

Which brings us back to Kylie. The comments under her posts about the scrub were rife with fears of micro-tears. Yelling was frequently involved: “DO NOT USE WALNUT ON YOUR FACE IT STRIPS YOUR SKIN OF MOISTURE.”

People also seemed horrified that she was hawking a scrub that looks just like St. Ives’ version while charging $22 for it. (But she’s not the only one. At Sephora, you can find a version by Ole Henriksen for $28.) She also appears to have taken a swipe at the classic St. Ives brand, saying in her video that some brands are “kind of harsh on the skin,” but not hers. A representative for Kylie’s brand did not respond to a request for comment, but St. Ives inserted itself into the narrative via a comment under one of Kylie’s posts. Her post read, “my secret to a fresh face... #kylieskin walnut face scrub. may 22” (h/t to the beauty watchdog group Estée Laundry who noticed this). St. Ives’ response was, “Why wait till may 22?”

There was a little bit of civility, though, after someone asked of Kylie’s new line on r/SkincareAddiction: “Who is falling for walnut face scrubs in 2019??” Responders actually took a more moderate tone on scrubs, criticizing the line more for looking like Glossier or Saturday Skin, two brands popular with millennials and Gen Z. The ensuing conversation was downright congenial, with one person responding: “I feel like the whole ‘apricot scrub bad’ thing is blown out of proportion.’”

Your preference for scrubs aside, what Kylie’s young fans seeing these ads might not realize is that she likely does a lot for her skin besides use her own products. It’s the same thing that happened when her sister Kendall was named a Proactiv ambassador. There are likely dermatologists and facialists, possibly plastic surgeons, and surely an arsenal of uber-expensive skin care that goes into making her face look the way it does.

This is important because, as the sales of her products suggest, teens and young people flock to them in droves. In its recent semiannual survey of teen consumer behavior, Piper Jaffray found that Kylie Jenner was one of the most popular influencers with teens. Even hundreds of disgruntled commenters are no match for that kind of marketing power.

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