“Have you tried just using Dove soap? That’s what I use.” That’s the advice my freshman year roommate gave me after I had complained to her for the millionth time about how my acne was making me miserable, and the antibiotics I’d been taking for it for years were no longer making a difference. In the eights months of living together, I had seen her with a pimple maybe once.
Now, I open Instagram to a parade of influencers with flawless complexions telling me about the newest life-changing face oil they happen to have a discount code for. Twitter accounts preach how tea tree oil and rosewater is the secret to clear, radiant skin. In every Q&A, models tell me I can look just like them if I drink more water (hot with lemon, only in the morning) and do yoga three times a week.
Clear, perfect skin has always been a symbol of wealth and beauty, but thanks in part to social media and millennials’ skin care obsession, perfect skin has become an even greater signifier. When I was in high school, complements were always more holistic: “You look so pretty,” “Your makeup looks so good.” Now, whenever I meet up with a group of friends someone will say “your skin looks amazing,” or leave a comment on Instagram like “OMG skin.”
At this point, having flawless skin is like social currency. It goes beyond showing you have money (look at celebrities such as Kendall Jenner and Lorde who have been open about acne struggles). Rather, it’s a sort of signal that you belong to an elite club and are someone who takes pride in taking care of themselves. Influencers are posting close up photos of their skin as if to invite people to comment on how good it is. In fact, one I follow routinely posts stories of herself testing skin care products with #nofilter. She might not be intentionally bragging about her perfect canvas (but, I mean, come on), but that’s exactly what it feels like when her content pops up on my phone.
Here’s the thing, though: It’s not the new products that account for the fact she has no pimples or her skin is so luminous she doesn’t need makeup. I’m sure they, along with access to facialists and derms, help. But her genetics are the real star of the show.
In both real life and online, I’m bombarded by people with perfect skin telling me a single product or regimen is to thank. But I don’t buy any of it. The fact of the matter is I’ll never have the skin these women were born with.
“As much as I can laser patient’s skin or give out prescription medications, nothing can beat good genetics,” says New York dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. “It’s better to have good genes than a good dermatologist.” Recent studies have also confirmed a deeper link between genetics and acne.
I’m not saying skin care doesn’t matter. When I cocktail and combine effectively, it most certainly does. I have a number of products I rely on to keep my cystic acne manageable and my flaky skin at bay. But no serum, lotion, or oil will ever truly—and completely—transform my face. The closest I can get to good genes is a round of Accutane, which I did last year, and I still struggle with breakouts. They’re caused by hormonal factors that aren’t as easy to fix as a couple of zits that appeared because I used the wrong sunscreen.