‘Revitalising’ Renewing the Language of 'Anti-Aging' Skincare
The way we speak about our skin is changing. Locked in our homes, cosmetics promising to “magic away…imperfections” (Charlotte Tilbury) and “age-rewind” (Maybelline) that once pervaded many daily rituals are dispensable, raising questions of appearance and performance. This cultural shift away from ‘anti-aging’ was already in motion before the pandemic and brands are adapting their language to accommodate it. How can skincare brands make use of language analysis to examine and refine their language, ensuring relevance to emergent culture?
Early “anti-aging” offerings, such as Nivea’s “Celullar Anti-Age” or Olay’s “Anti-Wrinkle”, saw brand names capitalise on the “anti-” prefix.
Its meaning, “against”, connotes combative opposition – framing “aging” as the enemy, and the product as the protector. However, the “anti-aging” claim has been under cultural scrutiny, with consumers and experts questioning the inherent fallacy of being against a natural, inevitable process. Many brands have responded by using alternative language to express the established claim without its controversial “anti” prefix. The naming and product description conventions of dominant brands can be examined by mapping them in a lexicon, as below:
(Brands analysed: Olay, Derma E, CeraVe, Murad, Neutrogena, Clinique, Neocutis, Kiehl’s, Elizabeth Arden, Estée Lauder, L’Oréal, Neostrata, Dermelect, IT Cosmetics)
The prevalence of names beginning with “re-” across the dominant skincare space owes to the prefix’s function. “Re-” comes from the Latin for again (e.g. ‘Restore’), back (e.g. ‘Reverse’) or against; serving as a fitting, subtler substitute for “anti”. However, the ubiquity of this prefix across the category, paired with continued concerns around the intrinsic ageism of “anti-aging”, emergent brands are adapting their language to changing consumer attitudes.
- FROM transformation TO glow
Dominantly, brands make promises of “appearance transformation” and “remarkable improvements”. This is communicated through powerful verbs such as “penetrate”, “diminish” and “fight” – coding vigorous, energetic action. Overall, the need for “transformation” frames aging skin as inadequate or defective by signalling an active process occurring to change it.
Emergently, brands are offering products that “boost glow” to “uncover your natural radiance”. Linguistic cues used across these brands can be analysed by organising their occurrences thematically:
(Brands analysed: goop, Glossier, Ole Henriksen, Versed, Drunk Elephant, Saturday Skin, Herbivore, Therapi, Origins)
Language connoting light ranges from natural sources to light-giving objects, evoking the skin’s internal glow rather than external artifice. Sonically, repeated ‘l’ sounds (“brilliance”) create a soft, lulling effect as opposed to the tougher, hard ‘t’ of “penetrate”. Indeed, whilst dominant brands frame skin as requiring tough, potent action, emergent references to liquid formats, evoking slower processes such as pouring, soften this frame by coding smooth, flowing ease. This is dialled up swapping “aging” to foregrounding “youth” instead, offering a fresher appearance without undermining particular groups.
Overall, there is a linguistic shift towards a softer, gentler cultural narrative which embraces and enhances the skin’s innate beauty.
2. FROM layered shield TO barely there
Dominantly, brands draw on the framing of aging as an enemy through linguistic cues coding combative protection. References to war weaponry, such as “shield”, “armour” and “targeting” wrinkles, code physical defence. This is dialled up by language of addition and surplus (e.g. “multi-tasking”; “multi-dimensional”; “triple firming”), coding layered protection. Overall, these brands perpetuate the notion that the skin needs heavy, durable barriers to fight aging.
Emergent brands counter this narrative by using language cues which subvert the meaning of protection. Glossier’s “invisible shield” made of “water gel” is “lightweight”, “transparent” and “breathable”. These adjectives evoke invisible yet vital elements such as water and air, coding protective skincare as seamlessly effective. References to “featherweight” and “easily absorbed” suggest delicate formats, whilst verbs of removal (e.g. “dissolve”; “melt”; “purify”) disrupt the added layers coded in dominant space.
Overall, emergent brands are shifting towards using lighter, understated language coding minimal intervention, suggesting that skin is naturally strong as is.
3 Key takeouts for beauty/skincare brands:
- Shift away from vigorous, harsh language framing skin as a problem-zone towards gentle, soft language which champions all skin.
- Embrace minimalist, seamless language to disrupt category cues of heavyweight combat against aging skin.
- Employ language analysis to reveal which granular changes can have big impacts on maintaining cultural relevance.
Lailah Choudhry, Semiotician