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Is TikTok’s obsession with the ‘clean look’ yet another toxic beauty ideal in disguise?

By Malavika Pradeep

Nov 27, 2021

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If you’ve ever fallen down the ‘styling advice’ rabbit hole of TikTok and YouTube, you would’ve spotted recurring themes—the most popular one being videos on how to look expensive. With tutorials captioned along the lines of 21 broke girl secrets to look like a rich girl and How to look Rich Rich from your Rich Mom, users are seen channelling the power of monochrome blazers, oversized sunglasses and bold gold jewellery to look bougie on a budget. “These make you look very polished, put together and—in other words—rich,” the influencers typically sum up, advising their audience to iron everything down and expel prints from their wardrobe altogether.

On TikTok, this coveted theme seems to have moved up north with the rise of a new hashtag—currently at 23 million views and counting. Enter the au naturel world of the ‘clean look’, a makeup trend all about oozing effortless, off-duty model vibes with seemingly low-maintenance beauty routines.

What is the clean look all about?

Think glowing but not greasy skin and gelled but not oily hair—coupled with glossy lips, feathery brows and timeless jewellery. The premise of TikTok’s clean look involves pulling off makeup with a barely-there sheen, spread generously throughout your hair and accessories. The topic and its hashtag started trending when TikTok influencer Eva Rankin uploaded a tutorial captioned How to achieve the ✨clean✨ look. Currently at 8.1 million views, the video was posted as a reply to a comment on another one of her videos which read “you look so clean.” A questionable remark or flattering compliment? I’ll let you decide.

@evarankiin

Reply to @yoodaddydre how to achieve the ✨clean✨ look ib: @millieleer #cleanmakeup

♬ Manhattan - Ella Fitzgerald

Nevertheless, shortly after Rankin dropped her routine, a storm followed. While users keenly demonstrated their own spin-offs of the look (all set to the same TikTok audio of Manhattan by Ella Fitzgerald), publications scrambled to list products one could purchase to achieve filter-free flawlessness with dewy skin and minimal makeup—topped with a hint of colour. The Easiest Way To Look Expensive AF: TikTok’s Clean Look, read a blog post on Huda Beauty earlier this month, dividing the entire look into a total of five steps with products costing up to $68. However, a quick scroll through other tutorials essentially helps one boil the beauty routine down to a single set of principles.

For starters, the key here is to exfoliate and hydrate the heck out of your skin as a base. The general advice issued, in this regard, is the consistent use of tinted moisturisers, liquid foundations, glow-boosting sunscreens and serums containing humectants. A faint touch of concealer and highlighter to the high points of your face will also help you exude luxe all day long. Bronzer then goes around the nose, cheekbones, hairline and jawline with cream blush on the cheeks—all blended upwards.

The arguable aesthetic is also about having feathery, natural arches and making brow gel your best friend. Nude gloss and lip oil are further cheat codes for a plump and hydrated pout, promising to channel your inner ‘main character energy’. Flatten stray hairs with all the determination you can muster, accessorise with some dainty gold jewellery, choose a delicate scent to end things on a good note and voilà! You are what TikTok deems ‘clean’. On the outside, anyways.

@radhika.p18

this also happens to be my everyday routine 🥲 #skincare #cleanlook #clearskin

♬ Manhattan - Ella Fitzgerald

Now, if you think about it, the clean look isn’t anything new. Nor is it revolutionary by preaching the use of actual clean ingredients in beauty products. Instead, all that unattainable perfection literally seems like a repackaged version of the ‘no makeup’ makeup look that has been going on forever. Donut skin, dolphin skin, cloud skin, yoga skin—call it whatever you want, but we’ve been there and done that a dozen times over. And this is exactly where the problem lies. 20201’s clean look trend just goes on to prove that we still associate financial statuses to making our faces as luminous and glossy—eventually natural and healthy—as humanly possible.

“Always have nails and toe nails polished (white looks really good),” a green screen video on TikTok goes on to note. The list also includes good posture and a proper skincare routine as necessities. If you ask me, the first step of achieving the clean look could be summed up as having what conventionally counts as a ‘clean’ skin. So, I’m afraid the trend has already lost me as a potential candidate. And if you retrospect hard enough, you can track the timeline of the clean look to earlier this year—when several TikTokers began asking others if they looked “musty or clean.”

Backed with a hashtag currently at 1.6 million views, the controversial trend highlighted age-old ideals that we still shockingly abide by. “Sorry but I’m so tired of this whole ‘do I look musky or clean’ and ‘what do I smell like’ because it’s always people with yellower skin tones or acne and dark circles, or skin and hair textures getting told they look musty and smell,” TikTok user @mooniemilk_ noted in response. The comments section of the video is more than enough to make one question if we can still deem ourselves ‘progressive’ in 2021.

Though the clean look is yet another reinterpretation of a toxic ideal, the icons backing the look seems to have changed—thereby reinforcing an entirely new standard to look and live up to. The moodboard of the clean look is now stationed at the pristine white apartments of Hailey Bieber, Bella Hadid, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Laura Harrier and Zendaya. All queens, not gonna lie. But there’s a fine line between minimalism and perfection—the blurring of which fosters a breeding ground for more toxic ideals to come. And given how our generation is presently obsessed with reviving previous ones like bikini bridges and thigh gaps, it wouldn’t be long before the clean look goes down in history—only to be dug up again in the future by generations to come.

@makeup

How to get the ✨clean look✨ @gwmakeup #fyp #foryou #foryoupage #makeuplook #cleanmakeup #cleanlook #makeupinspo

♬ original sound - makeup