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Mind over matter: A case for the placebo effect

Maybe that face mask isn't doing much for your skin — but if it makes you feel better, why not go for it anyway?

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Placebo in the era of commodified self-care

When self-care as a concept was first introduced, it was limited to exercising and eating healthier.

Following the rise of the civil rights movement, self-care became a political act. Self-care became a way for people of color and women to claim autonomy over their bodies 

Today, the world of commodified self-care has never been larger, thanks in no small part to Gwyneth Paltrow

The term has come to mean different things for different people. For some, it’s bullet journaling after a long day. For others, it’s spending $95 on GoopGenes, a superpowder that you mix with water every morning for its claims that it will help you achieve smooth skin.

I’m not here to judge. 

Face mask

Of all the self-care trends in the world, face masks may be the most popular. 

Most popular face masks boast moisturization and rejuvenation to clear your skin. Some companies claim that their face masks clear pores and give you firmer skin. They are advertised as the perfect skin-care treatment. 

Face masks have been a point of debate for a long time now. Many people are starting to question their legitimacy. 

“In many cases, [face masks] are doing something ... though not as much as we wish,” Dr. Song Park, a trained dermatologist and clinical research fellow at UW Medicine, said. 

She went on to say that the formulas written on packaging are questionable. While there is usually some amount of an active ingredient in there, there is also a large number of natural elements that may not be quite as necessary.

“For example, your skin does not necessarily need to drink whole milk or kiwi juice,” she said.

These natural elements are things we often associate with calming and soothing tones and are prevalent in self-care techniques. 

Face masks, like most self-care techniques, end up in a gray area. Do face masks make us feel less stressed because of active ingredients in their formulas, or is it simply the act itself of stopping everything you’re doing for 15 minutes and just sitting there with a cool sheet on your face?

Don’t get me wrong, I love face masks as much as the next person, but why? I know this face mask isn’t triggering my serotonin release (patent pending), yet somehow I feel calmer and happier after I do one.

For me, self-care begins and ends with face masks, but for many others, these are just step one. 

Another increasingly popular trend is jade rolling.

Jade rollers began to be used in the 17th century by the Chinese elite, as jade was said to have healing and soothing abilities. Today, jade rollers have become another one of the latest self-care trends.

The idea is that by rolling them on your face, the jade rollers increase circulation and stimulate lymphatic drainage. Some say that jade rollers make your skin more receptive to other self-care treatments, or that jade rollers can erase wrinkles.

While some of these claims can be proven by science — a correctly done facial massage will increase circulation and stimulate lymphatic drainage — some of the others have yet to be adequately researched.

Even so, the trend has taken off and many beauty gurus do it, saying it helps decrease swelling in their faces and is an integral part of their morning routines.

Dry brushing began as a traditional Ayurvedic massage meant to enhance blood circulation. It has since been co-opted by the self-care industry and is now a widely used technique that involves a daily body massage using — wait for it — a dry brush. This is supposed to help increase circulation, detoxify the skin, improve the appearance of cellulite, and help digestion, among other things.

Some of these claims are supported by science — namely the exfoliating and detoxifying benefits. But beyond that, many of dry brushing’s supposed benefits have been called into question by researchers. Still, people around the world are trying this practice and swearing by its success. 

Hailey McLennan and Megan Dierckins founded Sage Sisters Media, a Seattle-based podcast where they explore different self-care techniques and wellness strategies every week.

McLennan’s go-to self-care technique is an Epsom salt bath

The way salt baths work is the salt helps to draw out toxins and negative energy that gets backed up and stagnant in your body,” McLennan said in an email. “Taking a salt bath can help you feel detoxed from the inside out, and soothes your muscles and your energy field.”

While empirical evidence can't verify the existence of any individual's “energy field,” chemistry has shown that Epsom salts can be effective at detoxification. Most users, like McLennan, agree that they have a relaxing, soothing effect.

Crystals are another strategy used by some. As opposed to relaxation, crystals are said to provide comfort and a sense of grounding to those using them.

“Crystal pendulums are an awesome tool to grow your intuition, and your relationship to your higher self,” McLennan and Dierckins said. 

They describe the process of developing a connection with your pendulum by programming it with certain questions and observing its response. They then use these pendulums to help answer questions and uncertainties. 

To them, this brings them comfort and adds certainty to their decisions. 

While many popular self-care techniques today don’t have strong research to back them up, that doesn’t change the fact that many people stand by them. 

The placebo effect is rooted in the power of expectations, and many self-care techniques play heavily into that. 

If we believe strongly that the treatment or wellness technique we are using is going to relax us and ground us, even without an active ingredient, our minds find a way to align our behaviors and expectations to fulfill this goal. 

Jacqueline Spector, a part-time psychology lecturer at the UW, describes this same feeling from a different perspective by comparing it to a superstition. There is an object that you know and believe to bring you comfort; this in turn changes your expectations. 

Whether this can be reduced to the placebo effect or something beyond that, there’s no way to tell. 

“As a scientist even, I’m like, who cares?” Spector said. “If it works for the person, I believe in the power of people’s expectations to make it the way they want it to be, and if it helps them, go for it.”

Sometimes the placebo effect can cure migraines and ASMR can treat chronic pain and depression. So as far as what’s backed by science and what lies in the power of believing — who’s to say?

Reach assistant Health & Wellness Editor Ash Shah at Twitter: @itsashshah

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