The ritual goes a little bit like this. Once or twice a month, I prance expectantly into my little bathroom and greet my face in the mirror. In the private sanctum of this intimate space, I scrutinize my skin under a soft amber bulb. The lighting here is gentle and welcoming, but the act I will perform upon my visage is anything but. I select a soft spatula and use it to smear a grayish pink goo all over my face. I take a long look at my reflection, glistening with product and promise, and I wait.
It doesn’t take long for the fun to begin.
As it settles into the burgeoning crevices dug by years of smiles and frowns, the penitential goo begins its reign of torture and my whole face screams with alarm. It burns and I love it. It hurts and I revel in it. But why?
I’m hardly the only person who reaches for a highly unpleasant skincare product rather than a benevolent cream that asks nothing of my ability to endure. And honestly, I don’t even know if my painful mask works or not, despite my seemingly monastic devotion to it. What I do know is that the act of suffering somehow makes it feel like it’s working, and that the pain makes me feel better in the process.
The science of pain, and the way it affects guilt, helps explain the appeal of aversive skincare. I love my harsh facials because they feel like penitence, a deliberate act of earning forgiveness for everytime I sizzled in the sun unprotected. But the allure also lies in the fact that when we endure some amount of pain in order to achieve something, our minds assign extra value to the outcome. The term for these intentionally painful experiences—masochism—comes with all the baggage of the word’s inception as a sexual paraphilia. But even beyond skincare, masochism is normal and pervasive, and understanding it is an important step in the process of destigmatizing a common human practice.
In a 2011 study published in Psychological Science exploring the relationship between pain and atonement, researchers asked study participants to write about one of two things: an instance of rejecting or excluding another person, or an innocuous interaction. Afterward, they filled out a survey about how guilty they felt. Then, the fun part: They had to stick their whole hand in ice water for as long as they could stand. Well, some of them anyway. Control group got room temp, the bastards.
The researchers found that the people who wrote about their guilty memory held their hands in the ice water longer, rated the ice water as more painful than the others did, and experienced a significant reduction in guilt afterward. Read that again. The guilty people took more pain, said it hurt more, and felt less guilty after. To explain it, the authors reference D. B. Morris’s book, The Culture of Pain, which holds that “pain has traditionally been understood as purely physical in nature, but it is more accurate to describe it as the intersection of body, mind, and culture.” This model of thought holds that people give meaning to pain, and Dr. Brock Bastian, one of the study’s authors, argues that people are socialized from birth to accept pain within a judicial model of punishment.
“I think that more it’s a relationship between pain and justice. Enduring pain can feel like it provides a sense of justice, and a form of self-punishment,” Bastian says, noting that the embodiment of the punishment can be linked to penitence by varying degrees. “It’s not that people explicitly say to themselves ‘I’m punishing myself with pain’ but rather [they are] going for a hard jog or doing something that’s exertive and fulfills that need to restore justice through punishment.” As Bastian states in the paper, “History is replete with examples of ritualized or self-inflicted pain aimed at achieving purification.”
In the case of skincare, the sense of justice arises when we feel like we have done more to earn the effects of our painful creams and microneedlers. The pain also gives us a taste of atonement through self-punishment, making us pay for all the offenses we have perpetuated against our skin: days without sunscreen, cigarette smoke, compulsive picking, sleeping in makeup. And once we pay for our dermatological sins, we get a taste of that sweet, sweet absolution.
But my attraction to masochistic skincare isn’t just about guilt. There’s something else going on, something that relates to the ways humans create and experience value. “If something hurts, it can create a sense of value or efficacy,” Bastian explains. Generally, putting effort into things increases our perception of their value, “so using skin care products which are averise and hurt a little bit, it probably fades into our perception that they are doing something.”