Once upon a time, if you had a sore stomach, you’d go see your doctor. If you fancied the latest lip gloss, you’d hit up the beauty counter.
But now, more and more customers – particularly women – are visiting their local rouge retailer, seeking everything from fertility advice to products that “balance brain chemistry” and help you sleep.
Naturopath Anthia Koullouros, left, and fertility expert Jenna McDonald, right, have been offering advice at Mecca Cosmetica’s flagship store, in Sydney. Credit:Edwina Pickles
“I think customers are looking at wellness through a more sophisticated lens… it’s very much about overall physical and mental health, appearance, and the feeling of empowerment,” says Marita Burke, creative director of Mecca Cosmetica, which launched a series of in-person and online “wellbeing” events in April. These included a body movement class and consultations with a fertility specialist and the store’s in-house naturopath for “acute health concerns to assist with stress relief, sleep health, skin conditions, digestion and hormonal imbalance”.
Mecca’s far from alone in moving into a space that used to be solely occupied by doctors in sterile offices. Numerous online beauty stores now offer edible supplements to boost everything from vaginal and urinary tract health to “immune system function” and “cellular function”. And, of course, Gwyneth Paltrow’s new-age wellness brand, Goop, has been going at it for a while.
It’s become big business. The health and wellness space is now worth roughly USD$1.5 trillion dollars, globally, and growing steadily, says Thomas Rüdiger-Smith, a management consultant at McKinsey & Company. Everything from “beauty foods” to natural skincare and health and wellness is “extremely hot” among private equity investors at the moment, he says, because they’ve noted the insatiable consumer demand for it.
“Everybody is trying to capture a piece of the pie,” he says, adding that it’s unsurprising that beauty companies have begun to offer advice instead of just a product because, “at a certain point of time, you run out of runway of your core areas, and then the natural question comes: what are the related product categories where you can find growth?”
On the consumer end, many patients who sought out fertility specialist Jenna McDonald’s services, at the Sydney Mecca store, did so after finding out about her on Instagram. And they found her there, said McDonald, because more and more women are rejecting mainstream medical help, finding it impersonal and dismissive.
Numerous doctors, like American dermatologist Dr Shereene Idriss, went on the offensive after Gwyneth Paltrow said she likes to apply sunscreen “kind of on my nose and area where the sun really hits” in an April Vogue video. Credit:@shereeneidriss/Instagram
“Just relax, you’re overthinking this, everything will be fine,” is what some of her clients report they’ve been told by doctors, when they’ve gone to them for fertility help. “Or, it’s the opposite. Women are told, ‘We need to send you straight down the IVF route’, when some women are just not ready yet.
“A GP, they have 15 minutes to work with a patient,” says McDonald, who uses acupuncture, Chinese herbs, supplements, and diet advice, among other methods, to help boost her patients’ chances of conception, sometimes in conjunction with their existing IVF treatment. “We work so closely with our patients. I’ve had calls at 6am, ‘I’m having a miscarriage, and what should I do?’ That’s the support we offer.”
The approach is working. In 2019, McDonald’s clinic had five appointments a week; now it’s at 60 to 70. In just one day at MECCALIFE, she attracted four new patients.
The move into health and wellness, for beauty companies, is not without its risks. Mecca faced significant customer backlash over a virtual a conversation it hosted between celebrity makeup artist Gucci Westman and Gwyneth Paltrow about “the relationship between beauty and wellness”.
“Paltrow and Goop peddle enormous amounts of misinformation and make money by preying on women’s insecurities,” wrote one woman, cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Nikki Stamp, on the event’s Facebook page, before asking Mecca Cosmetica to “step up to the plate and cancel this terrible event”. (It didn’t.)
Stamp could have been referring to any number of Goop’s previous offerings. There was the jade vagina egg, claimed to “increase vaginal muscle tone, hormonal balance, and feminine energy in general”, which one obstetrician said could lead to bacterial vaginosis or toxic shock syndrome. Also: an “Inner Judge Flower Essence Blend” that consumers were told could possibly ward off depression. Goop paid $USD145,000 in penalties, in 2018, for making those false claims. No word, yet, about the coffee enema Goop suggested in one of its Detox Guides, though caffeine enemas have been linked to several deaths, and colonic irrigation can lead to septic shock.
This is just one of the reasons why customers need to be cautious when taking health advice or buying health products from non-medical practitioners who, unlike doctors, are not governed by regulatory boards like The Australian Health Practitioner Regulatory Agency, says Dr Karen Price, president of The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners.
“I’m concerned, absolutely,” says Price, about “the commercialisation of healthcare” which – if people use alternatives instead of tried-and-true scientific treatments – can sometimes lead to direct harm, or delays in diagnosis for various conditions.
“You want people to get good quality advice,” she says. “And, particularly with infertility” – when people sometimes have limited time in which they’ll likely conceive – “you don’t want them wasting time with unproven remedies.” She supports patients seeking alternative therapies when it’s done with people with reputable qualifications – like McDonald, who has a master’s degree in reproductive medicine, but is not a medical doctor – in conjunction with mainstream medical advice.
Price advises anyone with any health concerns or interest, to spend the time to find a good GP they gel with. “Like [in] any large, complex and difficulty system, there will be individuals who don’t get on, doctor patient relationships that just don’t work,” she says. “So my advice is to get a good GP, someone you can talk to, who you can be absolute bare bones honest with. I ask my patients, ‘If you’re taking other things, let me know. Check it with me.’”
If you’re interested in taking any health product, run it by a GP or pharmacist you trust, she says, adding that she remembers one product – made from an amino acid in milk that makes us sleepy – that was pulled off of shelves after it was discovered that it could negatively impact bone marrow. (Many supplements are considered food, and therefore not registered by Australia’s regulatory body, the Therapeutic Goods Administration.) You can also consult the Cochrane Library, an online repository of evidence-based reviews of a wide variety of complementary health tools and products.
Rüdiger-Smith doesn’t see the trend slowing down anytime soon, noting the pandemic has been a catalyst for more and more people to be driven to “become more healthy”.
But there’s signs of a possible counter-balance coming down the pipe: more doctors moving into beauty.
“It’s relatively common for dentists to be providing injectables,” says Melbourne cosmetic dentist Dr Rita Trak, referring to Botox. Four months ago, with the opening of her Dental & Skin Clinic, she began offering skin treatments like microdermabrasion and skin needling, in order to address concerns like wrinkles, vertical “smoker’s lines”, acne, and large pores. While these services are often offered by non-medical professionals, like aestheticians, Trak says that she has an added edge because she’s a doctor.
“I’m combining my skills as a dentist to make skin treatments completely comfortable,” she says, referring to her use of a dental injection tool called a Dentapen, which delivers anaesthetic through electric impulses without pain in order to numb her clients’ faces before skin needling. (The procedure – where the skin is pierced by tiny sterile needles to stimulate collagen production and blood flow – is usually painful, even after the use of numbing cream, which is the standard procedure.)
Other dentists have become increasingly interested in Trak’s hybrid dental and skincare model. “They go, ‘Oh, you work at Dental & Skin Clinic, Should I be doing this Botox course?’” she says of questions she frequently gets asked at dentistry conferences. “Should I be doing injectibles, too?’”
She can see why. Of her clients who come in, initially, for a teeth clean, and then later return for a skin examination and facial, she says: “It’s the sort of service that people [clients] don’t realise they want or need until they get it, and then they realise, ‘Like, oh, wow.’”
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