The cultural roots of slugging, gua sha, rice water, and other viral beauty trends

There is nothing like watching someone expertly blend out a smokey eye, slather on a 10-step skincare routine, or stick some sparkly gems to a Euphoria-inspired look. The best types of beauty videos grasp my attention and make my senses tingle. They tickle the part of my brain that likes to learn things — and the part that just likes to ogle over pretty things. 

Naturally, it's not just me. Beauty videos accounted for 169 billion views in 2018 on YouTube, which is where the original beauty vlogger was born in 2006 to an audience rabid for beauty lessons, advice, and reviews. On TikTok, the short form video mecca, the hashtag #beauty has more than 103 billion views, and you'd be remiss to scroll the For You Page very long and not find a video telling you to buy a beauty product or test out a new technique. 

Today's TikTok beauty videos are also often credited as responsible for discovering the most viral beauty products and practices — slugging, glass skin, and over-lined lips, to name a few — inspiring a discourse cycle that elevates these widely shared and replicated videos to genius-level status. The viral beauty videos are usually visually stunning, and sometimes they share genuinely useful beauty advice. 

But too often, we credit social-first videos as trendsetters or originators in the online beauty world, when in reality, viral beauty videos usually rely on a socially acceptable (read: white) face to rename and redisperse beauty practices that are long discovered, often passed down in different cultures for centuries. 

The beauty trends we're all obsessed with lately, and why they work on video

Think of the beauty trends that have been buzziest of late: slugging, which involves taking a heavy occlusive like Vaseline or CeraVe's Healing Ointment and slathering it all over your face on top of the rest of your skincare, sleeping in it, then removing in the morning; snail mucin, both as a partial ingredient in skincare or on its own entirely; no-makeup makeup looks; thin eyebrows; Euphorialooks — the list could go on forever. They all address a different beauty concern or goal, but all of them came to their biggest fame via social video. 

"A lot of the beauty trends that are currently in fashion come from TikTok," said renowned beauty vlogger Nikkie de Jager (aka NikkieTutorials) in, ironically, her YouTube video.

In my personal viewing experience, the most viral beauty videos usually accomplish at least one of four effects: They're visually and skillfully impressive; they invoke a sense of nostalgia or make a pop culture reference; they discover and/or spread new beauty information; or they offer a speedier, easier way of accomplishing a look, aka, a beauty hack.

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All of these categories translate perfectly to social video. Because beauty is an inherently visual medium, vlogging allows for the creative process to be captured, and for the viewer to come along for the ride to an eventual satisfactory result. 

"There's a foundational way that all memes happen," said Earnest Pettie, YouTube's Trends Insight Lead, to Mashable. (In this case, a meme refers to any cultural element, like a social video, that can be passed from one person to another.) "And that is, you have an idea or a concept that is transmissible and easily copyable."

This concept applies to the way any type of content can go viral, but it morphs a bit when you zero in on the beauty community. At YouTube, Pettie has seen beauty videos transform from the original grainy webcam shots to professionally produced longform videos. What started mainly as home tutorials for and from beauty junkies has now become a more varied content niche, offering even more ideas to be transmitted and copied. 

A recent variation on beauty YouTube are true-crime stories told via voiceover or by the host while makeup is applied on camera, capturing a potential viewer via multiple points of interest. Through it all, the visual element of beauty remains a vital allure, and the most viral videos offer that transmissible element particularly well — whether that's the (ethically questionable) shock of the true-crime story, the education on makeup technique, or the wow factor of the finished look. 

On TikTok, the same principle applies: The more replicable or captivating a beauty video, the more likely it is to go viral. But because TikTok is for short-form video, the content has to be a lot more succinct. Viewers expect to get to the most exciting point immediately, and for that point to be culturally relevant. This speed and cycle does lend the entire platform toward viral trends — hence the onslaught of slugging videos all at the same time, hoping to tap into that velocity. 

Another element of TikTok's virality cycle is also geographic, especially within beauty videos that cross cultural lines. "A lot of these trends that emerge, or the videos and practices that end up emerging through trends, are quite country specific," said Dr. Crystal Abidin, an internet anthropologist and founder of the TikTok Cultures Research Network, to Mashable

Through her research, Dr. Crystal has identified that TikTok users crave authenticity and relatability in their viewing habits. But in each country's market, that authenticity presents itself quite differently. If you're in an Asian country, Korean beauty routines or Japanese makeup tricks do better when presented by a Korean or Japanese person. 

Similarly, if you're in the American or European market, videos showing beauty techniques usually only take off when presented by a fellow American or European. Too often, this translates to white people performing cultural beauty practices for the internet and reaping the social and financial benefits.

Cultural beauty practices vs. novelty beauty looks

Take, for example, the trend of gua sha. The practice itself dates back to the Yuan Dynasty, a period of Chinese history that took place from the early 13th century to 1368, and involves taking a tool and scraping it along the skin in one direction to alleviate certain illnesses or muscle aches. In beauty, the practice has been adapted to treat facial swelling or bloating by activating your blood circulation, usually with a distinctly shaped jade or rose quartz tool.

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Screenshot of a white woman using a green jade gua sha tool on TikTokOne of many gua sha tutorials that cropped up in 2021Credit: Screenshot: TikTok / @allyoucanfaceScreenshot of a white woman using a brown gua sha tool on TikTokAnother gua sha tutorial, from early 2022Credit: Screenshot: TikTok / @carolinehannibal

In the American online beauty space, gua sha has experienced several waves of virality. Most recently, the obsession with it bubbled up last summer, with celebrities like Elizabeth Olsen bringing it back into the spotlight and content creators making tons of tutorials on how best to gua sha. As TikTok users and influencers made content capitalizing on the trend from either side — continuing to either praise the practice or claim that it was "just product marketing" and didn't really provide skin-lifting benefits — they made little mention of its roots. And most often, the most viewed and liked gua sha videos came from and featured white faces, despite the practice beginning in China and its deep Chinese cultural relevance today.

Slugging followed a similar trajectory. The practice blew up on the app as something white influencers on TikTok "discovered" after it was discussed on the internet for a few years as a trend emerging from Korean beauty. Little did much of the American TikTok audience know, the technique has been employed by the Black community for ages. It wasn't called "slugging," but rather "greasing up," and it very much existed for generations before being discovered on TikTok.

Esthetician and beauty influencer Tiara Willis has long been educating her audience on the benefits of using an occlusive as part of your nighttime skincare routine. She regularly tweets advice about it, and in 2020, coined the term "glazed donut gang" to mean the same thing as "slugging." In an interview with The Cut, fashion industry veteran Michaela Angela Davis spoke about the ritual of using Vaseline in Black beauty routines, and how the product is a staple that has passed between generations of Black women in her own family.

The same virality cycle happens with beauty trends like skincare routines originating from Korean roots, rice water hair treatments from Japan being called "Kim Kardashian's hair secret," tel malishes from India being renamed as "hair slugging," or even filters that create an aegyosal, an East Asian beauty standard that emphasizes a fattier undereye area, being named "Belle." When these trends are adopted and appropriated by white faces to only then go viral, without any semblance of credit or acknowledgement of their roots, it quickly erases multicultural relevance from the online beauty community.

"It only really bothers me when I see online that these [trends] are being written up as new trends, or publications [and] Google say 'we've discovered hair slugging' when they haven't discovered anything," said TikTok creator Seerat Saini in her video calling out the way beauty trends are credited online.

It's a markedly different experience from when beauty trends inspired by general pop culture go viral. Trends like Euphorialooks, thin eyebrows, or '90s-inspired makeup do not stem from an ethnic group's needs and traditions. So whether they go viral via white influencers or a more diverse group of creators, their cultural roots and online story are not affected. White creators can make this type of content and it can blow up online without jeopardizing a cultural practice's roots or taking up space that might be better occupied by a creator of color.

This is not to say that white influencers and creators cannot participate in beauty trends that originate with other cultures; rather, the onus should be to recognize, respect, and clearly identify cultural roots in their videos. But when we as an audience continue to push white faces wearing cultural techniques that are not their own to the forefront of online discourse, vaguely crediting them as "TikTok discoveries," rather than acknowledging their real origins, we are doing a major disservice to the diversity and history of cultural beauty via the internet.

Can an algorithm be racist? 

It's natural (and too easy) to blame all-white videos on the all-knowing and conveniently vague algorithm. How can you help that your FYP feeds you white influencers? Or that YouTube's recommendations feed only shows you white faces?

The truth is, the algorithms do have a lot to do with it. But we, as people, have a lot to do with the algorithms. 

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According to Dr. Crystal, the paid partnerships promoted via hashtags have a lot of power on TikTok. "There are widespread reports from the clients and influencers that I've interviewed who claim that unless something is a TikTok official campaign or hashtag, chances are your attempt at trying to ride on the app to promote yourself or a business is going to get shadowbanned. So one of the ways to sharpen the algorithm generally is to have an official partnership with TikTok that you pay for."

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Obviously, we shouldn't rely on creators of color to spend their hard-earned dollars on paid partnership campaigns just to signal to TikTok that their content is worthy of views when white creators do not often face this additional burden — especially when that content has cultural roots. 

On TikTok, viewers have the power to train their algorithms via what Dr. Crystal calls "micro actions." If you watch a beauty video made by creators of color for longer, or like, comment, share, or otherwise interact with it, the algorithm learns that you value this type of content, and will then feed you more of it. It can even get more granular: Whether you click on the comments, if you spend time looking at comment threads, whether you share via text or within the app's DM system, etc. All of these tiny decisions inform the algorithm, and in turn, your content. 

The same principle applies on YouTube. Even though the platform is known for longer-form social video, its algorithms still learn from viewers' behavior. 

"There's a part of YouTube which you are less in control of, which is what you're being recommended, " said Pettie. "But the thing that you're 100 percent in control of is who you're subscribed to, and thus, what videos show up in your subsequent subscriptions feed. So if you are intentionally going out with a purpose of trying to diversify your content consumption, you can do that by simply being intentional on who you're subscribing to."

It's important to note that YouTube does say in a blog post from 2021 that its recommendations feed accounts for more video viewership platform-wide than individual subscriptions. In theory, actively subscribing to more diverse creators should also help train your recommendations algorithm, as the company explains that the algorithm does analyze several viewer behaviors (like click amount, watch time, and sharing/liking/disliking) to create this feed. In short, the more you consciously interact with diverse content, the more likely it is to affect the type of content that you are shown.

We, as viewers, have the power to influence what goes viral

Virality isn't a meager force. It might seem trivial to nitpick who is delivering your beauty advice online — after all, does it matter which viral influencer tells you a beauty tip if you still walk away with the knowledge? But going viral is not just a trivial event.

In our increasingly online culture, virality and influence often bring literal money, and if not money immediately, then social capital and relevance that leads to brand deals and opportunities... aka, money. This cycle translates to bigger societal effects, ranging in material consequences (like what types of products are made) to cultural ones (like who gets a voice in the beauty industry and community).

When we continuously signal to platforms like TikTok and YouTube that we only care about beauty videos when performed by white faces, we create endless echo chambers of elevated content stolen from cultures that actually originated and deeply understand it. We also rob ourselves of a richer learning experience. Learning beauty tips straight from the horse's mouth (in this case, the horses = creators of color) ensures that details aren't diluted, and technical skill gained from growing up within a culture is preserved.

Beauty on the internet can also leave out queer communities or male beauty enthusiasts in favor of the stereotypical white, "beautiful," cisgender woman. Plenty of iconic viral looks also stem from drag queens and male MUAs, and actively diversifying your beauty content consumption should always include these communities as well. 

This isn't to say that you cannot engage with white influencers, or feel like these cultural beauty practices must remain only within its original cultures. Most creators of color who make content about their cultural practices welcome respectful engagement and use. When you want to try out a new technique yourself, it is simply your responsibility to recognize where it came from — and a little idea credit never hurts, either.

"You would think that the existence of these platforms would create this kind of democratic marketplace of ideas, where every single person has an equal opportunity to have their ideas be successful," said Pettie. "But I think the reality is that, within the internet, within these platforms, these are really just microcosms of the societies in which they exist. So they take on the biases and the dynamics of those societies. Virality should be the path of discovery. And then from there, you can be intentional in how you dive deeper."

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