Caroline is now a YouTube and Instagram superstar, with more than 120 million blog views; she’s also a regular guest expert on This Morning with Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby
She’s the straight-talking mum of four whose super-honest advice has earned her millions of fans and turned her into the beauty guru we can all trust and relate to. Julia Llewellyn Smith meets mega-blogger Caroline Hirons
Back in 2014, Caroline Hirons, mum of four and former Saturday girl at Harvey Nichols, was in her bedroom trying to film one of her very first home videos to upload to YouTube about her specialist subject: skincare. As she tried to talk into the microphone, two of her three sons started fighting with each other in the garden. ‘I turned and shouted out of the window, “Can you shut up?” like any mother would, and it all got recorded,’ she recalls. Later Caroline asked Jim, her musician husband of 26 years, if she should leave that clip in. ‘He said, “I’m not sure, love.” I thought my blog readers might relate to me screaming at my kids, because every mother does it.’ So the clip stayed in and, sure enough, her viewers loved it. ‘The comments were all along the lines of, “Oh my God, finally someone who’s normal on YouTube!”’
Thanks to her ultra-honest stance, Caroline, 51 – mother of Ben, 28, Daniel, 25, Ava, 18, and Max, 14 – is one of the most powerful people in the beauty world. With 370,000 Instagram followers and more than 120 million views of her blog to date, her no-nonsense and often hilarious critiques of skincare brands (they sometimes pay her, but she never hides the fact and won’t give ‘fake’ good reviews) are gospel to many, especially the 34- to 65-year-old age group with cash to splash. Just as an outfit worn by the Duchess of Cambridge instantly sells out, when Caroline gives a cosmetic or skincare product the thumbs-up it flies off the shelves, spawning the industry term ‘the Caroline effect’.
For example, Clinique’s Take The Day Off Cleansing Balm (a make-up remover) which in 2013 was about to be discontinued after poor sales. Then Caroline listed it in her blog’s Hall of Fame section and overnight demand rocketed, with a whopping 1,432 per cent increase in sales. Today, it’s one of Clinique’s bestsellers.
So why do women trust Caroline’s every word implicitly? After all, with her trademark slightly messy blonde bun and usually make-up-free face, she couldn’t be more different from the fake-tanned, fake-lipped millennials who dominate Instagram and YouTube. ‘Most of these [influencers] are half my age and definitely have half my experience and body weight,’ she says. ‘And that’s absolutely fine because once I was like those people. But I’ve always just sensed my blog readers would relate to me the way I am now.
‘Take things like my bun,’ she continues, pointing at her hair from her home in West London during coronavirus lockdown (‘Thank God I have tweezers, otherwise my chin hairs would be out of control!’ she laughs). It’s here she lives with Jim, 56, and their two teenage children. ‘That hairstyle’s very much an after-effect from the days when I was doing the school run with four kids and getting out of the house very quickly. Why would you bother blow-drying your hair every day? I don’t see the point.’
With such an adoring fanbase (they queue around the block to meet her at public appearances), when it was announced last June that Caroline was publishing her first book, Skincare, customer preorders crashed both the Amazon and Waterstones websites.
‘I was a little bit dumbfounded when that happened, but then everything about writing the book has been – er – different,’ Caroline says. Different in a good way? ‘No! A bad way,’ she laughs. ‘It was the first time in ten years that anyone except me had edited anything I’d written.’
Sassiness runs deep through Caroline’s veins. Born in Liverpool, she was brought up to speak her mind by her American mother Cathy. ‘I was raised by the generation that was told they should be seen and not heard, but thankfully I had a good mother who didn’t instil that in me. She always said, “You were such a confident child” rather than using the word “bossy”. But though my friends and family would say I’m outspoken, I think I hold back. You should see what I’m actually thinking!’
‘Yes, I’ve had fillers. But I don’t want a face like a surprised tambourine’
Also instilled in Caroline from childhood was a passion for beauty products, since both her grandmother and mother worked as counter assistants for brands such as Coty and Helena Rubinstein. ‘Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother religiously removing her make-up before bed,’ she says. ‘The message was always the same: take care of your skin. It was non-negotiable.’
Though teenage Caroline loved experimenting with make-up (‘I tried everything from white lipstick to blue eyeshadow’), she never thought beauty was a world she’d work in. ‘I actually wanted to be a midwife. But then I had a kid and I thought, “Nah, I’m good!”’
Her teenage years were challenging – her parents divorced when she was 13 and her mother was diagnosed with skin cancer on her leg (she’s since recovered). Caroline doesn’t like to discuss those times, only saying she was keen to leave home as soon as possible. Aged 17, she moved to London, working in the HMV record shop – ‘the dream!’ – and spending every evening at gigs.
Having married Jim, and strapped for cash after Daniel was born, Caroline started working Saturdays at the Aveda counter in Harvey Nichols, then – as endorsed by Absolutely Fabulous – the coolest department store in London. ‘It was an astounding time. You’d be serving someone and Goldie Hawn would be in the queue behind them. All the stars were there.’
So brilliant was Caroline at charming the customers that one Saturday, alone on the counter, she took more money than the whole team usually did. Having qualified as a beauty therapist around giving birth to two more children, she worked for companies such as Liz Earle before she became a freelance consultant working with beauty brands wanting to enter the market.
By 2010, Caroline had launched her blog ‘for a bit of fun’, but within just a few months it became clear that she had tapped into a huge market of women longing to hear the unfiltered truth about beauty products, something which Caroline had the experience to deliver. ‘Being a little bit older and qualified definitely helped me because I wasn’t intimidated by saying something about a brand that wasn’t 100 per cent positive,’ says Caroline.
As readership grew, Caroline – whose most recent company profits were in the region of £180,000, and who now has sons Ben and Daniel working for her – began being recognised more and more in public. Once, her GP started asking for skincare tips while giving Caroline a cervical smear.
‘I was lying there, literally with the speculum still inside me, and she said, “While I have you there, can I ask your advice on this?”’ Caroline recalls. ‘I had no idea she even read my blog, but I said, “Well, you literally do have me captive, doc, so ask away.”’
Caroline with Jim, her husband of 26 years
What do old friends and family make of her new fame? ‘They think it’s funny. No one close to me reads the blog, which is perfect, but if anyone ever has the chance of getting big-headed it wouldn’t be me. I came back from doing this massive event with Clinique where people had turned up from all over; we were meant to finish at 8pm and ended up finishing at 10pm. I got home and my husband said, “I’ll put the kettle on and can you go and clean the toilet? Max has peed everywhere.” I just laughed. It was, like, “Absolutely, back to being Mum.”’
As her fanbase has grown, Caroline’s posts have become less opinionated in tone – though certain topics are guaranteed to wind her up. She hates skincare brands that claim to be ‘natural’ – ‘they can stay in California where they belong. And I can’t stand any product with glitter in it, anything with a unicorn on it, anything that infantilises women and treats them as if they were ten!’
Caroline is also the first to defend any woman who decides good moisturiser can only help her skin so much. ‘After a certain age, if you want to change the structure of your skin, you need an intervention by a professional with a needle or laser. The thing to realise is: have a face full of Botox but if the surface of the skin is no good, it won’t make any difference. And if you want to change that, then you can absolutely do that with products bought over the counter.’
Though she once swore she’d never have ‘work’, four years ago Caroline – who couldn’t lie, given one of her pet hates is Hollywood stars claiming their perfect skin is the result of nothing but drinking water and juicing celeriac – had surgery for her droopy eyelids.
‘It’s a genetic thing – my grandfather had his done because his eyelids were getting so bad he couldn’t drive, and I was getting the same way. I had migraines and my eyelids were so heavy I could see a layer of skin in front of me all the time.’
Then, last year, she had fillers injected. ‘It was just a little tweak and I think I’d have that once a year. I don’t want a face like a surprised tambourine.’
It’s going to be quite a year for Caroline, who by the end of it will not only be a published author but a grandmother, with Ben’s girlfriend having a baby in September. ‘It’s very weird in a wonderful way. Jim and I keep looking at each other and going, “How did that happen?” Only hours ago it feels like we were picking him up from school.’ But don’t expect the formidable Caroline to transform into a cosy gran. ‘I’ve said, “Don’t think I’m going to be a childminder. I’m going to work until I drop.”’
My skincare manifesto
From the one product she can’t live without to the routine that guarantees a flawless complexion, Caroline shares her insider tips and tricks that we can all do at home
My years of experience have given me a simple and succinct approach to skincare. If I rave about a product or an ingredient, it’s because I know it genuinely works. Equally, if I tell something to get in the sea and get lost, it’s because I know it’s a waste of your hard-earned cash.
Let’s start with the basics: our skin is the biggest organ in our bodies, and it deserves a bit of attention. But that doesn’t mean we all need to be scientists. Get into a few good habits with a daily routine and you’ll soon see the benefits. A routine is the foundation of everything. And if you get it right, you can set up your skin for life. Make it a habit. Morning and evening, for two to three minutes. Just make sure you take the time every single day.
It’s easy to see how your skincare routine can be a little overwhelming. We are sold so many products these days – there is something for everyone – but if you have more than two serums, which do you use first? And what about eye cream? And double cleansing and… Stop. Chill. I’m going to explain exactly what needs to happen at each stage of your routine, beginning with the morning…
START WITH A CLEANSE
It’s important to cleanse your skin every morning. It obviously doesn’t have to be as intense as the night-time cleanse, which needs to remove make-up and all the day’s dirt. But a quick warm flannel and milk/balm/gel (avoid any foaming cleansers – I think they are too drying) wouldn’t go amiss to get rid of the overnight shedding.
I like Oskia Renaissance Cleansing Gel (£35, spacenk.com). And, yes, you can absolutely use the same product in the morning that you use in the evening if you want to. Just don’t cleanse in the shower – the water is too hot for your face. Oh and, as with everything, TITTTs: take it to the tits. Your neck and décolleté, which is a fancy French term for your upper chest and shoulder area, are part of your facial skincare, too.
SKIP TONER AND EXFOLIATE WITH ACID
Forget harsh scrubs. I’m a fan of liquid exfoliating acids that you use at the point you’d traditionally use a toner (see below for which one to use). One of the originals – since the 1970s – is Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 (see page 26). Try to have a couple of exfoliating/acid products if you can: a milder version and a more ‘active’ one and alternate them daily. If you can only afford one, either buy a mild one and use it twice a day, or a stronger one and just use it in the evenings. If you have sensitive skin, or you are concerned about using acids, start by using them twice a week and see how your skin reacts.
HYDRATE WITH A MIST
I love this step. It’s the start of the hydrating process and it wakes me up. Use whatever flower mist or water you like. Any spray should have glycerin or hyaluronic acid in it. La Roche-Posay Toleriane Ultra 8 (£19.50, lookfantastic.com) is one of my favourites and is good even for sensitive skin.
APPLY EYE CREAM BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE
Do not apply your eye product last. No matter how carefully you apply your serums and moisturisers you will always get some in the eye area, and then your eye product won’t be absorbed where you need it to be. Pointless. Apply eye products to the orbital area (the area covered by your sunglasses) before serum, moisturiser and SPF. Sunday Riley Auto Correct eye cream (£60, johnlewis.com) is a good all-rounder.
SANDWICH YOUR SERUM AND OILS
This step is what I am asked about the most. I use a mixture of oils and serums, and application goes by texture. Serums – especially water-based ones – go on first. I’m a big fan of Beauty Pie (beautypie.com) for inexpensive serums to treat all sorts of skin concerns. Next, a couple of drops of facial oil if you are using one – I always take Indeed Labs Squalane Facial Oil (£19.99, lookfantastic.com) on flights – topped off with your moisturiser.
MOISTURISE AND PROTECT
In one of her YouTube videos with her trademark swept-back bun
Your moisturiser is your coat/protection. People tend to spend far too long choosing their moisturiser and far too little time taking care of what goes on beforehand. Remember to avoid anything ‘mattifying’ – a promise that’s often made on products for oily skin. Skin is not designed to be ‘matt’. Your skin has plenty of time to be matt when you’re dead.
If your skin is excessively oily, just go for light hyaluronic acid serums, which help lock in moisture, and oil-free moisturisers. No need to force the issue. Leave that to your make-up. Whatever moisturiser you are using that is right for your skin, whack it on now. I like Jordan Samuel Skin The Performance Cream (£34, cultbeauty.co.uk).
ALWAYS FINISH WITH SPF
I recommend using a walnut-sized dollop of a separate SPF. A moisturiser with added SPF will not benefit the skin as much as two separate products will. I mean, it’s better than nothing, but wouldn’t you rather be safe than sorry?
Do not use an SPF instead of a moisturiser. That’s like going out all day with a raincoat on and only bra and knickers underneath.
Unless that is your everyday outfit of choice, I suggest you wear actual clothes (moisturiser) underneath your raincoat (SPF). You should always use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against UVA rays, which damage your skin’s elasticity, and UVB rays, which can cause skin damage and alter the structure of cells, potentially leading to skin cancer. I would always recommend an SPF30 or higher. La Roche-Posay Anthelios is one of the SPF ranges I recommend (from £11, lookfantastic.com) as they have products to suit all skin types. Apply it everywhere, including the back of your neck and the top of your ears. Women typically apply their SPF before they hit the beach and put their hair in a ponytail the minute they hit the sand. EARS! Even if you aren’t on holiday.
WHY YOUR EVENING ROUTINE IS CRUCIAL
While the main point of the morning routine is to prep your skin for the day, the primary purpose of your evening routine is to help your skin help itself. Your face is not being bombarded with sunlight and dirt at night, so you can get the treatments in while they actually have a better chance of being effective.
THE DOUBLE CLEANSE
‘Do I need to double cleanse?’ is another of my most frequently asked questions. The name speaks for itself – it simply means cleaning your skin twice. The only time I don’t double cleanse is if I haven’t applied SPF or make-up. Otherwise, I go straight in with an oil-based product to hit the grease, dirt, make-up and general gunk on my face after a day in Central London.
If you wear SPF you need to double cleanse. A lot of people who think they are allergic to SPF because it breaks them out are simply not taking the time to wash it off properly. Using the flannel from the morning is fine. I usually use two out of the following three products: pre-cleanse oil or eye make-up remover, oil/balm cleanser, milk/gel cleanser. I know I’m biased but my favourite double cleanser is the one I created with Pixi (Pixi + Caroline Hirons Double Cleanse, £24, pixibeauty.co.uk).
MY ANTI-AGEING WONDER TREATMENT
Vitamin A products, most commonly known as retinoids, go on to dry skin after cleansing. I love these. They are easily the best products for fighting signs of ageing. Everyone should use one. (If you don’t know where to start, have a look at Medik8’s range, medik8.com.) They are worth the faff. Just use them correctly. Don’t apply a lot, thinking it will work faster. It won’t. Apply a small, pea-sized amount, or in the case of an oil, a few drops – less is more. Avoid the neck, eyes, nose and mouth, otherwise you risk irritation. Start by using every third night, moving to more regular use when you know your skin is tolerating it. Leave it for about 20 minutes before applying anything else.
LAYER PRODUCTS BEFORE YOU SLEEP
As in the morning routine, now it’s time for your eye cream. If you typically wake up with puffy eyes, use a lighter texture in the evening, or a serum or gel-based cream. Avoid rich eye creams. Then it’s my favourite step – on the days you don’t use a retinoid, this is where you can really go to town. Treatment products should be your main expense skincare-wise and what you use will depend on what you’re trying to achieve. If you have rosacea, you might want something like Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster (£37, paulaschoice.co.uk) that contains azelaic acid which can help that condition, and there isn’t anyone on earth who wouldn’t benefit from some more hyaluronic acid. Or if you’ve got dry skin, you might choose to use a good facial oil.
Try to have at least three products you can use in rotation, depending on your skin’s needs that day. Whether or not you use a night-time moisturiser depends on what treatment you prefer. If you are using a lovely night-time oil, you may not want/need anything else; otherwise, go for the same moisturiser you use in the morning (as long as it doesn’t contain an SPF – your skin really doesn’t need an SPF at night). ageing? it’s a fact of life!
It is worth mentioning that although a good routine will undoubtedly improve the quality of your skin, a glowing, clear complexion is different to facial structure. No amount of skincare will actually stop you ageing or change the structure of your skin. If you are more concerned about the signs of ageing such as a heavy brow, hollow cheeks, sagging jawline or hooded eyelids, you’ll need either a needle or an operation. To be clear, I am not suggesting for one second that you actually need any interventions with your face; I am merely trying to manage expectations.
By the time we reach 50, loss of elastin and collagen in the skin is most noticeable, especially during and after menopause.
Skin will have the most visible and immediate results from treatments such as fillers, Botox, laser, radio-frequency, PRP (platelet-rich plasma), thread lift… the options are endless and limited only to how much you want to tweak and, of course, how much you have to spend.
I’ve had filler twice, and will definitely have it again at some point, and I’ve had my eyelids done but I’ve also looked after my skin. Botox and filler change the structure of your skin, not the surface of it. You may have plumper, higher cheeks, but you could still have acne, pigmentation, redness and dryness – that’s where good skincare comes in.
The product every woman should use
Acids sound scary but can be brilliant for many different types of skin. To be used after cleansing, they come as liquids or pre-soaked pads and gels. They replace your traditional toner. There are three main types of acid…
ALPHA HYDROXY ACIDS (AHAs) FOR ANTI-AGEING These are the most commonly used acids and include glycolic, citric and lactic. They are water-soluble and, with the exception of glycolic, do not penetrate deeply beneath the skin’s surface. They exfoliate, stimulate collagen formation and normalise the outermost layer of the skin. They are best for targeting signs of ageing. Try Pixi Glow Tonic (£18, pixibeauty.co.uk).
BETA HYDROXY ACID (BHA) FOR ACNE The most common type of BHA is salicylic. Like AHAs, BHA acts as an exfoliant, increasing the shedding of dead skin cells, but it is oil-soluble which means it can penetrate oily pores and help to exfoliate the pore itself. It’s useful for treating breakouts, managing keratosis pilaris (small bumps on the skin) and conditions involving blocked pores. Try Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant (£28, paulaschoice.co.uk).
POLYHYDROXY ACIDS (PHAs) FOR SENSITIVE SKIN The larger molecular size and slower penetration of these means they’re non-irritating. Multitasking PHAs are great at attracting moisture, restoring skin barrier function and protecting against collagen degradation. Lactobionic, gluconolactone and maltobionic are examples. Try Zelens PHA+ Bio-Peel Resurfacing Facial Pads (£65, lookfantastic.com).
‘A good routine will undoubtedly improve the quality of your skin,’ says Caroline
What’s your true skin type?
The terms skin condition and skin type are often used interchangeably, but they are totally different things and you work with them in different ways. A ‘condition’ is something that can describe either a (hopefully) temporary situation that occurs as a result of lifestyle factors, or a long-term problem that can occur for other reasons, such as illness – things such as acne, eczema and rosacea are conditions and may require consulting a doctor, whereas your skin type is essentially the skin you were born with.
This has a low production of sebum, the oily substance your skin produces to help waterproof it. Dry skin is often confused with dehydrated skin, caused by lack of water. One of the telltale differences is that dry skin doesn’t absorb products easily, while on dehydrated skin, make-up disappears (and goes patchy) throughout the day as the skin is absorbing any water in your foundation.
This is prone to excessive production of sebum. Your skin may appear shiny and thickened, and show larger pores. Blackheads and spots can be present.
This contains a good balance of sebum and moisturising factors. Skin texture is good.
The most common skin type. Usually presents a greasier T-zone (your forehead and nose) and dehydrated or dry cheeks.
Beauty Myths Busted
Cellulite creams work: Save your money. There is not one cellulite cream on the market that gets rid of it. Not one. Either by prescription or over the counter, it makes no difference. They may make your skin feel softer and smoother, but they aren’t shifting the fat. Cellulite is not caused by trapped ‘toxins’. It’s caused when your underlying fat cells start to push through connective tissue. Connective tissue is weakened by a mixture of things, including hormones, lack of exercise, poor muscle tone, excess fat and poor circulation. Around 90 per cent of women get cellulite – compared to ten per cent of men, as they have stronger connective tissue – and as lack of oestrogen makes it worse, it gets more of an issue as we age. Some fillers and injectables can help, albeit temporarily. Eat well, move around more, drink plenty of water, take care of your health in general. And even after you’ve done all that, your genes may well just insist that you keep your cellulite.
You have to use everything from the same brand: No, you do not have to use everything from the same brand. Your serum from XYZ won’t know that your moisturiser is from ABC and stop working in protest. That’s not how it works, no matter what sales hype you are given from the brands at a beauty counter. There are thousands of products out there. Embrace them (obviously within your budget), and the next time someone tells you that you simply have to use their moisturiser on top of their serum or they won’t work, don’t buy either of them.
Moisturiser is your most important purchase: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had a conversation with people who tell me they are using an incredibly expensive moisturiser, but cleansing with wipes or a quick wash in the shower. Your moisturiser is your coat. It’s your protection and ‘cushion’ from the elements. Of course it’s important – and, yes, you can find moisturisers that contain all sorts of wonderful things such as peptides, vitamins and other active ingredients. But those ingredients will generally work better for you in a serum where they can more freely penetrate and get to work while your moisturiser stands guard. If you are on a tight budget, prioritise your spending on exfoliating acids and a good retinoid serum and you can get away with cheaper cleansers and moisturisers.
Celebs just use soap and water: Let’s be clear. Celebrities telling us they don’t wash their faces and saying they only use soap and water is not new. Some have always said that. It was utter b******s then, and it is now. The ‘average’ woman (you and me) feels enough pressure to be perfect without XYZ celeb saying they don’t work out (lies), they eat ‘everything in sight!’ (lies) and now that they don’t wash their face at all? Give me a break. Please don’t think that these people have perfect skin without skincare and/or medical intervention. The jig is up, people. Enough.
You need a detox: Despite what the ‘clean and green’ industry would have you believe, we have our own built-in detox system. It’s called your lungs, liver, kidneys and skin. Outside of the medically supervised detox treatment in a hospital or drug-dependency unit, any other use of the word ‘detox’ is disingenuous at its best and absolute nonsense at worst. And it has no business in either the food world or in skincare. Detox products. Detox creams. Detox teas. Detox pads for your feet. Detox hair straighteners. Enough. If your body was ‘full of toxins’ you would be, at best, very ill and, at worst, dead.
My ultimate hero buys
Why wipes are bad news
They’re bad for the environment (even if you bin them rather than flush them) and they’re bad for your skin. They don’t cleanse, they just move dirt around your face, and I don’t recommend using them unless you really have no access to water (hospitals, flights, festivals – emergencies only, you get the idea). If you are consistently ‘cleansing’ with wipes and then applying a really expensive serum or moisturiser, you are wasting your money. And your time. I’m also not a fan of sheet masks, aka wipes with holes cut out for the eyes. They’re unenvironmentally-friendly fabric soaked in goodness knows what that promise to saturate your skin with beneficial ingredients. Yes, I’ve used them, we all have. But they do not give you anything you can’t get from applying a couple of rounds of hyaluronic acid serum to your face before your moisturiser.
Skincare: The Ultimate No-nonsense Guide by Caroline Hirons
This is an edited extract from Caroline’s book
Skincare: The Ultimate No-nonsense Guide, which will be published by HQ on 25 June, price £20. Click here to preorder a copy.