“I Think About This a Lot” is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
Since quarantine began, I’ve been haunted by the advice that Hayden Panettiere gave in a 2007 commercial for Neutrogena Deep Clean Invigorating Ultra Foam Cleanser. How did she know, I mutter to myself each night before bed, my face wash adrip in a cracked porcelain sink, my hands circling each cheek in a futile attempt to exfoliate the days’ various anxieties off my skin. “Bored?” Panettiere asks at the end of the 30-second spot. “GO WASH YOUR FACE.”
Back in the spring, I began cultivating a rigorous and unnecessarily complicated epidermal regiment to keep my swirling thoughts and anxious hands where I could see them. Some learned how to pickle vegetables and breed sourdough yeast during this time; I experimented with vitamin C, microcurrenting my jowls, and oil-cleansing. I learned to use a gua sha tool. I “got into” dermaplaning (as much as one can “get into” scraping hair and dead skin off their chin). Attending to my face became my new favorite pastime as so many other activities were deemed off-limits.
I didn’t always enjoy facial fussing. When I first saw Neutrogena’s invigorating advertisement, as a college freshman, there was nothing exciting about skin care. It wasn’t something you talked about with friends — let alone something you could build a social-media following around. When it came to washing my face, I was neutral at best. Mostly I was embarrassed that I had so many dermatologist-prescribed steps to apply and swallow before bed, especially when many of the classmates who brushed their teeth beside me frequently skipped washing their faces just because they could. Can you imagine?
You probably can’t, because in 2020, skin care is our entire generation’s personality and shared security blanket. Back in 2007, however, we — the acne-afflicted and clear-skinned alike — apparently had to be convinced by the good people at Neutrogena that washing our faces wasn’t just about doing skin chores, it was a good time to be had by all.
And so it was: a commercial for Neutrogena Deep Clean Invigorating Ultra Foam Cleanser that begins with Hayden nodding off at the sink. “Washing your face is totally boring, right?” she asks. “WRONG!” Then she throws foam at the camera. Wild woman. A faceless-yet-hip female narrator’s voice takes over (“New Neutrogena Deep Clean Invigorating Ultra Foam Cleanser is so exhilarating, you feel totally energized!”) while Hayden demonstrates just how exciting the scrubbing-off of facial grime can be. I remember all too well that my 19-year-old self found the ad to be supremely lame: Washing your face isn’t an ACTIVITY, I thought. Get back to Gossip Girl, CW. As a 32-year-old who recently added no less than six new steps to my quarantine skin-care routine because I needed an indoor hobby, however, I regard the commercial as one eerily ahead of its time.
What made the grown-ups at Neutrogena’s 2007 ad agency decide fun was our demographic’s main skin-care concern? Was it because, just a few years earlier, we could only be tricked into eating cereal if an amped-up cartoon mascot sang its praises? Or because we played with toys like Bop It that were designed to overstimulate? To a generation of ad executives who parented our peers, “fun” was the teenager’s ultimate currency; boredom, our biggest threat.
And they decided Hayden Panettiere was the one who could save us. In 2007, Hayden was the star of the popular NBC sci-fi show Heroes, about ordinary people who discover they have superhero abilities. Hayden played a cheerleader with the power of rapid cellular regeneration. She was also the sole horcrux of planet earth: If she went down, the show implied, so did we. Neutrogena had a thing for the quintessential popular girl back then, or at least assumed its core demographic did: The O.C.’s Mischa Barton, High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens, and a post-“Candy,” pre–Princess Diaries Mandy Moore all starred in Neutrogena commercials that decade. Let it be known, however, that only Hayden played a character with the same superpower as our modern skin-care hero, retinol. Did Neutrogena spot an opportunity to make her into a nascent skin-care influencer?
All the same, maybe it’s too great a leap to say that Hayden presaged our modern relationship with skin care. Flesh-havers of the world have long sought to lessen the appearance of their skin’s fine lines, to alleviate existential boredom, and to soothe their various anxieties, no matter how temporary the results. It’s the routine that’s therapeutic. Now, as we enter another winter of quarantine, washing my face is not, as it once was, a final pain-in-the-ass hurdle to jump on my way to bed and pillow, but instead: a happy, welcome relief, a cleansing away of stress-sweat and 2020’s daily shitstorm particles.