To celebrate her 29th birthday in July, Vi Lai asked her nearly-400,000 TikTok followers to help her roast her mid-20s self.
“Stop hanging around St. Ives when you’re Cera-freaking-Ve,” the skin-care influencer begins, addressing a picture of herself taken roughly half a decade ago. “You’re sold out everywhere in the country, honey. Know your worth. Add taxes, shipping and handling.”
For those hundreds of thousands who follow Lai across the World Wide Web — she uses the handle @whatsonvisface — you know this is just how she does things. She’s informative, but not patronizing; hysterical, but not inauthentic; self-empowered, but not in a way that makes her sound like a voiceover in a probiotic yogurt commercial.
From a strictly bird’s-eye view, Lai’s capital-C Content is about one thing, and that’s skin care. But there’s something much more intimate in each 60-second clip in which she, let’s just say, spells out the most overhyped products from Sephora. Lai, who currently works in real estate in Massachusetts, is also exceptionally open about her experiences with anxiety and depression, having built her now-seemingly-professional skin-care expertise out of a psychological coping mechanism. So when she began her dedicated skin-care Instagram two years ago, she never once planned to create the kind of community she has now. Then, she downloaded TikTok.
“I signed up for TikTok in January just because I was bored,” she says. “I was like, ‘I need a place to hang out.’ So I started posting old videos and blew up pretty immediately.”
It’s not hard to see why: Lai’s approach is enormously accessible, giving the most airtime to simple, affordable drugstore staples anyone can find at Target. “I know not everyone can afford more than four products in their skin-care routine because that used to be me,” she says. “And now I have all PR products I don’t have to pay for. So it’s not right for me to sit here and tell people you need 12 steps to get nice skin when I get it for free, you know?”
I gave Lai a call and we had a long, winding conversation about anxiety, parabens and sunscreen, as well as her favorite democratic socialist, who may or may not already follow her on Instagram. Read on for the highlights.
You’re obviously a skin-care icon. How does it feel?
For somebody who’s constantly anxious, it’s a lot, to be completely honest with you. The attention is nice because who doesn’t love attention. [Laughs] At the same time, I have anxiety. So the level of DMs and emails I get every day… It’s quite hard to keep up with. But I’m so happy you watch me, I’m honored.
I’m so happy to get to chat with you. On the topic of anxiety, I have anxiety, too, and I really appreciate the ways in which you speak so expertly about skin care while also being transparent about your mental health. I imagine that’s something your followers appreciate, as well.
Right. For the last five years, I’ve been crippled by depression. And for the first three to four of those years, I was very embarrassed because in my culture, my parents don’t understand mental health. They don’t understand depression because for them, if they have food to eat, if they can pay the bills, what’s there to be depressed about? So I felt lost and embarrassed and ashamed because here I am, so lucky compared to all my family members in Vietnam, and I’m depressed that they don’t understand the illness. But I found myself online — I found my community — and I just let go of that mindset. So now I’m just like, ‘I’m going to speak my truth and anyone out there who’s going through the same thing can know they’re not alone.’ It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
It’s wonderful you were able to find comfort and power in your community online because there’s obviously a lot of people who get more anxious the more they use social media.
Yes. Here’s what I think. Social media can be a huge contributor to people’s anxiety and depression because everyone’s content is so curated and everyone posts the best versions of their best life. And when you compare yourself to those people if you already feel bad about yourself, it makes you feel worse. And then it makes you feel like, ‘What am I doing wrong? I’m this age and I don’t have my shit together… All these people are living their best lives, blah, blah, blah.’ So for me, as soon as I found myself, I just started showing 100% of myself online. This is me. If this is the kind of person you want to follow, great. But if not, it’s fine. I don’t need followers.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez follows you on Instagram…
That’s still the highlight of my life. I didn’t even notice because my account was growing at such a fast pace. One of my followers pointed it out, and I was like, Holy. Shit. I want to ask her one day, if I have the opportunity, how she found me. Because I think she secretly has a TikTok.
If you could have a meal with AOC, what would you want to talk to her about?
Oh my God. I know she has this stellar skin-care routine because she shared it before and she knows her stuff. So we’ll talk about skin care, but more importantly, we’ll talk about her direction, where she sees herself in four years, hopefully when she turns 35… If you know what I mean. [Laughs] I’d want to ask her how I, as an individual, can help her with her policy and spread her message in whatever way I can. I’m not much younger than she is, but I look up to her so much. She’s inspired me to be a badass and not care what other people label me as. If that’s being a bitch, then I want to be a huge-ass-bitch, like a boss bitch.
I certainly consider you a boss bitch. I mean, you definitely speak your mind about your least favorite products or those you believe may not be worth the money.
I’ve learned that skin care for people doesn’t have to be as practical as how I see it. I see skin care as practical, as preventative, because you want to take care of your skin when you’re young so you don’t have to worry about it much when you’re older. I’m just looking out for people. But again, I get a lot of hate because people are like, “You’re so negative!” I’m not going to argue with that.
Is there one product you consider to be the number-one-most-overhyped?
I think my least favorite that I hope all influencers stop posting about is the Caudalie Beauty Elixir spray. Only because sprays don’t interest me. What purpose do they serve? Okay, you may want to spray your face before you apply a moisturizer in order to trap all that moisture, but you can just use water or a hydrating toner that doesn’t contain like, 20 essential oils. If you look at the Caudalie ingredient list, literally the first ingredient is water, and that’s the best ingredient in the whole list because the rest of them are like, ‘citrus oil.’
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Regarding prevention, I’ve found there to be some amount of frustration and confusion surrounding sunscreen recently. A lot still leave a white cast, or they have additives like parabens or citric acid.
First things first, I don’t mind parabens. I think they get a bad rap because of the clean-beauty movement. That’s a whole different conversation, but I feel like clean beauty is kind of pretentious and classist. It was started by a bunch of rich, wealthy white ladies who demonized regular, normal ingredients. So I don’t think parabens are all that bad for you. Some people may disagree, but when parabens are used in cosmetic products, it’s a super-tiny amount. And I think the studies [that disparage paraben use] are based on putting a shit-load of them in a small lab rat or something. So of course it has a bad impact on the body of the rat, but for us humans, when we’re using parabens in a skin-care product, we’re just not going to get to that level. If a formula is amazing, you need a preservative to keep the product long-lasting.
What would you say we should look for in a SPF?
I’m very specific. I know people say you can get away with SPF 30, which you may — it may protect you with up to, maybe, 97% coverage — but I tend to go for SPF 50, minimum. The difference in the protection is like, 1%. But 1% adds up. I’ve got my whole life. I don’t want to skim off 1% from my entire life!
Another thing a lot of people don’t realize is that we need to apply two milligrams of sunscreen per square centimeter of skin. I have a big face, so it could be half a teaspoon. That’s a lot of SPF that I don’t think a normal person would apply. So when you use a low SPF and you don’t apply enough of it, that coverage is even lower. If you use SPF 30 and you apply half of the amount you’re supposed to, you’ll get an SPF 10, 15, which is not a lot…
Right, that’s barely doing anything.
Exactly. So the higher SPF may be more beneficial for people who don’t apply enough.
Of course, I also don’t want any white cast, but it’s really hard for American mineral sunscreen to not give you a white cast. The ones that don’t give you a white cast may not contain enough intensive coverage. Sunscreen is a drug, and the filters need to be FDA-approved. A lot of people are scared of chemical sunscreen these days. I don’t mind them, but the clean-beauty industry once again is trying to demonize them, which leaves most consumers with mineral sunscreen. But people of color have limited options. It’s really tricky, which is why I don’t like people who fear-monger. Until you find a mineral sunscreen that works for all our skin colors, you can’t dismiss chemical sunscreen like that because chemical sunscreen is the one that people of color have to rely on. They don’t leave us looking casket-ready. [Laughs]
I do think sunscreen is an encapsulation of the beauty industry’s more structural diversity and accessibility problems, and that just goes back to what you were saying about parabens, too.
Right. Most skin-care products on the market were designed for white skin. This isn’t even a racist statement, it’s facts. And unfortunately, even the Eastern markets have followed some of the formulations created by Western industry standards. Which is a shame, but again, K-Beauty revolutionized the whole freaking industry. I do wish that K-Beauty cared less about fragrance. They still put a lot of fragrance in their products because K-Beauty is about the experience. Skin care, for a lot of people, is about experience. It’s about self-care. It’s about just taking the time to take care of yourself. So they want it to be a pleasant experience, but again, for somebody like me, I just want to be practical, I want it to be preventative, I want to be smart about my skin care.
Which I imagine explains your philosophy of using fewer, better products.
That’s the point I’m trying to get across to my followers. I stopped posting product photos because I’m like, what’s the point? If I liked the product and I want to share it, I’ll share it. But I don’t want to post a shelfie or a flatlay just for the aesthetic because I don’t want people to feel like they have to buy it to have a certain kind of skin. That’s not true.
Right. I know you’ve expressed wanting to do this full-time. Do you have a dream skin-care job, like opening your own e-commerce store, running your own content platform…?
Honestly, up until maybe two months ago, I didn’t really think I was going to make this into a career. I never took on sponsored content only because I wanted to stay as raw as possible. I don’t think that sponsored content changes who you are, but for me, I just want to say whatever the hell I want. I don’t want to have to follow instructions.
Anyhow, and this is the dream for down the line, but I want to be able to have my own skin-care line. But at the same time, I feel like we don’t need another skin-care brand because there’s so much on the market already. I don’t want to contribute to pollution and make another skin-care line that nobody needs.
I also want to get an esthetician’s license just because when you’re an outspoken woman, people are like, ‘Oh, she’s not even a professional. Why is she acting like she knows what she’s talking about?’ But if you have access to Google, you’re able to educate yourself and know these things. You don’t need a license. Just like you don’t need to go to culinary school and become a chef to share a recipe with your friends and family. But I still want to get a license just to have something to back me up. And hopefully, that will open up a network for me to have my own skin-care line if I want to. The possibilities are endless.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Homepage photo: Courtesy of Vi Lai