Caroline Calloway is currently on form. The influencer slash grifter extraordinaire - whose previous projects include selling $200 titty paintings, infringing Matisse IP and selling $165 tickets to a creativity workshop despite her perpetual inability to finish her debut novel - has announced her latest venture: a homemade face oil, which runs to $210 (£151) a bottle, and is literally called “Snake Oil”.
In a slightly manic series of Instagram stories, Calloway launched Snake Oil just over a week ago. “Okay, so we all know that I have amazing skin… I have the skin of a viral 18-year-old TikToker, and I’m turning 30 in December,” she began (to be fair, she does have amazing skin). “Only my close friends know that I’m obsessed with making my own, special face oil concoction,” she said, revealing a mysterious vial of cloudy, yellow liquid.
Unsurprisingly, the first question on many people’s lips was: What the hell is in this potion and what benefit, if any, could it possibly have for my skin?
For the first few days, the contents of Snake Oil remained mysterious – though that didn’t stop the first run of the product selling out within hours. Eventually, Calloway released a lengthy ingredient list, featuring lots of complicated-sounding oils that sound more like a £9 Muji candle than something you should put directly onto your precious, delicate face.
So, we decided to do what Calloway possibly should have done a while ago, and ask a medically qualified dermatologist to give their opinion on Snake Oil. I showed Snake Oil’s ingredient list to NHS dermatologist Dr Sreedhar Krishna, and the results were a mixed bag.
While Dr Krishna was quite complimentary about grapeseed oil, which constitutes around 70 percent of Snake Oil (it makes skin “softer, more elastic, and protects against acne outbreaks”), he was slightly less enthused about the remaining 30 percent. For oils such as ylang-ylang, frankincense and pomegranate, there is “very little evidence to support any benefit to your skin”, while the uses of rosemary oil are “mainly culinary”.
Dr Krishna dismissed Calloway’s claims that Snake Oil is a magical cure-all: “The vast majority of ingredients don’t provide any benefit to hair, and the oil is highly unlikely to strengthen nails, as it does not contain any ingredients which would help carry the ingredients into the base of the nail.” He was sort-of pro putting it in your bath, though: “It will produce a range of desirable aromas, but it is expensive for what it is.” Ouch.
He was also suspicious of the sheer number of ingredients in Snake Oil: “While an ingredient might be safe to apply to the skin in isolation, this may not hold true when they are combined in a single product.” Putting this many oils in a single product increases the likelihood that the oils will cause a reaction, either with your skin or with each other.
Finally, Dr Krishna noted that both lemon peel oil and neroli oil will sensitise your skin to the sunlight, meaning that users should steer clear of direct sunlight after use – something that Calloway might consider mentioning on her labels.
It’s wholly unsurprising that Caroline Calloway’s skincare product isn’t particularly legit, because it’s not trying to be. Everything from the home-made label to the tongue-in-cheek references to Goop (another company that excels at outrage marketing) suggests that Snake Oil is to be taken with a heavy dose of irony.
In Calloway’s Instagram stories, we see her proudly demoing her production line — which consists of Calloway sprawled on her cluttered bedroom floor, chaotically pouring various liquids into vials. One suspects that the “tableaux” (Calloway’s term for her panic attack-inducing studio apartment) is probably not a sterile environment. There’s even a visible cat hair in one of the product shots.
I asked influencer marketing manager Lottie Madison why consumers would choose to buy a homemade skincare product from someone like Calloway, instead of something lab-tested that definitely won’t burn your face off. “It’s not about skincare,” Madison explains. “It’s more like a souvenir.”
“If I bought Caroline’s Snake Oil, I probably wouldn’t even put it on my face. I would tweet about it, put it all over my Instagram, review it on TikTok,” she says. “People are buying an exclusive run of something that is a part of internet culture and history. It’s making a statement that you know who Caroline Calloway is, and that you’re cool enough to be in on the joke.”
In a tweet, New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz went one step further, suggesting that Calloway is essentially selling a backlash, which will result in more attention, which she can then monetise further, in a kind of endless, late capitalist churn.
If you want to buy Caroline Calloway’s Snake Oil for cosmetic reasons, keep in mind that you can buy a big bottle of grapeseed oil from Holland & Barrett for £5.99, and please for the love of God, wear SPF. But if you want to buy Snake Oil as a pricey little tchotchke – a token which proves how Extremely Online you are – by all means, go ahead.