Daphney Edouard, 26, doesn’t mind being the youngest woman in her morning workout classes in Reston, Va. But every once in a while, the multi-decade age gap between Edouard, a digital producer for Sephora, and her fitness comrades makes itself glaringly evident. Earlier this year, one classmate approached her after class and gestured at Edouard’s forehead. “She was like, ‘Tell me, what religion does that represent?’”

Edouard was wearing a black, star-shaped hydrocolloid acne patch between her eyebrows.

“I laughed, and she was like, ‘What’s so funny?’” Edouard recalls. “I just said: ‘I have a pimple. This is a pimple.’”

The rest of the women in her class “were surprised I wanted to wear such a vibrant, loud pimple patch to the workout class, out in public,” she says.

For a few years now, pimple patches like the one Edouard had on that day — opaque, whimsically shaped, in conspicuously nonhuman hues such as bright yellow, jet black, magenta and even rainbow — have been showing up on more and more faces in workout classes, in classrooms, at workplaces and online. Many are medicated with hydrocolloid or salicylic acid; they treat pimples while also covering them up, protecting them from both idle fingers and strangers’ stares. As a skin-care tool, pimple patches, which gained traction in the late 2010s, were a game-changing development in skin-care technology. But they’ve also become a fashion trend. And although their proliferation heralds a shift in attitudes toward acne — one of the most universal discomforts of being a human — they’ve also begun to act as a social signifier.

The first generation of pimple patches arrived in the late 2010s. Hero’s Mighty Patch hydrocolloid dots, for example, debuted in 2017, and Peace Out began offering flesh-toned and translucent versions of the same concept around the same time.

Then, in 2019, came Starface, whose pentagram-shaped Hydro-Star patches would eventually be available in a full spectrum of opaque, vibrant colors. Decorative and spunky, they were a sensation almost immediately. Hailey and Justin Bieber were photographed sporting them around in their daily lives and, crucially, showed up wearing them in photos on social media. So did Florence Pugh, Willow Smith and Nicola Peltz Beckham, and the brand even debuted its first black version of the product on models in a 2022 Puppets and Puppets fashion show.

In addition to being a hot celebrity accessory, though, Starface products earned a devoted following among adolescents and young adults. These days, 60 percent of Starface’s business comes from Gen Z and the ascendant consumers of Gen Alpha (born in 2010 and later), according to Kara Brothers, the brand’s president. Brothers spoke to The Washington Post after interviewing high school students in London, “and they were talking about how they all kind of trade pimple patches at their lockers,” she says.

Cadence Lawson, 12, just finished sixth grade in Bowling Green, Ky., and can confirm: She and her classmates trade their Starface pimple patches not just for other Starface colors, but also for higher-value goods. “It’s mainly at lunch,” she says. “For ice cream, or something like that.”

“They’re the new Pokémon cards,” cracks Cadence’s dad, Daniel, 34. Earlier this year, Daniel, who creates video content with his wife on several platforms as the Awesome Lawsons, starred in a skit inspired by Cadence’s use of the Starface stickers. (Though, as Cadence points out, she has gotten the last laugh when her dad has borrowed the occasional Starface patch to treat a breakout of his own.)

Starface’s dominance in the pimple-patch game is hard to deny. Other brands have also begun offering colorful acne patches in eye-catching shapes (see: Peace Out’s rainbow offering in the shape of a two-fingered peace sign), and the popularity of Starface itself has even inspired some young people to wear the patches purely as fashion statements — with no pimple or blemish underneath.

Cadence has seen the little stars adorn plenty of acne-free faces at her elementary school; Annie Miller, 15, has seen the same in the halls of her public high school in Fountain Hills, Ariz. (Both of the girls themselves, though, say they tend to save their patches for when they have pimples.)

When Starface patches are on a jawline or chin, Annie says, she assumes they’re being used to treat actual zits. On a cheek, though, or in that alluring Marilyn Monroe mole position, above the lip? That’s just fashion, baby.

(Brothers adds that Starface formulates its products to be safe for all of its youngster customers, as well as the adolescent and older ones. Hydrocolloid, a gentle active ingredient that creates a moist environment, has historically been used to speed up healing in all kinds of skin wounds and is, Brothers says, “a safe ingredient for all.”)

As strange and youthfully capricious as such a trend may seem, there is centuries-old precedent for wearing stars and other adorable shapes on the face just for fun, according to Susan Stewart, the author of “Painted Faces: A Colourful History of Cosmetics.”

Tiny silk patches in the shapes of “stars, crescent moons, diamonds, all those sorts of things” were often affixed to the faces of well-to-do young people in 17th-century Western Europe. The trend originated in the French royal court, where the patches were initially used to cover up the scars and skin damage from diseases such as smallpox and syphilis, “but they eventually became quite popular. Where they were worn on the face could signify ‘I’m married’ or ‘I’m not married,’ or ‘I’m available’ or ‘not available.’ Or, alternatively, ‘I support this political party or that political party,’” Stewart says. The type or placement may have also indicated astrological signs, she adds, or even religious beliefs. (So Edouard’s workout classmate may not have been totally clueless — just off by a few hundred years.)

Today, used as accessories, the star-shaped stickies may signify something else. Annie, the rising 10th-grader in Arizona, remembers her reaction when a classmate came to school one morning last year wearing somewhere around seven Starface stars, which didn’t appear to be covering acne: “I’m like, ‘You’ve got a lot of money,’” she recalls.

As Annie’s mom, Sidney Miller — whose other two daughters, 12-year-old twins, also use Starface products — points out, one package of 32 can cost around $11 to $17. “Even if they put two on a day during the school week,” she says, a pack for one child would last about only three weeks. “So they constantly have to have new ones.”

Miller isn’t surprised to learn that children are bartering for them, “because there are probably kids who don’t have the access otherwise.”

To Stewart, the popularity of opaque, non-camouflaging pimple patches also represents a radical shift in attitudes toward acne. From the snow-white, lead-laced, full-face makeup of the 18th century to the thick concealers of the latter 20th and the color correctors of the 21st, the objective has virtually always been to cover up pimples by making them look like the rest of the unaffected skin around them. As if to say, I don’t even have acne.

To cover up a visible blemish with an equally visible patch, though, sends an entirely different message: I have a pimple. We’re just not going to look at it. (Or risk exacerbating it with layers of makeup.)

“The generations coming up are certainly more comfortable in their skin, and they’re definitely yearning for brands, people, workplaces that allow them to show up exactly as they are,” Brothers says.

“It’s certainly very different to how these sort of things have been dealt with in the past,” Stewart says. “It seems quite an open-minded and a positive way of looking at things, instead of trying to achieve the unachievable.”

Indeed, Gen Z seems more reluctant than previous generations to feel shame (or to shame one another) for dealing with issues, such as pimples, that can — and do — happen to anyone. In recent years, TikTokers have shared unedited close-ups of celebrities’ skin at the Met Gala and other high-profile, high-glamour events, emphasizing that even people whose entire jobs revolve around being beautiful sometimes have uneven skin textures, hyperpigmentation, wrinkles and, yes, acne.

That attitude, it seems, is contagious. One morning, about a month after Edouard’s pimple patch was mistaken for a religious symbol, she says, a different woman from her workout class arrived at that day’s session and excitedly pointed to her own face.

It would of course come off before her work meeting later, the classmate said — but there, proudly and unapologetically, was a pimple patch.

This shoot was photographed at John’s Restaurant in Palm Desert, Calif. A special thanks to George Argyros.

Modeling by Catherine Pham for DT Model Management. Styled by Bri Caamano. Hair and makeup by Caitlin Krenz for Exclusive Artists.

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