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The push to make Botox as common as getting a blowout

The “Drybar of Botox” and a new beauty site could help normalize cosmetic injections.

An injectable.
Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

“NEED MONEY FOR BOTOX” reads a neon sign in a post on Alchemy 43’s Instagram page. The rest of the feed looks like that of any typical beauty startup these days: lots of Beyoncé references, lots of soft pastels, lots of pretty young women.

But Alchemy 43 is not a makeup or skin care brand. It’s been dubbed the “Drybar of Botox” and offers customers a more aesthetically pleasing place than a sterile dermatologist’s office or a sketchy Groupon medspa to get Botox and other face treatments. The shops feature curvy, soft pink furniture and white marble countertops. Apparently they even offer you snacks — not a popular amenity at most dermatologist offices.

Like Drybar, the popular chain that offers only blowouts and other dry styling (versus cuts and color like at a full-service salon), Alchemy 43 aims to be really good at one thing. But instead of blowouts, it’s face injectables.

The messaging around Botox and other so-called “minimally invasive” injectables has shifted lately. While it is a potentially dangerous medical treatment, it’s being increasingly marketed as a beauty product, and that marketing is often directed toward younger customers. The rise of Alchemy 43 and a new beauty website launched by Allergan, Botox’s manufacturer, demonstrates an attempt to make needles as commonplace as mascara wands.

Botox and other facial injections are more popular than ever, but there’s room to grow

More than half of Alchemy 43’s customers probably don’t even have wrinkles yet. Founder Nicci Levy said the biggest surprise after one year in business was learning that more than half of her customers were younger than 35. “They’re very pro-preventive treatments; they’re very pro-getting started early. They’re not ashamed,” she says.

People used to be ashamed of it. Botox was controversial when it launched in 2002. After all, it’s made from a deadly toxin — Botulinum toxin, to be specific. In large doses, it will kill you; in tiny doses delivered via a slim needle, however, it will freeze your facial muscles to temporarily smooth out wrinkles. You have to keep at it every three to six months to maintain the results. There aren’t conclusive studies that getting Botox can “train” muscles and actually prevent wrinkles, but some practitioners, including Levy, say there is anecdotal evidence that this is the case.

Since 2002, use of Botox has increased more than 800 percent, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. And in 2017, minimally invasive treatments, which include things like fillers, lip plumpers, and Botox, were up 2 percent over 2016 levels. Allergan, the company that made Botox the proper-noun-Kleenex of wrinkle reducers, is making a killing: Botox sales were up 14.5 percent in the second quarter of 2018 to $934.5 million, according to CNBC.

But one other piece of data may shed light on why we’re seeing these face injections being sold a bit differently than they used to be. According to the same 2017 ASPS survey, in the 20- to 29-year-old age group, minimally invasive cosmetic procedures were actually down 1 percent compared to the prior year. It’s the only age group where that was the case. Young people might still be leery of things presented in a clinical light and framed as an anti-ager for older people.

One particularly famous person in this age bracket personifies this. Kylie Jenner, 21, made headlines in July when she revealed she was getting rid of her lip fillers. That was the culmination of years of controversy surrounding her getting the lip injections in the first place. Her fillers raised lots of thorny issues about how we think about race and beauty and questions about how young is too young for injections, to name a few.

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So despite the strength of the market for injectables overall, there’s obviously still a lot more room for it catch on among younger consumers. Interest this year seems to be perking up in that age group: A representative at RealSelf, a sort of TripAdvisor for aesthetic procedures, says, “The age group where interest in Botox is increasing the fastest is with 18- to 24-year-olds.” That age group is also the one driving the online conversation about beauty on platforms like YouTube and Instagram.

Poison, but make it beauty

Botox has always been positioned as an aesthetic procedure, and that’s different from what we normally think of as a beauty procedure. Medical aesthetics refer to procedures that require a medical practitioner to administer; they affect your appearance and are not done out of medical necessity. Beauty procedures are relatively more benign treatments like manicures and, yes, blowouts. Medical aesthetics exist in the place between hardcore plastic surgery, with anesthesia and downtime, and a more superficial procedure like getting a blowout.

Which makes Allergan’s new beauty website all the more interesting. Spotlyte, as the company is calling it, looks like a lot of other popular beauty sites out there right now. Images are sprinkled throughout a page featuring a clean layout and a sans serif logo. Articles include interviews with inspirational women in beauty-adjacent jobs and reviews of popular skin care products.

But there are also a lot of articles about aesthetic medical treatments. There are first-person essays recounting experiences with injectables and breezy interviews with beauty editors about their experiences with the procedures. The word “Botox” is never mentioned. Instead, the site is “brand-agnostic,” according to an Allergan representative, meaning it uses the phrase “wrinkle reducer” instead. It’s a little jarring to read it in interviews because no one really talks like that. In real life, everyone just says Botox.

“The content will be 50 percent medical aesthetics and 50 percent beauty. The juxtaposition of beauty and medical aesthetics gives readers a holistic lens into these worlds, while providing them with a variety of options to discover,” an Allergan representative wrote to Vox in an email.

Further supporting the thesis that there is a new beautification of Botox happening, Spotlyte is led by Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, who co-founded Gilt Groupe and GlamSquad. The latter is a service that allows you to book on-demand beauty services like hairstyling and makeup application in your home. Wilson knows how to position and sell beauty messaging.

Spotlyte is part of a mysterious initiative Allergan is calling Project Moonwalker, which “has been charged with fueling the category with digital innovation and thought leadership in order to change consumer perception and engagement with medical aesthetics.” Reading between the (frown) lines here, changing consumer perception likely means making medical aesthetics less scary and more normalized.

There is a chat system prominently displayed on the site for readers who have questions. “We want consumers to make an appointment, get a consult and have a treatment … that’s the goal,” writes the Allergan rep.

Botox on the go

Alchemy 43’s concept has proven to be very popular. The first shop opened in 2016, and there are now four outposts in LA. Levy, the founder, plans to open more in New York City in early 2019; Dallas, Orange County, and Miami will follow. Alchemy 43 has $3.2 million in funding, and, tellingly, one of its investors is Drybar founder Alli Webb.

Like Spotlyte’s leader, Levy is also using her background in beauty to position medical aesthetics as a beauty treatment. She has a long history in the beauty industry, working with makeup brands like MAC and Benefit. She also worked for years at Allergan as a sales rep, and both experiences inform how she markets the treatments. And like what the anti-aging skin care industry is doing lately, she uses terms that skew more positive rather than talking about changing your looks.

“We’re not about fixing problems,” Levy says. “It’s kind of like if you want to buy new makeup. We’re not about covering flaws or changing people’s faces; we’re about taking their natural look and enhancing them, whatever that means to them.”

Levy says she’s been surprised that the early adopters at Alchemy 43 have been younger, first-time injectors, not older women who already have experience with injections. (Men, a growing cohort of injectable users, make up about 15 percent of her customers.) Injections are performed by RNs, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants.

Younger customers are bringing in their moms. “So what happens now is we’ll have a girl come in — it’s her first experience with preventive Botox or with getting her lips enhanced, and then two weeks later she brings Mom in,” says Levy. “It’s been this shift in who’s teaching who about beauty.”

At $200 and up, several times a year, the procedures are not cheap. Alchemy 43 offers a payment system whereby members can pay $99 per month via debit, and that money is then banked and customers can apply it to treatments. There are perks to being a member, such as 15 percent off treatments and free treatments after a certain time period. (Levy says millennials seem to be “scared” of credit.)

Normalizing medical aesthetics

What’s happening here is a continued normalization of what has historically been considered taboo. Separating out injections from the scary world of plastic surgery and positioning them as a beauty treatment, like getting your eyebrows waxed, is an important step in that direction for the companies that are selling us these procedures.

There are a lot of cultural implications, none of them particularly good. The same arguments that existed when all of these injectable products first launched are still there: Is it worth the health risk, however small, of injecting unnatural substances into your face? Should we really be trying to literally erase the signs of age from our faces? As a person who has been getting “wrinkle-reducing injections” every six months for the past several years, I question all of these things regularly. But youthfulness equating to attractiveness is a difficult norm to buck. Chasing and maintaining youth can be an addictive pursuit.

Levy compares what’s happening in the injectable market now to other beauty treatments like bikini waxing. [It was a] “fringe thing to do, but things go through this evolution and then pretty soon everybody does it and you’re crazy if you don’t,” she says. “I feel like Botox and injectables are at that peak now. No longer is it this shameful thing. Now it’s like, ‘Who does your Botox?’”