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How the beauty industry is surviving the pandemic

Lipstick sales are way down, but fancy skin care gadgets are actually on the rise.

An array of lipsticks without their lids. Getty Images

Leonard Lauder, the current chairman emeritus of the Estée Lauder Companies, noticed that people were buying a lot of lipstick during the economic downturn of the early 2000s. He coined the term “lipstick index,” hypothesizing that consumers were willing to spend $30 on a small indulgence during a recession rather than shell out for a bigger-ticket luxury item like expensive shoes or a handbag.

That specific theory doesn’t really hold up during a pandemic in which the best way to prevent the spread of a deadly disease is by wearing a mask over the lower half of your face. Lipstick sales have tanked in the last six months, according to NPD Group beauty adviser Larissa Jensen, as the dual public health and economic crises brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic have worsened. It makes sense that lipstick isn’t really practical in this environment — no one can see it anyway, not to mention it would make a mess on the inside of the mask.

Sales of all beauty products are down 25 percent in the last six months compared to last year, according to NPD, but that doesn’t mean the beauty industry isn’t finding a way to adapt or that consumers aren’t buying products, including some that cost hundreds of dollars. The beauty industry is kind of like a cockroach; it always figures out how to survive.

Chalk it up to human nature.

“Humans groom themselves. It’s just what we do,” says Doreen Bloch, the CEO and founder of Poshly, a beauty data company. “People are still spending, people are still engaging in the category, but they’re shifting their dollars around.”

Those dollars are buying things like hair dye, fake eyelashes, “sexy” hand sanitizers, stick-on nail polish, and $300 gadgets that zap your face with electrical microcurrents or scrape your pores. Lipstick may be out, but the pandemic has pushed other things to the front of shoppers’ minds and faces.

Makeup in the mask age

Prestige makeup, meaning the more expensive brands sold at places like Sephora and department stores, has seen sales drop 37 percent in the last six months, according to NPD’s Jensen. Seventy-one percent of women surveyed by the firm said they “wear makeup less often due to Covid-19 lifestyle changes.”

Beauty companies are astute at either finding a problem people are talking about and trying to solve it, or manufacturing one. In the beginning of the pandemic, beauty brands attempted to push the narrative that work-from-home employees should care about their makeup because of Zoom calls, with media outlets publishing helpful beauty tips for video calls. But as Zoom fatigue has set in and we’ve become used to seeing the imperfection of people’s homes, with pets and children running in and out of frame, is that really a concern anymore?

“No, nobody cares,” says Kirbie Johnson, a beauty writer and co-host of the beauty-focused podcast Gloss Angeles. “Zoom has the beautify feature! If you’re really worried about it, you can click that and you’re done.”

That isn’t to say people aren’t wearing or caring about makeup. Johnson said she’s seen a push from brands for products that play up eyes, like mascara, fake lashes, brow products, and eye shadow, which is consistent with NPD’s sales data. More people are buying eye makeup than lipstick or foundation because that’s what’s more visible these days.

To reflect this new reality, Cosmopolitan is running a feature on eye makeup in its September issue, according to the magazine’s beauty director Julee Wilson. She says it’s about “having fun with makeup around your eyes because that’s how we can express ourselves now.

Jensen expects this eye trend to endure. “Face masks are part of our future for a bit longer term.”

Skin is in

Skin care is the real pandemic go-to, though. Johnson says that even makeup companies are pushing products that they think will appeal to the skin care crowd, such as Becca’s new Zero, which the company calls a “no pigment virtual foundation.” In other words, skin care.

Skin care sales are also lower than pre-pandemic levels thanks to store closures, but they haven’t suffered nearly as badly as makeup has. Skin care was already incredibly popular pre-pandemic, and now that people have lots of extra time at home to evaluate their pores, interest in the category remains relatively strong. Face masks, serums, and moisture products are all popular.

One of the reasons is because of “maskne,” a neologism seen everywhere in beauty circles now. “Buttne” and “backne” should give you a clue about what maskne means: acne occurring around the area where one wears a mask.

“Beauty loves a good buzzword to throw around. I’ve been getting pitches probably every single day for the last two months about maskne,” says Johnson. According to Poshly data, 43 percent of people have experienced irritation due to mask-wearing.

Maskne is a real thing, says New York City dermatologist Dr. Carlos Charles, though not a new concept. He chalks maskne up to a situation called acne mechanica, which is inflammation and irritation caused by physical friction. Humidity inside the mask and dirt on the mask itself can exacerbate the problem, slowing cell turnover, clogging pores, and providing an ideal home for acne bacteria to thrive. It’s not treated any differently from regular acne. The same topical products like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, and retinoids like Differin will work. Ultimately, though, it’s a great way for beauty brands to market products during this time.

“It’s gotten attention because it’s something new and exciting to talk about,” Charles says. “But I’m always wary of people doing [DIY treatments] at home when they don’t know what they’re doing. We always overdo it because we want things to go away quickly.”

Gadgets, which are having a real moment, play into this impulse of wanting quick improvement. Skin care devices like the GloPro (a $199 microneedle tool used to puncture tiny holes in the skin to stimulate collagen production and increase product absorption) and NuFace (a $325 device that runs an electric current through the facial muscles to provide lift and toning) have both seen triple-digit sales increases since the pandemic started. The category overall, which had been experiencing declining sales in 2019, was up 8 percent the first six months of this year.

“People are definitely using tools, and if they didn’t have one, they now want to know what they should be getting. They’re thinking, ‘I’m at home, I’m not going to be seeing anybody, so I might as well take the time now to really go hard on my skin care and gadget routine so that when we are able to go out and see people I look my best,’” says Gloss Angeles’s Johnson.

Ultrasonic skin spatulas, or “skin scrubbers,” are popular too, especially on TikTok. The vibrating device features a flat metal head that helps to scrape out blackheads and other gunk in pores. If a product is ubiquitous on Amazon, it’s generally a sign that it’s popular; there are 270 different options available there now.

Tiara Willis, an esthetician and skin care influencer, likes these devices but warns against another popular one, blackhead “pore vacuum” tools. She says they can cause inflammation and hyperpigmentation, especially in those with darker skin tones. She’s also seen a lot of her followers resorting to at-home chemical peels with products like The Ordinary’s popular Peeling Solution and using blunt eyebrow razors to perform facial dermaplaning on themselves, a procedure that’s meant to exfoliate and remove facial peach fuzz, but one that is normally done in medi-spas with a medical-grade razor. She’s concerned about the irritation and skin sensitization these DIY treatments can cause.

Chemical peels and dermaplaning should only be done by professionals like doctors or estheticians, Willis says. “There’s a lot of training, not only in technique but also there are contraindications for certain people, and you may not know as a consumer if you qualify,” she says.

The salon problem

One of the reasons DIY treatments are popular now is that the pros simply haven’t been available to us. From the early days of the pandemic, products like hair dye and hair removal products flew off shelves after spas and salons were shut down. As states like California have had to close salons a second time due to rising case counts, home root touch-ups are becoming the new normal. Perhaps it will even encourage former salon stalwarts to prolong the time between visits to save a bit of money even once hair pros become more accessible.

“I think it has given people a little more confidence for being able to go a bit longer. We’re going to have to be more flexible and get more comfortable with doing our hair on our own,” says Cosmo’s Wilson.

Ditto manicures. Nail polish sales had been suffering pre-Covid-19 but are now booming. Brands like Olive and June, whose LA-based salons had to shut down, have been selling at-home manicure kits and providing tutorials via Instagram Live. Wilson says she hasn’t been to a nail salon since March and has been using products from ManiMe, a company that provides custom fit nail stickers to mimic the look of a sleek manicure or nail art.

When masks and sanitizers become beauty products

In the early days, large multinational beauty companies including Estée Lauder and L’Oreal pivoted to produce hand sanitizer as a way to both keep their factories operating and to fill a shortage. They donated the sanitizer to hospitals and other entities rather than selling them to consumers. But plenty of other beauty and fragrance brands are now making hand sanitizer to sell. Perfume is mostly alcohol, after all, so beauty has been well positioned to make sanitizer that is a lot less utilitarian than the stuff you find at drugstores.

Bath and Body Works, whose keychain sanitizers have been popular with tweens for decades, now finds its products especially in demand. Plenty of other brands are offering aspirational and expensive versions, too.

“The sexy-looking hand sanitizers are pretty popular right now,” says Johnson, mentioning the $10 credit card-shaped, bergamot-scented Noshinku. Skylar and DS & Durga, both fragrance brands, now offer sanitizers that smell more like fancy soap than Purell. Countless other skin care and nail care brands now sell the category.

Even cloth face masks have been repurposed as beauty products. To prevent the dreaded maskne, brands have touted silk as a gentler material. Brands like Slip and Night offer silk masks that cost upward of $50. Some brands have even started infusing compounds like zinc into cloth masks, claiming they have antimicrobial properties and can protect against irritation. (The FTC has been cracking down on manufacturers making claims on Covid-19 related products, so do your research before purchasing items like this.)

To some, it may seem frivolous and vain to think about and purchase beauty products during a pandemic and a period of incredible social unrest. But for many, it’s a stress reliever and a source of self-care. People may not be buying lipstick, but they’re still buying beauty.

“I do think that beauty, much like during the recession in 2008, will continue to thrive because people want small luxuries to help them feel better both physically and mentally,” says Johnson.


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