How the beauty industry is coping in the era of COVID

·7 min read

The COVID pandemic has been an extreme time for the beauty industry. People have whipsawed between feeling nearly invisible to being super-exposed: Masks covered half of our faces for much of the last 18 months — and, after a brief hiatus, the Delta variant means they’re back — while our looks have moved front-and-center during work and social videoconferences.

This dichotomy, per Mary Bemis, editorial director of Insider’s Guide to Spas, who has been an expert on spas for more than 30 years, has meant tough times for some parts of the retail cosmetics industry and a boon for medi-spas (spas that have a medical program operated under the supervision of a licensed health care professional) and plastic-surgery providers.

“The global beauty industry (comprising skin care, color cosmetics, hair care, fragrances, and personal care) has been shocked by the COVID-19 crisis,” according to a McKinsey & Company report. The report also says, “we saw a drop in beauty-industry revenues of 20 to 30 percent in 2020.”

“While brick-and-mortar drugstores and mass-market and grocery stores remained open [in the early days of the pandemic], their customer traffic and revenues have plummeted,” The McKinsey & Company report goes on to explain.

“Even the most optimistic of us could see the writing on the wall. No amount of increase in online traffic could make up for the sudden loss of offline sales,” said Peter B. Lee, CEO and co-founder of Orora Skin Science, Inc.

The numbers reflect the reality of many at the start of the pandemic: The quick pick-me-up that a new lipstick or foundation has long provided consumers was pointless if one was wearing a mask in public and unable to leave home, so most people spent less time on grooming and makeup application.

But the pandemic also had a number of other unintended consequences for other segments of the beauty industry. The rise of Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms soon changed people’s perspectives on the need to look good. People were gazing at a video image of themselves all day, and many decided on topical fixes (laser treatments, Botox, tooth-whitening, and many others were a good idea).

Plastic / Cosmetic Surgeon Examines Beautiful Woman's Face, Touches it with Gloved Hands, Inspecting Healed Face after Plastic Surgery with Amazing Results.
Some plastic surgeons saw a rise in demand for their services due to the 'Zoom Effect'. (Getty Images)

The Zoom Effect

Dr. Mark McKenna, CMO of OVME, a medical aesthetic studio chain, says, “The Zoom effect is absolutely real. Women and men around the country are essentially staring at their digital reflections throughout the day. Also, the bottoms-up angle utilized by most video call participants combined with poor ambient lighting tends to create unflattering shadows that highlight our worst features — wrinkling, facial volume loss, and under-eye hollows.”

The more extreme fixes offered by medi-spas, and plastic surgeons are reflected in increased COVID-era numbers, according to the two plastic surgeons we spoke to. “We have seen a 30% increase in plastic surgery nationwide during the pandemic, including at my practice,” says Beverly Hills–based plastic surgeon Dr. Rady Rahban. “The number one reason is the Zoom effect. Next, as a result of the pandemic, people are wearing masks which can allow them to heal from facial surgery and at the same time be covered up. Number three, people have saved a lot of money that they haven’t spent on vacation and other luxury items like entertainment which they can now put towards plastic surgery.”

Dr. McKenna explains, “We’ve seen extremely robust total company and same-store sales growth year over year. Cosmetic dermatology services can only be administered by expertly trained medical professionals and, as opposed to over-the-counter skincare, are not readily available in-home.”

“People want to look their absolute best on Zoom and other platforms,” agrees Mary Bemis. “People today are more experimental, more apt to dabble in medical procedures, and are drawn to medi-spas because — as they are more paranoid than ever about germs — they know that these facilities are sanitized. Also, having an M.D. on staff really increases trust, and some medi-spas even offer COVID vaccines.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 12: Customers walk past the make up counters at Selfridges Store on April 12, 2021 in London, England. England has taken a significant step in easing its lockdown restrictions, with non-essential retail, beauty services, gyms and outdoor entertainment venues among the businesses given the green light to re-open with coronavirus precautions in place. Pubs and restaurants are also allowed open their outdoor areas, with no requirements for patrons to order food when buying alcoholic drinks. (Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images)
Beauty retailers were hit hard by the pandemic as in-person sales declined. (Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images)

Self-Care Continues

Even during the worst of the COVID lockdowns in 2019 through early 2021, industry leaders say, there were at-home beauty treatments that consumers continued to invest in. “Some products fared much better than others during the pandemic,” says Dr. McKenna. “Color cosmetics bore the brunt of most of the losses whereas skincare and haircare fared much better.”

Market analyst John Tomlinson, global director of research at M Science, agrees that products within the “wellness” category saw stronger numbers. “We saw that skincare, bath, and fragrance — through 2019-2020 into 2021 — did better than cosmetics,” says Tomlinson, who covers Ulta Beauty among other cosmetics retailers. “At-home hair color has been doing very well during the pandemic. For a long time, people couldn’t get into the salon. After not being able to land an appointment, a lot of people with grey roots started touching them up themselves, often for the first time. In our research, we have lately seen the cosmetics category become less negative. All beauty categories are going up since things were so bad last year on a relative basis.”

And, interestingly, makeup is not just for women anymore. Rohan Widdison, CEO of beauty manufacturer New Labs, says, “Skin care and makeup is growing fast with men’s and genderless brands appearing commonly, reflecting the desire for men to enhance their image or reflect the way they feel when they Zoom every day. Your brand is defined by your presentation, and there is a growing desire for men to present themselves effectively during online meetings. Boy de Chanel and War Paint for Men are just some of many brands exposing the fact that men are as mainstream as women when it comes to cosmetics, and the uptake of these brands is a true reflection of the market.”

Woman dyeing her hair at home
“At-home hair color has been doing very well during the pandemic," said beauty market expert John Tomlinson. (Getty Images)

Go Bold Or Stay Home?

When it comes to color cosmetics, there is also a definite trend towards extreme hues, as it seems consumers denied makeup for so long will likely go all out when they do purchase new makeup. According to data from commerce-intelligence company Skai, bright and neon eye colors, glitter eyelids, and loud lipstick shades are all on the rise as people crave new looks after the blandness of COVID lockdown.

Skai CMO Margo Kahnrose explains that “bright colors in cosmetics have seen a 43% increase in consumer discussions across product reviews. The number of consumer reviews between February 2020 and February 2021 that refer to high-intensity color have increased by 245%, and shimmer and glitter makeup has seen a 422% increase in consumer reviews between February 2020 and February 2021.”

Also strengthening the trend is the fact that many beauty influencers on platforms like TikTok and Instagram are exploring these bold-color trends in their tutorials.

Spa expert Mary Bemis sees this trend as being with us for a while, saying, “Really strong color is only growing in popularity. I myself recently bought an emerald-green mascara!”

In the near future, minimally invasive procedures such as tooth-whitening and Botox, and face treatments especially on the top part of the face visible even when wearing a mask, show no signs of slowing, according to Dr. Mark McKenna, who says, “I think many of these pandemic-related tailwinds, i.e., the focus on self, appearance, and wellness are here to stay. COVID is a once-in-a-generation event that has altered the way Americans prioritize self-care.”

[Correction: A previous version of this story referred to Dr. Mark McKenna as CEO of OVME. He is the company's CMO]

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