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How the beauty industry is surviving the pandemic

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. “Buttn

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