How Instagram and a generational shift are driving skin-care category’s growth


The skin-care race is revving up.

The category’s rally, which got rolling roughly 18 months ago, is steadily gaining momentum. Sales of prestige treatment products are running 14 percent ahead in the U.S. for the latest 12-month period, ended in May, according to the NPD Group’s total measured market. That compares with a 9 percent increase for 2017 and 3 percent for 2016.

Those figures make skin care beauty’s emerging growth engine, outpacing makeup. Color cosmetics is still a larger category — with $2 billion in first-quarter sales versus $1.5 billion for skin care — but its sales gained just 4 percent in the latest 12-month period, according to NPD.

“Makeup is still booming in some of the less-developed markets,” said Carol Hamilton, group president of the Luxe division of L’Oréal USA. “But the growth of skin care is beating makeup in every single market.”

The generational shift that has electrified makeup is also behind the surge in skin care. “What’s new and different is you now have the Millennials incredibly interested, passionate and turned on to [the category],” said Jane Hertzmark Hudis, group president at Estée Lauder Cos. “When you add the Millennials to the ageless [those over age 45] you get explosive growth.”


The U.S. isn’t the only market surging. Millennials across Asia, too, are showing an interest. “You have young people who are able to understand the trends from Korea, the cool products from Japan,” said Hertzmark Hudis. “So this is a global movement.”

The growing popularity of health and wellness is a key driver for the category. Hamilton credits the inspiration for the wellness trend, at least in the U.S., to the advent of SoulCycle in 2006. “It took the drudgery out of working out and made it much more about your mental health. It made it fun,” she said. But she also sees a deeper meaning at work. Skin care, in the context of well-being, is the tool shaping a “new beauty standard,” she said, one that prizes the appearance of healthy, glowing skin.

“It’s become a new status symbol,” she said. “The selfie makeup look that said you were cool and with it and had a certain stature was five years ago. Today the new beauty status symbol is this glowing skin that looks like you are not wearing anything.”

Hamilton muses that the move away from makeup is possibly reflective of a larger change in the national zeitgeist as the public discourse turns more serious. The population’s more responsible mood has affected even attitudes toward one’s appearance. “The shift from less frivolous values to deeper values is one which favors skin care, wellness and health over highly decorative makeup,” she said. “There is this profound social trend of awareness. While established brands like Clinique, Estée Lauder, Lancôme, Philosophy and La Mer are posting healthy growth in skin care, the category — like makeup — has mushroomed with the influx of indie and new brands from the U.S., Europe and Korea.”

“It’s outside of the more traditional or legacy brands,” said Larissa Jensen, executive director and industry analyst of NPD Group, of skin care’s growth. “We’re seeing a lot of brands entering skin care. As a category, it’s probably the most fragmented. There’s just a lot more players.”

Rising brands include Drunk Elephant, Tata Harper, Tatcha, Sunday Riley and Dr. Jart. As with makeup, Sephora has been a key driver of the category’s gains, posting double-digit increases, according to Artemis Patrick, chief merchandising officer. To do so, it has leveraged its digital footprint, with initiatives like a Skin Care Aware Group, which launched on in 2017 and now numbers 314,237 people. “In this group there is a massive interest in self-care and wellness and that’s really motivating the interest in skin care,” she said. “Skin is a natural extension of wellness, nutrition and health. Those two worlds are absolutely colliding.”


Patrick cited the innovation and social media dexterity of indie brands like Drunk Elephant, Tatcha and Sunday Riley in discussing her top performers, whose brand founders are stepping up to the camera and answering questions from their constituents via social media. “On Drunk Elephant, Tiffany Masterson is answering any questions people have,” Patrick said. “Sunday does the same.

“When we really see success is when we combine the power of those brand founders with our digital channel. For example, Victoria Tsai from Tatcha participated in a live chat on our Beauty Insider platform. We saw a three-time lift versus our average comments,” she said.

Consequently, established brands like Kiehl’s and La Mer have quickly upped their games as well, “telling their story really well and continuing to bring in new consumers,” Patrick said.

One of the breakthroughs for Lauder, for example, came two years ago with Clinique’s Take the Day Off Cleansing Balm, a makeup remover launched at the height of the selfie craze. Last October, before-and-after videos were shot, using influencers and celebrities — Kristen Chenoweth and Blake Lively — for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. “We got over two-and-a-half million views during that time and raised $250,000,” said Jane Lauder, global brand president of Clinique, who shot and posted one of herself, as well. “But the idea is that in skin care now we’re finally figuring out how to connect stories visually as well as being storytellers.”

When Lauder and others talk about storytelling, they’re not talking about traditional skin-care claims. The antiaging claims race that escalated over the last decade in the treatment category has become a completely different conversation. Today the stories that are most resonant are founder stories, said Jensen at NPD. “It is their ability to tell their stories — of their brand, their owner, their ingredients,” she said. “It’s not about the facts, or the claims. It’s emotion.”

Candor and transparency are also a big plus, particularly in terms of ingredients. The rush to transparency has gotten so strong that the major houses are following suit by spotlighting key ingredients in their products. “They’re recognizing that this is the way to communicate with consumers,” Jensen said.


In August, Sephora will look to drive the momentum of skin care with a new area dedicated to clean brands and wellness. “There will be quite a few launches tied into that strategy,” said Patrick, noting that while hydrators are the hottest category, emerging items like ingestibles are gaining in importance.

Wendy Liebmann, founder and president of WSL Strategic Retail, suggests that the future of skin care lies in a combination of products like these and services like Skin Laundry with its 10-minute laser facials.

There’s also an element of cross-breeding in the future. “What is becoming more relevant is a skin-care and makeup hybrid,” said Sarah Lee, cofounder of Glow Recipe, which recently launched its fourth product — a Watermelon Jelly sheet mask, and is said to be on track to hit $30 million in retail sales this year. “Rather than using one product after another, consumers want products that can go beyond traditionally what [products] used to do,” she continued. “Not just a foundation or makeup but [something that] actually hydrates and protects your skin with SPF and with antiaging properties.”

If brands can continue to deliver on consumers’ ever-increasing expectations, look for the current growth surge to continue. “It’s going to continue to be about product performance, innovation and teaching,” said Patrick, adding the importance of social media for good measure. “More and more brands are going to get on that movement.”