The rise of the ‘skinfluencer’: the brand new magnificence growth

‘You should get 100pc plant-derived squalene, it’s really good at hydrating eczema without irritating skin.” Greedily, I grab my phone to read the message that has come through overnight. A weekly dose of skincare talk has somehow become a part of my lockdown routine and no, this wasn’t some sort of virtual dermatology consultation. Rather, it was from one of my two best friends messaging our WhatsApp chat.

Despite being on three separate continents, as a trio we have simultaneously fallen down a skincare rabbit hole during lockdown. Our group chat has become a deep dive into Vitamin C, all the serums, retinoids, chemical toners, the possibility of Botox, charcoal nose strips, and even chemical slippers (they rid your hooves of dead skin).

And we are not alone. With more time at home, less of an emphasis on makeup and too many hours spent staring at our reflection on Zoom, lockdown has given many of us a renewed focus on skincare.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sale of coloured cosmetics — lipstick, foundation, eyeshadow and the like — has fallen this year. It’s been reported that makeup sales were down 22pc in the US in the first quarter of 2020, and it’s a similar story across Europe, the UK and Asia. With face masks now mandatory in public and social gatherings a rarity, a full face of makeup seems as pointless as those spindly stilettos you bought in the January sales.

In contrast, both online searches and sales of skincare have sky-rocketed across the globe since lockdown began. Zalando, the largest online fashion marketplace in Europe, has reported a 300pc sales increase in skin, hair and nail care products. At the same time, there has been a 61pc surge in online searches for Niacinamide serum, while searches for other serums like hyaluronic and Vitamin C are up 40pc.


Sonia Deasy launched Pestle & Mortar with her husband five years ago

Sonia Deasy launched Pestle & Mortar with her husband five years ago

“People are definitely looking after their skin more (in lockdown). They have more time and they are seeing the benefits. They are realising that if they look after their skin, using good quality products with ingredients that work they may not need to wear makeup, or so much,” says Sonia Deasy, founder of cult Irish skincare brand Pestle & Mortar. “I think a lot of people don’t like wearing makeup everyday, particularly working from home, being indoors with heating on this time of year, and being in front of a screen.”

Similar to other cult brands such as The Ordinary and Drunk Elephant, Pestle & Mortar doesn’t trade in euphemisms that promise to ‘turn back the clock’ but takes a clinical approach to everything from ingredients to branding. It’s something that certainly resonates with a customer base that, even pre-pandemic, is fluent in the science-based terms and ingredient names that are now part of the mainstream beauty lexicon.

Not only do customers want these active ingredients, they are increasingly looking for ‘clean’ products that are as natural and organic as possible.


All natural: Tracey Ryan’s Bia Beauty range is plant-based, vegan and cruelty free

All natural: Tracey Ryan’s Bia Beauty range is plant-based, vegan and cruelty free

All natural: Tracey Ryan’s Bia Beauty range is plant-based, vegan and cruelty free

When Irishwoman Tracey Ryan graduated with a degree in herbal science, beauty was the last industry she expected to find herself in. But seven years after graduating, her natural skincare brand, Bia Beauty, was growing year-on-year and attracting interest from investors but “it was never the right fit,” she says.

In 2018, she was approached by a representative of Silicon Valley-based businesswoman Barbara Paldus, who was in the midst of setting up a global natural beauty conglomerate Codex Beauty.

“She came to Ireland, took me to dinner with my husband and told us her idea of Codex, which was to set up a collective of skincare brands from around the world that had a basis in nature and science. She loved that I was a herbal scientist and that we were based on native Irish ingredients,” Tracey explains.

“We use only natural ingredients, we have no animal testing, we are cruelty free and vegan. Those are all priorities for me and really the backbone of our business.”

As Codex is based in the US, working remotely hasn’t been a huge shift for Tracey and the Bia Beauty team in Ireland, although her and other Codex colleagues would have been regular international travellers pre-Covid. Rather than focussing on the disruption to her global company, Codex CEO Paldus has instead taken it as a lesson, says Tracey.

“She said ‘This is a sustainability thing — we talk about it in our products and packaging. The fact that nobody in the company is flying is a massive positive for sustainability. We need to look at where we can cut down on unnecessary travel and link in with each other online instead’.”

Like so many other businesses, Bia Beauty’s bricks and mortar trade “completely disappeared” during the first lockdown and they had to quickly implement a digital strategy. Despite the challenges of having to pivot the business online, social media proved a boon.

“There’s been a lot more people contacting us through social media looking for advice,” Tracey says. “They are really interested in facials and routines, plus there’s been a massive increase in people looking to match products up — they’ll ask ‘does this work with this?’ People are really hungry for content around information on ingredients.”

Of course, it’s not just all that free time that has us suddenly obsessed with skincare. Beauty bloggers and vloggers have long held court on YouTube and Instagram, gathering legions of followers while schilling products (sometimes for a handsome affiliate fee) but during lockdown Tik Tok, the breakout social star of 2020, has become the go-to platform for skincare obsessives due to a new generation of ‘skinfluencers’ who have flocked to the platform.

These chatty, candid individuals are mostly not professionals but simply skincare boffins. They follow the likes of established beauty blogger Caroline Hirons, the 51-year-old Londoner who has won millions of fans thanks to her honest, no-holds-barred assessment of products and affable personality. Skinfluencers like Hirons and this new clutch of Tik Tok stars have the authenticity factor in spades, something that big brands are scrambling to attain as the glossy veneer of the beauty industry wears thin. With salons and spas closed for much of the year, they’ve also filled the gap for consumers who aren’t able to consult with the professionals, with the result that skincare-related videos have surged by more than 1000pc on Tik Tok, year on year.

Katya-Niomi Henry is a 17-year-old based in Ontario, Canada who currently has 140,000 followers on Tik Tok (@katyaniomi). Her videos feature honest product reviews, as well as tips for combatting scarring and pigmentation, and have generated four million likes on the platform.

“My skin had always been my biggest insecurity and I would have done anything to make it clear,” she says. “Because of this insecurity I was willing to pay anything, buy anything or try anything that could potentially treat my acne and hyperpigmentation. In the process of this, I lost a lot of money due to being uneducated on the science behind skincare and ingredient formulations. I didn’t want this to happen to other young people across the world, so I came up with the idea to educate people on what ingredients actually make a skincare product work.”

Since launching on Tik Tok, the teen has accrued sponsorship from brands and affiliate deals which has allowed her to quit her job as a waitress and focus on creating content.

“I have met some amazing people that are also skincare content creators and the friendship and support we all offer each other is amazing.”

Skincare, self-care and spas go hand-in-hand, and the sale of products aimed at replacing the spa experience at home has also skyrocketed in lockdown. Face masks, toners and facial oils have all seen a surge in demand — and it’s not just skincare that falls into the self-care category. The London department store Liberty noted a whopping 536pc increase in searches for Diptyque candles in the first few weeks of lockdown.

For those working in salons and spas, it’s been a different story altogether. Peigín Crowley has worked in beauty therapy for more than 20 years, first as a therapist herself, and now as a consultant. Pre-Covid she was in demand working with luxury hotels and spas developing their treatments but that all changed when lockdown struck Ireland.

In 2019, she founded the Irish Spa Association along with beauty entrepreneur Anita Murray. The ISA acts as an official body for the beauty therapy industry, which until last year had no formal representation at government level. It was something the pair had been working towards for some time, but they couldn’t have predicted the significance of the organisation just over six months later. When beauty salons, spas and hairdressers were forced to shut in March, Peigín and Anita became instrumental in drafting guidelines for the industry’s reopening. They worked with Fine Gael’s Heather Humphreys and Fáilte Ireland, drawing up new regulations that allowed businesses to open safely with all new measures in place.

While this kept Peigín busy, she had gone from being an in-demand luxury spa consultant to being at home on the Covid payment.

“It was fine when I had a purpose — the ISA is all volunteer work,” she says, “but in the meantime all of my projects had been cancelled.”

Like so many who have lost their regular work due to the pandemic, Peigín turned her attention to a passion project that had long been lingering at the back of her mind. With years of experience in developing and designing products for other people, she decided the time was right to launch her own. Ground, her line of face balms and body oils, will be launched with Brown Thomas online at the end of November, and in store in December, providing retailers are able to open.

“It was amalgamating all I had done for spas in a professional setting but bringing it into the home,” she says. With people likely to be working from home long-term, she believes that practicing wellness at home will be more important then ever.

December is typically the busiest time of year for both beauty brands and salons on the high street. With a dearth of social gatherings and almost certainly some form of lockdown over the festive period, it’s likely we will be double cleansing, toning and moisturising into the new year. Demand for products is likely to remain high, which is good news for skincare brands in a year that has ravaged so many other sectors.

“I think our industry, skincare, is one of those 
businesses that has not really been that affected by Covid,” says Sonia Deasy of Pestle & Mortar. “We are one of the few – I think we are just so damn lucky.”


Nail bars reopened over the summer with protective screens, spaced out stations and staff in PPE

Nail bars reopened over the summer with protective screens, spaced out stations and staff in PPE

Nail bars reopened over the summer with protective screens, spaced out stations and staff in PPE

Nailing tricky social distancing

While sales of skincare have skyrocketed, salons and spas on the high street have struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic. While it is incredibly difficult not being able to operate with current lockdown restrictions, and those that were in place during the summer, staying open with social distancing measures in place provides its own set of challenges.

When Dublin’s Tropical Popical nail bar reopened over the summer with protective screens, spaced out stations and staff in PPE, one of the biggest hurdles was recapturing the atmosphere the salon has become known for (a cross between a karaoke bar and an episode of RuPauls’ Drag Race, for the unacquainted).

“Even though we had to reduce the amount of people who could come in, we’d worked really hard to ensure we didn’t lose the buzz that we had,” says owner Andrea Horan. “We didn’t have the luxury of having big groups in for parties at the weekend, and everyone was so spaced out so it was so hard to get the atmosphere that was so integral to what we were doing but we worked hard on that.”

When it was founded in 2012 by Horan, Tropical Popical quickly became the go-to salon for hen parties and groups celebrating a milestone occasion, and even counts actor Saoirse Ronan as a fan.

Horan decided to launch Tropical Popical after a trip to the United States with her sister. The nail bars they visited every few days were unlike those back home in Ireland less expensive, they were also less formal and therefore felt like a regular treatment rather than an occasional indulgence.

“Whilst there were great nail bars in Dublin there was nowhere that was affordable,” Horan explains. “They felt they were for special occasions rather than a regular beauty habit. We also wanted somewhere you could have the craic that didn’t play ‘whale music’ but pumping tunes.”

While the pumping tunes are still in place, keeping spirits up has been a focus for Horan. She is particularly aware of the wellbeing of her staff, who are delighted to be back at work but are dealing with the challenges and anxieties that come with occupying a public-facing role during a pandemic. While her salon is all about frivolity and fun, Horan has devised a pragmatic way to combat the seemingly unending discussion of rising case numbers and looming lockdowns.

“When we reopen again after this lockdown, we are making it a Covid conversation-free-zone, just to give everyone’s head a break.”

Weekend Magazine

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