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Five Lessons Teens Can Teach Us About the Future of Beauty

Teens are buying less makeup because the era of the 'VSCO girl' is upon us. Gen Z’s preferences have the potential to shake up the beauty industry, so here’s an analysis of what’s top of mind for them as they increase their earning — and spending — power. 
Teens outside Ulta Beauty | Source: Getty Images
  • Cheryl Wischhover

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NEW YORK, United States — One of the side effects of covering the beauty industry is that I have a lot of beauty products all over my home. Recently, I had my friend and her almost-14-year-old daughter, Peri, over to pick through some of it.

Peri beelined for the Glow Recipe gift sets and Dr. Jart sheet masks. Some Tarte and Urban Decay eyeshadow palettes and a multi-coloured Beautyblender foundation sponge gift set got a glance or two, but ultimately she filled her bag almost exclusively with skin-care products.

Peri said that when her mom first allowed her to start wearing makeup, she watched influencers like James Charles and NikkieTutorials on YouTube and was excited to try out elaborate eyeshadow looks. But that was way back in early 2018. Today she might wear mascara and brow gel to school, and perhaps a bit of shimmery eyeshadow to a party.


“I realised that it didn’t look good ... I’d rather spend time making my skin clear and pretty rather than wearing a lot of makeup,” she said. “Most of my friends are in the same place … they basically wear natural makeup, and maybe a little bit of concealer.”

Peri’s views and spending habits are quickly becoming the norm among American teenagers. In Piper Jaffray’s semi-annual survey of 9,500 kids averaging 15.8 years old, teens reported spending 21 percent less on makeup compared with a year earlier. They’re also shopping for beauty products differently, spending a bit more on Amazon and other online channels, and flocking to previously run-of-the-mill brands that are now associated with the infamous “VSCO girl.”

Read on for more insights into the future of beauty, according to teenagers.

Is Gen Z Killing Makeup?

The big story in beauty right now is that makeup sales are crashing. Almost every major colour cosmetics brand has experienced a decline this year, as has Ulta's once high-flying stock price. Even beauty influencers are getting tired of doing makeup tutorials.

Piper Jaffray found that teen cosmetics spending was down about 13 percent year over year, with makeup purchases down 21 percent to a nine-year low, skincare down 8 percent and fragrance down 3 percent. Female teens also reported wearing less makeup, with a full 20 percent of upper-income respondents reporting they never wear it.

I'd rather spend time making my skin clear and pretty rather than wearing a lot of makeup.

The sudden plunge can be chalked up to a backlash against the "first Instagram generation," said Leah Wyar, vice president and general manager at beauty site Byrdie and a former Hearst beauty director across such publications as Seventeen and Cosmopolitan. Starting around 2015, posts increasingly featured stylised, heavily filtered "plandids" (candid photos that are actually planned and even art-directed) and makeup-heavy looks like thick, groomed eyebrows and "baking," a makeup technique to look poreless and airbrushed. As a result, everyone started to look the same.

“This group of teens is seeing all the original content on Instagram from this first generation as very old-fashioned, overdone and played out,” she said. “They want to be more real.”


Wyar says about 40 percent of Byrdie’s content is dedicated to skincare, a decision supported by traffic numbers and affiliate sales on products. Wyar also notes that skincare and makeup concepts are “colliding,” with brands like Glossier and Milk leading the way with hybrid product offerings. And, of course, skin and the eradication of acne is a perennial concern of teens.

This data point could indicate a longer-term dry spell for colour cosmetics in the US, though makeup remains as popular as ever in China and the Middle East, said Erinn Murphy, an analyst at Piper Jaffray.

The Most Popular Teen Beauty Brands

In makeup, Tarte has ruled the top spot on Piper Jaffray’s list for years. Too Faced is second. Tarte, to capitalise on Gen Z even further, launched Sugar Rush, a lower-priced diffusion line at Ulta last year.

MAC and Anastasia Beverly Hills have both slipped several spots on the list, while Morphe and Glossier continue their ascendancy. And Jeffree Star, both his cosmetics line and his popularity as an influencer, has moved up the list. James Charles, maybe because of his drama problems and shrinking subscriber base, is out of the top 10. Kylie Jenner is number two on the influencer list, but her beauty line didn't rank.

In the mass category, Covergirl, after an unsuccessful rebrand in 2017, is out of teens' top ten makeup brands for the first time in the survey. And don't sleep on Elf, which saw its popularity surge. Piper Jaffray attributes this to increased marketing spend by the brand, which had closed all its retail stores in February amidst a slowdown.

In skincare, Neutrogena maintained its perch in the number one spot, with acne care brand Mario Badescu earning second place for the second season in a row. Among higher-income teens, Drunk Elephant, recently acquired by Shiseido for $845 million, broke into the top ten for the first time, and telemedicine, DTC acne company Curology debuted at number eight.

“VSCO Girls” Are Inspiring Purchases and Trends


Some of the rising skin-care brands can thank the VSCO girls.

VSCO girls, popularised by TikTok memes and named after the photo editing app, have a particular fashion aesthetic that includes oversized t-shirts, Crocs and hair scrunchies. They favour lip gloss and lip balm, name checking particular products like Burt’s Bees lip balm, Mario Badescu facial spray and Too Faced Better Than Sex Mascara. These brands all figure prominently in Piper Jaffray’s survey. Murphy said the overall beauty theme is “hydration,” which plays into a minimalist, skin-care-heavy regimen.

This group of teens is seeing all the original content on Instagram from this first generation as very old-fashioned, overdone and played out.

Murphy thinks we are at the beginning of the VSCO girl phenomenon, which is a lifestyle or mindset she likens to the millennial category of “basic.” She sees the potential for other brands to evolve into the VSCO category.

The VSCO girl trend, at least in beauty, is manifesting on Amazon, too. In the site's best selling beauty product list, which updates hourly, there are four separate listings for large velvet hair scrunchie bundles, all in the top 25. A Burt's Bees lip balm 4-pack is there, too.

Teens Still Love To Shop For Beauty in Stores, But Amazon Is Growing

Speaking of Amazon, it’s becoming more popular for teens shopping for beauty and personal care, though it still lags way behind brick and mortar. Amazon increased in the rankings from seventeenth in fall 2018 to fifth this season. It’s been making a push into beauty recently, launching Lady Gaga’s Haus Laboratories makeup range exclusively.

Still, 91 percent of teens surveyed said they prefer to shop for beauty in stores. Ulta, which pulled ahead of Sephora for the first time in the spring, remains number one and has increased its lead. In the last year, Ulta has concentrated on appealing to Gen Z consumers, bringing in Morphe, Kylie Cosmetics and Colourpop. According to a Goldman Sachs note, about 50 percent of Ulta’s assortment is makeup, a mix it may need to reconsider going forward as that market continues to struggle.

While Peri said her first choice is Sephora, she appreciates Ulta’s model too.

“I would go to Ulta because they have higher-end and lower-end brands,” she said.

Clean Matters

According to the survey, almost 50 percent of female teen beauty buyers look at product ingredients; 75 percent said they would spend more on products that are “clean/natural.” Teens are also concerned with the environment, sustainability and recycling, which presents huge challenges for the beauty industry.

New beauty brand founders consistently say that having so-called “clean” positioning and being cruelty-free are table stakes. Sephora has a formalised clean classification system now, but Ulta lacks a defined clean category. There is no official regulatory definition of clean, so it continues to be a potential point of confusion for consumers.

I would go to Ulta because they have higher-end and lower-end brands.

Recycling and using sustainable materials may become even more urgent, since teens in the survey made statements like “The planet is not a trash can” and that they care about “people throwing away plastic and not recycling.” (The survey did not specifically ask about beauty packaging.)

Both Murphy and Byrdie’s Wyar say they see brands attempting to make inroads here. Wyar acknowledges that it’s going to be challenging. “It is by far the most important conversation happening in the beauty world.”


If you had Shiseido on your Drunk Elephant acquisition bingo card, congrats! The Japanese conglomerate acquired the buzzy indie skincare brand for $845 million.

Cult Beauty is looking for a buyer. The beloved UK beauty e-tailer, which could be valued at "hundreds of millions of pounds," has hired JP Morgan to explore a sale.

MAC hires Paper magazine EIC as new creative director. Drew Elliott, the editor responsible for breaking the internet with that Kim Kardashian cover in 2014, is tasked with guiding the makeup behemoth into a new age.

Unilever, parent company of Dove, vows to reduce plastic use. The multinational company says it plans to cut its use of plastic in half by 2025, relying more on recycled plastic, refillable products and less outer packaging.

Everyone wants CBD in their beauty products, but a lot of consumers don't understand what it is. According to a new report, searches for cannabis beauty are up 89 percent, but the most popular question is: "What is it?"

Morphe is putting more studios in its stores. In 12 of its stores, the makeup brand offers studios for free customer services, and for filming YouTube videos.

Legacy prestige beauty brands seeing growth, thanks to China. The country will overtake the US in beauty sales by 2023, and Estée Lauder, L'Oreal and Shiseido have all been beneficiaries.

Black models report bad backstage beauty experiences. Many say they feel that the hair and makeup pros backstage at fashion shows don't understand how to work with their hair texture and skin tones.

Beauty YouTubers are promoting "anti-hauls." Influencer Samantha Ravndahl has asked brands to stop sending her beauty PR, and it's part of a larger trend decrying the excess in the beauty industry.

Drama is playing out at Eos as one co-founder accuses the other of being "stripped of his economic rights." Eos co-founder Sanjiv Mehra has filed a suit against Jonathan Teller, alleging he was pushed out of the company amid accusations that Teller is living a "lavish lifestyle" and used company funds to hire his fortune-teller and to pay for his Manhattan and Hamptons real estate.

Botox bandits abound. There has been a rash of Botox burglaries across the country.

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