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Beauty Trendspotting: The Rise of New Essentialism

Published September 24, 2023
Published September 24, 2023
Oleg Ivanov via Unsplash

I am, like many beauty-involved American women, skincare-obsessed. Every morning, I dutifully apply antioxidants and sunscreen; every night, it’s retinol or an exfoliating lotion. Intermixed with those are all manner of serums and creams to erase the errant sunspot or patch of redness. I am contemplating undereye filler.

The goal, of course, is flawless skin, a desire I know had been bred into me via ambient exposure to high volumes of beauty culture. I know skin perfection is nothing more than wishful thinking; I suppose the more sensible aim is to simply need less makeup. But I really, really love the chase—don’t so many of us?

I am a skincare junkie, but I am also a trend forecaster. My job is to spot “weak signals” in the culture and interpret how they represent a shift toward an as-yet-to-be-defined future. At their core, trend forecasters tend to use intuition and instinct to sense newness, coupled with an intimate understanding of different sectors or product categories. I own a trend consultancy that specializes in helping brands—many of them in the beauty category—translate cultural change into future-facing strategies. And I sense that beauty culture is at an inflection point; a sign of a larger cultural shift. I call it New Essentialism.

A Quiet Shift in the Landscape

First, let’s paint a picture of the beauty culture today. Consumers are eager to adopt a litany of harsh retinols, potent exfoliants, abrasive scrubs, invasive treatments like microneedling, and quick fixes like neurotoxins and fillers. They’ve bought into brands selling them on elaborate regimens, cocktailing ingredients like quasi-chemists. They’re addicted to “pimple-popping” content. They crave constant newness, always eager to learn about the newest brand, latest launch, or hottest TikTok trend. Brands, often under pressure from investors to grow quickly, have embraced “fast beauty,” whereby they launch a steady drumbeat of new content and SKUs. Suffice it to say, we have reached “peak beauty.”

But I sense a shift afoot. The emergence of a pared-back, minimalist approach to beauty and also a realignment of our priorities in a larger sense. It is a kinder view toward skin, self, and planet. One that prioritizes health and equilibrium, both in beauty and mind. One that leads us to a place where we might derive our sense of beauty from deeper within.

In America, trends and countertrends tend to vacillate from one extreme to another. Is New Essentialism just a backlash to today’s beauty culture, or even just a fad? It’s hard to predict. Sometimes though, trends take on new life, expanding in adoption and influence until they become full-fledged movements. Do I believe New Essentialism has the ability to become a movement unto itself? I think it’s likely. And I believe this shift has the potential to reverberate throughout the beauty industry, influencing everything from new product development to marketing and beyond.

How We Got Here: Clean Beauty, Influencer Fatigue, the Rise of Gen Z, and Beauty’s “Delusions of Grandeur”

To understand megashifts like this one, let’s first examine its precursors. What were the trends that led to the rise of New Essentialism?

To start was the decline of restrictive “clean beauty” dogma. Bear with me—”no nasties” beauty is here to stay. But the discourse around clean beauty started to shift. Increasingly sophisticated beauty consumers, who did nothing if not their research, began to accept synthetic ingredients, so long as they were proven safe and effective. Paula’s Choice embodies this ethos perfectly, positioning itself around the promise of “smart, safe beauty” formulated with “only ingredients that research proves to be beneficial to the skin”—not imagery ingredients used as botanical fairy dust. As well, platforms like the Environmental Working Group have demystified cosmetics ingredients and point consumers toward safer ingredients, be they natural or not. And the emerging biotech beauty category, which leverages “clean synthetics” claims based on scientific validation, continued to quietly gain momentum. Though consumers will always gravitate toward familiar ingredients, we began to develop a more nuanced, science-forward, truth-first conception of beauty ingredients, instead of a strict adherence to a reductive “naturals only” view.

Then there’s influencer fatigue, which set in somewhere around 2020, if not earlier. Influencer culture had gained the reputation for producing overly manipulated, stylized, and performative content, as well as for deceptive practices like purchasing followers. Consumers began to crave honesty and authenticity over the glossy, ever-ubiquitous #sponcon. This shift didn’t mean that influencer marketing went away. But today, consumers crave a variety of voices and increasingly prioritize advice from experts like dermatologists, chemists, and brand founders—not just the pretty face.

Perhaps the biggest driver of New Essentialism is the ascendency of Gen Z. Lineless as their foreheads are, they are passionate skintellectuals. As cited recently in CNN, a survey from beauty consumer analyst group The Benchmark Company found that more than 50% of 18- to 24-year-old women said they wanted to add wrinkle-defying products into their routines. Beyond creams and serums, they're experimenting with gua sha tools, light therapy devices, and preventative Botox. Gen Z pathologizes skin aging like no other generation before.

But Gen Z is a study in contradiction. Although many suffer from this “skin dysphoria,” they also desire self-expression and promote radical self-acceptance. They celebrate flaws (see: candy-colored pimple patches) and they expect the same from brands. As cited in Vogue Business, according to Y Pulse, 62% of Gen Z say brands overedit their photos, and 70% say they like it when content from brands is not perfect. Gen Z rejects aspirational, overly romanticized marketing speak that has a vice grip on the rest of us. They are asking for something new.

We saw these trends spring up alongside ever-outrageous marketing myths that seemed to confound beauty with inner happiness—”hope in a jar” 2.0. Consider this “about” statement from a supplement and skincare brand: “When was the last time you were truly happy? When you woke up after eight hours of sleep? That feeling you get after an exceptionally great holiday? [We] will help you capture that moment, when everything is in balance, and you have the confidence to take advantage of everything life has to offer. You, naturally engineered to reach your potential. You, ready to make your move.” What??

Early Glimmers of Postconsumption Mindsets

The idea of postconsumerism is a still-nascent concept in our culture. It is defined as the prioritization of well-being over material prosperity; the recognition of the addiction we have to accumulating “stuff.” Most of us who are ecologically aware, those who were adherents to the minimalism movement of the mid-2010s, which saw us Marie Kondo-ing our closets and our lives to focus on things that “sparked joy” would head nod to this idea. I write this as I have several delivery boxes stacked near my front door (as is the case on many days).

Alongside our uneasy relationship with consumption, the familiar adage of “reduce, reuse, recycle” was beginning to be expanded upon, now including “refuse” and “repair.” A notable example of this updated definition is the quintessentially eco-forward brand Patagonia. Back in 2011, its now-famous “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign encouraged consumers to rethink their consumption habits. The move plugged the brand’s options to prolong product lifespan, including in-store and and mail order repair services, as well as YouTube tutorials on topics like patching ripped tents and options to return used items for Patagonia credit.

Anti-consumption has yet to reach beauty in a big way, but there are glimmers that refillable packaging may finally be approaching a tipping point in brand adoption. As cited in Beauty Packaging, and reported by market data company Smithers, refillable and reusable packaging sales were estimated at $42 billion in 2022 and are projected to grow 5% annually, rising to $53.5 billion by 2027—which is forecast to be 4.2% of all global packaging sales. And beyond refillables, beauty brands are seeking alternative materials. Founded in 2021 by ICU physician Dr. Heather Smith during the pandemic, BareLuxe views itself as an “anti-plastic activist brand.” It offers a range of botanical “oil-serums” with packaging that pushes for sustainable materials integration and better end-of-life-cycle options.

Beyond sustainability-driven brand stories, we began to see beauty brands bubbling up that espoused a minimalist approach. Launched in 2019, makeup artist Adam de Cruz founded A.D.C. Beauty, centered on plant-based ingredients and consisting of a singular product—The Moisturizer—offered in two sizes. Four years later, The Moisturizer remains A.D.C.’s only offer. According to the brand’s site, de Cruz “developed The Moisturizer firstly because I was getting pretty fed up with how brands were continually separating products into more and more steps. Double cleansing, layering of different serums, different types of moisturizer, primer. and all this before you even got to putting your makeup on. Who has the time to do this twice a day?” And In 2020, Lush announced that it would discontinue a significant amount of its products, about 150 in total. The evaluation criteria were threefold: Does it serve the customer’s needs? Is it number one in its category? Is it part of a “revolution”? The move was attributed to the brand’s desire to focus on fewer products that gave better results.

Essentialist Beauty Today

Fast forward to today and we’re beginning to see “skinimalism” take hold. Though the hybridization of products is nothing new, we are seeing the phenomenon of collapsing regimens. Olay’s yet-to-be-launched Super Serum claims to be five serums in one: niacinamide, vitamin C, collagen peptide, vitamin E, and alpha hydroxy acid. And the much-anticipated Date Night Skin Tint Serum Foundation from Gen Z-favorite brand Youthforia asserts it is more than a glorified BB cream. It is “the first ever foundation you can sleep in” and contains 68% skincare actives like adenosine as well as ingredients that claim to slow sebum production. On the brand’s site, founder Fiona Co Chan says, “I believe that makeup should be an extension of your skincare and that means being able to fall asleep with makeup on without waking up feeling guilty.”

As well, brands like Good Light, a gender-inclusive “beauty beyond the binary” brand, takes a very intentional approach to product development. The brand offers only cleanser, toning lotion, a microbiome serum, a hyaluronic acid cream, and an all-purpose balm. As quoted in Vogue Business, co-founder Michael Engert says that Good Light will be “very careful” with the next product it decides to launch.

Emerging Skin Science and the Prioritization of Health

An antecedent to the interest in skin health was the idea of “skin cycling,” wherein we were encouraged to rotate powerful ingredients designed to hypercharge cell turnover with those that were gentler and fortified skin’s moisture barrier. Moisture barrier? That was  something new. Consumers were craving “straight talk” advice from experts; this was a revelation to many of us who were apparently accosting our skin every morning and night. Today, mass-market brands like BYOMA have popularized the conception of preserving the skin’s moisture barrier for a broader audience.

As consumers flirt with the idea of minimalist routines, they are also beginning to evolve how they understand their skin, slowly shifting from the pursuit of external skin perfection toward the cultivation of holistic skin health. Sounds obvious; we’ve been extolling inside-out beauty for decades. But the approach somehow feels radically new. Or like we really mean it this time.

Underpinning a more hands-off approach is a growing body of science that is unraveling the biology of the skin. A recent article published by BBC entitled “The Curious Way Skin Shapes Your Health” asserts that damaged skin is linked to nearly every age-related disease, from diabetes to Parkinson’s syndrome, and that if a person looks older than their age, it’s likely they are are actually more unhealthy than someone whose skin looks closer to their chronological age. And, stunningly, that unhealthy skin causes bodily aging, not just the other way around. This is because skin is part of the body’s immune system and as we age, normal immune responses go into overdrive. This triggers a cascade of inflammatory chemicals that destroy healthy cells and ravage our DNA, which leads to systemic inflammation that can harm organs like the heart and brain. Just as we came to understand more about the gut microbiome, these new scientific findings tell us that the skin is far more complex than we ever realized.

In his 2020 book Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less, doctor and journalist James Hamblin dissects the science of the skin microbiome, a “living layer” that rests on top of our skin. Along the way, he questions the ethics of a hype-machine skincare industry peddling products that cost too much, don’t do enough (or nothing at all), and make us feel “less than” in the process.

It turns out that the skin knows how to be healthy on its own, protected by things like its barrier and microbiome. One brand that embodies the idea of “skintuition” is Monastery, which recently added a skincare offer. According to the brand’s site, “The whole point of skincare is to nourish the skin barrier (the epidermis). If you have that in place then the skin’s normal regenerative process can take over. The skin will be allowed to self-moisturize (via sebum), self-exfoliate (via a shedding process called desquamation), and self-protect (via the microbiome), which neutralizes bacteria and pathogens and self-heals. When it doesn’t go through this natural process, problems arise.”

For consumers who are curious about reevaluating their regimens with products that peacefully coexist with the microbiome, there are ways to find them. My Microbiome AG, based in Liechtenstein and Germany, offers a certification program to brands they scientifically determine to be microbiome-friendly. Skin brand Codex Labs and hair brand Ceremonia have already received product certifications to date.

Perhaps the most interesting brand in the microbiome space is BioJuve, launched earlier this summer. Claiming to take a “whole-biome” approach, it asserts that many people don’t have well-balanced microbiomes due to aging and sun damage. The brand is built around a proprietary Xycrobe microbe technology, not simply pre- and probiotics or non-native skin bacteria like that found in yogurt. The hero Living Biome Essentials Serum contains live, skin-native P. Acnes bacteria, which when topically applied fosters further growth in the skin. The bacteria’s byproducts include proteins, fatty acids, polypeptides, and antioxidants. A clinical trial of the full BioJuve regimen showed a dramatic improvement in texture, tone, fine lines, wrinkles, and photo damage. Currently available only through medical providers, the brand seems to be a true breakthrough in microbiome science.

Honoring Skin and Self

The rise of New Essentialism represents a shift in which we ask ourselves what in our lives can fall away, not what we can acquire. It replaces our overly invasive, hyperconsumptive skincare routines meant to create the illusion of health in favor of a streamlined approach that honors our bodies’ miraculous ability to heal and sustain. More than that, it permits women to disabuse themselves of the idea that beauty can be bottled; that brand promises can somehow deliver them from an imperfect life. Instead, it makes room for more self-love.

A recent ad for Charlotte Tilbury’s new Charlotte’s Magic Water Cream may be a glimpse of what’s to come: a side-by-side comparison of the product’s (realistic) results features a caption that reads, “Beautiful Before” and “Beautiful After.” Might this be a signpost for a newly approaching chapter in the beauty culture? We’ll have to find out.

Implications for Brands

If New Essentialism feels overwhelming in terms of application for your brand, that’s because it is. How will brands evolve or even break the cycle of delivering the constant newness that has become a retail and growth driven engine? I don’t have all the answers. But I can offer some implications:

  • Educate, Educate, Educate. Consumers will continue to have a thirst for knowledge about products, ingredients, and the science of skin. Even if your brand is positioned around fun or experiences, recognize that especially Gen Z is practical, pragmatic, and truth seeking. Invest in brand-right, talkable content that unpacks the latest in research and ingredients, demystifying them for your audience.  
  • Think Like a Luxury Fashion Brand: The “buy once, love forever” idea can apply to fast-moving consumables too and is a way for consumers to engage in “conspicuous anti-consumption” in beauty (status signaling will never go away). Premiumize your brand with the introduction of higher-margin, luxury-leaning collections, sub-brands, or endorser brands that deliver superior quality and craftsmanship—”better and worth it” products that can replace the consumer’s “fast beauty” product graveyard.  
  • Invest in New Technologies. Consider undertaking R&D and product development initiatives that explore kinder, more “skintuitive” formulations. Integrate tech solutions to enhance transparency. Track, enhance, and maximize sustainability initiatives and UGC in the online shopping experience. 
  • Substance vs. Spin. Though it is a difficult proposition for some brands who trade on aspiration and fantasy, create communication strategies that balance storytelling and truth, acknowledging a growing consumer sentiment toward realism and transparency. Aim to substantiate claims and leverage a bit more straight talk and a little less marketing puffery.
  • SKU Rationalization. Be inspired by Lush and pose the question to your brand and business —what are lower-volume, potentially off-equity products or offers that can be slashed in service of streamlining the portfolio?
  • Consider Emerging Certifications. Ensure your product remains relevant as consumers evolve toward more skin-supportive routines. Exploring certifications beyond those that are clean and/or ethically focused and into those that demonstrate that you are “skin biology compatible.”

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