Beauty pros give advice on pandemic-era care

Amber Ferguson & Nia Decaille

THE WASHINGTON POST – The 60-second video was a departure from the online influencer’s usual offerings – no candid banter about skincare routines or a chipper Aloha greeting, but a primer about how to avoid skin irritation from chemical agents used against protesters.

“With all of the protests going on right now, here’s what to do if you come into contact with tear gas or you’re Maced,” said Hyram Yarbro, an Internet skincare guru based in Honolulu.

The YouTuber rattled off five tips, ending with “Stay safe, and black lives matter.” The video has been played on his newly created TikTok account over 10 million times.

His rallying cry to support protesters adds to his growing visibility as a socially conscious source of skincare advice during the pandemic of the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19.

Across the United States (US), professionals in the USD500 billion beauty industry found innovative ways to keep their businesses afloat through coronavirus shutdowns and national protests – from using expired makeup to creating artwork to assembling custom products.

The coronavirus ricocheted throughout the beauty industry. For a nail artist in the District of Columbia it means creating and mailing crystal embellished press-on nails. In New Jersey, a bridal makeup artist purchases beauty products at drugstores for clients and coaches them (through video) on how to apply it. For an aesthetician whose been laid off in Maryland, she practises facials on her family and sells DIY peel kits to make ends meet.

During times of economic downturn, sales in the beauty sector historically increase in what is known as the ‘lipstick effect’. In the 2008-09 crisis, for example, sales at cosmetic behemoth L’Oréal grew by 5.3 per cent, according to Psychology Today, as manufacturing jobs were being cut at lightning rates. Experts said small indulgences such as beauty products help people feel better and don’t put too much strain on people’s budgets.

But the economic collapse sparked by the global pandemic is different from other times of financial instability, in part because consumers are keeping their distance from one another and shopping in stores less.

That produced hardship for the estimated 535,930 people employed in the US as skincare specialists, nail technicians and other personal-care professions. The pandemic dealt an especially heavy blow to women, who constitute 54 per cent of the industries that include personal care, laundry and maintenance repairs and other services. According to 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, black and Hispanic women were “more likely” to be employed in lower-paying service occupations than Asian and white women. Women and people of colour are experiencing higher rates of unemployment during the COVID-19 crisis, according to the BLS.

Now, with states loosening restrictions, people flocked to barbers and hairstylists. But aestheticians, nail technicians and makeup artists in many states still can’t return to work, due to phased re-openings after coronavirus shutdowns.

And even when beauty professionals are allowed to return to work, it’s unclear that they will be able to operate as they did before.

When department and beauty stores re-open, consumers can expect shopping by appointment and reduced hours at counters, said Chief Executive of Telsey Advisory Group Dana Telsey, a Wall Street consumer research firm focussed on the cosmetics and apparel industries. She anticipates virtual makeup application applied to the face on a mirror so products never touch a consumer.

“I think we’re seeing new rituals that are going to be ingrained to make sure safety stays a priority,” said Telsey.

At a time when people are still working from home at least part of the time and required to wear a mask when they do go out, she said she expects to see skincare rapidly growing and makeup sales slowing. Telsey said people are sanitising more and focussing on using products that provide moisture and hydration on their face and body.

Online makeup artists and influencers are re-creating an in-store experience as trusted beauty concierges, even more so than before the pandemic.

“In beauty, it’s a very social experience,” Telsey said. “So in these Zoom classes (where influencers are teaching beauty tutorials), the discussion between the customers and the makeup artist, it becomes almost like a social gathering.”

But some trends from the past may return, such as airbrush makeup, which involves less contact with clients’ skin.

Others warn that business might not return quickly if the unemployment rate remains high. “People are concerned about paying the bills right now,” said Economist AnnElizabeth Konkel at Indeed Hiring Lab. “And so some services, such as getting a massage or nails or some type of skincare treatment, might struggle to bring in customers if their previous clientele has been laid off or is job searching right now.”

Here is what some beauty insiders are saying about how they are diversifying their services and where they see the industry going after COVID-19:

Yarbro said it typically takes him eight to 10 hours to research, shoot and edit his YouTube videos. Once he hits ‘upload’, his young fan base devours his commentary, and the items he recommends often sell out. His brand Skin Care by Hyram focusses on promoting clean beauty, an informal industry term that refers to products with ingredients considered safe, organic or natural.

As a response to the nationwide upheaval in major cities, Hyram, who is white, reviewed several black-owned skincare brands and encouraged his following to use their money as a form of protest by supporting black skincare retailers and other black artists. Most of the items are sold out.

He also encouraged viewers to donate to bail funds for protesters, sharing that he is donating the ad revenue made from the video to those causes.

His channel had “explosive growth” during the pandemic, Yarbro said, adding 500,000 new subscribers between April and May. His channel now has at about two million subscribers after sharing his first skincare video two years ago. He credits most of his popularity to videos critiquing skincare routines, known as reaction videos. His sudden comments watching celebrities and random users put on skincare products is a form of entertainment.

Much to his surprise, he said, his growing audience continues to buy the products he recommends. “It is completely opposite of what I initially suspected with quarantining,” he said.

The skincare and beauty star earns a living through a percentage of ad revenue, brand partnerships and affiliate links listed in the video descriptions, from which he earns a commission.

Buying skincare products is a way for consumers to practise self-care through a nationwide health crisis, according to NPD Group, which tracks sales data for beauty brands sold in stores such as Sephora.

“Makeup and fragrance had the biggest drops in dollars in the month of March, which is when we all kind of went into quarantine,” said Vice President at NPD Larissa Jensen.

It was clear which beauty categories were hit hardest in sales once stores closed, according to Jensen, because makeup and fragrance sales were down by 40 per cent compared with skin care, which was down 20 per cent.

Jensen said concerns about safety and sanitation has brands considering options such as single-use testers.

People are shifting their purchase habits during the pandemic, industry experts said. Consumers are stocking up on body lotions and scrubs; cleansers and serums, which are applied before moisturisers; and other skincare basics, according to Poshly, which creates micro-targetted campaigns and surveys for beauty brands and organisations.

“That’s really what’s moving the needle. And again, it’s in part in response to people having the time to do much more with their skincare routine,” said Chief Executive of Poshly Doreen Bloch.

While those fortunate enough to have a large online audience can turn a growing interest in free online skin-care advice into lucrative brand partnerships, individual aestheticians have had to hustle to make a living.

For licensed aesthetician Ally Dawson, the challenge was in maintaining her loyal clientele while creating new streams of income.

Dawson, who was laid off in March from Glowbar, a subscription-based facial service in New York City’s Tribeca neighbourhood, decided to launch a customised skincare peel kit. The kit sells for USD65 with eight travel-size products and includes a 20-minute virtual consultation with Dawson.

Surrounded by pounds of crinkled paper to stuff boxes for orders and living out of her childhood bedroom in Maryland, where she is staying during the pandemic, Dawson is now thinking about how to work in multiple cities.

“I’m open to the potential that I can be anywhere and do what I need to do as long as I have a certification to do so,” she said.

“Long story short, I’m not sure yet. But I’m open to the possibility of it.”

While many businesses can’t afford to make rent for retail spaces, celebrity aesthetician Shani Darden said she is in no rush to reopen her Beverly Hills, California, studio, which launched in June last year and will remain closed until her county reaches Phase 3 of reopening.

Darden has the benefit of being in the skincare industry for over a decade and of having loyal, affluent clientele such as Kelly Rowland and Jessica Alba. She said she doesn’t take on new clients.

She is posting facial tutorials on Instagram and coaching her clients through skincare emergencies – like how to extract a large pimple – over FaceTime video.

Her line of skincare products launched in Sephora at the end of February, and she said the support has been “overwhelming”.

The foundation of Darden’s business, however, is in providing facial treatments. “I have to give facials. This can’t be the end of me giving facials,” said Darden. “But I am not necessarily in a rush right now because I do think it’s really important that we all be really careful.”