Trends in the Beauty Industry That Defined 2021

Trends in the Beauty Industry That Defined 2021
Makeup sales came roaring back after years of decline, accentuated by the pandemic. (Courtesy)

As a slew of new celebrities launched brands and big box retailers continued to expand their beauty departments, makeup made a much-anticipated comeback.


In 2021, life (almost) returned to normal after a year of social isolation and a lot of skin care.

And with that, the year of beauty came to a close. People began to wear makeup again; a slew of new celebrity brands flooded an already crowded market; demand for at-home manicures and the polishes, treatments, and tools that go with them remained strong; and brick-and-mortar retailers refocused their beauty offerings.


The four major forces that guided the beauty industry this year are broken down by BoF below.


Cosmetics are making a comeback.


Experts say color cosmetics are on the upswing after a years-long slump that predated the pandemic. The lifting of pandemic restrictions and resumption of normal socializing and routines fueled the uptick, rekindling consumer interest in colorful lips, eyes, and cheeks after a long absence.


According to The NPD Group, prestige makeup sales in the United States increased by 23% from January to November this year versus the same period in 2020. This growth reverses pre-pandemic trends, which saw prestige makeup sales fall and the prestige beauty category as a whole remain flat from 2018 to 2019.


The Estée Lauder Companies’ Sam Cheow, senior vice president and global head of makeup innovation, portfolio, and product development, said, “People really need the dopamine effect of makeup.” “We’ve all gone through a lot culturally in the last 12 months.”


Cheow also mentioned that sub-categories like brows, eye shadow, blush, highlighters, eyeliner, and satin finish lipsticks, which “we abandoned when we stayed home,” are seeing strong growth.


“We went to get our moisturizer, a little powder, and lip balm, and everything just resurges,” he explained.


So far in 2021, the signs are promising. However, a recent spike in Covid cases may jeopardize makeup’s upward trend if it halts the return to “normal” life that prompted people to wear makeup in the first place.


“The dopamine effect of makeup is extremely important to people.”

Retailing in the Beauty Industry Has Been Reimagined


The line between where one can buy CeraVe face wash — Target or a drug store — and Tarte foundation — Sephora or Ulta — is becoming increasingly blurred. Because of Kohl’s and Target’s Sephora and Ulta shop-in-shop concepts, mass retailers are dipping their toes deeper into prestige beauty. Others, such as Walmart and JCPenney, have revamped their beauty departments and introduced new direct-to-consumer lines.


Ulta Beauty will have 100 locations in Target stores by the end of 2021, after opening its first shop-in-shop in August. Kohl’s opened Sephora boutiques in 70 of its stores in the same month, the start of a two-year rollout in 850 stores.


To compete with Target’s Ulta deal, Walmart introduced more than 100 new beauty brands this year, including Uoma by Sharon C, Uoma’s new makeup line, Bubble, a Gen-Z-focused skin care line, and sexual wellness label Cake, to boost its beauty credibility and attract younger customers.


Consumers are mixing high-end items with more affordable ones, much like they do in fashion, which has resulted in this evolution of how and where products are bought and sold. These shifts were accelerated by the pandemic, which shifted many beauty purchases to “essential” retailers like big box and drug stores.


Musab Balbale, Walmart’s vice president of beauty, told BoF earlier this year, “Beauty is a battleground that a lot of retailers are trying to focus on.” “We’re bringing in more indie, niche brands that would probably surprise a customer five years ago,” says the company.

Brands with Celebrities and Influencers


This year, the beauty world welcomed a slew of new celebrity founders, with a slew of celebrities launching makeup, skincare, and nail polish brands, both online through their own e-commerce sites and in stores like Sephora.


A beauty brand, when done right — think Rihanna’s Fenty or Kylie Jenner’s Kylie Cosmetics — can be more lucrative than the acting, singing, performing, or influencing gigs that used to pay the bills.


“For celebrities, being a founder is almost like winning an Emmy — they have to have that title now as well,” Chris Ventry, vice president at consulting firm SSA & Company, said of the burgeoning celebrity beauty industry.


The concept isn’t new; what has accelerated is the rate at which celebrity brands are emerging, as well as the incubators created specifically to breed them.


Ariana Grande, Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Aniston, and Billie Eilish were among the celebrities who entered the beauty industry this year, launching makeup, skin care, hair care, and fragrance brands, respectively. Influencers joined the trend as well, with TikTok star Addison Rae launching a makeup and fragrance line. Even male celebrities got on board: in late November and early December, Alex Rodriguez debuted a concealer, and Harry Styles and Machine Gun Kelly (real name Colson Baker) debuted their nail color lines, Pleasing and UN/DN LAQR, weeks apart. More is on the way: Hailey Bieber and Scarlett Johansson have both announced new lines for next year.


“So many of these celebrities have this valuable asset called traffic,” said Ventry, referring to their devoted fan bases. As a retailer, he noted that getting traffic is difficult, but converting that traffic into a sale is even more difficult, even when a celebrity has a built-in fan base.


As Baker and Styles demonstrated, a well-known name can pique people’s interest. According to data from fashion marketplace Lovethesales, online searches for “men’s nail polish” increased by 420 percent and 512 percent in the hours after UN/DN LAQR and Pleasing launched. However, it remains to be seen whether these searches will result in sales for this new crop of brands.



Many people still prefer to paint their fingers and toes at home, even though some have resumed weekly manicures at the salon. With the rise in at-home manicures has come an increase in nail experimentation, with both men and women sporting everything from intricately painted nail art and bold colors to gradient and glitter press-ons.


The founder and CEO of nail brand Olive & June, Sarah Gibson Tuttle, said sales increased by double digits this year after growing 16 times in 2020. Clippers, files, buffers, cuticle serums, and “The Poppy,” a device that makes it easier to paint with your non-dominant hand, are among the brand’s polish and manicure “systems,” which include clippers, files, buffers, cuticle serums, and “The Poppy,” a device that makes it easier to paint with your non-dominant hand.


Olive & June’s success is due to their ability to keep up with industry trends. According to the NPD Group, nail products sold in the US prestige market from January to November this year increased by 14% over 2020, with nail polish growing by 13%. According to data management platform 1010data, online sales of anything nail-related increased 12 percent from September 2020 to September 2021, with the nail category outpacing both face and lip products. The #NailArt hashtag on TikTok has over 17 billion views.


“[Nail products] taught people to provide themselves with a form of self-care that lasts longer than almost anything else,” Gibson Tuttle said. “If you put on makeup, give yourself a blowout, or even get a massage… What is the duration of a week or two weeks? Nails.”


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