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How ‘VSCO Girls’ Are Killing Makeup Sales—and Reshaping the Beauty Industry

November 11, 2019, 10:30 AM UTC

Social media is littered with images of her: She wears very little makeup, oversized t-shirts, bike shorts and Birkenstocks. She’s usually got an armful of scrunchies and carries a Hydro Flask water bottle covered in “save the turtles” stickers.

And, she’s totally throwing off the bottom line in the makeup industry.

The term VSCO girl, borrowed from a California-based app called Visual Supply Company, now represents a growing number of teens with disposable income, a ‘less is more’ aesthetic and a penchant for mid-market brands with a social conscience and Instagram-worthy packaging.

Investment bank and securities firm Piper Jaffray released its semiannual teen survey this fall, detailing just how influential the VSCO trend is, noting a 21% decrease in cosmetic spending among female teens year over year. Plus, the firm last week downgraded Estée Lauder stock from overweight to neutral, while cosmetics retailer Ulta Beauty saw its stock fall 29% at the end of August following disappointing second quarter earnings, further indicating a softening of makeup sales. The VSCO girl offers somewhat of a parallel to the Marie Kondo effect happening in homes across the country, as she’s traded in heavy makeup for Carmex lip balm, Mario Badescu rosewater facial spray and single-item, multi-use products from Glossier.

Kayla Marci, an analyst covering the cosmetics industry at retail data firm Edited, says the teen girl is leaning on fewer products with more transparent ingredients and maybe even a bit of a social conscience. “Think of brands like ‘Florence by Mills’, created by actor Millie Bobby Brown and model Charli Howard’s ‘Squish’ with its quirky flower acne patches,” says Marci. “Brand awareness is appearing to be more crucial than price.” These girls, she says, want to be seen wearing the “it” brand and they’ve got the allowance to spend on it.

Companies such as Mario Badescu, Glossier (whose blog Into The Gloss featured a September post detailing the VSCO girl profile’s favorite products) and Tarte (named the top teen cosmetics brand in Piper Jaffray’s survey, touting “high performance naturals” and vegan products) are gaining traction. Mario Badescu’s rose water facial spray ($12 for an 8oz bottle) is a top seller on Amazon with more than 5,000 reviews. Says one representative at Mario Badescu, “We have definitely seen a lift in sales and awareness that can be attributed to our association with this aesthetic. As a brand, we’ve always worked to have a dialogue with teenagers.”

That of course, leads to what the Estée Lauders and L’Oreals of the world will do in response. While both Estée Lauder and L’Oreal opted not to comment for this story, there are sign of a possible pivot in the works. By 2020, the Estée Lauder’s most recent investor fact sheet shows, the company aims to commit to net zero emissions. And, by 2025, the brand will disclose to consumers all of its ingredients and make 70-100% of its packaging recyclable, refillable, reusable, recycled or recoverable. L’Oreal showed in its 2018 annual report that skin care sales brought in 39% of profits, while makeup lagged at 19%. The company also announced last month it would be partnering with Albéa on paper-based packaging set to hit production lines in 2020.

Indeed, some of the big brands are emphasizing serums and creams as they target the VSCO demographic. Market research company NPD Group reported a 13 percent increase in skincare sales in the U.S. in 2018. And, it seems Estée Lauder is a big part of that uptick. The company’s most recent quarterly earnings report (released August 2019) shows double digit growth in skincare, specifically noting three “hero” lotions and creams from the La Mer line as top drivers.

“I think there is definitely more of a skincare trend going on,” says one Sephora beauty consultant named Myra at a store outside of Philadelphia. “It’s more of a focus on moisturizers and cleansers, and teens are moving more toward the cleaner ingredient brands.”

At the end of the day, says Marci, in some ways the VSCO profile mirrors a lot of what’s happening in other demographics, too: Teens are looking to connect with brands on a more diverse, nuanced level.

Beauty may be on the inside, but a rosewater spritz never hurts.

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