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Zoom and face masks are giving cosmetics brands an eye lift

August 12, 2020, 5:30 PM UTC

The lipstick index may now be the mascara index. With many people required to wear a mask while out in public, consumers have turned to upping their eye game.

Greater consumer interest in eye makeup has been building for months, tracking closely to the increase of face mask usage since the emergence of COVID-19 at the beginning of the year. In China, Alibaba reported eye makeup sales increased 150%, month over month by the end of February. In South Korea, sales of eye makeup increased by 51.8% in March, year over year, at Lalavla, the health and beauty store chain operated by GS Retail. And Seoul-based Aekyung Industry’s cosmetics brand Luna saw a 100% monthly increase in orders in March for its eyeliner. Lotte Shopping, which operates department stores and discount stores in South Korea, found higher-end beauty brands, like Dior and Bobbi Brown, saw sales growth of 40% in eye makeup sales in February.

“This beauty boom has been driven in part by the popularity of ‘mask makeup looks,’ a trending phrase on social media that took off when Chinese beauty influencers began sharing makeup looks to wear with surgical masks amid the COVID-19 outbreak,” wrote Christine Chou for Alizila, the news unit at Alibaba, on March 30. “Per Taobao Live, a series of live-stream sessions on how to create makeup looks while wearing masks attracted 8.2 million viewers on Feb. 18, and led to a 150% month-over-month sales increase of eye shadow palettes that week.”

The eye shadow collection from Kosas Cosmetics, a clean beauty brand with a cult following.
Courtesy of Kosas Cosmetics

In the cosmetics aisle, lipstick sales saw the biggest drop in the U.S. with Amazon tracking a 15% decline, compared with a 5% increase for eye cosmetics in the four weeks leading up to April 11. Sheena Yaitanes, founder of Kosas Cosmetics, a clean beauty brand with cult and celebrity followings and sold at Sephora and Goop, says the company saw a 12% increase in sales for its eye category from January to August.

“The biggest thing we’ve seen is an acceleration of a trend that we were already seeing in 2019, which was a shift away from complicated, layered, ultraprecise beauty looks that had taken over all our feeds in the preceding few years,” Yaitanes tells Fortune.

“We believe that brushes continue to perform strong as consumers are extra cautious about applying makeup in a hygienic way, and our brushes are perfect for that,” says Gayitri Budhraja, VP of brand at e.l.f. Cosmetics.
Courtesy of e.l.f. Cosmetics

But it might not just be mask mandates fueling interest in eye makeup but also the desire to look polished for video calls and meetings, suggests Gayitri Budhraja, vice president of brand at e.l.f. Cosmetics.

“We’ve seen a shift from categories like foundation to a trend towards lighter-wear makeup or products that help you be ‘Zoom-ready,’ like concealer, for example,” Budhraja says. “And while fuller pigment lip color is down, traditionally a lighter form, such as lip gloss and lip balm, is up.”

And Budhraja says she has seen the industry soften in the eye category since the pandemic, explaining that at e.l.f., the brand has seen a shift where brow and eyeliner have softened (but are still positive in sales) while eye shadow has picked up. “We are seeing strength in our launches from earlier this year [Bite-Size eye shadow and Liquid Glitter], as well as continued growth in core black eyeliners and brow, which is the No. 1 [seller] in America,” Budhraja says, citing Nielsen data from June 2020.

“Even in this Zoom environment, a little self-care goes a long way. One of the beauty trends I think will be sticking with us is the desire to keep things simple,” says Amazing Lash Studio CEO Heather Elrod.
Courtesy of Amazing Lash Studio

But it’s not just eye makeup seeing a surge but also eye-focused cosmetology services, such as eyelash extensions and permanent color tinting for eyelashes and eyebrows.

“I believe this is due to women putting greater emphasis on the appearance of their eyes with mask mandates in place,” says Emily Raburn, owner of several Amazing Lash Studio locations in Texas. Before the pandemic, Raburn says sales in all of her locations were trending upward, hitting membership numbers not seen before. After reopening, it took a minimum of 60 days for numbers to stabilize again. But since the pandemic started, Raburn says her business saw a spike of roughly 46% in year-over-year client leads and a 22% increase in digital client leads since March.

“Because of mandates in most states currently, I believe that eyelashes are becoming even more popular now than before the pandemic,” Raburn says. “Even while wearing a mask, other people can still see your beautiful eyes—not your makeup or your lips—just your eyes.”

Right now, all locations of Amazing Lash Studio are open nationwide for indoor services, with the exception of California, where services were ordered to shut down again in July as COVID-19 cases spiked. However, many franchise managers are trying their best, and eyelash extension services can be provided outside the walls of the studio.

“We have owners who have rolled up their sleeves and found a way to make it happen, turning a parking lot or sidewalk into a studio, while at the same time following the industry-leading safety and sanitation protocols we have implemented,” says Heather Elrod, CEO of Amazing Lash Studio, adding that some studios are seeing higher service volumes outside, versus pre–COVID-19 indoor service levels. “Guests have been so grateful for the opportunity to enjoy a little self-care and return to normal.”

In studios that have reopened in other states, Elrod describes the balancing act in meeting pent-up demand with lower capacity owing to the extra time taken for enhanced cleaning between each appointment to deep-clean private rooms and common areas. This requires salon managers to be more strategic in the scheduling of appointments, including using staggered schedules to avoid gatherings in the reception area.

“During this time when masks are part of our daily routine, our eyes are an even more powerful form of personal expression than they were before,” Elrod says. “Our focus has always been on owning the eyes, and our commitment to innovation has not wavered.”