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Gen Z is teaching older generations a lesson about beauty: It’s not about sex

July 24, 2022, 10:30 AM UTC
Friends taking selfie
Gen Z has a different take on beauty.
Getty Images

Makeup tutorials, skin care routines, and all kinds of product reviews fill TikTok’s “For You” page.

It’s how a lot of influencers and content creators started a name for themselves, because for some users, it’s their most watched and liked content. Get ready with me videos, simple makeup routines, tips and tricks for natural looks dominate the category. 

Kayla Villena, an industry manager for beauty and personal care at Euromonitor, an independent provider of strategic market research, has some thoughts about what it all means. At a Gen Z Beauty event hosted by the Jefferies this month, Villena and the investment bank said that to the younger generation, beauty just doesn’t have much to do with sex appeal.

“Gen Z consumers have instituted a paradigm shift in the psyche of the Beauty consumer,” the Jefferies team of analysts wrote in a recap of the event. “As a generation focused on authenticity not conformity—Gen Z views beauty as a way to express their intrinsic value vs. as a tool to achieve external validation.”

There’s an increased awareness in the younger generation of the connection between mind, body, and skin, Jefferies said. In other words, the typical Gen Zer thinks of beauty as a way to express themselves, not as a way to attract others. This clearly has implications on the one hand for business, but also for society at large.

Stephanie Wissink, a Jefferies equity analyst, says the findings were more validating than revealing. 

“We had a hunch Gen Z was going to up the game in beauty and they definitely are,” she told Fortune. “They are challenging norms in a way that recasts the idea of beauty, the fundamental premise of the industry’s role in self expression.”

Defining the (vibe?) shift

So what does this mean for beauty companies? 

First, there’s understanding the paradigm shift. Gen Z’s perception of beauty differs from millennials, Gen X, and baby boomers. The “Zoomers” are more likely to perceive inner confidence, being comfortable in their own skin, and embracing themselves as indicative of beauty versus earlier generations, data from Euromonitor shows. 

Wissink said she thinks this goes back to how Gen Z was raised. 

“They were the first generation to be encouraged to ‘be you’ and to ‘not settle’ for status quo,” she said. “They are also the digital generation, not knowing a world without mobile devices and instant access to information. That has shaped their worldview and their expectation of brands and business.”

This means companies will have to continue to evolve their marketing to target the younger generation’s values, Jefferies said using Euromonitor’s report, so that their products can reflect beauty as holistic, as a way to unwind and decompress, with their products being the way to do so. Self-care is in, and skin health, gut health, and mental health are major aspects of beauty to Gen Z.

Fragrance brands have already shifted their marketing in hopes of appealing to Gen Z. 

“Propelled by Gen Z, the fragrance category has shifted its marketing messaging from sexualized imagery to a focus on scent profile, self comfort, and mindfulness,” analysts wrote.  

How that’ll affect opulent fragrant campaigns and their celebrities poised as the face of the brand — it’s just too soon to tell, but it might be more like Zendaya’s Lancome campaign, where’s she’s riding through the city on a white horse, versus Scarlett Johansson’s Dolce & Gabbana ad, where she seems to portray the classic, ideal woman. 

But as Gen Z, now 23% of the world’s population, comes of age, it will increasingly mean something different to be beautiful. 

What beauty might mean in a Gen Z world 

Seventy percent of Gen Z consumers are only using one to three makeup products and have said they prefer to keep a minimalistic routine. As Gen Z grows in percentage within the industry, analysts are expecting to see an overall compression among all beauty categories, reflecting a favor in simple but effective routines. Which is surprising because the generation occasionally dabbles in expressive makeup—could it be because of the influence of shows like Euphoria, possibly? 

Gen Zers are entering into a stage of their lives where purchases are moving off their parents’ credit cards and coming out of their own paycheck, analysts say, therefore entering a state of price sensitivity. But they do tend to splurge on treatments, Villena noted. 

Still, Gen Z wants to have some fun with their products. 

“Gen Z wants performance but they also want it to be novel and playful through integrating new form factors and whimsy,” analysts wrote, giving the example of cherry-shaped under-eye patches to treat dark circles.

Whether Gen Z’s change in mindset will continue to evolve or revert, as trends often do, right now the key to understanding Gen Z’s approach to beauty, and therefore the beauty industry, is embracing imperfections rather than fighting to cover them up. 

It’s important to note that this is one report, and although its findings suggest a move away from external validation to individual expression, Gen Z loves trends—clothes, products, looks sell out immediately after someone of recognition poses with the item. Right now, low-rise jeans are making a comeback, and Gen Z has ushered in a bare midriff look reminiscent of the late ‘90s, which calls into question just how over sex appeal the generation’s concept of beauty is.

“They don’t seek out external validation in the same way,” Wissink told Fortune. “Do they still seek validation? Yes. But they seek it in different ways and prioritize it differently than prior generations.”

Also, the generation’s social media fixation could be a problem for the industry. 

“Gen Z’s dependence on social media can lead to discrepancy between how they want to present themselves on social media versus how they are in daily life,” which presenters with Euromonitor say, “could lead to a discrepancy in beauty and inconsistency in what generations think Gen Z needs.”

So although Gen Z does seem to be focused on authenticity, it may be impossible to fully achieve, at least within the boundaries of the beauty industry. After all, doesn’t every generation think it’s at the cutting edge of nonconformity? Let’s see what Gen C is like a couple decades from now.

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