Business

The creative ways beauty pros are facing the pandemic

From creating artwork out of expired makeup to FaceTime tutorials on how to do facial extractions, beauty professionals are finding a way to pull through the pandemic
Joana Neves for The Washington Post

The 60-second video was a departure from the online influencer’s usual offerings — no candid banter about skin-care 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 skin-care 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.

@skincarebyhyram

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His rallying cry to support protesters adds to his growing visibility as the socially conscious source of free skin care advice during the pandemic.

His rallying cry to support protesters adds to his growing visibility as a socially conscious source of skin-care advice during the pandemic.

Across the country, professionals in the $500 billion beauty industry have found innovative ways to keep their businesses afloat through coronavirus lockdowns and national protests — from using expired makeup to creating artwork to assembling custom products or, like Yarbro, by injecting themselves into the conversation.

The coronavirus has ricocheted throughout the beauty industry. For the nail artist, in the District 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 on how to apply it over video. For an aesthetician who’s been laid off in Maryland, she practices 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 recession, for example, sales at cosmetic behemoth L’Oréal grew by 5.3 percent, according to Psychology Today, as manufacturing jobs were being cut at lightning rates. Experts say small indulgences such as beauty products help people feel better and don’t put too much strain on people’s budgets, as opposed to major purchases.

But the economic collapse sparked by the global pandemic is different from other times of financial instability, in part because consumers are social distancing and shopping in-store less.

That’s produced hardship for the estimated 535,930 people employed in the United States as skin-care specialists, nail technicians and other personal care professionals. The pandemic has dealt an especially crippling blow to women, who constitute 54 percent 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 color are experiencing higher rates of unemployment during the covid-19 crisis, according to the BLS.

Now, with states loosening restrictions, people have flocked to barbers and hairstylists. But aestheticians, nail technicians and makeup artists in many states still can’t return to work under phased reopenings after coronavirus restrictions on businesses.

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 reopen, consumers can expect shopping by appointment and reduced hours at counters, said Dana Telsey, chief executive of Telsey Advisory Group, a Wall Street consumer research firm focused on the cosmetics and apparel industries. She anticipates virtual makeup application to the face on a mirror so that 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,” says 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 skin care rapidly growing and makeup sales slowing. Telsey says people are sanitizing more and focusing 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 offering 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, like airbrush makeup, which involves less contact with clients’ skin.

Others warn that business might not return so quickly so long as the unemployment rate remains high. “People are concerned about paying the bills right now,” says AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at Indeed Hiring Lab. “And so some services, such as getting a massage or nails or some type of skin-care 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.

The understated global enterprise: Skin care


Typically, Yarbro says it 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 focuses 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 skin-care brands and encouraged his following to use their money as a form of protest by supporting black skin-care retailers and other black artists. Most of the items are sold out. He also encouraged viewers to donate to stimulus funds for protesters, sharing that he is donating the ad revenue made from the video to those causes.

Before the nationwide protests, his channel has had “explosive growth” during the pandemic, Yarbro says, adding 500,000 new subscribers between April and May. His channel now hovers at around 2 million subscribers after he shared his first skin-care video two years ago. He credits most of his popularity during this time to videos critiquing skin-care routines, known as reaction videos. His sudden “OMG” or gasp watching celebrities and random users put on skin-care 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 skin-care 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 skin-care products is a way for consumers to practice self-care through a nationwide health crisis, according to NPD Group, which tracks sales data for beauty brands sold in stores like 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 Larissa Jensen, the vice president at NPD. 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 percent compared with skin care, which was down 20 percent.

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

Industry experts say they are noticing a shift in what people are buying during the pandemic. Consumers are stocking up on body lotions and scrubs; cleansers and serums, which are applied before moisturizers; and other skin-care basics, according to Poshly, which creates micro-targeted campaigns and surveys for beauty brands and organizations.

“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 skin-care routine,” said Doreen Bloch, the CEO of Poshly.

But 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.

Aesthetician Ally Dawson was laid off in March from Glowbar, a subscription-based facial service in New York. Dawson has started giving family members facials at home for practice. (Photo by Nina Dawson)

For licensed aesthetician Ally Dawson, the challenge was 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’s Tribeca neighborhood, decided to launch a customized skin-care peel kit. The kit sells for $65 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 sheltering 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.”

Celebrity aesthetician Shani Darden’s salon will remain closed until her county in California reaches Phase 3 of reopening. She launched a line of skin-care products at Sephora and does tutorials on Instagram. (Michael Clifford)

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, Calif., 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 skin-care industry for over a decade and loyal, affluent clientele like Kelly Rowland and Jessica Alba. She says she doesn’t take on new clients.

She is posting facial tutorials on Instagram and coaching her clients through skin-care emergencies — like how to extract a large pimple — over FaceTime video. Her line of skin-care products launched in Sephora at the end of February, and despite her nervousness, she said that the support has been “overwhelming.”

The foundation of Darden’s business, however, is 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.”

A flawless face of makeup will take more time for artists


It was a Saturday evening when freelance makeup artist Ijeoma Chimezie drove to her nearby Target in Union, N.J., and scanned the almost empty makeup section. She managed to find a few shades of Maybelline foundation, concealer, makeup brushes, false eyelashes and an eye shadow palette. She assembled the mini makeup kit into a gift bag with the receipt and left it on her own doorstep. Chimezie was doing a contactless concierge service.

Chimezie’s longtime client and mentor Tiffany Aliche, the personality behind the successful “The Budgetnista” personal finance brand, retrieved the items containing shades that matched her skin tone. People with deeper skin tones often struggle to find makeup at drugstore prices, but the beauty professional says she’s an expert at making women of color look natural but glowing — even in quarantine.

Aliche, who started a financial movement that has helped hundreds of thousands get out of debt, is used to having a makeup artist on studio sets when she makes appearances. But in April, she had an interview on the daytime talk show “The Real” and other virtual interviews that week but didn’t have any makeup.

With stay-at-home orders, she was forced to do her makeup on her own. That’s where Chimezie came in, offering a 90-minute tutorial on Zoom on how to properly apply the products. During the tutorials, she encourages clients to have a ring light or sit at a vanity with good lighting, to apply foundation with a sponge applicator and a medium-size synthetic fiber brush, and preaches the use of peach blush on brown skin. The virtual consultation cost $125.

Freelance makeup artist Ijeoma Chimezie had all her bridal clients cancel or postpone their weddings because of the coronavirus. Now she's focused on providing Zoom makeup tutorials. (Photo by Clifton Prescod)

Like many independent artists, Chimezie straddles full-time careers and beauty side-hustle businesses. Chimezie is a pharmacist who works in health-care marketing and advertising.

Almost every weekend for the past nine years, she did bridal makeup for weddings. All her bookings were canceled for this year, but she is starting to get 2021 inquiries. For now, Chimezie doesn’t have plans to go full time. She’s currently applying for MBA programs.

For other makeup artists who relied on receiving client work as their main stream of income, this time has stretched them creatively to use their skills on other mediums.

For the past three months, Molly Fredenberg has been in her Brooklyn apartment mixing cornstarch, flour and expired makeup together to paint 12-by-16-inch canvas artwork.

The independent makeup artist saw her gigs evaporate after New York Fashion Week in February, even before the pandemic hit.

In editorial beauty, work is slow in the first couple months of the year, but it started to pick up for Fredenberg in March. “And then we just got cut out. We just got our income time eliminated,” said the beauty freelancer, who most recently worked on campaigns with L’Oréal and Levi’s.

Fredenberg hates throwing things away. But as a makeup artist with a closet full of products, she has to discard her expired stash every three to six months. With few ways to recycle makeup, she began freezing, baking and mixing foundation, lipstick, blush and eyeliner to create paint formulas.

Her creative science experiment has gained “a huge interest” since quarantine mandates. The commissioned pieces sell for $250 each. Proceeds are going to Together We Rise, a nonprofit aimed at helping youth in foster care.

Fredenberg says she expects makeup artists will be more selective in the jobs they take as things slowly return to some kind of normal.

She also thinks she will take on less clientele. During fashion shows, multiple beauty pros work on one model at the same time. Practices like that will need to change, Fredenberg stressed.

“I think we’re going to need more time to work on our models because we’re going to need people to visually see that we’re sanitizing our brushes,” she said.

Fredenberg said she doesn’t anticipate going back to her normal schedule until next year. She recently got approved for unemployment, which she says was a “very long process because they obviously don’t understand freelancer income.”

She still has lots of expired makeup to create paintings, and she’s excited for some large-scale art projects in the works.

The aesthetician and makeup artist says a lot of her industry colleagues have packed up and moved away. “They had to leave careers they built up because they don’t necessarily see how they can move forward from this.”

Not your mother’s press-ons (these will actually stick)


D.C.-area native Allison Wright and New York-based Kia Stewart were booked and busy at their respective salons before the pandemic. Now, they are fulfilling custom press-on nail orders in their homes.

These aren’t one-size-fits-all drugstore nails, which have a reputation for looking fake and falling off. The stick-on nails that are trending in the pandemic typically last two to three weeks, come in different lengths, and have been worn by notable people such as rapper Megan Thee Stallion and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). And in quarantine, when nail salons are closed or when people are afraid of going out because of the virus, they’ve only grown in popularity.

Allison Wright began selling press-on nails after her D.C. salon Kouture Nail Bar was shut down because of the pandemic. (Allison Wright)

Wright, who left her job as a sales representative to open her own business, Kouture Nail Bar, in 2019, launched her own line of custom press-on nails in October, an add-on to her main business of acrylic nails. But she had no sales.

When Wright’s D.C. salon was forced to close in March, she really pushed her clients to purchase her press-on nails. Press-on nails require less maintenance than going to a salon to get acrylic nails. There’s little to no chemicals involved, and they’re healthier for your nails when removed properly. “Eventually, the sales picked up. I had a beauty influencer review my press-on nails [on YouTube], and with that, the sales just went through the roof,” she said.

Over the past three months, Wright says she has received over 100 online orders. Her black-and-white marble and cheetah print styles are top sellers.

For Wright, it takes about an hour to make each set, customized to fit each client’s nail shape exactly. Some even have Swarovski crystals. Her nail sets range from $25 to $45, which is typical pricing for online boutiques selling press-ons.

Feeling a little more put together despite not venturing our more is important to people. “I think that people just want that sense of normality. Where they could have that couture experience where the nails are made for them,” Wright said. “During these times, experiencing so many deaths, so many losses, we kind of need to feel good. So I want to say that’s why people are buying the press-on nails just to sit on the sofa.”

Despite her newfound press-on nail success, Wright thinks her sales will drop once her salon is able to operate again and people feel more comfortable venturing out.

“I know for a fact that as soon as we’re able to open up, I’ll have all of my clients back,” Wright said.

Stewart, who is much sought after, said she has even had to turn some prospective clients away before the pandemic after beauty editors and celebrities on Instagram were seen sporting her exclusive designs — watercolor palettes, bright jewel tones and mini odes to artists like Keith Haring.

Stewart required all clients to send her photos of their nails before booking. Her line of vegan, nontoxic press-on nails priced at $120. Between her anxiety about shipping delays and the flood of orders, Stewart said making her services virtual has been “interesting.”

In the future, she wants to do more editorial campaigns with brands like Nike. She said: “I’m always open to opportunities that I didn’t think existed. Whatever fits my realm of wellness of natural nails, I’m open.”

Nail artist Kia Stewart began selling vegan, nontoxic press-on nails for $120 after the coronavirus pandemic closed her salon in Brooklyn. (Tiana Hardy)

The pandemic has helped many revisit the power of their hands, but mainly through how they spread germs. Stewart sees the future of her business as continuing to educate women of color about their health and their hands through art.

“I really hope more than anything that the relationship between consumers and nail technicians change that you really see the value in what people do,” she said.

Reporting by Amber Ferguson and Nia Decaille. Art direction and design by Audrey Valbuena. Photo editing by Annaliese Nurnberg.


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