Gen Z is influencing beauty by rewarding brands that promote inclusivity, sustainability, and ethically sourced products. All of this sounds great – but are these seemingly positive changes having truly positive impacts? They might be changing beauty standards, but young people are also constantly surrounded with content and messaging about beauty. Gen Z grew up with Instagram and Snapchat, and were the first to flock to TikTok – they’re the most image-aware generation ever. Here’s our take on the contradictions of Gen Z’s beauty standards - and which of their values are really making a lasting change.
Gen Z is changing the beauty industry. Thanks to their influence, beauty and cosmetics companies are moving away from the idea that “sex sells” and putting a greater emphasis on minimalism, authenticity, and skincare.
“The most important thing about beauty is be who you are” - Bobbi Brown
As the most racially and ethnically diverse generation, Gen Z is influencing beauty by rewarding brands that promote inclusivity, sustainability, and ethically sourced products. All of this sounds great – but are these seemingly positive changes having truly positive impacts? They might be changing beauty standards, but young people are also constantly surrounded with content and messaging about beauty. Gen Z grew up with Instagram and Snapchat, and were the first to flock to TikTok – they’re the most image-aware generation ever. And thanks to the imperative to always wear something new on socials, unsustainable forces like “fast fashion” are more economically fruitful than ever. Here’s our take on the contradictions of Gen Z’s beauty standards - and which of their values are really making a lasting change.
Chapter One: Natural is Beautiful
Gen Z’s diversity has shaped the way they approach beauty. They have been the loudest voices in a broader cultural movement to celebrate beauty across bodies, races, and ethnicities, which has pushed brands to be more inclusive with makeup and skincare products. They’ve used social media to call out brands like Tarte, YSL, and Beautyblender for their lack of shade ranges for foundations and concealers. And they’ve embraced brands like Rhianna’s Fenty Beauty for its inclusive ethos and 42 shades of foundation
In the same vein, Gen Z has focused more attention on the ethics of beauty brands. They have flocked to products that are cruelty-free, vegan, or manufactured with sustainable practices. Gen Z consumers choose to actively support brands that share their values – according to Michael Engert, President of Good Light Skincare, “Gen Zs are not going to buy products from a brand they wouldn’t be friends with.” This philosophy also lifts up brands that emphasize individuality and authenticity. There has been an increase in gender-neutral makeup and gender-diverse beauty ad campaigns – for example, Gen Z-er James Charles was the first CoverGirl Coverboy in 2016. And in 2018 Amy Deanna became their first-ever model with vitiligo. The days of the razor-sharp contouring, flawlessly airbrushed skin, and sculpted brows of the “Kardashian aesthetic” are over. Eden Palmer, a Vice President at Forma Brands, told Vogue that “People want to show their skin, freckles and textures.” Beauty campaigns are increasingly hiring models who embody those values of authenticity and diversity: models with scars, stretch marks, and wrinkles, whose skin isn’t airbrushed to match one cookie-cutter model of beauty.
This celebration of natural beauty really does seem to point to a higher drive for self-acceptance in Gen Z. In a study conducted by Viacom, 80 percent of young adults said their definition of beauty is “being yourself.”
Olivia Rodrigo: “I always feel the best when I’m in makeup that I feel enhances what I have naturally.” -Glossier
Young people also use products that emphasize skincare and health, rather than foundations and concealers that cover their skin purely for aesthetic reasons. Another popular brand, The Ordinary, has found success by boasting “clinically proven ingredients, combined with minimalist packaging and affordable pricing.
In an interesting contradiction, Gen Z actually buys more cosmetics than their Gen X parents, but, according to surveys, seventy percent are only using one to three makeup products in their daily routines.
Instead, they’re buying moisturizers, cleansers, toners, and other skincare products, often made with natural ingredients that are marketed as “clinically proven” to improve skin health. While they’re not caking on the products to feel ready for the day, research conducted by Good Light suggests that over 40% of Gen Z consumers have beauty routines that use 10-step skincare regimens similar to the one popularized by K-Beauty.
So it’s not really that Gen Z are using cosmetics less – if anything, Gen Z is more into cosmetics than previous generations; they’re just using them differently – as a form of self-care or self-expression. The expressiveness trend is represented on the HBO show Euphoria, where makeup is a way to highlight and emphasize the individuality of the characters. Pops of bold color, graphic eyeliner, and full-on glam looks are popular makeup trends, both on Euphoria and in real life – but only for sometimes. As makeup artist Min Sandhu explained to Vogue, “[Gen Zs] don’t have a makeup look that they wear every day. They are much more experimental. It has to do with embracing the different facets of their personality and their different moods and feelings.”
For many generations, makeup has felt like a mask women had to don to hide what they “truly” look like. But all of Gen z’s trends come back to the idea of self-love and embracing your own natural beauty.
Olivia Rodrigo: “You’re just perfect and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” -Glossier
As Olamide Olowe, the co-founder and CEO of skincare brand Topicals, told the New York Times: “The brands of yesterday focused on aspiration in making you want to be somebody. Gen Z brands focus on celebrating you in the way that you are.”
Chapter Two: But What Is “Natural”? A Mess Of Beauty Contradictions
The message that natural is beautiful is meant to empower people… but in practice, these new beauty standards come with many of the same pressures and stressors as past ones. While young people may not all be trying to look as “done” as Kim Kardashain, they’re putting similar amounts of effort into looking effortless.
Despite their inclusive values, Gen Z has grown up in an extremely image-saturated social media culture – they are constantly barraged with curated, perfect images of “naturally” beautiful young people. This can be discouraging, especially when there are no endorsed products they can use to radically change their appearance to be more confident. Body positivity and natural beauty are genuine values of Gen Z, but that doesn’t stop thin, fit, traditionally beautiful bodies from being the most celebrated.
As 17-year-old Maya Al-Jamie told HuffPost, Gen Z is told to idolize women with bodies that fit the beauty standard for being body positive. There is nothing positive about this.”
Some of the most popular content on TikTok and Instagram are “What I eat in a day” videos, workout routines, and fitness content. The “that girl” trend promotes looking and acting a certain way all under the guise of wellness, inclusivity, and positivity. And the pressure to always be sporting new looks and outfits online encourages unsustainable practices. Although thrifting and ethical brands are definitely popular among Gen Z, fast fashion brands like Shein are exploding thanks to their emphasis on trendiness for cheap prices over quality and re-wearability. New makeup and skincare products in line with Gen Z ideals are constantly popping up. And no matter how sustainable or ethical a brand’s practices may be, their goals are ultimately to sell more and make profits. Gen Z consumers glorify this overconsumption through haul videos, product testing videos, and other content that promotes purchasing.
The fact that Gen Zers are surrounded by so many images of themselves also has some powerful psychological consequences. In 2017, the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons conducted a poll and found that 55% of their surgeons had patients who wanted cosmetic surgeries to help them look better in selfies. And now, 56% of dermatologists have noticed an increased interest in cosmetic surgery from their patients after spending so much time on Zoom during the pandemic.
Andrew Ordon: “I hear it from patients directly, they say it: i don’t like the way I see myself when I’m on Zoom, on social media.”- Web MD
A plastic surgery-heavy beauty ideal has already been blowing up in recent decades, for younger and younger women– just look at the Kardashians – but cosmetics doctor Ahmed El Muntasar highlights that Gen Z’s decisions to get plastic surgery are heavily influenced by what they see on social media: “In the last 12 months, I’ve seen an incremental increase in clients asking for procedures based on trends they’ve seen on Tik Tok.” Doctors have noticed their younger patients refer to photos of themselves during surgery consultations, rather than the face in the mirror. Plastic surgery is ultimately a personal choice and is by no means an inherently “bad” procedure – but when the reasoning behind that decision come from social media trends promoting natural beauty, it raises the question of how authentic the movements themselves can really be.
This isn’t the first time the beauty industry has changed to match the values of young consumers – and since trends are always moving in and out, that change frequently doesn’t last. Product lines get discontinued; brands that made a big statement about inclusivity quietly revert back to the mostly-white beauty ideals of before. But some beauty industry veterans feel confident that this moment is different – Hollywood stylist Nai’vasha Johnson told the New York Times, “We have morphed into a world where people are very much in touch with who they are…. It’s a world of ‘This is who I am.’”.
Gen Z is changing the beauty industry in some lasting ways – both deliberately, through their priorities of diversity, sustainability, and self-love, and unintentionally, through the social and psychological effects of social media. Sometimes these two forces are at odds with each other – it’s hard to love yourself as you are and also compare images of yourself to influencers. But Gen Z have pushed for beauty to re-center around a different set of values – resulting in real changes to how products are made, how they’re marketed, and who they are for. And even with our rapid trend cycle, for many, those deeper values are here to stay.