Coco Chanel once said, “If you’re sad, put on more lipstick and attack.” Beauty has always had the power to boost our mood, but after a year of living in a pandemic, it’s safe to say that it is no longer enough. We’ve been collectively down and pretty open about it, whether that’s on Twitter – where BuzzFeed writer Scaachi Koul’s bio says: “Being depressed used to be my brand, but now everyone is” – or between pals.
“I can’t think of a single friend who hasn’t said to me at some point in the last year, ‘I’m depressed – I feel like I’m going crazy,’ ” says Nonie Creme, founder of cruelty-free beauty brand Beautygarde, who has suffered from anxiety since she was a teenager. “I don’t think anybody got out of 2020 unscathed, mentally.”
While a bright lipstick may no longer be sufficient to elevate us out of our dark place, beauty brands have taken note, encouraging consumers to be open about their emotions and putting corporate dollars behind support for mental-health initiatives. Last fall, Maybelline announced Brave Together, a philanthropic platform and pledge to donate US$10-million over the next five years to organizations such as Kids Help Phone, and also launched a daily newsletter called #45daysofbrave that includes daily affirmations and wellness tips.
That was followed by Selena Gomez’s makeup line, Rare Beauty, donating US$100-million over the next decade through its Rare Impact Fund, which helps underserved communities gain access to mental-health services. And this past April, skincare brand Erno Laszlo teamed up with Poppy Jamie, founder of a mindfulness app, to pair its skincare rituals with her mental-wellness practices.
Alecsandra Hancas, director of prestige beauty client development at research firm NPD Group, says beauty companies were already shifting before the pandemic toward more honesty and transparency about everything from embracing your perceived flaws to what ingredients go into their products, so moving toward touching on wellness issues such as anxiety and depression was a logical progression.
“The trends that we saw in makeup with consumers being a little bit more real, niche brands trying to address mental health, it’s all now intensified because of COVID,” she says.
The beauty realm has always included rituals designed to make us feel better – take fragrance, for instance.
“The olfactory system is essentially the highway to your brain,” says Jules Miller, founder of the Nue Co., a U.K.-based wellness brand. This has been well documented among those who study the science of scent. Emotion is connected to our sense of smell – beyond our olfactory cortex, where we receive and process scent, there’s the amygdala and hippocampus, where we process emotion and store memory, as explained in neuroscientist and leading scent expert Rachel Herz’s book The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell.
Miller launched her brand in 2018 with a line of supplements, but the following year the Nue Co. released Functional Fragrance, a spray designed specifically to reduce stress. The formula is based on a study by the University of Geneva on the power of scent on emotions.
“Using neural image processing, the study mapped how specific scent groups affect our cognitive function,” Miller says, adding the perfumer who helped create the product was guided by the results for the notes he chose, such as woody (calming) and citrus (invigorating) scents.
Similarly, Forest Lungs, which the company introduced in November, 2020, attempts to capture the Japanese concept of “forest bathing” in a bottle by replicating the molecular structure of phytoncides – volatile organic compounds emitted by trees that, when inhaled, increase natural proteins that seek and obliterate virus-ridden cells in the immune system.
Though the concept of such calming scents are based on scientific research, others are skeptical about their positioning as health or wellness products.
Emily Isaacson, nutritionist and executive director of Holistic Vision Canada, says that because products such as Functional Fragrance are formulated with synthetic scents, they could be allergenic for some customers. She notes that using essential oils with a diffuser could offer the same soothing benefits without the drawbacks.
“It’s kind of like the imitation product versus the real product,” she says. “And the real product is potent enough to lower anxiety.”
Those trying make it through the final stretch of the pandemic would do well to look for approaches that help to navigate negative thoughts, which can affect physical as well as mental health, says Alicia Read, a former beauty executive and founder of MEGAhrz, an online educational portal and shop dedicated to “vibrational well-being.”
“Feeling good means that we’re creating very specific chemicals in our brains,” she says, referring to dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. “Those are all incredibly healing, beautifying chemicals, so it’s really important to cultivate the tools that make us feel good – whether it’s flowers, music, movies, a friend; anything that truly gets you there.”
For Beautyguard founder Creme, CBD was something that helped. In fact, she found the cannabis derivative balanced and stabilized her so well, she started a new line of CBD products this spring called Find Your Fulcrum.
Creme says it was an easy segue for her from beauty products to what she calls “emotional support.” She’s proud of the beauty industry’s moves toward emphasizing that there’s no such thing as perfect – not just physically, but emotionally.
“It’s not just what you look like, but what do you look like in your mind? And whatever that looks like is okay.”
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