Although I'm a beauty editor, my day-to-day beauty routine is pretty low-key. My skin care is pared back, I'm fairly lazy when it comes to my hair, and my body-care ritual consists of firm favourite products and not much else; unless I'm testing products for work, that is. But recently, I've found myself using vibrant and strong-smelling oils, decadently rich body creams, bath salts to help me sleep, high-tech tools to sculpt my face, and summery-scented body scrubs to at least mentally take myself on holiday. I've even found myself rearranging my fragrance stash and spritzing more than usual, which, when I think about it, is strange considering I've only been travelling the five steps from my bedroom to my living room for the past year.
Turns out, I'm not the only one who has adopted more lengthier and more extravagant beauty rituals during the pandemic — experts are calling the phenomenon sensory beauty. Sensory beauty is a trend that centres around beauty products (particularly body and skin care) that appeal to your senses — touch, scent, and sight — to evoke feelings and emotions that are oftentimes calming or grounding. It skyrocketed in popularity over the past year during the coronavirus pandemic, and when you delve deeper into what's happening to our brains when we practice these rituals, it's not hard to see why. We spoke with a beauty trend forecaster, psychodermatologist, and psychologist to find out why we've leaned on beauty routines so heavily during such a traumatic year, and why the sensory beauty trend isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
"Many people don't have the language or tools to heal or process what's been happening to them and are turning to sensory beauty as a way of finding comfort," Emmy Brunner explained.
People Craved Touch During the Pandemic and Found It in New Places
While I knew that I was personally responding to more sensorial beauty products and rituals, after speaking with trend forecaster and futures director at The Future Laboratory, Victoria Buchanan, she confirmed I wasn't alone in this new routine. "During the pandemic, we saw mental health decline and people being starved of touch, creating a yearning for the previrus comfort of tactility and human touch," said Buchanan. "To make up for this touch gap, consumers have embraced new technologies and ritualised application in order to build new sensory touchpoints into their routines."
An easy and accessible place to find comfort for a lot of people during lockdown and over the course of the pandemic has been their beauty routines. Many beauty enthusiasts (as well as those who would consider themselves beauty novices) carved out therapeutic time to enjoy their otherwise rushed pre-pandemic skin-care routines, incorporating aromatherapy, massage, high-tech tools, and much more. "People are more intuitive to how products can be optimised to get the best and most use out of them and to cater to all the senses at once. I often hear from people about how their skin- or hair-care product smelt or felt even before they tell me whether it has helped the issue they were hoping to target," said UK-based psychodermatologist Dr Alia Ahmed.
"The last 18 months have been extremely challenging, and, in many cases, triggering people's traumas, and many are struggling to cope," Emmy Brunner, psychotherapist and author of Find Your True Voice (out in May 2021), told POPSUGAR. "Many people don't have the language or tools to heal or process what's been happening to them and are turning to sensory beauty as a way of finding comfort." Brunner explained that this immersive experience could be a way of anaesthetising pain or disconnecting from realities, which could be especially important for frontline workers facing the harsh realities of the pandemic daily.
Turns Out, Taking Time to Apply a Face Oil Can Be Beneficial For Your Brain
Rarely is a skin-care product absolutely essential, but when it comes to sensory beauty, there are benefits that go beyond just helping our skin concerns. "Several senses work together (sight, smell, taste, touch, balance, movement, hearing) to form a person's impression," said Dr Ahmed. "For example, smell is strongly associated with memory and emotion, and the aesthetics of a product can pleasure our eyes. Importantly, physical touch conveys positive messages: it can be reassuring, comforting, and pleasurable — to the point of being able to repress pain and negative emotions," she explained. "The feel of a product can therefore be critical to the experience created by its use."
This is so powerful, because oxytocin is "one of the hormones released in response to light touch and may be causing a positive response by the body to these stimuli as it has potent antistress effects," Dr Ahmed added. Other benefits of touch overall, she explained, include mood enhancement, improved self-esteem, strengthened relationships, improving cognitive function, and even immunity. "By tapping into our senses when using a product, we can create a plethora of positive emotions that can then start being associated with that product."
It's not all about the rose-scented oils, though. There's something to be said for the products we actively love to hate. Dr Ahmed also touched on (pardon the pun) this flip side of our senses actively disliking something that our brain embraces. "Most of us have also taken 'bad' tasting medicine or used a pungent product if we thought it might 'work' — if something is perceived to be good for you, then you are more likely to tolerate it, even if it offends your other senses," she explained. "This is also known as 'top-down processing', where the concept of a product being 'good' for your skin is the main focus, and smaller details (like those associated with sensory input) become less important."
We've Fallen For Skin Tech and Skin-Care Brushes
Over the past year, Dr Ahmed noted primarily seeing the rise of sensory beauty in three ways: the use of artificial intelligence to help choose targeted products (e.g. skin colour matching), strong scent ("people love a good smelling product!"), and the texture — "easily absorbed textures with an indulgent feel tend to be popular," she explained.
There's also stats to back up the rising trend of sensory beauty. Treatwell reported that 91 percent of its users have started doing at least one beauty treatment at home that they would've had done professionally before the pandemic, leaving lots of room for experimentation. Aromatherapy Associates has seen a huge 480 percent year on year increase in sales with people tailoring blends for improved sleep and relaxation. Personally, I've most recently found myself using the new Whind Marrakech Light Illuminating Oil pretty much for its scent alone. I mostly stick to "boring" prescription creams for my rosacea, so my skin doesn't need an oil as an extra step, but the fragrance transports me to Morocco and many happy memories — something, like many people, I've craved during lockdown.
Skintech has also boomed, with Foreo's UFO range seeing a 200 percent increase in sales year on year since April 2020. The cofounder of Australian skin-care brand Sand & Sky, Sarah Hamilton, told POPSUGAR how much her customers loved using a special face mask brush to apply the Pink Clay mask. Buchanan noted that one space we're also seeing experimentation with sensory beauty is fragrance. "Perfume is normally spritzed or occasionally rolled on, but brands such as Byredo and Jo Loves are changing that with the launch of fragrance brushes; both brands launched perfume collections that are applied with a brush," she said.
Though Beauty Routines Have Their Benefits, We Mustn't Mute What's Really Happening With Our Mental Health
The increase in sensory beauty and taking a self-care beauty moment might not be something we're all particularly aware of, either. "I'm not sure that people are consciously doing this," said Brunner. "So many of us aren't aware that we have wounds that we need to heal, so many of us are just surviving; doing the best that we can. And we are naturally drawn toward the things that bring us comfort." Buchanan explained that, in her opinion: "people have been actively looking for stress-relieving products that can be incorporated into everyday life as part of their beauty routines during this period, but we've probably not understood just how impactful the lack of human touch has had on our mental health."
Finding solace and comfort in a beauty routine or ritual has been vital for some people; a small thing to spark joy when there wasn't much else of that around. However, Brunner noted that we mustn't "mute" the trauma of the past year. "We need to make sure that people are informed on how to fully process traumatic experiences and process internal pain, as opposed to just muting it," she said. "With acceptance and acknowledgement being the most important first steps."
Sensory Beauty Isn't Something We're Ready to Say Goodbye to Now . . . Or Anytime Soon
Although lockdown restrictions in the UK are beginning to ease and a sense of normalcy is on the horizon, sensory beauty isn't going to dwindle anytime soon. Every single expert we spoke with said they expect this trend to continue. "I think this trend goes beyond the pandemic and connects to a broader trend we were already tracking around beauty as an antianxiety and self-care tool," Buchanan said. "In 2021 and beyond, I think we'll continue to see an increased focus on the sensation of beauty — that inexplicable dopamine hit that you get from a product." Buchanan thinks that brands will draw on neuroscience to understand how products invoke mood-boosting reactions, too. "In the future, the products you do buy will need to add more emotional value than ever before. We expect to see sensory-starved consumers seeking novel beauty and wellness experiences that combine touch, scent, visual, and aural stimuli to awaken, relieve, or calm their corporeal states," she added. Dr Ahmed echoes this to an extent: "I think this trend will continue for some time. As technology improves, there will be more innovative products — just today I have read about scent-emitting hairdryers and multisensory perfumes."
From Brunner's perspective, however, she wonders if the attraction to sensory beauty will continue as we struggle to come to terms with the journey that we've been on.