Death Of The Beauty Counter: How Social Media Is Changing The Industry

Makeup is a learned skill. We don't come out of the womb knowing how to sketch cat-eyes or match foundation. Most of us had to seek guidance from a sister, a friend, or a stranger behind a beauty counter. These sages walked us through the tricky steps, directed us to the most flattering shades, and passed down their makeup wisdom. It was a rite of passage.

Now, things are changing. The internet and social media have replaced this intimate experience with far more efficient tools. While there are no hard-and-fast statistics on the matter, it's clear that the youth of today is learning about beauty from the "beauty gurus" of Instagram and YouTube. An informal poll around our offices showed that the majority of R29ers under the age of 24 had their beauty baptisms via YouTube.

"I never asked my mom for [beauty] advice," says Brittany Nguyen, a junior at Fordham University. "I started wearing makeup around my sophomore and junior years of high school. I liked the way I looked with it, and I had watched a lot of makeup videos online." Nguyen is one of a growing number of young women who are tuning into YouTube videos for all of their beauty needs.

According to Pixability — a video-advertising firm that helps deliver social media campaigns — the beauty category on YouTube is seeing massive growth; the number of views it captures per month has gone up 80% in just the past year — it's currently at about 4.5 billion. YouTube reports that as of March 2015, more than 1.5 million beauty videos were being uploaded to the site per month, globally. That's more than three times the number the site saw around the same time in 2013. Representatives over at YouTube also told Refinery29 that people in the U.S. watched more than 600 million hours of beauty videos in 2015.

Makeup tutorials account for over half of the 200 most-watched beauty videos. "The routines are a big percentage of what viewers are caring about," says Theresa Moore, VP of customer success at Pixability. "The times when [the YouTuber is] talking to their audience and interacting — those are the videos that get the highest engagement rates."

Samantha Lee, a junior at University of California, Davis, is one of these audience members. "I didn't really learn techniques on how to apply [makeup] until I discovered beauty videos on YouTube," she says. Now, she logs onto YouTube daily, and it's her first point of reference every time she needs to learn to apply a specific look. "Usually, I will watch a couple [of videos] and take which parts I like from each, and then use those parts to create my own look," Lee says. Nguyen agrees, and says she tends to put YouTube on at home when she isn't watching Netflix.

As [someone like] Michelle Phan matures and talks about more mature beauty products, her audience is trailing behind her — sometimes between five and seven years.

Theresa Moore, VP of customer success at Pixability
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But instruction and entertainment aren't the only reasons fans log on. Both Lee and Nguyen say that YouTube and Instagram influence their shopping habits as well. "When I'm looking for new products, I will either go to Sephora's website and look at the new releases, or go to the drugstore and look around at what is new," Lee explains. "Then, I'll make a mental note of what products seem promising, and look up their reviews on YouTube or a beauty blog." Nguyen's routine is similar. "I mainly will remember products, or write down ones I think I'll like, that I hear or see a blogger mention," she says. She'll even go so far as to check out reviews on her phone when she's in-store.

Moore says that this is common practice for YouTube-video viewers. "When viewers learn about a product, it might help them narrow down their decision before they purchase," she says. It's a far cry from where things were just a decade ago. Counter gals and guys were the resources if we were looking for product recommendations, and we typically found new swag on the faces and in the makeup bags of our friends and family members.

All of this access to information has created savvy consumers — and increasingly younger ones. "If you look at the statistics of beauty content, the 13-year-old mark is typically where we see [viewership begin]," Moore says. Pixability's research found that 50% of beauty-content viewers on YouTube are females between the ages of 13 and 24. "The majority of viewers we see are starting [to watch] in their teen years, which is definitely younger than we thought," she explains. "Another matter is when you're looking at the beauty blogger [filming the video], her typical viewer is several years younger than she is. As [someone like] Michelle Phan matures and talks about more mature beauty products, her audience is trailing behind her — sometimes between five and seven years."

That's where it gets a little hairy. Do we really want 13-year-olds learning the fine art of contouring? Is it truly necessary for girls in middle school to be imitating the fully made-up faces of 25-year-olds on Instagram?

Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD, CEO and editor-in-chief of Pediatrics Now, says that the influence of social media on children is much greater than most people realize. In fact, a study by Common Sense Media found that children as young as preschool-age are concerned with the way they look — and it's because of what they see on television and on social media. That same study found that 87% of female TV characters aged 10 to 17 are below average in weight — and those portrayals can affect children's perceptions of themselves.

Girls can be each other's biggest cheerleaders.

Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD, CEO of Pediatrics Now
"A lot of kids are using apps and are on websites that aren't meant for their age range," Dr. O'Keeffe says. Moore adds: "A lot of users on YouTube lie about their age to view the content." Dr. O'Keeffe argues that this is a problem because most children don't have the developmental maturity to qualify the images they're seeing. "It's like giving them the keys to the car too early."

But Dr. O'Keeffe also points out that not all digital media is corrosive. "Kids can get a lot of positive reinforcement from social media," she says. "Girls can be each other's biggest cheerleaders."

In this vein, Moore believes that YouTube will ultimately help transform the beauty landscape, making it a more supportive, inclusive place. "I think we will start to see more clearly defined creators for each of the age brackets," she says. "We'll see more creators talking about mature beauty, retinol, etc., as they age into those categories." She also sees an opportunity for more content depth in these spaces. Hell, YouTube might turn out to be a place where aging isn't seen as a negative, but a natural process. That's something the industry has historically often failed to convey to women.

So, is the digital age slowly turning us all into image-obsessed robots with no self-esteem? Probably not. Even folks like Dr. O'Keeffe agree with that. But YouTube is most definitely changing how we approach beauty. And not necessarily for the worse. "YouTube is helping us understand beauty and care about it in different ways," Moore says. "Before the internet, I can't even imagine being able to do a smoky eye."
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