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It's no secret that men in power—politicians, actors, business leaders—often rely on makeup artists to look their best, particularly in front of the camera. But most American men still see makeup as belonging in the female domain, lumped into the same category as tampons and lingerie. "We call it the M-word," says Michele Probst, a makeup artist whose client list includes Barack Obama, John Travolta, and Kid Rock. "It's still a major taboo. The whole concept freaks men out."
Although guys may seem uncomfortable with the idea of dolling themselves up, the men's beauty industry is growing explosively. The male grooming market is valued at $6 billion in the U.S. alone and $33 billion globally. Forty-three percent of American men use skincare products that go way beyond shaving: we're talking moisturizers, anti-aging creams, eye gels, luxury facial cleansers, and concealers.
High-end companies like Estée Lauder, Clarins, and Kiehl's have had men's skincare lines for years (some for decades), and more affordable brands have since followed suit. Everyman Jack grooming products hit Target shelves in 2007, while Dove debuted its Men+Care line in 2010. But these brands are faced with a predicament: They need to produce the beauty products men desire, while also being careful in their marketing. Research shows that the minute a dude feels emasculated, it's game over.
Probst is something of an expert at walking this tricky line. After 25 years of doing men's makeup, it was obvious to her that guys liked how cosmetics made them feel but didn't want to be caught using them. Since most men can't afford the services of a professional makeup artist every day, she decided to create her own line of cosmetics called Mënaji Skincare in 2000.
"The key is that it's undetectable," she tells me. "It's about knocking out the shine and cleaning out the imperfections, like dark under-eye circles or uneven skin tone." Probst regularly assures customers that online purchases will arrive in a nondescript brown box; she's received many calls from nervous guys worried they'll receive a girly package in the mail that will immediately give them away.
"The key is that it's undetectable."
Probst says selling cosmetics to men requires an entirely different language than selling to women does. Since men are uncomfortable with the idea of capital-B Beauty, she evokes notions of health instead, often going back to the infamous Nixon-Kennedy debate as a proof point. "Kennedy looked confident, while Nixon was sweating. He had a five o'clock shadow and dark circles under his eyes," she says. "People think he lost that debate because he looked less healthy and less confident. It made him look less powerful."
That said, skincare experts say men's attitudes towards beauty are quickly evolving as so-called traditional values appear to be in flux. "Men are no longer the only breadwinners, and gender roles are starting to blend," says Joseph Grigsby, VP of global marketing for Lab Series, Estée Lauder's men's skincare brand. "We're seeing a convergence of masculine and feminine ideals." Lab Series launched in 1987, and Grigsby says that over the years, the company has noticed a generational shift in terms of how men relate to skincare. He makes the case that millennials, who are increasingly exposed to powerful female figures, no longer associate beauty rituals with femininity, but rather with self-care and success.
At the same time, men have different expectations of their skincare products. They have thicker, oilier skin, so products need to be specially formulated to penetrate it effectively. They also have different sensorial triggers that make them feel that a product is working. "Women take a more holistic approach to skincare, thinking of their beauty ritual as a long-term investment in their future. Men, on the other hand, need a sense of immediacy to feel that the product is having an effect," says Grigsby. With this in mind, Lab Series includes ingredients that offer the immediate gratification of cooling, warming, and tingling sensations.
Men also see skincare as a solution to a problem, rather than as part of a broader pleasurable experience. Male-centric skincare companies organize their websites around concerns like acne, wrinkles, and dry skin. "The real entry into skincare comes with this value proposition: You have a problem, we have a solution, and the solution works because it is backed up by science," says Grigsby. Almost all men's skincare is packaged minimalistically with a brief description of what it promises to deliver. For instance, Lab Series products come in simple white containers and include a little instruction booklet, much like the kind you'd find unboxing a clock radio.
Men see skincare as a solution to a problem, rather than as part of a broader pleasurable experience.
Of course, there are also other more obvious ways men's skincare brands make male consumers feel comfortable. Probst gives her products hyper-masculine names like Urban Camouflage Concealer and Lip Balm Agent. The very company name is meant to signal virility—she invented the name Mënaji by combining Scandinavian words for man and power. ("I went to the Häagen-Dazs school of company naming," Probst says with a laugh.) Lab Series, for its part, evokes science and technical skill. The brand's website is plastered with images of gears, a motif that makes it clear the consumer has stumbled into macho territory, a place where men fix their own cars and own multiple toolkits.
These efforts to appeal to male consumers appear to be working. At one time, male skincare products were the domain of the metrosexual—young men in urban areas with a high disposable income and a penchant for grooming—but they've since broken into the mainstream.
In fact, Grigsby says that younger men have introduced skincare rituals to the older generation. "When you think of female beauty, it's usually the mother who transmits rituals to her daughter in an important rite of passage," he says. "For men, that ritual used to stop at shaving, but now millennials are educating their fathers, showing them that there are solutions to dry skin or puffy eyes." Probst says that her products sell all over the country, including in her home state of Texas, ground zero for the rugged cowboy ideal: "We sell to preachers, teachers, construction workers, military men, professional athletes."
If the men's beauty market is thriving in the U.S., it's positively booming in Asia. The Lab Series and Mënaji are both expanding rapidly in China, Korea, Japan, and Singapore. "When it comes to skincare, the Asian male consumer is more evolved," Grigsby says. "They are more receptive to skincare regimens, while the American male tends to be more pragmatic and concerned with the performance of the product." Men in these countries do not need to be convinced of the value of skincare nor educated about how to use them. Instead, the challenge for men's skincare brands is to persuade these consumers to pick theirs over the competitors'.
Younger men have introduced skincare rituals to the older generation.
Grigsby points out that since Asian men are less self-conscious about taking care of their skin, they are more likely to visit beauty counters in department stores where they can test and buy products. American men, on the other hand, are somewhat more surreptitious in their shopping habits.
Jake, 32, a San Francisco-based psychologist, spends hours at the gym, has a carefully curated wardrobe, and goes on dates with women he meets on Tinder. (He asked for his name to be changed to protect his street cred.) When I visit his apartment, I see that his medicine cabinet is lined with products: hair gels, anti-aging eye creams, pore cleansing strips, at least three colognes, face scrubs. The whole darn bathroom smells of sandalwood.
When I ask where he gets all this stuff, he tells me he has carefully researched and purchased each of these items online. "It's a private process," he tells me. "I can count on one hand the number of conversations I've had with other men about the facial products I use. It's just not what we do. You take care of your face and then you move on."
His approach is fairly typical. Men's skincare companies do the bulk of their business on the web. "The internet is a much more comfortable and anonymous place for men to get information about products," says Grigsby. "Unfortunately, the distribution of beauty products for men still happens in places that feel very feminine, like department stores or perfumeries like Sephora." When Mënaji products were introduced to Nordstrom stores, Probst insisted they be displayed on men's clothing floors, alongside belts and other accessories, rather than cosmetics counters, to avoid some of the feminine associations. However, she says she sells most of her products online too.
In an attempt to make the male consumer more comfortable, most men's skincare brands have worked hard to separate themselves from the female beauty industry. But as gender norms continue to change rapidly, the cosmetics industry of tomorrow may be evolving into a place where beauty is not entirely defined by gender. We see a glimpse of this brave new world at Kiehl's, a brand that has managed to successfully appeal to male and female consumers.
"The distribution of beauty products for men still happens in places that feel very feminine."
Kiehl's, which was founded in 1851, is among the oldest American skincare companies, but today it targets particularly modern consumers who are comfortable being associated with an androgynous brand. A third of Kiehl's customers are male, and some products, such as shaving creams and face washes, are exclusively formulated for them. But there are also many unisex products that men purchase too, like night creams, dark spot correctors, and lip balms.
According to Kiehl's USA president Chris Salgardo, male customers often visit their physical stores, a rare occurrence in the skincare industry. "We've carefully designed stores to be a welcoming environment for both men and women," he says. And it's working.
When I visit a Kiehl's store in Boston, it's decorated with a full-sized motorcycle, but there are also girly chandeliers dangling from the ceiling. As I try hand lotions and smell shower gels, other shoppers, both male and female, mill about doing the same. The space feels gender neutral, making it the perfect spot for a particular kind of millennial consumer.
I go home with a sample of a Kiehl's anti-aging eye cream housed in a simple blue tube which I casually leave in the bathroom. My husband, who owns precisely three beauty products—shaving cream, a bar of soap, and deodorant—must have taken an interest in it, because there's hardly any left the next time I try to use it. There's hope for him yet.