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Ricky’s is a little like Spencer’s-meets-Sephora. But instead of living on the second floor of your local mall, it pops up on Manhattan street corners. Recently, I was in one for a press event, where representatives were showing off everything new for spring, like former Real Housewife Kristen Taekman’s nail polish range and a wall full of neon-colored wigs in this season’s hottest new colors. But then a representative brought out a product in an unassuming white and blue box and announced, "We’re really excited about this one!" Was it some new Korean beauty skin care find? A cult French drugstore staple finally available in the States? Nope. It was Nivea Men Sensitive Post Shave Balm.
Our story starts, as so many do these days, on YouTube. In May 2015, the beloved Netherlands-based makeup vlogger Nikkie Tutorials (she has almost 3 million Instagram followers and 2.8 million YouTube subscribers) posted a video about some of her favorite new makeup items. In addition to the predictable liquid lipsticks and bronzer, she dropped the bombshell that her new favorite makeup primer was—you guessed it—Nivea Men Sensitive Post Shave Balm.
One day, Nikkie found herself at her boyfriend’s without any primer or moisturizer, and after rummaging around in his medicine cabinet, discovered the after shave lotion and decided to try it as a makeup primer. She called it the "primer that has changed my primer life." It also changed the life of this humble drugstore product from inexpensive dude aftershave to buzzy star of the makeup internet.
The balm started to rack up dozens of mostly positive reviews as a primer on Reddit and Makeup Alley with headlines like "Nivea Men Post Shave Balm deserves the hype!" Makeup aficionados dominated Amazon’s review threads, praising the product that was previously critiqued for its sub-par fulfillment of its intended purpose as a post shaving soother. The three items that pop up on the bottom of the screen in the "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" section are now loose translucent powder, a contouring brush, and a makeup sponge rather than, say, disposable men’s razors.
Brands would normally kill for this kind of so-called "organic" (meaning not paid to promote) placement from such an influential vlogger, but not Nivea. They’re not just ignoring the hype, they’re declining to comment, except to confirm that the product was launched in 2001, four years before YouTube was created. It’s now reached peak internet, because Kylie Jenner’s makeup artist used it on her face in a recent Snapchat moment.
Ricky’s started carrying the balm in February. "Since we are always up on the social media trends, we saw it on [Nikkie’s] YouTube channel and knew it would be an instant hit with our customers," says Anna Daoud McConnell, the VP of product development at Ricky’s. "So we jumped on the opportunity and decided to stock it. We were also receiving simultaneous requests from customers. Sales have been really strong so far and we continue to re-order." In addition to Ricky’s, you can find it at places like Target, Walmart, major drugstores, and Amazon. Prices range from about $5.50 to $9.99.
But does the stuff work or is its success a product of internet hype? Nikkie claimed in her video that when she did her makeup on top of the balm, she "looked flawless" all day. She attributed her perfection to the fact that "the second most used ingredient is glycerin. It’s gonna make whatever you put on top stick to it. Foundation will cling on to it and stay all day." Many makeup primers contain a lot of dimethicone, otherwise known as silicone, which gives your face that poreless look and makes it feel like a freshly waxed wood floor. The Nivea sensitive balm contains the aforementioned glycerin, as well witch hazel and vitamin E and doesn’t have silicone. (It should be noted that there are other formulations of the Nivea post shave balm. The "Replenishing" formula contains alcohol, which can be drying, and the "Double Energy" formula does contain silicone.)
"Both shave balms and makeup primers employ some mixture of emollients to smooth the skin. Most primers use silicones and they're usually water free," explains Randy Schueller, a cosmetic chemist and the co-founder of the Beauty Brains. "The Nivea shave balm is water-based and it uses isopropyl palmitate which is ‘fatty’ instead of silicone-y. This could account for the different feel that she likes so much. The glycerin will also certainly change the feeling on skin, although I'd expect that to be a negative for a makeup primer because too much of it can feel sticky."
Editorial makeup artist Azra Red takes primer ingredients into account when using them on clients. "For more oily skin I like to use primers that have ingredients like willow bark extract and witch hazel to help tighten pores and balance the skin," she says. "For dry skin I love to use primers that contain glycerin or hyaluronic acid that will keep skin hydrated." It sounded like the Nivea product might be just the thing for my combination skin.
I hate any product that feels too slippery and silicone-y, so I was especially intrigued by this. I used it for about five days with different types of foundations, which ran the gamut from a bit of concealer to CC cream to full coverage foundation, just to see how it acted with different types of makeup.
The word balm is a bit of a misnomer. This product is a thin, watery lotion, not a gooey balm. It comes in a hefty—manly!—glass bottle that would be terrible for travel because it’s heavy enough to be considered a weapon. As Nikkie and many reviewers have noted, it smells like Standard Guy Scent ™ , meaning soapy and piney, but the smell dissipates quickly. I used it after my favorite Skinceuticals serum, a step that’s non-negotiable for me. A little went a long way, and my skin felt a bit tacky to the touch. After letting everything dry, I put makeup on. It didn’t feel slippery like a commercial primer, and didn’t pill either, which I was nervous about because of the tacky base. My makeup did seem to stay on more consistently, and it was especially great with the full coverage foundation. Often by the end of the day my face gets flaky in certain spots, but it stayed smooth, hydrated, and not greasy. I’m definitely going to keep using the Nivea.
This all just goes to show that you can’t judge a product by its marketing.