As one of the few skin care categories with ingredients regulated by the FDA, acne products have always straddled the line between health and beauty.
Now the category is moving increasingly into wellness, as self-acceptance rather than shame about skin conditions becomes the norm at a time when more people than ever have acneic skin.
“With the mask-wearing of the last year, it’s shifted in the consumer mind-set. Acne used to be a shameful condition for your skin, but it really has become more of a self-acceptance movement,” said Larissa Jensen, vice president of beauty at the NPD Group.
Jensen noted that acne-oriented products posted strong sales increases in a year in which treatment products overall performed well. Skin care, still poised to overtake color cosmetics as the largest category in prestige beauty, grew 13 percent in the first quarter of 2021; acne grew 20 percent during the same period, per the NPD Group.
Renewed interest in the category isn’t necessarily by choice, said Jensen, and it is also more cross-generational than pre-pandemic. “People who may not have had acne for years are now getting it, and you’ve got a broader consumer base that brands have to fix the problem for,” Jensen said. “Mask usage may be tempering somewhat, but it is still going to be a part of our lives, it’s not going away overnight. If you’re working in an environment where you’re wearing a mask all day, that’s going to cause problems, and now you have more consumers needing these products.”
Retailers are seeing shoppers’ interests soar. Tara Foley, chief executive officer and founder of Follain, has seen “a lot of customer questions from people that never had acne,” she said. “A lot of people who didn’t experience acne previously have experienced it over the past year due to stress.”
Foley said her customers approach treating acne in a consistent way rather than cherrypicking products as needed, with items such as Follain’s own Clarifying Spot Gel, Tata Harper’s Clarifying Cleanser and Vintner’s Daughter’s Active Botanical Serum performing well.
“The approach that’s working in our portfolio, are products that are shooting toward acne in a more holistic and long-term way, as opposed to the immediate, short fixes, such as the pretty harsh products that we all grew up with,” Foley said. “We’ve been seeing a lot of success with daily products, regular routine products that have realistic and sustainable amounts of acids, and more awareness around how, for example, willow bark could be more of an alternative to salicylic acid.”
Foley also said heightened ingredient awareness has created a more conscious consumer. “People have become educated and empowered on their skin health over the past year, and that’s why these products resonated with them, and new concepts, like using oils with acne, also found acceptance,” she said.
The idea of empowerment was top of mind for Alicia Yoon, cofounder of Peach & Lily and its sister line, Peach Slices, and a trained aesthetician, as she created her newest launch, a line of acne products, ranging from $11 to $13.
Yoon’s philosophy toward skin care is equally informed by her time in South Korea, where aspirations of skin health drive interest. Her line — a cleanser, toner and moisturizer — is free of silicones, sulfates, alcohol and fragrances, combines salicylic and lactic acids with hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, centella asiatica and cucumber.
“We want to be supportive and uplifting because, at the end of the day, it’s important to be empathetic. It’s not like people are doing anything wrong per se,” Yoon said. “It’s really important to be reaffirming. I have also experienced, as a teenager, not wanting to go outside, and we want to normalize that skin has different things it goes through.”
Yoon, who is no stranger to making cult-favorite products, after the 2018 launch of Peach & Lily’s Glass Skin Refining Serum, said changing consumer perceptions of what constituted “healthy” skin was part of her business’ mission. “When we launched the glass skin movement, we named it that because it’s the best visual of what healthy skin looks like, it’s about choosing healthiness for your skin. What’s really encouraging is you can have acne, but when your skin is being properly cared for, you can still have this vibrancy and luminosity because you’re keeping it well nourished,” she said.
Tula, one of the early arrivers to skin care’s microbiome trend, has tracked “picked-up momentum” in its acne products, said Savannah Sachs, the brand’s chief executive officer. “According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 85 percent of people between the ages of 12 to 24 experience acne at some point, but we don’t see it as a teenage problem,” she said.
Sachs pointed to Tula’s online questionnaires, which provide a steady stream of shopper insights — including which consumers have acne. “The quiz offers personalized recommendations to our customers, but also informs our product development pipeline unification strategy. Despite the fact that we have an average age of 32, there are many customers between 20 and 40,” Sachs said.
The acne consumer tends to spend more with the brand than those with other skin concerns. “This consumer has a significantly higher spend,” Sachs said. “When someone is struggling with acne and they find a solution that works, they stick with it. So, it’s a very high value customer.”
To that end, Sachs said acne customers also tend to buy full routines, rather than single products. “The acne consumer is about three times more likely to purchase a whole routine than someone who’s shopping our core range,” she noted.
Tula’s acne range is formulated with its trademark probiotics, along with other known acne combatants like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. “We combined those FDA-approved ingredients with probiotic extracts to help balance the skin and calm skin irritation. That’s where I think there’s more opportunity for innovation in the acne category, we tried to focus on effective formulas that aren’t harsh or irritating. They’re also alcohol-free,” Sachs said.
The brand isn’t alone in its approach to approaching the category with more gentle formulations that are less drying than traditional topicals. “In addition to the innovation we’ve seen in products, they’re not as damaging, and they’re bringing in soothing botanicals into their ingredients so it’s not as painful,” Jensen said. “Niacinamide is very popular in acne products, things that protect you from environmental stressors.”
111Skin, for example, is combining sulfur and microalgae for acne-fighting benefits. Dr. Yannis Alexandrides, American and European board-certified plastic surgeon and cofounder, launched the Clarity range four years ago, and has seen his customers react positively to his skin-soothing approach to acne, which most recently includes a “mask-ne” sheet mask for $65.
“A lot of people I see in my practice have some form of acne, whether it’s breakouts, blemishes or disruption in the balance of the skin,” he said. “We originally created our range as a line of products that people who could self-select without the risk of irritating the skin while also taking charge of acne.”
Such multitasking ingredients have also had a positive impact on product claims, broadening the appeal of the category further. “Multitasking products are effective and where the market is heading,” said Enrico Frezza, founder of Peace Out Skincare, who created the brand after seeing a white space for a more lighthearted approach to acne. “When I created our Acne Serum, it’s because I was using seven different serums that I wanted to combine into one.”
“Salicylic acid is probably the least irritating and the most effective in treating the majority of acne types, and niacinamide probably after that since it helps with refining pores and oil production,” Frezza continued.
Although Frezza’s approach has won Peace Out consumer devotion, he also thinks shifting the conversations around acne as a skin condition has helped attract consumers who might once have shied away. “When we launched Peace Out, nobody was talking about acne in a positive or inclusive way. We wanted to make the branding very fun and unclinical for that reason,” he said. “Social media is changing the way people are talking about skin perfection and acne, because acne doesn’t make someone any less beautiful. People are going to be more open about acne the way they’re more positive around body positivity, gender identity, mental health and sexual orientation,” he said.
Sachs agreed, saying that playing to self-empowerment has been a winning strategy for the brand. “We show unretouched images, they actually show what blemishes and acne look like. We believe that in terms of inspiring confidence, we need to make sure we’re not degrading confidence, and that realistic and inclusive standards of beauty and representation are critically important,” she said.
Here, five new launches in the acne category from clean beauty brands.
The Feelist Total Package Youth Protecting Concentrate. The second treatment product from megainfluencer Shea Marie’s brand The Feelist combines soothing purslane with breakout-fighting blue tansy oil.
Peach Slices Acne Clarifying Cleanser, Exfoliating Toner and Oil-Free Moisturizer. Alicia Yoon is expanding her footprint with an acne-fighting range rooted in a K-beauty ethos.
111Skin The Clarity Concentrates. “Clean-ical” brand 111Skin is adding a weeklong treatment regimen to its Clarity line, which has seen a surge in interest since the pandemic.
ClearBalm by BalmLabs Three-Step System. BalmLabs makes its bid for adult acne consumers with a three-step system, using only natural-origin active ingredients like willow bark extract and niacinamide.
SkinCeuticals Silymarin CF. Clinical skin care brand SkinCeuticals has given its bestselling antioxidant range a pore-friendly update — its first in almost a decade — meant to slough off excess skin with salicylic acid.
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