For a spell, COVID-19 ― and the switch to remote work ― put some unprecedented pressure on the billion-dollar global beauty industry. Cosmetic sales slumped heavily for most of last year ― in fact, sales of all beauty products last August were down 25% compared to six months prior. Lipstick was the hardest hit product, understandably so: A face mask and a heavy matte lip don’t play nicely together.
At the time, 71% of women surveyed by the market research company NPD Beauty said they “wear makeup less often due to COVID-19 lifestyle changes.”
Sara Long, an adjunct history professor and host of the podcast “The Makeup Historian,” wasn’t surprised. Who wants to shell out $50 for an eyeshadow palette when your eyes are strained from staring at Zoom for the umpteenth hour? People were focused on just getting by, she said. Being “vaguely presentable” worked.
“The pandemic caused economic distress, and historically in times of financial hardship, most people turn their attention to survival rather than extras or luxuries,” Long told HuffPost.
Over the last few months, though, as mask mandates began to lift, the beauty industry has shown some tentative signs of a recovery. (Of course, those prospects may dip again as the delta variant of the coronavirus continues to spread and experts are once again encouraging people to mask up.)
Regardless of what happens on the mask front ― and even as workplaces return to physical offices — many women say they’re wary (and weary, after years of waking up so early) of putting on a full face of makeup before their workday begins.
Sravya Attaluri, a creative director at the design studio and shop Hello Colour, is among them.
Before the pandemic, Attaluri devoted a solid 30 minutes each morning to doing her makeup. Her routine was well-honed. First, there was skin care: cleanser, serums, moisturizer. Then foundation, concealer, powder, contour, eyeliner, mascara and a hint of highlighter, just to add a touch of dewiness to the skin.
But the pandemic made all that makeup seem pointless. As her work life becomes more IRL and less Zoom-centric, Attaluri is still going makeup-free. At most, if there’s a big meeting, for instance, she’ll throw on some quick concealer and mascara. But usually, she’s barefaced under her mask.
“Unsurprisingly, when I went back to work fresh-faced, there weren’t any screams and it made me realize that the only person noticing the difference makeup made was me.”
– Riannon Palmer, owner of a public relations firm
Naturally, her new au naturel approach has drawn some commentary during work hours.
“I do get people saying I’ve aged or ‘you look tired,’ which is annoying, but I just don’t have time for that much makeup, and I’m glad I’m still confident without it,” she said.
Attaluri’s not anti-makeup by any means. The creative director thinks she’ll likely feel more pressure to return to her pre-pandemic makeup regimen for networking events, for instance.
“The reality is I receive more respect when I look ‘cleaner’ or more ‘professional’ with my makeup done,” she said.
But she’s looking forward to the day those standards change.
“I hope my fellow team members also feel comfortable not wearing it,” she said. “That’s how we can start to change these expectations in wider society, by changing it ourselves.”
Even beauty influencers are ditching the full Instagram face during business hours. For meetings with brands and partners, content creator Faye Dickinson’s makeup routine used to included a base of foundation, bold lips and Instagram-worthy eye makeup.
“I learned how to do a killer contour and fashion a feline flick sharp enough to do some damage,” she joked. “Wearing a full face out and about and while working made me feel more put together and self-assured.”
Like Attaluri, Dickinson hopes the pandemic will help women break free from societal expectations around appearance.
“My new pandemic-era grooming and self-care approach is a ‘less is more’ mindset,” she said. “I’m embracing day-to-day life sans makeup, dyes and polishes.”
Dickinson anticipates some “you look tired!” remarks. But she’s used to it, to some extent. She even gets the comments on social media whenever she posts a makeup-free selfie or Instagram story.
“It’s so rude,” she said. “If someone looks tired, either something has happened that’s prevented them from getting enough rest or they’re just not meeting your standards of beauty. But saying something about it is the equivalent of telling someone they’re short, or their nose is wonky, or they’re not super slim.”
Riannon Palmer, the founder and managing director of the public relations and communications firm Serotonin, used to spend about 20 minutes each morning on her makeup.
“My alarm would wake me up at 6 a.m. for a morning gym session, and then I would spend time when I could have been enjoying some more much-needed sleep doing my makeup,” she said.
For Palmer, the decision to ditch her morning routine was part of a broader reevaluation of her life and priorities: It wasn’t just a full face of makeup she gave up on in 2020. She also left her job and started her PR agency.
“I will say, those extra few minutes of sleep can make a huge difference to your day and are much more valuable than makeup,” she said.
Walking into the office for the first time after lockdown, Palmer braced for the inevitable “are you sick? you look tired!” comments. But they never came.
“Unsurprisingly, when I went back to work fresh-faced, there weren’t any screams and it made me realize that the only person noticing the difference makeup made was me,” she said. “I unlearned the irrational thought process I’d had for years and decided my time could be more valuable elsewhere.”
Still, as the boss of her own company, Palmer is keenly aware of the perception she might give off when she forgoes a more polished look.
“A big part of my job is new business,” she said. “This means I’m selling the services we offer, but also to some extent the possibility of working with me. It had worried me that potential clients may be swayed to work with me if I looked nicer.”
For her first few new business calls, Palmer decided to put some mascara and concealer on after a year of not wearing any makeup for work. Gradually, though, she stopped doing it.
“Now, I try to get myself into a space with good lighting for any new business calls as bad light can completely change the way you look, but I no longer wear makeup!” she said.
But Palmer’s initial concerns make a sad kind of sense. A 2016 study published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility found that conventionally attractive individuals out-earned their peers by about 20%. When researchers started factoring in “grooming” (which, for women, included makeup), the gap narrowed.
“We found that makeup can signal how much effort a woman is willing to put in to meet gender presentation expectations, which may spill over into judgments about how much effort a worker will put into other aspects of work,” said Wong, co-author of the study and an assistant professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina.
“Managers, bosses, supervisors and superiors may be using women’s use and nonuse of makeup as a way to judge how compliant and committed they are to doing other kinds of work,” she told HuffPost.
Of course, women who are perceived as wearing too much makeup get judged for it as well, according to Tara Well, a professor of psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University in New York City.
“Research shows that when people are asked to rate women on their appearance, women wearing a moderate amount of makeup are rated the highest in competence,” said Well, who studies self-perception. “No makeup may imply that she doesn’t care, and too much makeup may imply that she is too focused on her appearance and less focused on her work.”
Will this makeup-free work trend last?
Long, the aforementioned makeup historian, thinks that traditional expectations around self-presentation at work will crop up again ― old grooming habits die hard ― but that women will play a bigger part in setting them.
“Throughout the pandemic, I think women have proven how much power and influence they have over the economy, especially the beauty industry,” she said. “When women stopped purchasing as many cosmetic products during the pandemic, the beauty industry began to panic.”
Women turned their attention to researching cosmetic product ingredients, Long said, opting for more natural products and trends. The beauty industry, reeling from plummeting sales, was forced to listen.
“Women took back agency over their cosmetic routines by investing in more skin care products and natural makeup products during the pandemic,” she added. “I predict workplace makeup trends will be more about enhancing rather than transforming.”
Ruth Orevba, who works as a director at Macy’s corporate office in New York City, has taken the “enhance what you’ve got” approach long before the pandemic. She’s an ardent skin care enthusiast and credits her esthetician with changing her skin for the better.
“It’s been four years now where I follow my daily a.m. and p.m. skin care routine, and I rarely break out anymore and my dark spots have greatly been reduced,” Orevba said. “I save doing my makeup for the special events or big meeting I have.”
Take it from Orevba, though: If you do decide to go makeup-free, you could get some unnecessary commentary from co-workers.
“I work in a corporate office in retail fashion, where everyone is looking their best, so when I first started transitioning from wearing heavy makeup on a daily basis to going completely natural, at first I would get those comments like, ‘You look tired,’” Orevba said.
After a couple months of sticking to her facial routine and seeing an esthetician regularly, the comments started to change.
“It became, ‘Wow, you look great. What foundation are you wearing?’” she said. “In time, I started to feel more confident in my overall self again — without makeup.”