Facing the Future: Where does Instagram Beauty go now?

- Instagram is hugely popular with beauty consumers: 44% of those in Europe and North America actively engage with content on the platform, while 70% have an account

- However, the rise of ‘Instagram Face’, a homogenous look fuelled by heavy makeup, filters and cosmetic procedures, is having a negative impact

- Beauty consumers are seeking greater authenticity and while Instagram use continues to climb, they are exploring alternative content formats and platforms (e.g. TikTok)

It is difficult to imagine a world without Instagram. The app – which has more than 1 billion monthly active users globally – is embedded in the behaviour of countless consumers, who reach for their phones when they encounter a striking background, a well-crafted plate of food, or simply when they’re having a good skin day. In an Instagram-less world, where would we post our selfies?

The hyper-visual platform has been a natural home for the beauty community. 44% of beauty fans in Europe and North America – consumers who are actively interested in beauty & cosmetics, and have purchased these products during the previous month – regularly share and engage with content on Instagram. They are also a significant 40 percentage points more likely to do so than the average consumer in these regions.

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Of course, where customers go, money goes too, and the beauty industry has certainly benefitted from Instagram’s success. More than half of beauty fans active on Instagram use it to research or discover new products, making it an attractive prospect for ads and owned brand content.

This could be one reason why skincare and cosmetics brands boast some of the largest audiences on the platform: cosmetics brands have the third highest number of Instagram followers on average, according to 2019 analysis by Unmetric, a massive 15.3 million. And Huda Beauty (@hudabeauty), the leading cosmetics brand with over 41 million followers, is the third most followed brand account on the entire site, ranking above Chanel and Gucci.

While Instagram’s potential reach is impressive, there are signs that its place within the beauty ecosystem is under threat. Concerns about toxic influencer culture and the platform’s impact on mental health, for example – prompting it to remove Like counts in several countries – don’t align well with brands trying to promote a message of holistic, inclusive beauty.

Instagram Face

As the 2010s came to a close in December, one of the big topics of conversation was the emergence of ‘Instagram Face’, a look that arguably became the decade’s beauty ideal.

Writing in the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino described this as “a single cyborgian face…with poreless skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes…a small, neat nose and full, lush lips”.

Instagram users don’t need to spend long scrolling through their feeds to encounter this aesthetic. Within the beauty community, it’s most visible across content by mega influencers like @nikkietutorials and @jaclynhill, as well as cosmetics brands targeting young consumers, such as Kylie Cosmetics, Anastasia Beverly Hills and Too Faced.

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Many of these brands, whose founders may themselves be part of the influencer ecosystem, champion the beauty products key to creating Instagram Face: full coverage foundation, powders (used to ‘bake’ makeup – a technique that helps set concealer), lip pencils to overline the lips, highlighters and contouring kits. Indeed, in 2015 – the zenith of the contouring craze – Pro Contouring brushes and heavy foundations were among the best-selling products at US retailer Sephora.

The result is a look of high-res perfection, the kind of face sculpted to attract Likes. Makeup artist Maddie Pearce, who has worked in TV and fashion for over two decades, described Instagram makeup as having “gone too far” in a 2017 piece in the Independent newspaper. “There are very few girls in real life who can pull off this amount of makeup and the goal of perfection is putting a lot of pressure on young girls”.

However, makeup alone is no longer enough: filters and fillers are increasingly popular tools when it comes to achieving a flawless complexion for the gram. FaceTune, a favourite app for flattening noses and plumping lips, last year attracted a $135 million unicorn valuation, due in part to its 3 million loyal subscribers.

In 2019, Instagram was forced to ban ‘plastic surgery filters’ that explicitly mimic the results of cosmetic surgery, in an attempt to foster a more positive experience on the platform. These effects – with names like FixMe and Plastica – may even lead to users getting the real thing done, having seen the potential rewards on their phone screens. FaceTune, however, remains on the app store, and continues to attract steady Google search traffic.

A Return to Authenticity

With this in mind, it’s clear that the Instagram beauty community needs a detox. This focus on achieving a homogenous look, assisted by AI filters and surgery, isn’t great for cosmetics brands either, whose products are best suited for subtly enhancing facial features and facilitating self-expression.

But could the 2020s be the turning point for Instagram beauty? The signs are hopeful. Kristie Dash, Instagram’s beauty partnerships lead, predicts that natural beauty will be one of the platform’s defining trends in 2020, fuelled by consumers sharing unfiltered and unedited images of themselves.

She also expects the contoured look so central to Instagram Face to wane, mirroring its downward trend in Google searches since 2016.

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Authenticity has become a cliché when mentioned in connection with social media; yet when technology warps what we consider to be ‘real’, more authentically human depictions of beauty are sorely needed.

There’s evidence that beauty fans feel the same way: nearly two thirds of this audience want brands to be ‘authentic’, far above ‘trendy / cool’ (42%) and more than twice the percentage who seek out ‘young’ brands (24%).

A pivot towards video – away from heavily posed and edited static imagery – is one of the top ways consumers are rejecting toxic beauty content. On Instagram, the proportion of those posting primarily to their Stories is on the rise, and many brands are seeing lower engagement on photos – something that can be partly attributed to changing content format preferences.

Some beauty brands, meanwhile, are looking at opportunities away from Instagram altogether. YouTube, long the rival to Instagram’s beauty crown, is attracting increased media spend from cosmetics and skincare brands that don’t want to be mired in controversy around beauty standards. L’Oréal, for example, spends 93% of its ad dollars on YouTube, with just 5% allocated to Instagram, according to a report from BrandTotal.

Others are looking further afield to TikTok. The short form video platform is quickly becoming the go-to place for quirky makeup application videos, tutorials and individualistic looks, embraced by subcultures like the e-girl. Too Faced, Fenty Beauty and Sephora are among companies to have found success on TikTok, with Anastasia Beverly Hills also setting its sights on the platform.

The Future of Instagram Beauty

So, is Instagram still a good place for beauty brands to invest their cash? It has its work cut out, but the prognosis isn’t all bad.

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For a start, time spent by beauty fans on the app continues to climb. Between 2018 and 2019, the proportion of those accessing Instagram at least once daily grew by six percentage points, the highest of all social networks. An Instagram account also confers credibility: Facebook data indicates that almost two thirds of beauty consumers have greater trust in brands with an Instagram presence. Removing Like counts and banning plastic surgery filters is, so far, Facebook’s way of addressing toxic Instagram beauty culture, and this may help. Ultimately, however, the responsibility lies with brands and high-profile individuals using the app to foster change


A number are already doing this. Take Glossier, the Millennial favourite accused of catering only to young consumers with already perfect skin: over the past year, its Instagram account has featured greater age diversity and highlighted stories from regular Glossier customers, including some about how much their older relatives love the brand’s low-key products.

Furthermore, rather than working with typical big beauty influencers, 56-year-old Michelle Obama has appeared twice on the Glossier Instagram during the past year, proving that older women with pores and smile lines have a place in the online beauty community too.

Holistic, inclusive beauty – whether on Instagram or TikTok – need not be out of reach.

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Siobhan Rooney

Siobhan Rooney

EntSight Audience Analyst