Sensory Beauty Has Been Vital For People During the Pandemic - and It's Not Going Anywhere

Tori Crowther
·8 min read

Although I'm a beauty editor, my skin-care routine is pared back, I'm fairly lazy when it comes to my hair, and my body-care ritual consists of firm favorite products and not much else; unless I'm testing products for work, that is. But recently, I've found myself using strong-smelling oils, decadently rich body creams, sleep-aiding bath salts, and summery-scented body scrubs to at least mentally take myself on vacation.

I'm not the only one who has adopted a lengthier, more extravagant beauty ritual during the pandemic - and experts are calling the phenomenon "sensory beauty." The trend, which skyrocketed in popularity over the last year, centers around body and skin-care products that appeal to your senses - touch, scent, and sight - to evoke feelings and emotions that are oftentimes calming or grounding.

Keep reading to learn more about the sensory beauty trend and how it's not going anywhere anytime soon.

People Craved Touch During the Pandemic and Found It in New Places

The pandemic completely disrupted "normal" life and left many people feeling isolated. "We saw mental health decline and people being starved of touch, creating a yearning for the pre-virus comfort of tactility and human touch," Victoria Buchanan, trend forecaster and futures director at The Future Laboratory, told POPSUGAR. "To make up for this touch gap, consumers have embraced new technologies and ritualized application in order to build new sensory touchpoints into their routines."

"Many people don't have the language or tools to heal or process what's been happening to them and are turning to sensory beauty as a way of finding comfort," said Emmy Brunner.

An easy and accessible place to find comfort for a lot of people has been beauty. Many beauty enthusiasts (as well as those who would consider themselves novices) carved out therapeutic time to enjoy their otherwise rushed pre-pandemic skin-care routines, incorporating aromatherapy, massage, high-tech tools, and much more.

"People are more intuitive to how products can be optimized to get the best and most use out of them and to cater to all the senses at once. I often hear from people about how their skin or hair-care product smelt or felt even before they tell me whether it has helped the issue they were hoping to target," said UK-based psychodermatologist Dr. Alia Ahmed.

"The last 18 months have been extremely challenging, and, in many cases, triggering people's traumas, and many are struggling to cope," Emmy Brunner, psychotherapist and author of Find Your True Voice (out in May 2021), said. "Many people don't have the language or tools to heal or process what's been happening to them and are turning to sensory beauty as a way of finding comfort." Brunner explained that this immersive experience could be a way of anesthetizing pain or disconnecting from realities, which could be especially important for frontline workers facing the harsh realities of the pandemic daily.

Turns Out, Taking Time to Apply a Face Oil Can Be Beneficial For Your Brain

Rarely is a skin-care product essential, but when it comes to sensory beauty, there are benefits that go beyond just helping our skin concerns. "Several senses work together (sight, smell, taste, touch, balance, movement, hearing) to form a person's impression," said Dr. Ahmed. "For example, smell is strongly associated with memory and emotion, and the aesthetics of a product can pleasure our eyes. Importantly, physical touch conveys positive messages: it can be reassuring, comforting, and pleasurable - to the point of being able to repress pain and negative emotions," she said. "The feel of a product can therefore be critical to the experience created by its use."

This is powerful because oxytocin is "one of the hormones released in response to light touch and may be causing a positive response by the body to these stimuli as it has potent anti-stress effects," Dr. Ahmed added. Other benefits of touch include mood enhancement, improved self-esteem, strengthened relationships, improving cognitive function, and even immunity. "By tapping into our senses when using a product, we can create a plethora of positive emotions that can then start being associated with that product."

It's not all about the rose-scented oils, though. There's something to be said for the products we actively love to hate. Dr. Ahmed touched on the flip side of our senses actively disliking something that our brain embraces. "Most of us have also taken 'bad' tasting medicine or used a pungent product if we thought it might 'work' - if something is perceived to be good for you, then you are more likely to tolerate it, even if it offends your other senses," she said. "This is also known as 'top-down processing,' where the concept of a product being 'good' for your skin is the main focus, and smaller details (like those associated with sensory input) become less important."

We've Fallen For Skin Tech and Skin-Care Brushes

Over the past year, Dr. Ahmed noted primarily seeing the rise of sensory beauty in three ways - the use of artificial intelligence to help choose targeted products (like skin color matching), strong scent, and texture - and there are stats to back this up.

Treatwell reported that 91 percent of its users have started doing at least one beauty treatment at home that they would've had done professionally before the pandemic, leaving lots of room for experimentation. Aromatherapy Associates has seen a huge 480 percent year-on-year increase in sales with people tailoring blends for improved sleep and relaxation. Personally, I've found myself using the new Whind Marrakech Light Illuminating Oil for its scent alone. I mostly stick to "boring" prescription creams for my rosacea, so my skin doesn't need an oil as an extra step, but the fragrance transports me to Morocco and invokes happy memories.

Skintech has also boomed, with Foreo's UFO range seeing a 200 percent increase in sales year-on-year since April 2020. The co-founder of Australian skin-care brand Sand & Sky, Sarah Hamilton, told POPSUGAR how much her customers loved using a special face mask brush to apply the Pink Clay mask.

Buchanan noted that one space we're also seeing experimentation with sensory beauty is fragrance. "Perfume is normally spritzed or occasionally rolled on, but brands such as Byredo and Jo Loves are changing that with the launch of fragrance brushes.

Though Beauty Routines Are Beneficial, We Shouldn't Mute What's Really Happening With Our Mental Health

The increase in sensory beauty and taking a self-care beauty moment might not be something we're all particularly aware of. "I'm not sure that people are consciously doing this," said Brunner. "So many of us aren't aware that we have wounds that we need to heal, so many of us are just surviving; doing the best that we can. And we are naturally drawn toward the things that bring us comfort." Buchanan explained in her opinion: "people have been actively looking for stress-relieving products that can be incorporated into everyday life as part of their beauty routines during this period, but we've probably not understood just how impactful the lack of human touch has had on our mental health."

Finding solace and comfort in a beauty routine or ritual has been vital for some people; a small thing to spark joy when there wasn't much else of that around. However, Brunner noted that we shouldn't "mute" the trauma of the past year. "We need to make sure that people are informed on how to fully process traumatic experiences and process internal pain, as opposed to just muting it," she said. "With acceptance and acknowledgment being the most important first steps."

Sensory Beauty Isn't Something We're Ready to Say Goodbye to Any Time Soon

Although stay-at-home orders are beginning to ease and a sense of normalcy is on the horizon, sensory beauty isn't going to dwindle any time soon, according to every expert we spoke with. "I think this trend goes beyond the pandemic and connects to a broader trend we were already tracking around beauty as an anti-anxiety and self-care tool," Buchanan said. "In 2021 and beyond, I think we'll continue to see an increased focus on the sensation of beauty - that inexplicable dopamine hit that you get from a product." Buchanan thinks that brands will draw on neuroscience to understand how products invoke mood-boosting reactions, too.

"In the future, the products you do buy will need to add more emotional value than ever before. We expect to see sensory-starved consumers seeking novel beauty and wellness experiences that combine touch, scent, visual, and aural stimuli to awaken, relieve, or calm their corporeal states," she added. From Brunner's perspective, however, she wonders if the attraction to sensory beauty will continue as we struggle to come to terms with the journey that we've been on.