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Exploring why we get emotionally attached to certain beauty products


TextAlice Gibbs

Beauty products can trigger memories, a sense of nostalgia and the feel-good factor, which brands are also tapping into for marketing purposes

My grandma has a dressing table in her bedroom. The kind that looks like it has come from a film, with a large circular mirror and a button-embroidered stool tucked underneath a drawer filled to the brim with skincare and beauty products. I remember watching my grandma get ready with fancy face creams and lipsticks that I’d look at with awe. She’d let me sit on the champagne-coloured stool and look through the drawer, trying out moisturisers, mascaras, and nail varnishes for hours on end.

As I got older, I’d arrive at her house before school – firmly in my teenage emo phase – and top up my (already over-the-top) black eyeliner at that dressing table, while trying a couple of squirts of Chanel perfume for good measure. I remember the smell of the aloe face cream and L’Oréal lipsticks in shades of pink and red. We’d sit as my grandma explained what each cream was good for, or how that lipstick had always been her favourite, or that the under-eye cream was a real saviour when she had a busy week at work.

Even today, whenever I stumble upon a tea tree-scented product, or some aloe vera-based cosmetics – I am transported back to that dressing table. The emotions connected to beauty products often goes way beyond the look they deliver, or the confidence boost they give us. From scents to packaging, what impact do cosmetics have on our emotions and our lives?

“Our sense of smell is powerfully linked to memory,’ explains Mira Kopolovic, a senior social scientist at consumer behavioural insight company Canvas8. “It’s why a single whiff of a bloom can transport us back to a moment in childhood. Anything that plays with our sense of smell can get very tangled up in emotion.”

Clare Josa, 46, shares: “My mum used to use Oil of Ulan (now rebranded as Olay) every day when I was young. It was the one thing she would do to look after herself. She passed away four years ago now, but whenever I smell that smell or see that bottle, it always takes me back.”

Feelings like mine and Josa’s around specific beauty products can often be linked to nostalgia and have been well-documented. Erica Hepper, PhD, told HuffPost, “Nostalgia is the warm, fuzzy emotion that we feel when we think about fond memories from our past. It often feels bittersweet – mostly happy and comforting, but with a tinge of sadness that whatever we’re remembering is lost in some way.” 

It doesn’t always have to be related to someone else either Emily* explains. “When I was 17, I remember this specific lipstick by Boots 17 that I loved. It was in the shade ‘Morticia Frost’. It sounds like something a goth would wear at Christmas but it was actually a light plum colour. I’ve spent years trying to find the same shade.”

Emily isn’t the only one reminiscing over beauty products of yesteryear. On Mumsnet, there is an entire thread dedicated to beauty product nostalgia. “Those little glass rollerball lip glosses, either strawberry or lemon. Gloopy as hell but the advert was glam,” says one poster, while another recalls, “I used Twilight Teaser lipstick even though it never suited me. I wore it with a hideous blue eyeshadow.” 

There is also a host of websites that specialise in stocking beauty products from lipstick to eyeshadow palettes that are no longer being made, including discontinuedbeauty.com and buymebeauty.com. Products sell like gold dust – often being sold at double or triple the price. Some brands have caught on to the disappointment of not being able to find an old love, like Estée Lauder which runs a Gone But Not Forgotten scheme to give customers (within the United States) the opportunity to easily search for products that have been discontinued within 36 months.

Beauty products also have the amazing power to make us feel good even when things are tough. This is particularly true for 32-year-old Julie North. When she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, she found solace in Watermans shampoo and conditioner. “I could hide the fact I’d lost my breasts,” says North, “But the hair, lashes and brows are what caused me the most pain. I had a wig, but it was hot and itchy and slipped about – comical if it wasn’t so sad. But I’ve used Watermans shampoo and conditioner for over a year now and my hair has come back thick and healthy.”

Now diagnosed with stage four terminal metastatic cancer, North feels a sense of strength in being happy with her appearance. “If I don’t look like a victim, it doesn’t feel like I’m dying. Some people may say it’s vanity, but the mind is so powerful and I feel that still looking ‘like me’ really helps.”

“Beauty products are explicitly positioned by brands as artefacts for crafting the self, it’s why so much of the language around beauty branding references ideas like ‘transformation’. This taps into a lot of underlying emotions because it’s all about identity” – Mira Kopolovic, senior social scientist, Canvas8

The emotional power of beauty products isn’t something that brands have missed either, with more ad campaigns finding ways to connect to our feelings, such as Dove’s Real Beauty sketches and Babor’s All Woman Project. Kopolovic explains that “Beauty products are explicitly positioned by brands as artefacts for crafting the self, it’s why so much of the language around beauty branding references ideas like ‘transformation’. This taps into a lot of underlying emotions because it’s all about identity. It nods to a present self, replete with flaws, and gestures to an ideal self that’s accessible via the product – and that’s a lot of emotional weight to put on something.”

However, Kopolovic also points out that the way the beauty industry is playing into emotional triggers such as ‘freedom’ or ‘enhancement’ can risk having the opposite effect. “It risks feeling a bit farcical,” she explains, “particularly in the context of women who are pursuing economic, cultural and political freedom rather than freedom from puffy under-eyes. Whether we’re thinking about the first lipgloss we ever loved, or feel connected to our products for the power they give us even when things are tough – cosmetics have the power to impact our lives.”

This week, I picked up a gift for my grandma – the aloe night cream she has always loved. I couldn’t help but open it and was instantly filled with a warm feeling as I recalled all of the memories connected to it. She has always said, “Even when I’m feeling awful, I like to have my favourite treats, they make everything feel better,” and I think she is right. So I’ve treated myself to my own little bit of nostalgia and ordered another pot of the fantastic night cream for myself. Because it really does make everything feel better.

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