How Social Media is Ushering in a New Era of Men’s Grooming

“To me, skincare is one of the most important things you can do for yourself on this planet,” says Chicago-based content creator Nicholas Bailey. He’s smiling straight into the camera, sporting a fresh fade, trimmed beard, and Helmut Lang hoodie. He looks nothing like the porcelain-skinned women in white wearing cucumbers on their eyes, the socially accepted stock image of beauty and wellness. But there he is, telling guys that “there’s nothing better than taking care of your face.” Bailey, 30, is part of a new wave of men’s grooming.

“I grew up with mostly women, so I saw my mom and two sisters getting their hair taken care of, getting their skin and their nails done, whenever they could afford that luxury — because it’s not cheap. But it wasn’t ever talked about from a male perspective. I never saw the men in my life put anything on their face other than soap and water and lotion,” says Bailey. “That was just the norm.” When he got to college, he’d have the occasional locker room conversation about the best shaving cream or whether girls are actually into cologne, but his foray into the beauty industry “popped off when social media blew up.”

“I can just open my phone and see people’s routines, hear the benefits of certain products, or what products aren’t worth it. The amount of information out there got me interested in experimenting with what worked for me.” Even if you’re not on TikTok (Bailey isn’t: “It’s overwhelming for me”), the concept of someone — a stranger — speaking directly to you in your bathroom while they are in theirs has turned our entire communication culture into a tailored experience. Men are increasingly getting their information from other men.

“If you’re a Black dude from the city and you see a guy that looks like you — wearing Stüssy, wearing Jordans — talking about exfoliating your face two or three times a week and using sunscreen, you’re more inclined to listen. It’s going to hit a little bit harder. My homeboy isn’t going to listen to a 20-year-old white girl influencer; he’s heard it from them a hundred times.”

Bailey thinks that his five-step skincare routine vlog has been viewed 30,000 times on YouTube because of its keywords: “Black men skincare.” Google searches for men’s skincare routines have risen by 400 per cent over the past seven years. Not only is access to knowledge easier in an Internet age, but anonymity helps guys who are conditioned to feel shame for spending time and money on making their face look nice. Buzzwords like “dewy” skin and “wrinkle lines” are historically coded as feminine problems, despite the fact that everyone wants to be asked whether they’re born with it. Companies and advertisers have seen the untapped consumer potential and have pounced on the growing acceptance of men’s aestheticization that individuals on the Internet pioneered. It represents fully half of the population to rope into buying vials of miracle lotion.

The global men’s skincare product market is expected to reach $230 billion by 2025, nearly double what it was in 2012. We’re seeing industry stalwarts like Lab Series introduce an “all-in-one set” that recalls the meme of “never trust a man who has 3-in-1 shampoo in his shower.” New kid on the block Geologie offers personalized regimens and an affiliate program.

“If you’re a Black dude from the city and you see a guy that looks like you — wearing Stüssy, wearing Jordans — talking about exfoliating your face two or three times a week and using sunscreen, you’re more inclined to listen. It’s going to hit a little bit harder. My homeboy isn’t going to listen to a 20-year-old white girl influencer; he’s heard it from them a hundred times.”

While Kiehl’s has long been a favourite unisex brand, men currently make up 39 per cent of their sales. There’s clearly something to minimalist packaging and ads that feature different genders. On one hand, skin is skin. (Machine Gun Kelly’s April announcement that he was launching a unisex nail polish line prompted the question, isn’t all nail polish already genderless?) On the other hand, male biology comes with specific needs.

Male skin is, on average, 20 per cent thicker and 50 per cent more oily. Men tend to age later in life than women — by 15 years, according to the old wives’ tale — but the problem skin that starts when your voice deepens lasts longer. “For men with acne, hormone levels are usually the main trigger. The hormone testosterone causes sebaceous glands to be more active, leading to clogged pores, leading to breakouts. This is happening even after puberty,” says clinical dermatologist Ailynne Vergara-Wijangco. “And while those beards may look cool, facial hair can trap oil and act as a breeding ground for the bacteria that exacerbate pimples.”

Bacteria is Bailey’s worst nightmare. “When I do my skincare routine, my hair is just cut, I got my nails trimmed and clean, I’m walking around feeling like I’m Superman. As they say, cleanliness is close to godliness.” That shouldn’t be controversial. What the newest grooming brands are trying to tackle is whether men are open to the next step: cosmetically enhanced.

“Guys can be lazy. Plenty of guys don’t brush their teeth every night. A great skincare routine is multiple steps, and it’s quite rigorous, so how does that work with an instant-gratification generation?” That’s what recent Harvard grads Annelise Hillmann and Nick Bunn are out to answer with Frontman, a direct-to-consumer company that launched in January with Fade, “a skin-coloured cream with acne-fighting ingredients and a long-lasting formula that can withstand workouts.” Inside the little black bottle is salicylic acid to clean pores, spearmint extract to kill bacteria, and lemon extract to speed up healing. But it’s not just a treatment — Fade also covers up skin imperfections. Technically, it’s makeup.

“We’re establishing what is going to be this new market, the functional cosmetics market,” Hillmann says. “It started when Nick and I were at our favourite lunch spot, and he goes, ‘Ugh, I’m so jealous that women don’t get acne.’ I was like, ‘Excuse me?’ We realized that we were socialized very differently growing up. I had all the tools.”

The tools they’re trying to provide men today include the ability to present the way they want to. “External social pressures should go out the window at this point, [allowing] actual guys to improve and reset the boundaries of what masculinity could look like or should look like,” Bunn says. He and Hillmann are inspired by frontmen like David Bowie, Harry Styles, and Tyler, the Creator, all of whom have worn dresses, wigs, or face paint onstage. The concept of “new masculinity” goes beyond aesthetics; they admire NBA All-Star Kevin Love and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott for their frankness about battling depression and anxiety in a realm of muscle and competition.

It comes back to skin because admitting that you want yours to look better requires vulnerability. We have Gen Z to thank for an unprecedented level of openness in the public forum, creating a ripple effect in mainstream acceptability. Ethan Dolan, a 21-year-old influencer with over 10 million subscribers on YouTube, made a 35-minute “mask off” revelation about the impact that internet trolls’ comments about his skin have had on his sense of self-worth. He details multiple trips to dermatologists, and his transition from wearing makeup as a comedy bit to wearing it on dates and in most of his viral videos. “If you’re a guy and you have acne, and you want to cover it up with a little bit of powder to take the harshness away, do it, dude. You’re still a man. You’re even more of a man…It’s manlier to do whatever makes me feel the most confident version of myself.”

If you’ve made it through a basic five-step skin routine — cleanse, exfoliate, shave, moisturize, and tone — the possibilities for what’s next are infinite. It just takes willingness to start.