From Rhode to Fenty, what the current lip gloss craze says about Gen Z

In 2007, it was hard to go anywhere without hearing someone chanting the lyrics to Lil Mama’s signature bop “Lip Gloss.” In the song, the rapper boasts about her distractingly shiny and luscious pout while name-dropping her go-to brands, MAC and L’Oréal (specifically, “those Watermelon Crushes”). In 2024, however, it feels like this ode to cosmetics is due for a sequel, given the sheer amount of lip glosses, balms, butters, oils, masks, and scrubs that have hit the market recently.

On BeautyTok and Instagram, it’s hard to avoid users showing off their favorite lip gloss-balm hybrids, like Rhode’s Peptide Lip Treatments or Summer Fridays’ Lip Butter Balms — if not actual ads. These two products have become particularly sought out by makeup wearers since their respective launches in 2020 and 2021, appearing on several best lip product lists. Other bestsellers on Ulta and Sephora’s websites include Dior’s Addict Lip Glow Oil, Fenty Beauty’s Gloss Bomb Lip Luminizer, NYX’s Fat Lip Oil, Glossier’s recently reformulated Balm Dotcom, and E.L.F.’s Glow Reviver Lip Oil — not to mention some old classics that are making a retro comeback.

We all know that beauty trends are cyclical. The popular matte trend of the 2010s has been overtaken by the recent desire for ultra-shiny lips, an obvious resurgence of the makeup looks from the ’90s and early 2000s, when Lancome’s Juicy Tubes and Mac Lipglass were all the rage. For many lip-gloss enthusiasts, purchasing and reapplying these products has become its own sort of obsession, resulting in unnecessary — although, it depends on who you ask — large collections.

Last December, 27-year-old beauty influencer Ky Mason (@iamkytoo) posted a whopping five-part “lip product collection tour” on TikTok, featuring hundreds of balms, glosses, and lipsticks from both high-end and low-end brands. “I personally find that some of the drugstore lip oils provide the same amount of shine, hydration, and color options as some of the more expensive options I’ve tried for a fraction of the price,” Mason says. Another influencer, 21-year-old Clara Li, (@ok_clara) describes herself as a “squeezy (tip) lip balm connoisseur. “I have multiple in my bag, one on my nightstand, one in the bathroom, one by the couch, and various spare lip balms stocked around the house, too,” she says.

To accommodate lip gloss superfans like Mason and Li, Hailey Bieber is even selling gray Rhode phone cases that customers can attach their glosses to the back of. Given that a common cellphone attachment is typically a cardholder, this innovative gadget implies that lip balm, specifically Rhode’s, is just as crucial to carry around as your driver’s license. By all accounts, it seems like lip products have become more than just cheap, everyday essentials to mindlessly throw into your purse. In the post-pandemic era, where our mouths are unmasked most of the time, they’ve evolved into miniature status symbols for influencers and casual “makeup girlies” alike.

Still, our beauty routines and consumption habits tend to communicate something deeper about our physical anxieties and economic realities. So what does our current overconsumption of lip gloss tell us about young people right now?

The Kylie Jenner era of lip filler is (kind of) over

Kylie Jenner at the Vanity Fair Oscars Party in Beverly Hills, California, on March 10, 2024.
Michael Tran/AFP via Getty Images

The last time beauty influencers paid this much attention to their mouths was a decade ago, when reality star-turned-beauty mogul Kylie Jenner disclosed that she had gotten lip filler after intense speculation from the public.

As a result, the desire for big lips saw a peak in the mid-2010s. In 2015, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported ​​27,449 lip implant procedures. (That’s one procedure every 19 minutes.) There were also a number of hazardous lip-enhancing hacks that emerged on social media, like the “Kylie Jenner Challenge,” which used suction from a shot glass, and a lip-lifting trick involving glue. Most notably, Jenner was able to capitalize off the publicity surrounding her newly plump lips by launching Kylie Cosmetics in 2015, which kicked off by selling matte lip kits to help customers achieve her look.

In the 2020s, people haven’t necessarily become less desperate for large, pillowy lips — although plastic surgeons have noticed more people wanting to dissolve their filler. In the aftermath of the lip surgery boom, beauty vloggers and other social media users began sharing their experiences with filler migration, an unintended side effect where fillers move from the injection site to other areas of the mouth. While this complication is pretty rare, it seems that patients are looking for ways to correct their procedures or enhance the appearance of their lips in minuscule ways.

“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in patients who are seeking a more subtle result from lip fillers and other adjunctive procedures,” says Dr. Peter Lee, chief surgeon at Wave Plastic Surgery in California. In addition to hyaluronic acid filler injections, Lee says other alternatives include longer-lasting fat transfers, silicone or ePTFE (expanded polytetrafluoroethylene) implants, and lip lifts, an hour-long procedure which “subtly elevate the corners of the mouth and creates a more youthful appearance.” Even faster is the “lip flip,” which uses Botox to create the appearance of a larger upper lip and typically takes less than 30 minutes.

Despite the association lip filler has with cultural appropriation, Lee has noticed more Black women coming to his office for lip treatments. “We believe Black women are seeking them out for the same reasons women from other ethnic groups are: They understand that aesthetic lip procedures are not just about making the lips fuller,” he says. “They can create greater definition and shaping of the lips.”

Of course, “lip care” comes back to an endless pursuit of youth

Lee notes another important selling point for lip augmentations: “Fuller lips are not only a feature of beauty; they’re also a sign of youth.”

As a main focal point of the face, thin, wrinkled lips can be an immediate sign of aging. Getting older means producing less collagen, elastin molecules, and hyaluronic acid, resulting in thinner lips for some people. Through that lens, it’s safe to assume that beauty consumers are, in part, stocking up on “lip care” products for the same reasons cosmetic patients want a more natural-looking pout. In addition to signifying attractiveness and sensuality, everyone wants to look like they’re in their 20s.

Right now, Gen Z seems to be experiencing a collective crisis over looking old, which has resulted in an interest in so-called anti-aging skincare for many tweens. That said, it’s not a surprise that young people are running to lip products that offer color and a sheen but promise dermatological benefits. “The fusion of skincare benefits with traditional makeup attributes is one of the major driving forces behind the virality of certain lip products,” says Samantha Arnstadt, VP of creative, strategy, and design at the PR company Front Row. (Among other brands, Front Row represents Summer Fridays and Saie, which has a popular lip gloss oil.) Arnstadt says that these viral products are “bridging the gap between skincare and makeup” by promising not only beauty, but hydration and protection too.

Last year alone, Kylie Jenner’s brand Kylie Skin debuted tubed “lip butters,” strongly resembling Summer Fridays’ products. And the viral skincare brand Topicals’ also released a Slick Salve Mint Lip Balm that quickly became the lip balm du jour on TikTok. Additionally, the Lip Sleeping Mask from Korean skincare brand Laneige has become a cult favorite for its instantly hydrating properties.

Older brands are also noticeably competing for a space in beauty consumers’ “lippie” collections as well. Arnstadt notes that many mass brands have “refreshed their product lines to include lip gloss to align with the current market and appeal to Gen Z.” Other older brands like Vaseline, Nivea, and Aquaphor have released new lip therapy products or repackaged them to match the aesthetic of these newer, buzzier products.

In particular, peptides — short chains of amino acids that help build proteins in the skin — have become a buzzworthy ingredient for marketers, according to New York-based dermatologist Dr. Shereene Idriss. In addition to Rhode, brands Ole Henriksen, Paula’s Choice, and Persona are just some companies that include peptides in their newer lip products. “Certain peptides have humectant properties,” says Idriss. “This means they can attract and retain moisture in the skin and also helps support the skin’s natural repair processes for dry lips.”

For many fans, these promises have a major appeal. “I think a lot of people want their lip products to be moisturizing while still having lasting power of longer than three sips of soda,” says influencer Ky Mason.

In a time of economic decline, lip glosses have become affordable status symbols

Aside from the skincare aspect, there seems to be excitement among people on social media who collect these lip products in large numbers. MacKenzi Nelson, art director at beauty PR company Helen + Gertrude, says this current hoarding of lip gloss represents a pre-existing consumer trend.

“We’ve heard of the ‘lipstick effect theory’ in culture, where sales in affordable luxuries, like lip products, skyrocket in times of economic distress,” she says. “These small ‘treats,’ if you will, bring a big impact physically and emotionally.” In addition to their affordability, lip products are also accessible to people who may not identify as makeup lovers or want to wear a full face of makeup, including influencer Clara Li at one point. “I actually used to be a makeup minimalist in all makeup categories other than lip products,” she says.

Additionally, Nelson says that the “sensory” element of these products has a lot to do with their popularity, as they provide “a moment of ritualistic self-care, comfort, and play.” Li agrees with this sentiment, stating that the lip products are “definitely habit-forming.”

That said, it’s hard not to notice the irony of obsessively purchasing and using these products. The amount of times a person feels they need to reapply or restock on lip gloss seems to undermine their exact purpose of keeping your lips moisturized for long periods. Beauty columnist Jessica DeFino explored this paradox in February in response to a reader’s self-described “addiction” to lip balm. “That lip balm requires constant reapplication doesn’t strike consumers as a product flaw, but as an opportunity to fulfill their personal purpose: buying stuff,” she wrote.

Dr. Idriss also says there’s such a thing as putting on too much lip balm, preventing the health benefits these products advertise. “When you continuously apply lip balm, your lips may become accustomed to the moisturizing effects and stop producing enough natural oils to keep them hydrated on their own,” she says. “As a result, your lips may feel even drier and more chapped when you’re not using lip balm.”

As DeFino put it, the habit of constantly reapplying only seems to enable consumers to stock up on more of these items. On the other hand, these brands, usually offering a variety of shades and flavors, are also successful at aiding this compulsory overconsumption — the more you own, the better.

Much of the packaging and marketing for these viral lip balms telegraph a semblance of luxury and self-care. In Rhode’s marketing materials on social media, the peptide lip treatment is often displayed next to fruits or sugary, sumptuous foods, really nailing home Nelson’s description of lip products as “treats.” Other brands, like Topicals, include their lip glosses alongside other items you would find in a wealthy person’s bag, like a Louis Vuitton wallet and a roll of cash, on their Instagram.

Still, these products offer a low-barrier entry point into cosmetics because of their relatively lower price points compared to more expensive cosmetics. For example, Chanel’s foundation can range from $55 to almost $80, while its Rouge Coco Gloss retails at $40. Non-drugstore but not-exactly high-end brands like Rhode and Summer Fridays offer lip balms and oils are under $30. Plus, actual luxury brands, like Dior and Chanel, offering somewhat accessible lip products help consumers, who can’t afford their clothing or accessories, experience this fantasy.

In that way, it seems like lip gloss has become a low-stakes remedy for a particular type of dread facing everyone — but maybe more vocally, young women. 2023 saw women on TikTok begin to reckon with how much they had been influenced, both by celebrities and average people, into buying needless or ineffective (usually) beauty products on the app. Users declared their attempts to resist these urges with the hashtag #deinfluencing. However, the success of this trend immediately seemed unlikely, given the ad-driven infrastructure of social media that isn’t going anywhere. In buying lip gloss, it seems like beauty consumers have found a happy medium between “deinfluencing” and indulging in their compulsive shopping habits.

While it may not be the reason every person buys lip products, the ability to hoard them without spending a ton of money can create a false sense of opulence and security. In a moment of economic downturn and general doom about the world, it’s comforting to know that we can impulsively spend money on the latest it-girl item and delight in the same vain activities as Kylie Jenner or Hailey Bieber. For someone like Mason, though, collecting lip gloss is maybe not a sign of some sort of existential crisis but simply one of life’s simple pleasures — even if it includes a price tag.

“Do I think it’s possible to finish 300-plus lip products by the time my life is over? Probably not,” she says. “But I’ll have fun counting how many of them I can finish and reviewing them until that time comes.”

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