While many of us prepared for lockdown by stocking up on food, others panicked about the state their locks would soon be in without professional haircare help. Our salon reprieve was supposed to be a "couple of weeks" but now, four months in, we've had to adapt to flying solo, with a whole new way of accessing beauty. But there's nothing like a period of isolation to make you appreciate what you had, with many of us realising the significance of the beauty industry for ourselves and the economy.
In the words of Joan Crawford, "The most important thing a woman can have - next to talent, of course - is her hairdresser." It may seem superficial but salons have proved important for our appearance and our happiness, especially for those sporting home-haircut botch jobs, with recent studies showing that nearly 50pc of people cited salon visits as top of their to-do list post-lockdown.
"We have a short memory," says Jennie Hingston, owner of Elysian Therapy in Sandyford, Dublin. "Everything will eventually go back to the way it was but in the few days that we have been open, we've been inundated with booking requests from people who really value the expertise of a professional. I think lockdown has made people realise the difference between doing it yourself and having a well-trained professional at the helm. It's not just about the treatments, it's a really personal business; we have some clients who come as much for the connection, the chats and the social aspect. They've really been missing that."
No doubt, 2020 is a year of "new normals"; our lifestyles, work and routines are under threat. But while many couldn't wait to get back to their respective salons, there are plenty that have embraced the bad-roots, casual breast-swinging natural look, relieved at the prospect of not having to get "made up". Others have had the challenge of keeping up appearances, with everything from the shoulders up being thrust into the limelight thanks to a steady stream of Zoom meetings. In desperation, people have turned to DIY solutions in an effort to maintain their beauty regime (and their dignity). Between March and April alone, the number of Google searches for DIY beauty treatments quadrupled. Not surprising, since Irish consumers, pre-Covid, were spending a cool €700,000 a day on beauty products (apparently we use more fake tan than any other country in the world bar two) and hair salons around the country were taking in €1m a day in revenue. Of the whopping €473bn global beauty economy, Europe takes a sizeable €78bn chunk - that's one colossal grooming habit, and one that has hit a major stumbling block in the last few months as people were forced to stay at home.
But it will take more than a global pandemic to sink the beauty ship, with the industry pivoting its attention to the digital platform. For the last few months, social media has been flooded with makeup artists, hairdressers and beauticians demonstrating the latest try-on tools, gadgets, products and beauty routines. Even former Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman took to her own bathroom with an at-home hair-colour kit championing the virtues of "30 years' worth of expert advice all available online". And now, as we emerge from lockdown, it's likely many will continue to work from home and, as a consequence, will forgo the usual beauty effort or enjoy the continuing merits of DIY treatments, having reassessed their convenience and their own discretionary spending.
Karen Jackson, owner of WearWith organic cashmere, was just one of many who adopted the do-it-yourself approach to her hair. Initially she was happy to hold off for "a few weeks" but after realising she might be in it for the long haul, she turned to the internet for help.
"I own a fashion business so I really felt I couldn't completely let myself go," she laughs. "I'm representing my brand and, while I wasn't out and about, I was doing consultations online. I felt that if I was wearing one of my cashmere jumpers, I had to look a little groomed, even if I was just popping to the shops," she admits. "Not to mention, I'm really small, so it's fine for someone who's 6ft but everyone looks down at me, so they can all see my roots."
About a month into lockdown, she took fate into her own hands and started researching home hair-highlighting kits, but it seemed everyone had the same idea and everything was sold out. "I'd never done my own hair before and I was really apprehensive. I didn't want something that could go drastically wrong as I'd have to dye all my hair dark and then reapply blonde again - and that terrified me," she says. Slim pickings meant having to resort to a sun-lightening product, which promised a "gradual blonde" look - even that terrified her. "My experience of that still haunts me," she laughs, recalling an episode 25 years ago when her hair turned orange. But desperate times call for desperate measures. "All the online threads were saying that it was nothing like the old [products] but the fact that it didn't work as well on dyed blonde hair and better on naturally blonde gave me some comfort as I'm not naturally blonde so I could see it developing." Instructions were vague so Karen watched some YouTube videos on how to apply the gel to her hair and then blow-dry it to activate the colour. She's been using it every three weeks while at home and is so happy with the results, it's encouraged her to cut a fringe.
"I blame Jane Birkin for that. I'm slightly obsessed with 1970s style icons and between that, wanting to hide my wrinkles and just being bored, I decided to go for it." She bought a professional hair scissors online but it wasn't a cold cut; instead she followed tutorials by Irish hairdresser and owner of the Raven beauty app Trudy Hayes, whose how-to hair demonstrations have caught the attention of thousands looking to improve their hair-cutting skills or simply learn damage control. Using her own hair, she demonstrates a step-by-step fringe cut, twisting a triangular section of hair at the front and cutting at a diagonal to create texture and avoid a heavy line. "I followed her tutorial to a T," says Karen. "But I did a coward's fringe. It's not quite as brave as I'd hoped, but it's out of my system now."
Will she go back to her hair salon? "I'll be skipping back," she answers quickly. "I had heard of hairdressers going to people's houses and I really was tempted but decided it wasn't safe. Plus, I really believe we should be supporting small businesses like my hairdresser who have rents and staff to pay."
But hairdressing salons are not the worst hit. Due to its face-to-face nature, the professional nail sector will struggle to get back on its feet, forcing people to invest in their own long-term solutions - evident in the surge of nail-polish sales, which are said to be up 24pc since lockdown.
Orna Holland went a step further to maintain her two-week manicure and invested in a home manicure kit. As head of recruitment for online payments company Stripe, working from home involved daily Zoom meetings where she had to "show up ready for work". According to research from L'Oréal, 25pc of personal-care occasions such as putting on makeup, washing hair or wearing perfume rely on circumstantial triggers like getting ready for work or school. And despite us all wearing less makeup thanks to lockdown, a survey by No7 showed that 45pc of us still apply makeup for Zoom or conference calls. "I may have had shorts on underneath the desk but I always had my hair, nails and makeup done," laughs Orna.
As a regular client of a Dublin salon for the last 10 years, she was used to dropping in every two to three weeks for various treatments. Getting a salon-worthy look at home was the aim. "I was literally texting the girls [in the salon] asking them what the hell I was going to do," she laughs. Once the panic subsided, she found a 14-day manicure nail kit complete with UV machine, four polishes, two coats and acetone remover for €49.99. It might not have the bells and whistles of a salon treatment but, considering she was spending €120 a month on nails, she couldn't ignore the cost-saving factor.
"It was really easy to use once you prepped your nails and hands first and learnt the quantities. The only challenge was doing your right hand with your left and removing the polish with one hand. But I'm pretty proud of the fact that they looked like I had them done professionally, even after two weeks," says Orna. And while she admits that you can't beat the "salon experience", for the first time ever she appreciated the convenience. "You can wake up at 6am and do your nails if you want to, or chill out with a glass of wine in front of the TV while you're doing them. There's no looking for parking or having to schedule it in between meetings, plus I've saved a chunk of money. I'm not saying I'll never go back but I've realised there's a lot you can do at home yourself."
While some treatments - such as manicures and pedicures with regular polish - are fine for people to attempt at home, some professionals advise against DIY shellac and gel treatments, along with tints. "Above anything else, it's dangerous," says Jennie Hingston of Elysian Therapy, who deliberately didn't sell any home kits during lockdown or agree to the countless requests from clients to do "isolation treatments".
"I can't tell you the amount of calls I got from clients begging for us to do house calls," laughs Jennie. "We didn't, obviously. And we didn't sell home kits because I believe a lot of them aren't safe to use at home. Tints have peroxide in them, which is harmful and when not used correctly can be damaging. It's why you go to a qualified professional."
It hasn't stopped the masses intent on fixing their chipped nails, dark roots and patchy lashes. Keeping up appearances was important for Aisling Kinsella, who tried her hand at a few DIY treatments, most notably a home eyelash and eyebrow tint kit. She would previously have enjoyed monthly salon visits for her nails, tints and waxing but when lockdown hit, it forced her to not only rethink the frequency with which she visited the salon but how much she really needed those treatments.
"Normally I'd say my beauty routine was fairly high-maintenance but now I'm just maintaining and that's fine." She admits to getting a manicure and an eyelash and eyebrow tint every three weeks. The pampering is gone but she still wants to look presentable, not least for her daily Zoom work meetings. "I was happy to give my nails a break for a while and ditch the lash extensions as they were both getting weak. When I realised we might be at home for quite some time, I buckled and bought a home manicure kit along with the eyelash and eyebrow tinting kit." She honed her skills with numerous YouTube videos on how to apply the tint, using plenty of Vaseline on the top lid and under the lower lashes before she applied it. "It's peroxide so you do have to be careful, read the instructions and do a test patch," she advises. "Once I was happy that I knew what I was doing, I went for it. I was a little nervous so I only left it on for six to seven minutes at first, which was nowhere near long enough, I didn't notice any difference. So I did it again. It's important to note that you only leave the tint on the brows for one minute, whereas the lashes need about 10 minutes." The result was salon-worthy. "The tint lasted much longer than I thought. I'm really happy with it and I've loads left, so for €12.99 I'll get a lot of tints."
In the face of a pandemic, grooming might seem like a superficial issue but for many it is a source of comfort and reassurance: at a time when our foundation feels like it's cracking, if we can look good, then we might feel better and in control. "It definitely boosts your confidence when your nails look polished or you've trimmed your own hair," says Aisling. "But also, it sort of distracts you from what's going on out there and there's a huge sense of achievement from doing it yourself." She hasn't kicked her salon habit but will likely return only for "special occasions". "I've actually really enjoyed doing it myself, being at home relaxing, listening to music, all at my own leisure. Just the other day, I was at a friend's house and she asked if I had already been back to the salon, having seen my nails, brows and lashes - you can't get a better endorsement than that."
Many of our new home-beauty habits are likely to continue post-lockdown but there's also likely to be a hybrid of pre- and post-Covid behaviours: those who are happy to do it themselves for the most part, while saving up for special salon treatments. Karen Burke, owner of Ebano salon in Ballinteer, Dublin, agrees. "There's a huge amount we can maintain at home, which is brilliant, but there's a luxury factor to a salon, not just for the results aspect but from a well-being point of view."
The increased attention on self-care and video conferencing has seen the focus shift dramatically towards skincare, with a rise in the sale of facial masks, moisturisers and serums. Although Ebano's home-facial kits have reached record-level sales over the past few months, they don't compare to a professional facial, says Karen. "You can control your own skincare routine at home easily - and I think that's great; we try to educate clients to help themselves at home - but nothing compares to the salon experience, which is so much more than the treatment."
Julie Millen, a regular client of Ebano, who happily travels across the city for her appointment with the renowned salon, opted for a home-facial kit in the absence of her monthly facial treatments. "I was heavily pregnant during lockdown and not feeling fantastic, and the home facial was a lovely treat." As someone who's used to the salon experience, how did it compare? "It doesn't and I do miss the treatment you get: the massage, the oils, the music and chatting to the therapist, but when I saw Karen talking about it on her Instagram and the tutorial she gave, I thought it looked easy enough. There are four kits geared for different skin types and what I loved was that, because I was pregnant, Karen ensured some ingredients were swapped out. It wasn't complicated and while it was more work for me since I was mixing the ingredients myself, I still felt pampered, far more than using a 15-minute sheet mask. My skin felt amazing for days after," says Julie.
As a yoga instructor, her workload increased while in lockdown, with a glut of extra online yoga classes. The early morning was fine, she explains, but as the day went on, she was more conscious of how she looked. "I just wanted to feel fresh. I wasn't spending hours on my makeup but even a 10/15-minute skincare routine made a big difference. Taking care of myself is really important for my mental well-being and for €35 I got two facials, compared to €150 at a salon."
To enhance the experience, Julie sent her husband off with her newborn, ran a bath, prepped her skin prior to using it and then relaxed for half an hour. It won't replace the professional treatment but she'd be happy to use it again in conjunction with a salon facial. "It shouldn't beat the salon experience," says Julie. "If you could do it at home, what's the point? Spending that money gives you something extra and that comes at a deserved price."
It's hard to know what the long-term effects of Covid-19 will be, but for the beauty industry it's clear priorities have changed, forcing us to reassess our routines and throw a spotlight on what really matters.
And while haircuts and polished nails aren't the most pressing needs in this devastating time, they have their place within our collective well-being. With budgets shrinking, DIY at-home treatments are likely to continue as people reconsider their regular MOT spending habits.
But our beauty reset is also about our mental health and if going to a salon means being "looked after" following a long stretch of isolation, then maybe beauty isn't just skin deep.