There is a sobering moment of horror when the selfie filter detaches from your human face— cheeks no longer smoothed, your eyes smaller and their purple bags bigger.

Over the last several years, beauty trends have been trying to close the gap between the real and the filter to achieve the uncanny valley that is the “Instagram face,” so you never have to see your naked complexion again. Some have argued that TikTok and no-filter photo apps like Dispo reflect a generation pivoting toward more natural looks. I suspect the alterations have just gotten more covert, a boon for the growing beauty tech and augmented reality (AR) market.

For beauty brands and retailers, AR makeup was expected to function as a marketing tool and a complement to in-store retail, but the pandemic accelerated beauty tech into something else entirely when companies made the shift to digital. During Snap’s recent Investor Day, CEO Evan Spiegel bet on AR to shape the future of e-commerce and social media, also emphasizing its capabilities in beauty.   

From filtered selfies to beauty AR to surging sales 

Snapchat's flattering filters planted the seed for AR beauty around 2015. Lightricks, the company behind the popular photo editing and airbrushing app FaceTune, raised $205 million in venture funding from 2015 through 2019. In 2017, FaceTune was Apple’s top-rated paid app. 

Around that time, doctors raised concern about “Snapchat dysmorphia,” as an increasing number of patients sought out plastic surgery based on the app’s skin-blurring, face-tightening selfie effects. Filter-like procedures — lip fillers, the “fox eyes lift,” exaggerated rhinoplasties — have since been normalized by Kylie Jenner, Bella Hadid, and Instagram models at large.

In 2016, following the birth of the Snapchat filter, Sephora launched its AR virtual makeover tool, allowing consumers to “try on'' different shades of lipstick and foundation. Ulta, Sephora’s long standing beauty retail competitor, introduced its own virtual try-on app GlamLab that same year. L’Oréal responded to the growing trend with its 2018 acquisition of ModiFace, a beauty-focused AR/AI company. When the pandemic hit last year, the cosmetics giant saw a significant return on investment, releasing its digital try-on tools for social media and video calls. 

L'Oréal's integration with the Snap Camera desktop app lets users wear virtual makeup during video calls on a number of platforms including Google Hangouts, Twitch, and Zoom. The company saw a rebound in sales during the September quarter, reversing the 19% plunge in the prior quarter when lockdown-induced store closures began. Cosmetics sales jumped 30% on a comparable basis, and e-commerce saw a 62% gain in the most recent quarter. 

"The future of beauty is hyper-personalized"

These are just a few of the companies utilizing beauty AR and reaping the benefit. In January, one year after introducing AR digital lipstick swatches, Pinterest launched a shoppable virtual try-on tool for eyeshadow. According to data obtained by Retail Brew, Pinterest users interacting with shopping tools had increased by more than 85% between March and September last year.

“These tools help brands develop an identity beyond the name on the bottle. They're developing a brand that has a personality and a desire to connect with their consumers,” beauty tech expert Jill Gilbert says. “They want to create experiences that bring [consumers] closer to the brands. They’re creating personalized technologies that will allow them to make that connection. The future of beauty is hyper-personalized.”

Cross-platform beauty filters and AR makeup are clearly an asset to brands, and, in a vacuum, they’re useful tools for consumers who want to appear as though they have eyelashes during Zoom meetings. What might raise some questions is the ways in which beauty tech and social commerce will evolve.

Perfect Corp.’s vision of the future 

Perfect Corp. — the Taiwan-based company behind the AR, AI, and machine learning-powered makeup and skincare app YouCam Makeup — is the beauty tech market leader. The company recently announced it had raised a Series C of $50 million led by Goldman Sachs, bringing Perfect Corp.’s total raised so far to about $130 million in its six years of existence. In December, Google used Perfect Corp.’s tech to create a new AR beauty tool for Google Search. The company’s tech was previously used for YouTube and Snapchat makeup features, as well. 

“Virtual beauty has quickly shifted from a ‘nice-to-have’ to a ‘must-have’ component of the consumer beauty shopping experience for both beauty brands and retailers,” Adam Gam, US Chief Marketing Officer at Perfect Corp., told the Business of Business. “Beauty shoppers are continuing to become more comfortable relying on digital technology to make purchase decisions, and finding greater confidence in hyper-realistic virtual effects that rival physical try-ons.”

According to Gam, Perfect Corp.’s YouCam Makeup app saw a 32% spike in virtual try-ons in the first few months of the pandemic. Brand partners’ conversion rates were up to two and a half times higher than before.

The app, which counts over 900 Million Global downloads and over 320 global brand partners, offers an eerie look into the future of social commerce and beauty as it unfolds in the present. Not only does YouCam offer virtual makeup try-on tools, it lets you transfigure your facial features, watch livestream tutorials, analyze your skin’s flaws, post and discover the latest beauty trends, and add items to your shopping cart as you scroll. 

YouCam’s posts range from the friendly “Brighten up your photos with these animated stickers!” to the vaguely threatening “Is your winter skincare routine meeting your needs?”

YouCam can be understood as a result of ongoing developments in social media and e-commerce as they begin to meet in the middle under the rapidly expanding social commerce umbrella. Social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok are pivoting to marketplace models, offering shoppable posts and even a “Sellers University.” Since last summer, Snapchat has beta tested a feature called Brand Profiles, giving brands access to user demographic data, in-app shoppability, and AR virtual try-on features. Meanwhile, e-commerce companies are working in reverse and incorporating social media feeds and functions. Consider Amazon’s new livestream shopping platform Amazon Live. 

Social commerce combines social media and e-commerce’s addictive central activities— posting, browsing, and consuming. Gam points to the rise of “Shoppertainment,” a focus on “memorable consumer shopping experiences.”

“Perfect Corp. is helping brands and retailers re-imagining the consumer shopping journey, by providing unique innovative ways for brands to create hyper-engaged interactive shopping experiences across all customer touchpoints - online and offline.”

A look inside YouCam Makeup

The YouCam Makeup app’s homepage is a masterclass in overstimulation. It feels like a digital Times Square for teen girls, with flashing images advertising live beauty tutorials, cutesy photo editing tools, real-time face retouching, the “world’s best” makeup video editor, and a rainbow face mask filter. 

Social and discovery features expand the function of the app from photo editor to immersive social media experience. A quick scroll leads to a feed of real women’s selfies, faces covered in AR makeup, and YouCam’s promoted photos. YouCam’s posts range from the friendly “Brighten up your photos with these animated stickers!” to the vaguely threatening “Is your winter skincare routine meeting your needs?”

YouCam knows that the best way to sell products to women is by insulting them. I write this with only an ounce of sarcasm. After the AI Skin Diagnostic scanner informed me that my “Skin Age” is five years older than my actual age, I immediately Googled the app’s recommended fix, La Roche-Posay’s “Ultra Night Face Moisturizer.” 

The scanner is apparently verified by dermatologists and grades skin on several metrics, including moisture, wrinkles, and dark circles. I tried it again in different lighting the next day. My skin age was two years younger than my chronological age. The app added the record to my skin diary, where you can record your skin score’s changes on a line graph. The goal is to improve your score to a perfect 100 by using products from one of YouCam’s beauty brand partners. My hunch is that a perfect 100 is unachievable, but the app will get you just close enough.

“The AI Skin Care Diagnostic is the most requested and fastest growing category for beauty tech solutions. It’s no surprise that clear, glowing skin remains a constant goal for the greater beauty universe,” Gam says. “Patented AgileFace technology tracks over 200 facial landmarks. This technology is advanced enough to accurately detect up to 12 specific skin health concerns to instantly analyze users’ skin and generate personalized skincare recommendations.”

YouCam offers a video consultation feature. The app connects you with “Beauty Advisors” who will recommend products based on your concerns. It’s like asking an employee for help at Sephora, but instead of directing you to aisle six, they present shoppable product links for you to swiftly add to your virtual cart. Many of these consultants have worked in beauty retail. 

One Beauty Advisor, who requested to remain anonymous, told me that she usually gets calls from women ages 18 through 30. I asked how many of them talk about wanting to look FaceTuned and filtered in real life. She laughed, “A lot.”

Lucky for them, YouCam’s “Makeup Cam” feature lets you change your hair color, apply cosmetics, and reshape your face until it is unrecognizable. I can give myself the bridge-slimming nose job I’ve always wanted or make my eyeballs balloon to three times their natural size. Temporary solutions lie in filters and products. In the end, I created the perfect woman.

YouCam maps the never ending search for perfection and “wellness,” arguably the foundation of the beauty industry and the emerging beauty tech space. It’s easy to imagine the rise of beauty tech in tandem with social commerce and AR, a future where sales are driven by personalized, AI-generated consumer guidelines that promise improvement via purchase.

“By incorporating AI technology, Beauty Tech has become smarter and more capable...Big data—and more AI—can be used to further the personalization of Beauty Tech. Data can also be harvested from previous interactions, as an application learns the preferences of individual users,” Gam says. “A Beauty Tech platform should [offer] the consumer the opportunity to try thousands of different products from hundreds of manufacturers. This tremendously adds to the fun factor—and the sales factor.”