The Beauty Industry Has a Unicorn Problem
Unicorns no longer just have the power to counteract poison. Now, they can make your cheekbones pop.
Lately, beauty companies have begun to create a truly unhinged amount of unicorn-themed makeup, and the only qualification seems to be each product’s goal to make the consumer both shiny and a little manic.
In case your brain isn’t also a melted beauty blog, let’s consider together the sheer number of products and overwhelming rate at which they are being introduced. Here’s Refinery29’s list of 15, PopSugar’s list of 50, and a nail polish by Christian Louboutin. According to statistics from Pinterest, “unicorn makeup brushes” have been saved over 35,000 times. When just buying the products isn’t enough, one can transform directly into a unicorn oneself thanks to one of YouTube’s over 6,400 unicorn beauty tutorials. Myth states that it takes a bare-breasted female virgin to catch a unicorn. Today, we’re allowed to keep our shirts on, but we need to be hot and mythical.
Your product can be named after a unicorn, shaped like a unicorn, make you look like a unicorn, or ideally all of the above. But if it’s too on-the-nose to conflate a mythical creature with pretty girls, no one seems to mind. Instead, it’s a shallow shorthand for empowerment. When uniqueness becomes commodified, we all end up wearing glitter.
We can trace unicorn beauty in the post-truth era over a timeline of viral products. Each product’s use and availability—most of these are out of stock more often than in—is completely nebulous for anyone who doesn’t spend all of their time on the niche beauty web. In late 2015, Too Faced launched Unicorn Tears, a lipstick with a slightly holographic sheen. April 2016 brought us UK-based brand Unicorn Lashes and their horn-shaped, rainbow-bristled brushes. (“THEY SOLD OUT IN LESS THEN [sic] 12 HOURS TWICE!!!” the website screams.) By September, the must-have product was Wet N Wild’s new rainbow highlighter in “Unicorn Glow.” And in between were the unicorn makeup bags, mugs, and this soap dispenser that reads, “Unicorns Are Awesome. I Am Awesome. Therefore I Am A Unicorn.” In an oddly gruesome twist, products are often named after dismembered unicorn parts. Unicorn Fur is a mauve shade of matte lipstick and Unicorn Horn is a holographic nail polish. Jeffree Star sells unicorn blood. FCTRY is trolling us with a glitter gel named unicorn snot. There’s something too real in branding that leaves us tearing a unicorn limb from limb or making one cry for a lewk. The unicorn is a look as deeply earned as a ten-step skin care routine, with the added bonus that everyone can tell how much work you’ve put in.
In our recent history, unicorn themes span from the neverending list of celebrities who took a “risk” by dyeing their hair a pastel hue just in time for Coachella, to Rihanna’s much-anticipated holographic lipstick launch. It’s also part of the ‘90s nostalgia that has given birth to Fuller House and the constant threat that NSYNC will reunite. Lisa Frank has even emerged to capitalize (again) on the trend that she helped create with a forthcoming makeup line. Brands understand that we’ve been here before. “In the ‘90s, there was Rainbow Brite,” says Evelyn Wang, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Wet n Wild. “We’re seeing the cyclical nature of trends.” Cheryl Wischhover nails the trend’s “infantilizing” tendency for Racked: “Reconciling being a grown-ass lady who pays rent and buys her own condoms while also enjoying wearing holographic lip gloss that looks like unicorn tears can be tricky, but who doesn’t want to be recognized as magical, I guess?”
Unicorns have been in the cycle since 400 BCE. As Skye Alexander explains in her 2015 book Unicorns: The Myths, Legends, & Lore, the association is one of societal escapism: “an untamed creature that doesn’t subscribe to the ordinary rules of conventional society.” That means that outsiders tend to relate best. Long after the virgins were done with unicorns, gay men picked up the thread, Alexander writes. Aside from that horn, it “represent[s] two sectors of society who have been unappreciated historically simply on the basis of sex.” She advances the argument that the unicorn can be seen as a “barometer for the tenor of the times.” (Have you seen anything more 2017 than these “goth unicorn” makeup brushes?) However we landed here in the Forbidden Forest, it’s clear that a swath of the beauty community has bought into the idea that we don’t necessarily have to look human.
“I think we want to be done with people shooting one another, and groping women, and terrorism, and this beautiful unicorn is the paradigm of quintessential innocence,” says Karen Young, the founder of a marketing company that specializes in beauty. “It’s human nature. It’s a mythological beast that’s beautiful and may in fact have magical powers, and there’s a lot the storytelling part of our brain can do with that.”
Regardless of political preference, we all feel the weight of the morning news, says Young. As a result, we embrace magic as a “180 degree digression from the harshness of reality today.” Even brands acknowledge the reason behind their sold-out product may be pretty dark. Jerrod Blandino, Co-Founder of Too Faced, says the brand is constantly working to keep up with demand for Unicorn Tears. “The world is so stressful and heavy right now that there’s a desire for the magic of our childhoods to come back,” he says. “Unicorns represent the ideal that everything is going to be okay – and it will be. We all need a little more of that today.”
After hearing from so many beauty experts about how a sociopolitical hellscape made us all want to wear holographic lipstick, I was pleasantly surprised to speak with Vivian Diller, a psychologist and longtime beauty marketing consultant. Her pet theory is that positive social change may be behind the unicorn’s latest resurgence. “In mythology, unicorns have a connotation of transformation,” she says. “But why now? I think there’s something going on with the broadening of gender boundaries. The unicorn can be a sweet, innocent pony, but there’s also this phallic horn and sword out of its head. It’s a symbol of freedom to be male and female.”
For the record, Diller also buys into the power of escapism. “I think in a world that in so many ways feels chaotic and scary, any imagery that can help people escape into fantasy is going to be very appealing,” she says. As plausible as these theories sound, we all seem to be putting a lot of pressure to put on a mythical horse.
Unicorns are so ubiquitous that it’s hard to deny that something deeper has to be going on in our collective consciousness, but not every brand has considered on the power of fear to sell highlighter. Thanks to fast fashion, we’re inundated with similar products the second a trend begins to spike. A quick Etsy search will lead you to multiple blatant rip-offs of the original Unicorn Lashes UK makeup brush. While the original seller is forced to pause and restock, indie brands can jump in and meet demand. Asos is stocked with everything from unicorn soap-on-a-rope to unicorn slippers. “Everyone on our team is obsessed with social media,” Wang says of Wet n Wild. “We see ourselves as a fast fashion brand, so whenever we see a trend our goal is to jump on it as soon as possible.” The brand noticed that DIY rainbow pressed-powder highlighters and other unicorned-themed products were beginning to pop on Etsy, so they made their own.
Beauty YouTuber Karen Yeung decided to tackle the trend in a “holographic Tumblr-inspired unicorn makeup” tutorial that’s gotten over 147,000 views since October. “There’s something universally appealing about the unicorn,” Yeung says. It also hits on the insatiable beast of millennial nostalgia: “Unicorns were in cartoons and school folders in my childhood,” says Yeung. “I think that’s why this trend resonates so much.”
If you’re wondering, the next unicorn is the mermaid. (“Forget unicorns, we need these new mermaid makeup brushes,” announced Cosmo UK in early January.) Young predicts we’ll see quieter trends with “soft edges,” and that beauty will simplify this year. ” She cosigns my mermaid prediction and adds her own — ballerinas. Whoever lands on the next set of viral makeup brushes, it’s clear that it’ll be someone with you’d spot in a Disney movie. “Mermaids and unicorns remind people that there’s a way to think of magic and mysticism, there’s a possibility to be transformed,” says Diller. “They have the ability to make you think that anything is possible.”
For what it’s worth, buy the unicorn snot. It’s going to be a long four years, we might as well have glitter.
Leah Prinzivalli is a beauty and culture reporter.