Beauty is betting on the bathroom sink as a status symbol.
As videos of luxury hand-soap reviews and girls evaluating their dates’ bathroom products trend on TikTok, hand care and body care have emerged as the latest accessible luxury category garnering growing interest from beauty companies. In April, L’Oréal Group became the latest to bet big on the category, announcing it had signed an agreement to acquire body- and skin-care brand Aesop in a deal valuing the brand at $2.5 billion.
“Body care, in general — both leave-on and wash-off categories — has become more important to brand portfolios over the last few years as consumers focus on wellbeing across the entirety of the body,” said Carson Kitzmiller, senior analyst of beauty and personal care at Mintel. Data compiled by Mintel from IRI and the U.S. Census Bureau shows that, in 2022, U.S. retail sales of body wash grew by an estimated 6% to $4.2 billion, while body care grew by 4% to $3.6 billion.
TikTok has helped drive interest in the idea of bathroom products as self-expression. In one popular trend, girls sneak into their dates’ bathrooms and rate the quality of their hand soaps, shampoos, body wash and skin care, commenting on what their choice of brands may say about them. One of the most popular videos by @alenashops received over 5 million views and 670,000 likes as she showed products by Cetaphil, OGX and Head & Shoulders in the bathroom of her Murray Hill investment banker date.
The Holy Grail hand soap brand to find is Aesop, which was pointed out by comedy TikToker Pasha Grozdov in a parody bathroom-rating video, in which he pretends to evaluate whether his date’s hand soap is “real” Aesop or a bottle refilled with a dupe.
TikTok’s obsession with Aesop is widespread. The hashtag #aesopdupe has nearly a million views, with videos offering recommendations on products that smell the most like the brand’s cult “Resurrection” hand wash and can be poured into the bottle for the flex without the $41 price tag.
According to Kitzmiller, 40% of survey respondents admit to switching out products to fancier brands when they have guests over.
Hand soap is “a signifier of taste and how you value yourself and how you value your home and how you value entertaining,” said Matthew Herman, co-founder of fragrance and candle brand Boy Smells, which launched hand soap last year and subsequently sold out of its entire stock. It “gets its own little throne in your bathroom. It’s like hanging art,” he said. He describes the Boy Smells branding as conveying “evolved values and inclusion, but still being chic.”
“When you add up all the brands in somebody’s bathroom, it starts to paint a picture of the different facets of who they are. Obviously, it’s a one-dimensional portrait of a human being,” he added.
With so many new luxury hand soaps and body-care products hitting the market in recent years, TikTokers have also branched out in search of niche brands. A TikTok video with over 82,000 likes by skin-care influencer Ben Neiley (@benneiley; 557,000 followers) describes Aesop hand soap as “OK,” while recommending hand soaps by Diptyque, Byredo, Malin + Goetz and Sangre de Fruta.
“The desire to make the home a sanctuary that reflects one’s taste and values seems to be increasingly important,” said Allison Audrey Weldon, founder and CEO of Sangre de Fruta. With its cult “Garden of Earthly Delights” hand soap retailing for $48, the brand’s hand, body and bath products are its top sellers. “With the various touch points in the home, items that we use daily can be a source of pleasure and indulgence, rather than a mundane task or necessity. It’s an affordable luxury that can be enjoyed on one’s own, contribute to the beauty of a space and be subtly shared with guests.”
Body- and hand-care launches by fragrance labels in recent years have generated interest from the fragrance connoisseur community.
“Perfume is trending and products around them, like hand washes, are trending, as well,” said Kudzi Chikumbu, the global head of creator marketing at TikTok. Chikumbu reviews candles and fragrances on his TikTok account @sircandleman, which has over 206,000 followers. He said his favorite hand washes are Homecourt’s CeCe ($32), Cowshed’s Refresh Saya Skincare Handwash ($40) and LAFCO’s Feu de Bois’s Liquid Soap ($26). “Once people [embrace] the feeling that different fragrances bring to their home through candles, they are more open to trying new fine fragrances on their body. Candles are a gateway to the wonderful world of fragrance.”
According to Kitzmiller, fragrance was listed as the top influence on purchases among body-care consumers in a 2022 survey by Mintel.
Candle brand LAFCO has seen an average of 18% growth in body care over the “last few years,” said its founder and CEO, Jon Bresler.
“It’s more about deepening the product portfolio for existing customers versus bringing in a new customer through a new category,” said Herman of Boy Smells, stating that the brand’s hand soaps appeal to the brand’s existing candle and fragrance fans.
Conglomerate-owned niche luxury fragrance brands have expanded their franchises to include status-symbol body care products. Byredo, which was acquired by Puig in 2022, offers hand soaps for four of its scents and body wash for seven. Le Labo, which experienced “double-digit” growth in the past quarter, according to ELC’s most recent financial report, is currently sold out of its Hinoki hand wash. LVMH-owned fashion label Loewe launched hand soap in 2021.
Like makeup and fragrance, luxury body and hand care are an accessible segment for young consumers to convey status without having to buy a $4,000 handbag. One TikTok video by fragrance influencer @perfumerism (350,000 followers), a college student named Emma, states that she and her housemates buy Dior hand soap for their run-down college living space because “it truly is the small things in life.”
“It’s a leveling-up thing,” said Herman. “You’re stepping into your next manifestation of yourself or you’re leveling up to the version of yourself that you see in the not-too-distant future.”
“Opting for a premium body or hand soap signals self-care and an appreciation for the details and the finer things in life,” said Sarah Jahnke, CEO and co-founder of actress Courtney Cox’s luxury home-care brand, Homecourt. The brand’s hand-care products currently make up a fourth of its sales.
Creating a cult aura around a certain hand soap relies on emphasizing luxury fragrances, as well as chic aesthetics and packaging, said Kitzmiller.
In addition, he power of association means that brands carefully vet the bathroom counters they appear on when it comes to businesses. Le Labo has long been known as a favorite for hip restaurants, while Aesop evaluates every potential hotel or restaurant partner, according to its general manager in 2017. Alexandra Keating, founder and CEO of refillable body-care brand Uni, said that the brand has focused on being “everywhere our customer goes” with “culturally relevant” partnerships with SoCal restaurants Great White and Surf Lodge, as well as art gallery Gagosian.
Herman said that Boy Smells is currently talking to potential hospitality partners and that it evaluates several questions: “Does this feel ‘brand-right’? What’s the association like? What’s the demographic that goes there? Does it feel like their values feel aligned with ours?”