Why We’re Spending So Much on Botox, Makeup and Facelifts

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Some types of plastic surgery are on the rise due to the sluggish economy.

Last year, Americans spent more on products and procedures to make our faces look better. The reason? Well, it may seem counterintuitive, but experts say the lackluster economy is part of the reason for our collective vanity. 

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) says that while total cosmetic surgeries fell by 2% last year, the number of what they call “minimally invasive” procedures rose by 6%. The most popular of these were Botox and Dysport (the brand names for botulinum toxin) injections, followed by soft tissue filler injections, chemical peels, laser hair removal, and microdermabrasion.

In 2011, the number of both surgeries and minimally invasive procedures rose, although the uptick in more expensive operations was the smaller increase of the two.

“Facial rejuvenation procedures, both surgical and minimally-invasive, experienced the most growth in 2012,” an ASPS press release states. That includes a record-high 6.1 million botulinum toxin injections to freeze our frown lines and crows’ feet. And although the overall number of surgeries fell, the ASPS says demand for facelifts and eyelid surgeries rose 6% and 4%, respectively.

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The so-called “lipstick effect” is something consumer psychologists trot out as soon as the economy heads south: The theory goes that we cut back on big-ticket spending, but buy ourselves little indulgences as consolation prizes. Instead of buying a new suit, for example, maybe we’ll buy that designer’s cologne. Instead of a pair of pricey pumps, we’ll settle for the aforementioned lipstick. Or, in this case, we’ll get Botox instead of a pricier nose job or tummy tuck. Maybe we can start calling it the “injection effect” instead.

Unsurprisingly, wealthier Americans seem more willing to keep spending in order to look good. A new survey by Unity Marketing, which examines the spending patterns of affluent Americans, found that the rich are becoming more cautious and keeping those platinum cards in their wallets. But president Pam Danzinger says there are a few spending category outliers.

For instance, spending on beauty services increased a whopping 26.5% last quarter, “one of the top growth categories in the fourth quarter,” Danzinger says in a report accompanying the survey. “Luxury consumers spent more on spa/salon beauty services in the fourth quarter, showing they are still willing to invest to keep up appearances.”

The same trend can be seen at the makeup counter, too. Last year, we spent 10% more on department store brand skincare products, and 7% more on department store makeup, according to market research firm NPD Group. “We have a clientele that’s engaged and wants to buy,” says Karen Grant, global industry analyst for beauty.

All this stuff that we use to make ourselves look good supposedly has a byproduct effect of making us feel good, too. “The reason we hear most is, ‘I’ll continue to buy beauty because it makes me feel better about myself’… This driver is more pronounced in the prestige category,” Grant says. “There’s a more emotional reason than purely logical.”

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The willingness to spend at the upper edge of the price spectrum is even more pronounced, Grant says — and it’s not just wealthy Americans dropping big bucks on eye creams and eau de toilettes. People are buying these little luxuries whether they can easily afford them or not, she says. “They’ll find the means at the expense of other things.”

“It’s very much an investment. In some cases, you’re talking about $300 gift sets and things like that,” Grant says.

There’s some indication that for some of us, this spending could be an investment in our careers — or our love lives.

In 2011, Daniel S. Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas, Austin and author of the author of Beauty Pays, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times spelling out just how much your looks matter in the workplace:

One study showed that an American worker who was among the bottom one-seventh in looks, as assessed by randomly chosen observers, earned 10 to 15 percent less per year than a similar worker whose looks were assessed in the top one-third — a lifetime difference, in a typical case, of about $230,000.

In an older, equally depressing paper, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis cited Hamermesh’s research that an unattractive worker’s “plainness penalty” is 9%, and that there’s a 5% “beauty premium” that benefits the pretty and handsome at work.

In 2010, the Chicago Tribune noted that older workers aren’t just relying on their experience to get ahead in the workplace: They’re increasingly trying to turn back the clock with procedures like eye lifts, teeth whitening and hair-loss treatments. “While most older job-seekers know the importance of keeping their skills current, some are applying that same advice to their faces,” the article stated.

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Some recent research also suggests that increased beauty spending is an investment in our romantic futures, particularly for women. In a paper published last year, Sarah Hill, assistant professor of social psychology at Texas Christian University, wrote that recessions make women work harder to try to attract men, and prompt a surge in spending on beauty and cosmetic products and services.

The basic idea is that recessions create a scarcity of financially stable men, so women compete more aggressively for a smaller number of successful, well-to-do bachelors. In experiments, Hill found that female subjects conditioned to think about a bad economy were more likely to display a preference for buying items that could enhance their physical appearance.

“Consumers may prioritize beauty during times of economic turmoil,” she wrote.