Get up close and personal with exclusive, inspiring interviews and taste profiles delivered with a cheeky twist to your inbox daily.

Success! You’re all signed up. 🎉
Please enter a valid email address.

By subscribing to our email newsletter, you agree to and acknowledge that you have read our Privacy Policy and Terms.

An Exploration of Nostalgia and Beauty

An ode to the cosmetics that trigger waves of memories.

An Exploration of Nostalgia and Beauty
Getty Images

Whether it’s the iconic scent of Clinique Happy that your mom used to wear or your very first Lip Smacker (in Dr. Pepper flavor, no less), there’s a reason why certain beauty products make our stomachs and hearts flutter. The look, sensation, and smell of particular makeup, skincare, and fragrances evoke a sense of nostalgia that can almost instantly transport you back in time and bring you an unmistakable sense of comfort.

It’s this exact sentiment that some cosmetic brands are drawing from in signature products, unique collaborations, or new launches that bring us back to our beginnings, like Vacation Inc.’s Orange Gelée revival or Native’s collaboration with the Girl Scouts. Here, I spoke with a handful of brand founders and developers to dive deeper into the choice of formulating beauty products with nostalgic characteristics in their packaging, smell, or texture. Read on to learn why you’ll likely always come across a product that tugs at your heartstrings, and how nostalgia is an integral piece of the beauty products we know and love.

What Makes a Nostalgic Beauty Product?

Merriam-Webster defines nostalgia as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for a return to a past period”, which can bring you back to your youth or a joyous moment in time. A nostalgic beauty product can be any cosmetic with a particular smell, consistency, look and feel that is reminiscent, familiar, or alludes to an object or moment of the past. Some brands even make this concept an intrinsic part of their identity.

Take Vacation Inc., which transports consumers back in time through its retro packaging and nostalgic SPF products. Marty Bell, founding partner at Vacation, shares that this choice is intentional. “Our mission is to make sunscreen fun, so we call upon how sunscreen brands did it back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s,” he says. Messaging around tanning at that time was certainly not skin-safe; still, there was a sense of genuine pleasure in being out in the sun and on the water—a collective sense of frivolity that you’d see in a sitcom episode of Gilligan’s Island or Baywatch of the time. “When tanning rightfully became taboo, all the joy and excitement of those sunscreen brands quickly disappeared and was replaced with more clinical and serious messaging,” says Bell. And while this messaging is important, there’s no reason why it should feel so clinical or antiseptic. Vacation set out to solve that problem—bringing back the fun of sunscreen through an ‘80s lens with an old-school look and modern take on particular products like Baby Oil SPF 30, reminiscent of actual baby oil you’d slap on as a teen, now, with sunscreen within the formula for protection. Classic Whip SPF 30 is another nostalgic product in Vacation Inc.’s vault that disperses sunscreen via a real whipped cream bottle nozzle, transporting you back to the moment you had your very first banana split. “We decided we’d bring back the aesthetics and energy from the glory days to show that you can have a good time under the sun; assuming you’re wearing sunscreen,” he adds.

With this sense of exhilaration in mind, nostalgic beauty products can also feel toy-like and comforting. The ASMR beauty trend that took over TikTok a few years back captured this notion well, and certain products with particularly unique textures, like the Milk Makeup Cooling Water Jelly Tint, also nail this feeling on the head. “The return to playful textures, colors, and washes all comes together with this product,” says Sara Wren, director of artistry and makeup artist at Milk Makeup. The blush is chock full of good-for-your-skin ingredients and goes on in sheer washes, like a watercolor stain, to allow buildability and customization. But Dianna Ruth, co-founder of the brand and head of product development, shares that discovering the jelly texture was the “aha” moment for this blush: “The application experience is inherently fun, playful, and nostalgic, and we really leaned into that, from the imagery to the packaging, and, of course, the product itself,” she says.

Why Nostalgia Works in Cosmetics

Capturing a nostalgic essence in cosmetic products all comes down to the feelings they evoke. Alisa Metzger, co-founder of InnBeauty Project shares that happy memories served as a huge sounding board for the various “flavors” of the brand’s notorious Lip Glazes. “Our very first flavor, Candy Apple, was a nod back to your first fair or carnival as a kid. Biting into that crunchy candy shell and licking your lips evokes such fun memories,” she says. She goes on to share that nostalgia is at the forefront of the brand’s choices when creating new flavors. “We are very intentional with our approach and take inspiration from the simple things that bring you joy like your favorite candy, holiday treats (Cinnamon Bun Glaze), and delicious drinks (Pina Colada Glaze),” she says.

The brand also created a Lip Glaze flavor that might sound all too familiar: Mystery Glaze, which, you guessed it, was inspired by mystery-flavored Airheads, first launched in 1993. “I remember begging my parents to buy me a mystery flavor Airhead and trying to guess the actual flavor. My friends and I would all taste them together and debate over it,” Metzger reminisces. This is what makes Mystery Glaze so fun and unique: “The combination of a sweet delicious flavor and letting your creativity run wild with guessing the flavor makes people smile. We love seeing our community on social media debate the flavor of Mystery Glaze in the comment section,” she adds. Mystery Glaze is a prime example of how powerful a nostalgic beauty product can be: it has brought together a community of mystery-flavored candy lovers by celebrating a shared experience.

Similar to Mystery Glaze, nostalgia in cosmetics can also be a second-act revival of a crowd-favorite product. Vacation Inc. did just this with the Orange Gelée SPF 30. The original Bain de Soleil Orange Gelée was a cult-favorite luxury sun care product first created in the 1920s in France. The formula exploded globally, particularly in the US throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, and was renowned for its bright orange gel formula that promised consumers the ultimate “St.Tropez tan.” The product was later discontinued, but when Bell and his team stumbled across a petition with over 10,000 signatures to bring the product back, it was a project Vacation couldn’t pass up. “The idea of reviving this beloved product felt squarely in line with our mission, and we knew that helping to bring it back to sunscreen shelves nationwide would bring an incredibly nostalgic kind of joy to thousands of people,” he says. While the brand set out to maintain the look, feel, and scent of the original Orange Gelée, it was important to Bell and his team to elevate the formula to today’s standards in skincare and sun protection. “We replaced ingredients like mineral oil, petrolatum, and paraffin with plant-derived, nourishing alternatives, and added essential broad spectrum SPF 30 protection instead of the original’s SPF 4,” Bell shares.

Orange Gelée is the ultimate cross-section of a nostalgic beauty product, not only because it was brought back to life but because it proves that the relationship between nostalgia and beauty is symbiotic: nostalgia can inspire beauty products, and beauty products can inspire nostalgia.

Why Nostalgia Works in Fragrance

Much like nostalgia, fragrances are inherently personal, and scent itself can memorialize and bottle up a feeling. “In fragrance, nostalgia is a powerful and intimate experience,” says Honorine Blanc, DSM-Firmenich master perfumer and the nose behind Juicy Couture’s iconic Viva La Juicy scent. “Notes that trigger happy memories and emotions can be anything from a scent that reminds you of a loved one to a scent of a flower that transports you to a specific place and time,” she says.

As far as Viva La Juicy is concerned, Blanc shares that nostalgia is part of why the scent is so renowned. “Viva La Juicy captures timeless femininity with a luxurious touch, appealing to women of all ages… it enhances the wearer’s mood and presence, making it a beloved choice. It’s a fragrance that empowers women and triggers confidence,” she says. The fragrance’s notes of caramel and warm florals are familiar and indulgent, and this combination evokes confident sensuality, like the kind you’d feel on your eighteenth birthday. It’s still modern and innovative, though, which is what makes it appealing to many scent lovers out there. “A great fragrance combines a comfortable nostalgia and modernity,” Blanc says.

For Bee Shapiro, founder of Ellis Brooklyn, nostalgia is integral to her brand’s signature body mist Peaches. She explains that it’s an ode to her teenage years in Seattle in the ’90s. “I remember those mall days with the joyous, super feminine fragrances and makeup and this tension between grunge and femininity. The fruity and optimistic fragrances of that era contrasted the clothing of that time. Peaches was meant to capture that feeling—the one of hope,” she says.

So, What Does This Tell Us?

Whether revisiting a moment or smell from the past through a beauty product or revitalizing an old formula, nostalgia in beauty is all about the connection it creates between us all. “Nostalgia is really this idea of connection, and fragrance has always been about connection,” says Shapiro. And she’s right—it can come in the form of a scent, as she suggests, or in the form of other beauty products that prompt a community, like a mystery-flavored lip gloss or a cult-favorite orange gel sunscreen.

Nostalgia in beauty is a reflection of ourselves, the mirror we hold up to look at our past and present, and what makes us feel good within that vision. “When I zoom out and think about what the beauty industry is here to do, it's simple—we are here to make people feel good about how they look. Nostalgia and taking people back to fond memories is the ultimate feel-good-moment,” says Metzger. And that’s precisely what beauty should be about.

More From the series Beauty
You May Also Like