Matt Anderson was hanging out at a L'Occitane store in Washington, D.C., one afternoon, waiting for a friend's wife to finish shopping, when a saleswoman gently suggested his face and shaved head would benefit from some moisturizer.
Mr. Anderson, a 37-year-old with a beard who manages a team of international disaster-response volunteers for the American Red Cross, had never used a facial skin-care product before, much less one from Provence. But "on a lark," he says, he bought the Verdon Energy Face Moisturizer and soon found he liked it enough to use it twice a day.
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Perhaps there was a time when moisturizing wasn't "macho," Mr. Anderson says. "If anything went beyond Old Spice, or if it got too poofy, you would kind of be laughed at. Now, there are so many products."
Men's grooming has gone mainstream. Male skin care is one of the beauty industry's fastest-growing sectors, with more men adopting a grooming regimen, alongside exercise and eating right, as a component of healthy living.
Many more men are shopping for themselves, compared with a decade ago when women made most of their purchases. Studies show men now buy as much as half of male-grooming and other types of consumer products.
"We have really noticed a transformational difference in the role that men play," says Rob Candelino, vice president of skin cleansing U.S. at Unilever, whose brands include Dove, Vaseline and Axe.
Retailers are creating shopping spaces meant to put men at ease. Nordstrom recently moved the men's grooming counter inside the men's furnishings area. Drugstore chains such as CVS (CVSG.LN) and Duane Reade have tested male-dedicated sections.
Macy's (M) in downtown Philadelphia has recently opened a "men's grooming zone" on the beauty selling floor, with a flat-screen TV, free wireless Internet and a Keurig coffee maker.
It is "almost a men's skin-care man cave," says Muriel Gonzalez, executive vice president for cosmetics, fragrances and shoes. A similar space is planned for a Macy's in San Francisco in June.
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Male shoppers like to see the words "for men" on labels, says Anthony Sosnick, founder of Anthony Brands Inc. But male-female product differences go deeper than packaging. Male skin-care formulas tend to be lighter and absorb faster than women's, because men's skin is oilier.
And price points tend to be lower. The Anthony Logistics for Men line has a vitamin C facial serum in stores like Sephora, where one ounce costs $42. "If we were to price it like a women's serum, which would be maybe $80 to $100, most of our customers probably would not buy it," Mr. Sosnick says. Price may be one reason the product has female fans.
Whether it's baby boomers hoping to overcome signs of aging or millenials who grew up spritzing Axe body spray, there's a wider spectrum of men buying grooming products than there once was.
"It isn't taboo anymore for men to want to take care of themselves," says Cheri Keating, a groomer and member of the advisory board for Estée Lauder's Lab Series Skincare for Men. The brand recently introduced a brightening eye balm with a 'metallic cooling applicator' ($28) and a tinted moisturizer ($38.50).
Grooming and skin care is long established among gay consumers. For example, Thomas Ellington, a 31-year-old who lives in Boston and works in socially responsible investing, says he began using an anti-aging cream in his early 20s. Friends told him, "Just start using it now. You're going to regret it if you don't."
Now more heterosexual men are catching on. "Straight friends of mine, I run into them in Sephora and Kiehl's," says Sean Kaplan, a 32-year-old Philadelphia real-estate broker.
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About one in four men uses some sort of facial skin-care product, whether it is facial wash, moisturizer, lip balm or eye cream, according to market research firm NPD Group. U.S. department-store sales in the male skin-care sector, which includes body lotion and hair products, reached $84.7 million last year, up about 13% from the prior year, NPD says. Compared with sales of women's skin care, which are north of $2 billion, there's still room to grow, says Karen Grant, senior global industry analyst at NPD.
The shave—a universal and uniquely male need—is the focal point of most grooming routines. To lure men to the next level, brands position new products before and after, such as the pre-shave cleanse or scrub, or after-shave lotion. Kiehl's "Ultimate Man" skin-care routine gives clear, simple instructions in its marketing materials: "1. Cleanse," "2. Shave," and "3. Moisturize."
Now, men are experimenting with more-specific products, like anti-aging serum and eye cream. "The conversation with men has changed," says Chris Salgardo, president of Kiehl's, a L'Oréal division. Whereas a male shopper once might have asked about shaving cream, now he is likely to say, "I'm almost 40 and I don't like these lines around my eyes," Mr. Salgardo says, estimating about a third of Kiehl's shoppers are men.
Cleansing and moisturizing are all well and good, but do men who shave every day really need to exfoliate? Men's grooming marketers say emphatically yes. Dragging a razor across un-exfoliated skin will push dead skin into pores, causing red bumps and irritation.
Certain milestones seem to make a man open to changing his grooming routine, says Magnus Jonsson, director of marketing for Beiersdorf Inc., whose brands include Nivea and Eucerin. The first is when he enters the workforce and "steps into a more mature man's life," says Mr. Jonsson. The next is often marriage or cohabitation.
Later, it's the appearance of gray hairs that tends to make a man reassess his grooming habits. Should he get divorced and re-enter the dating scene, he'll assess again, Mr. Jonsson said.
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Most men have a female "influencer," often his girlfriend or wife, who introduces him to more sophisticated grooming products, says Unilever's Mr. Candelino. "Then once he's in, he starts to pay attention to things."
Men usually are looking for products to solve specific problems, such as dry skin or oily skin, says Jenny Belknap, vice president for global skin-care marketing at Clinique, a brand at Estée Lauder. But they are wary of beauty-industry claims. "You're not going to pull the wool over their eyes," she says. "They're going to try it for themselves and make that determination."
For its Anti-Fatigue Cooling Eye Gel, Clinique opted for a tongue-in-cheek message. "Rough night? No one will ever know," the website description reads. "Combats puffiness, dark circles. Absorbs quickly."
When Curran Dandurand and Emily Dalton created the Jack Black skin-care line, the two women opted for cobalt-blue packaging and a script font, meant to resemble cigar and liquor packaging. The name is meant to sound familiar—like a buddy a man would grab a beer with (and no relation to the actor).
The two chose mostly plastic containers, and they decided against an outer cardboard carton for most products, to encourage men to pick products up in their hands. Ms. Dalton says, "We wanted to grant him permission, in a way, like, 'Hey, this is for you.' "