Cover Make-up filters have encouraged online creators to be more imaginative when creating looks (Photo: Courtesy of Regan Rabanal)

Creators in the beauty sphere are pushing the boundaries of online filters, using them for creative expression and as practical tools, and changing the way we approach make-up

A decade of facial filters on photo-sharing apps has moved them from digital decoration to a cultural norm—but does this change in use mean a shift in mindset? The first foray into filters began as cartoonish masks of floppy-tongued pets that were used to make Snapchat selfies more playful. Then they became beautifying tools for editing photos on Instagram to make skin smoother, lips fuller and jaws slimmer. This phenomenon was developed into full-blown apps that are still popular, particularly on Chinese and Korean social media. 

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Several studies in recent years have pointed to the damage that social media can do to mental health due to the constant barrage of “perfect” bodies and faces—often created using filters. In 2020, an article in the JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery journal reported that cosmetic surgeons were seeing an increase in patients requesting procedures to make them look more like their “filtered” selves. But not all associations are negative.

Post-2020, make-up filters have infiltrated video in the form of TikToks, Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts, changing the way beauty content is being made. They include the likes of wheels that randomly suggest unique eyeliner shapes, every colour of lipstick imaginable and vibrant blushes with emoji-shaped freckles. This has captured the attention of the beauty community, and by extension anyone who wears make-up, as filters have moved away from concealing appearances to celebrate creativity and explore the potential of make-up application. 

“Four years ago, I worked on a fashion show in New York where the make-up concept was a commentary on how people manipulated their face by using beautifying filters,” says Regan Rabanal, a Hong Kong-based make-up artist and the educational director for Mac Cosmetics in Asia. “We applied contour, highlight and powder but left it in an unblended state. It was a statement.”  

Rabanal has seen this shift in how filters are being used online and believes that they are disrupting things positively. He says, “We’ve built a different relationship with filters. The online community is looking for authenticity and using them is an easy way to join conversations or interact with people and trends.” 

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Rabanal draws inspiration from filters and integrates them into his posts on Instagram, whether it’s experimenting with different eye looks using eyeliner randomisers or partaking in “reveals” set to Celine Dion’s It’s All Coming Back to Me Now and inviting his followers to try their hands at these looks. 

“Sometimes you run out of creative juice. What I like about filters is that they spark excitement and the desire to create something new,” he says. “Filters can ‘choose’ your make-up for the day, which is so convenient.” 

This has given make-up artists and enthusiasts the opportunity and encouragement to create looks physically that might have only been possible digitally in the past, such as eyeliners shaded and highlighted to look like 3D neon graffiti, or a full face of rainbow make-up, contoured to look like a topographical map. 
“Some of these viral filters that involve contouring, highlighting or blush placement are actually old techniques revisited,” Rabanal says. “[Filters] generate new ideas that can lead to bigger, bolder or new shapes in the future.” 

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Esterina Nervino, an expert on luxury brands and digital transformations at the City University of Hong Kong, adds: “When digital becomes the new normal, the offline becomes something extraordinary.” She attributes the digital influences on real-life trends to the need for physical experiences post-pandemic; using filters creates an aspirational version of ourselves that we can adopt in real life via make-up. “Yes, [filters are] an alteration of reality, but with a touch of creativity,” she says.  

Nervino is familiar with how beauty brands are also using make-up filters and believes it is a natural progression for businesses in the digital space. She says, “What we see with these trends nowadays is that [brands use filters] as a marketing tool to engage younger consumers.” She further explains that filters allow consumers to explore to different brands and products, and become “prosumers”—instead of simply consuming content by using make-up filters for fun, they are empowered to produce content of their own, joining the proliferation of self-taught make-up artists on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok.

Grace Choi, a New York-based beauty innovator who creates TikTok filters, sees the technology as “contributing to the conversation of culture”.  

“The cosmetics industry moves fast,” she says. “Today, filters are being used like the audios [that are essential to TikTok videos], and introduce people to new trends, which is very powerful.” 

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Some filters have even encouraged a trend of self-acceptance; for example, the explosion of make-up filters incorporating freckles came at the same time as the shift in beauty standards to embrace them. For Korean Choi, who grew up in a culture where such marks are seen as blemishes, this changed how she perceived her own freckles, which she had previously wanted to laser off.  

Filter trends can also arise from popular culture moments—for example, Choi made a Julia Fox black eyeliner filter based on the intense make-up that the actress wore at Paris Fashion Week in January which blew up on social media, encouraging users to post ever messier eye looks. 

Choi’s motivation for joining the TikTok beauty community was born out of a desire to give make-up filters practical applications. Her two most popular filters are an eyebrow shaper and contour face-mapper based on the golden ratio. The former alone has been used more than 3.2 billion times. “It’s crazy. I saw everyone struggling with plastic eyebrow stencils, and thought, ‘No, these are terrible.’”

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This type of filter converts your phone into an augmented mirror—upon opening your front-facing camera, a “mask” appears over your face, indicating the optimal areas to apply product.  

Choi credits the success of her filters to the migration of the beauty community from Instagram and YouTube over to TikTok. She says, “Instagram is not [the most] conducive for beauty [innovation] because it’s too curated, whereas TikTok is more open and quite raw, so that beauty community is really thriving. YouTube was where [many of us] learnt how to do make-up, by watching tutorials. The problem was we’d have to pause the video and think ‘Where do I put the product in relation to my own face? Does that look right?’ By using AR technology, you introduce an immersive experience.”  

Unlike physical beauty tools such as the plastic brow stencil she maligns, Choi’s filters allow a unique level of customisation as they can be uniquely adapted to individual faces, thanks to the mesh that “fixes” itself to certain features. In this regard, it’s a teaching tool that could be further expanded and experimented with as technology progresses. 

As the use of make-up filters becomes normalised thanks to creators like Rabanal and Choi, people are increasingly inspired to use make-up in innovative ways and employ the technology as a practical tool.  

Ultimately, make-up via filters has become a new form of art, going some way to reduce the stigma associated with using them. “I love to celebrate individuality. There are so many different types of features, face shapes, skin types, and there isn’t one style of make-up that will work for everyone,” Rabanal says. He says filters inspire you “to try things and be curious and not be set in your ways. Limitless expression through filtered beauty can be well received online, if, at your core, you’re putting out authenticity.”

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