While suncare sales may look far from sun-kissed, the beauty category is enjoying steady growth thanks to promotions and the rise of free-from products, reports Virginia Matthews

If ever there was a category that should benefit from the lipstick effect, it's the beauty & suncare category.

And while it's not that noticeable in the overall category sales figures Kantar data shows 1.4% value growth with volume sales up 1.5% some sub-categories definitely have.Body moisturisers leapt 5.8% in value and 6.8% in volume, while general facial moisturisers delivered a 1.6% value and 7.4% volume increase [Kantar].

Some little luxuries are just the ticket in such straitened times, it seems. Others, however, are clearly not. Suncare sales slumped 0.9% in value and 6.2% in volume, while facial cleaners were down 2.8% and 3.3% respectively. So why the marked disparity in fortunes?

As in so many categories, heavy promotional activity has played its part, particularly in maintaining growth in the biggest and most competitive sub-category: facial moisturisers. But lower prices aren't the be all and end all.

More expensive prestige brands, such as Estée Lauder and Clinique, saw 3% growth last year outperforming the mass market. Conversely, anti-ageing products were bought in smaller quantitites in 2010 despite their lower price tags [Kantar].

So if not rock bottom prices, what is persuading consumers to part with their cash? The under-performance of facial cleansers and toners suggests that consumers are increasingly turning to added value products that offer multiple rather than single beauty benefits, such as wipes that both cleanse and tone. Body moisturisers, meanwhile, continue to capitalise on surging interest as a result of compelling NPD, greater choice and a range of price points.

The big noise, however has surrounded products that boast 'down to earth' values and, according to Mintel, "address the practicalities of making and marketing green beauty".

Encompassing the rapidly growing paraben-free category (13% of beauty products launched in 2010 carried paraben-free claims, up 5% from 2008), such products have driven category growth over the past year and will continue to do so, says Mintel.

"Paraben-free claims actually outpaced organic and all-natural claims in new skincare, hair care and cosmetics launches in 2010, backing up Mintel's 'au naturel' trend that predicted that brands would emphasise results and free-from claims over certification," says Nica Lewis, head consultant at Mintel Beauty Innovation.

Lewis believes that 2011 will see beauty manufacturers and retailers place increased importance on the environment and focus on sustainable sourcing with particular attention to maintaining biodiversity.

Nivea has already set out its stall with the launch of its new paraben-free Pure and Natural range of face, body and handcare products. The appetite for less chemically reliant beauty items of this ilk will drive growth this year, agrees Nivea marketing director Nicolo Pomo.

"Our homework tells us that there is growing demand for convenience, economy and now natural among average buyers, not just organic warriors."

It's not the only one playing the natural card. Earlier this month, Sainsbury's became the first of the big four supermarkets to sign up all of its own brand cosmetics and toiletries to the Leaping Bunny trademark, which certifies that ingredients used in its products have not been tested on animals. The retailer said that the move was influenced by customer concerns surrounding animal welfare.

Such considerations are likely to play a large part in influencing future NPD in ailing sub-categories, such as facial cleansers, and anti-ageing products, which are also in value and volume decline [Kantar].

Another category in desperate need of a kickstart through exciting new product development is suncare. Sales have slumped 0.9% in value and 6.2% in volume over the past year, despite the fact that there were more sunny days and less rain in 2010 than there were in 2009. A fall in the number of people taking overseas holidays last summer and the volcanic eruption in Iceland certainly didn't help.

Sun protection sales would seem to offer a ray of hope, up as they were 2.6% in value. However, volumes were down 2.8% and the value rise was largely attributable to price rises [Kantar]. Elsewhere, the picture was bleaker still, the aftersun sector performing particularly poorly after losing nearly 10% of its shoppers [Kantar].

But the category-wide sales slump hasn't deterred companies from launching new products. Tesco has just launched Soleil Suncare, a comprehensive own label sun range, with a clear target audience in mind people who want higher factor creams at affordable prices.

"Sales of factor eight and higher suncreams now account for double those of products with a factor below eight," says suncare products specialist Eileen Ruby. "Sales of factor 15 and over, which used to account for 40% of sales, now make up almost 70%."

The retailer already sells double the amount of high-factor children's suncream products it was selling a year ago, with many parents "choosing to use their children's cream because they think it may protect them better," notes Ruby.

Tesco has a lot of ground to make up in suncare with Asda and Boots leading the way in terms of own-label lines. The latter's Soltan range now accounts for one-fifth of all sun protection in the UK [Kantar]. Soltan aside, own-label suncare brands have struggled over the past year with value sales down 1.1%, but not as much as the own-label skincare and suncare category as whole, down 2.7% [Kantar].

Yet the category still offers a huge opportunity for growth for the multiples if they can persuade more consumers that skincare is not something better bought from a specialist. Despite continuing to undertrade in the category, some already believe they're winning the battle.

"Skin and suncare is a vital part of our beauty offer," claims Rhian Bartlett, category manager for beauty and baby at Sainsbury's. "For many customers, it acts as a beacon for the rest of the range, including cosmetics." Whether au naturel products can do the same for the category as a whole remains to be seen.

Focus On Beauty & Suncare