From Jolly Rancher nail polish to Burger King perfume, fast food cosmetics have been around for decades, but today they reveal our true hunger for simpler times—and the comfort of a cheap sugar high.
Image by Callie Beusman
In the past few weeks, KFC Hong Kong announced the launch of edible nail polish, in both Original and Hot & Spicy "flavors," and Glossier and MAC turned to ice cream for their newest inspirations (though only the former allows you to turn your face paint into a sweet snack). It may seem counterintuitive for fast food companies to seek out beauty-related promotions, or for beauty companies to source inspiration from "bad" foods—after all, anyone who's ever had bad skin can tell you that one of the first things you learn in cursory internet research is that foods high in sugar and fat lead to breakouts.
Yet despite the ubiquity and tenacity of various health food movements, overall fast food sales are rising, and crossovers between junk food and the beauty world have been going on for decades. This grub clearly has a place in many peoples' hearts (and stomachs).
Read more: The History of Black Lipstick
The push-and-pull between instant-craving satisfactions and the recognized long-term effects of fast food is a dilemma with real stakes, yet fast food also has potent appeal outside of its nutritional content. For many people, a dinner at Taco Bell has both nostalgic and contemporary connotations: of rushed drive-through family meals, the late-night munchies, the thing you get both when you can't afford anything else and when you just don't want anything else. While fast food companies like McDonald's have tried to rebrand themselves in the same "good for you" buzzwords as their healthy competitors, they're still primarily known purveyors of the "so bad it's good" stuff.
The obvious junk/fast food beauty crossover is in lip products, and true to that instinct, many major brands have dipped into the lip balm market: Krispy Kreme, Dunkin' Donuts (which also makes seasonal candles and lotions), Wendy's, Mountain Dew, Cheetos, and In-N-Out are among those boasting lip products. When it comes to cornering the lip market, however, nobody can beat candy purveyors. Hershey's has lip balms for Reese's peanut butter cups, Twizzlers, more than one flavor of Jolly Rancher, and of course, regular milk chocolate.
The appeal of a lipstick that's basically chocolate seems pretty limited, unless you just want to eat it.
The candy cosmetic game was upped when things got less obvious. Scented nail polishes have been around since the 1800s, when women would tint their nails with scented oils before getting them buffed and polished, but in the 2000s they made a comeback. A company called Lotta Luv, which was founded in 2001, lists several large candy and cola brands (not to mention Disney and NASCAR) as licensing partners. Lotta Luv's Candy Color scented nail polish line boasts Nerds (Wonka/Nestlé) flavors alongside Baby Bottle Pop (Topps).
Following the Baby Bottle Pop trail leads to this "make your own nail polish" kit from 2003. From there, non-food brands like Revlon (their Parfumerie collection) and Anna Sui started to get in on the trend. Then came Bubble Yum, Wonka's Laffy Taffy, and Jolly Rancher offerings.
Then, of course, there are the classics. While scented nail polishes are still pretty niche, Lip Smackers are low-key iconic within the teen-girl and former-teen-girl set. Though those of us who grew up in the 90s and early 00s fondly recall the brand's glittery packaging and balms, Lip Smacker was actually founded in 1973. It launched with generic flavors, but two years later, the company partnered with Dr. Pepper to create the world's first iconic lip balm. Further brand partnerships paused until 2004, when the company went back to its roots, sort, to introduce Skittles and Starburst flavors. Coca-Cola brands like Coke and Sprite followed two years later. Though news that Lip Smacker effectively curtailed its US distribution had some nostalgic beauty hoarders in a panic, the brand is still up and running (and quite social). And while they aren't official brand partners anymore, you can still stock up on Girl Scout Cookies Lip Smackers on Amazon. As with chokers or spaghetti strap tank dresses, the women of the world have definitely welcomed the return of Lip Smackers, but that has more to do with the brand itself and less with, say, Vanilla Coke lip gloss.
While there are branded lip balms aplenty, lipsticks are still generally untouched by these kinds of licensing partnerships. But there's one notable exception: UK company Cadbury's Crispello lipstick, which was announced in the summer of 2014. Marketed as the first-ever edible lipstick, the Crispello flavor is basically chocolate packaged as makeup. Even if you didn't know that the Crispello chocolate bar itself was marketed towards women specifically, the appeal of a lipstick that's basically chocolate seems pretty limited, unless you just want to eat it. Alas, we'll never know if and how one would use a fully edible lipstick, as it appears the product never hit stores.
For many people, a dinner at Taco Bell has both nostalgic and contemporary connotations.
But suppose you just want to be surrounded by the aromas of your favorite mass-marketed artery cloggers—you don't necessarily want to slather them on your face. There's a plethora of fast food candles out there, like this KFC scent, which was not affiliated with KFC but nevertheless sold out within one minute. White Castle actually sells a candle (based on its signature sliders) itself. The product wasn't some stoned marketing person's joke; it was originally created in 2010 as a promotional and fundraising item for Autism Speaks, and 100 percent of the net proceeds from candle sales still goes there. Though originally intended as a limited item, White Castle has continued to release the candles annually, and they're available year-round online. Outside of its charity connotation, the White Castle candle is one of those things that's perhaps better displayed than actually used, as the candle's scent is actually meant to invoke the entire slider, beef, onions, and all. (Dunkin' Donuts' coffee candles are a little more appealing.)
When Burger King Japan announced its Flame-Grilled Fragrance in March 2015, people were either shocked or convinced that it was a hoax. Launched for a single day on April 1, however, the perfume does exist—it cost about $42, Whopper included—and it followed in the footsteps of a long line of "joke" fast food perfumes that were actually (and usually terribly) real. Ads for Burger King's Flame men's body spray in 2008 featured Piers Morgan; other real-fake perfumes include Cheetos's "Cheeteau," which dropped in 2014 as a limited promotion, and Pizza Hut perfume, which started as a joke on Pizza Hut Canada's Facebook page but then actually saw a limited release in the country in 2012. Reportedly, only 110 bottles were given away in the first round, but it dropped in the US a year after, as part of another limited Valentine's Day promotion wherein 72 bottles were released. As the consumer responses were so enthusiastic (though that wouldn't seem to apply to the chain's sales), Pizza Hut perfume is one of the toughest fast food beauty products to track down. (It reportedly just smells like cinnamon rolls.) It figures that Pizza Hut would be on the cutting edge of fast food cosmetics, as its website was the place of the first ever online purchase in 1994.
Though a surprising number of junk food companies have tried their hands at cosmetic tie-ins, there are a few big names missing from this roundup. The closest thing to Domino's lip gloss is Lotta Luv's generic pepperoni pizza lip balm. As for McDonald's? While "Eau de Fries" appears to be a mock-up for a McDonald's campaign, the brand's actually tried a different sort of beauty promotion before: Back in 1978, the company gave out Gillette razors along with their still-new breakfast meals.
Even then, it was clear that fast food companies weren't just selling food; they were selling the kind of lifestyle that gave consumers time and money, delivered in intensely satisfying ways. The broader category of junk food acknowledges its inherent vices, but that hasn't stopped people from consuming candy and soda. Perhaps that's the secret sauce behind these food beauty promotions—they allow consumers a taste or whiff of something that's bad for them while manufacturing even more desire for the real thing.
Snackwave, the Internet movement that peaked a couple of years ago, fetishized and exalted burgers, fries, burritos, and especially pizza. It was an obsession that metastasized out of pop culture's pseudo-ironic junk food fixation, particularly as it applied to women, and particularly to women's fashion and female celebrities. As such, junk food beauty is only a slight pivot from snackwave's original intentions—though these products are generally strategic media plays by the corporations fueling snackwave itself.
Yet it's so easy to wholeheartedly understand and embrace the appeal, kitsch or otherwise. We know that what we're getting from Skittles-flavored lip balm or burger-scented perfume is a way to wear our true hunger—for simpler times, fewer health worries, and the surety of a cheap, fast salt and sugar high—on the surface. After all, taste and smell are intimately linked, and if you can't or won't drown your feelings in pizza, you can at least smell like Pizza Hut.