The State of Beauty: 2021 & Beyond

Beauty's reemergence and recovery in 2021 is marked by staggering shifts in consumer values, retail channels, top-performing categories, ingredient and claims preferences, and much, much more.
Beauty's reemergence and recovery in 2021 is marked by staggering shifts in consumer values, retail channels, top-performing categories, ingredient and claims preferences, and much, much more.

This report will be updated throughout the year as new market data comes to light. Previous reports in this series:

Imagine this: in early February 2020 more than 750 beauty industry professionals packed into CEW’s annual market trend briefing in New York City—Global Cosmetic Industry was there. Needless to say, this year’s big briefing was different.

The virtual event, held February 11, 2021, featured opening remarks from Jill Scalamandre, president of bareMinerals and Buxom and CEW chairwoman, and Miranda Gordon, vice president, marketing, Mane, as well as presentations from:

Here, we compile highlights of their remarks, as well as additional insights and market context gathered independently by Global Cosmetic Industry to provide a snapshot of where beauty is as of February 2021—and where it’s going next.

Part 1. 2020—What Happened?

2020 U.S. prestige beauty sales totaled $16.1 billion in 2020, per NPD, a 19% drop from 2019. In effect, the decline shaved away the last five years of incremental industry growth, leaving the industry at 2015 levels, according to Larissa Jensen, NPD’s beauty industry adviser. When digging into the details, however, there was much to be hopeful for.

Growth areas were generally boosted by consumers’ shift to self-care, small luxuries and digital shopping channels. Per NPD, U.S. prestige beauty e-commerce sales jumped 46% in 2020, reflecting unprecedented shifts in buyer behavior amid lockdowns and general pandemic fears. 

In the United Kingdom, 2020 prestige beauty sales dropped 24% to £2 billion, driven by a 44% decline in sales via the brick-and-mortar channel, per NPD. U.K. online sales spiked 47% year-over-year, comprising 44% of total prestige beauty sales for 2020.

Elsewhere, Canadian prestige beauty sales dropped 17%, while Mexico dropped 33%, Peru fell 36%, Chile fell 20%, Brazil fell 10% and Argentina actually gained 13% year-over-year. 

Market declines were universal in Western Europe, including Germany (down 16%), France (down 20%), Italy (down 23%), the United Kingdom (down 24%) and Spain (down 25%). 

China, on the other hand, grew 71% via e-commerce, per NPD. 

“As was the case for many other industries, prestige beauty faced several challenges in 2020 from temporary store closures to reduced demand,” said NPD’s Jensen. “Although we cannot deny the numbers, we also cannot overlook the fact that our industry is still holding its ground and, in some cases, flourishing.” 

Part 2. Fewer Launches, More Growth

Taylor of NielsenIQ noted that 6% fewer beauty products were launched in 2020, compared to 2019 (24,000 in total), yet this pared-down range of launches actually represented a growing share of dollar sales—13.5%, compared to 11.2% in 2019. Read on to view top launches per category. 

Part 3. New Retail Reality

Retail was upended in 2020, said Taylor, noting that while luxury retailers lost 18% in sales and prestige retailers experienced 5% sales drops, mass merchant beauty sales rose 1%. 

Mid-range brands gained market share in brick-and-mortar (up 0.8%) and online (up 1.7%), per NPD data. While prestige brands lost market share in both channels (down 1.4% in brick-and-mortar and down 2% online), mass managed modest market share gains across brick-and-mortar and online—0.6% and 0.3%, respectively. 

Notably, according to NPD’s Jensen, brick-and-mortar’s resurgence in the latter half of 2020 powered holiday sales, illustrating the channel’s enduring importance to beauty. 

E-commerce beauty sales grew by 200% year-over-year in 2020.

Among mass channels, only grocery managed growth in 2020, powered by consumer purchasing from essential retailers, according to NielsenIQ data. That said, the panic buying observed during the initial wave of COVID-19 infections did not recur during the more serious spikes in the autumn and winter of 2020. 

Mintel’s Jindal noted that the percentage of U.S. beauty consumers who reported being comfortable shopping online increased 38% in 2020. 

E-commerce beauty sales therefore grew by 200% year-over-year in 2020, per data presented by Google’s Matthews. Matthews added that consumers spent an additional two hours a day on digital platforms last year and boosted their online video viewership by 150%. These datapoints offer further evidence that digital platforms will remain critical for beauty brands moving forward. 

Beauty’s digitalization will impact the professional sector as well. Introducing Mintel’s 2021 beauty trends, Andrew McDougal noted, “The professional sector should be elevated further to offer an enhanced beauty experience through the use of trained and trusted professionals creating a true omni-channel strategy.”

Mintel’s Jindal explained in an interview with Global Cosmetic Industry that all tiers of the beauty industry will need to respond to the ways in which consumers are shifting how they shop and where they get their information. 

She highlighted the access/convenience race in the sector, as seen in the Coty-GoPuff partnership, which provides rapid delivery of select hero products from Covergirl, Rimmel and Sally Hansen. Elsewhere, Jindal explained, livestreamed e-commerce has provided not just a new sales channel but a means for consumers to get their questions answered regarding products—even without having access to testers. 

2020 dollar performance for prestige beauty sold outside department stores actually grew 1% for the year.

Select prestige sectors managed to generate $27 million in growth in 2020, including fragrances, potpourri, body spray, body exfoliators, hand soap and body serums. Online, makeup declined, particularly lip color, in addition to fragrance sets featuring ancillaries. 

NPD data shows that 2020 dollar performance for prestige beauty sold outside department stores actually grew 1% for the year, with $2 billion in sales volume falling outside traditional prestige channels. 

Non-traditional channels include Instagram brands like Jeffree Star Cosmetics, peer-to-peer like Mary Kay, subscription services such as Birchbox, and bath specialty retailers such as Bath & Body Works. Of all those channels, only bath specialty retailers grew in 2020, likely highlighting the desire for both hygiene and self-care. 

Meanwhile, direct retailers declined far less (just 4%) than the general market, pointing to an opportunity to serve customers disengaging from other channels. 

Elsewhere, NPD reported that online penetration doubled for all prestige beauty categories in 2020. Jensen explained that average prestige product prices online tend to be higher compared to brick-and-mortar, excepting fragrance, where online is significantly lower-priced. 

In 2019, 56% of weeks featured promotions.

Jensen also explained that discounting is happening to a higher percentage of prestige beauty products online, compared to brick-and-mortar, with fully 52% of makeup products sold on promotion in the digital channel. 

The acceleration of discounting has been astonishing. In 2019, 56% of weeks featured promotions. In 2020, 98% of the weeks featured promotions. 

But no matter the changes, one truth remains, even post-pandemic: brick-and-mortar is critical for beauty sales. 

Jensen noted, “While online sales penetration grew across all categories as brick-and-mortar drove declines, the latter still remains beauty’s largest sales channel and a key factor in its recovery. Leveraging the strength of each channel, recognizing the opportunities of the changed beauty consumer, and owning this transfor­mation are important action items for retailers, brands and manufacturers as we enter the recovery phase.” 

Mintel’s Sarah Jindal, meanwhile, provided an outlook for the future of retail. In-store, retailers and brands will need to provide a no-touch experience leveraging AI and AR tools. They will also expect to engage brands via social media to have their questions addressed. Furthermore, she said touchpoints will need to be personalized to meet the needs of individuals and offer a more emotional experiences using sensory cues such as sound. 

Part 4. Skin Care: Targeted Growth

2020 U.S. prestige skin care fell 11% year-over-year, per NPD. Its data also reported 162 new skin care brands entering the U.S. prestige market in 2020. Globally, the category posted growth in three markets: Argentina (up 36%), Brazil (up 4%) and China (up a staggering 85% year-over-year). 

Consumer behavior is at the heart of the segment’s relative resilience, according to NPD: more women are using skin care and are using it more often (frequency up 37% year-over-year), while the opposite is true for makeup (featuring a 27% drop in usage frequency). 

Clinical skin care drove growth across the prestige and mass categories. According to NPD’s Jensen, during the pandemic dermatologists became skin care influencers on Tik Tok, helping drive a 3% market share gain for clinical brands.

Meanwhile, NielsenIQ’s Taylor pointed out that clinical skin care’s ascent led to a 95% year-over-year sales spike for CeraVe, which benefited from its authentic, clinical positioning. 

Related: CeraVe Wins on Tik Tok

Market share gainers for prestige skin and body care in 2020 included body cleansers, hand soaps, body supplements, body oils, body creams and lotions, and facial exfoliators, per NPD data. In addition, per Google data, alcohol-free sanitizer searches have grown as the end of product shortages have led to more discerning consumer demands. 

Leading decliners for the category included face creams, face serums and eye treatments. Growth areas included face exfoliators, body creams/lotions, cleansers, body serums, devices and oils. Devices benefited from the closure or limitations at spas and clinics. This led to sales gains in tools for at-home dermabrasion (up 75%), microneedling (up 202%) and body sculpting (up 96%). 

The top prestige skin care brands of 2020 were, in descending order, Clinique, Estee Lauder, Lancome, Kiehl’s and La Mer. 

U.S. prestige skin care’s top 2020 launch (in dollar volume sales) was Estee Lauder’s Advanced Night Repair Synchronized Multi-Recovery Complex, per NPD. The complex also sold the most units in the U.S. prestige skin care category for the year and posted the fastest retail sell-through in the category. The product was a global hit as well, topping the prestige charts in Canada, Mexico and Peru. 

Globally, skin care represented the top prestige launches in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Italy, Peru and China. 

U.K. prestige skin care sales dropped 21% in 2020, per NPD, offset by a 51% rise in anti-acne serums sales value spurred by mask wearing. 

U.K. prestige hand soap sales rose 38%, year-over-year, while the body care (creams, lotions and sprays) market share increased more than 1%, driven by self-care and spa-at-home behaviors. 

Part 5. Makeup: Nails Dominate

U.S. prestige makeup sales were down 34% in 2020, per NPD’s data. The drop mirrored the decline in makeup purchase frequency, which fell 21% in 2020, while average spend per purchase declined almost 4%. 

Per NPD’s Jensen, other headwinds for the category include the “shecession,” a term coined by C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and defined as “an economic downturn where job and income losses are affecting women more than men.” (It should be noted that women of color are impacted by this issue more than their white counterparts.) 

Makeup will also be impacted by ongoing stay-at-home orders and the prospect of persistent elevated work-from-home rates.

While it was the largest percentage loser in the U.S. prestige sector, makeup remained the largest prestige beauty category based on dollar sales. NPD reported 37 new makeup brands in the U.S. prestige market in 2020. 

One highlight for the prestige category was China, which drove 38% year-over-year sales gains, per NPD.

In the mass category, sales in makeup declined, per NielsenIQ data. 

Exclusive report: Conscious Color Has Arrived

There were several prestige growth areas in this challenged sector, but certainly nails were the big story, particularly amid salon closures and health concerns. 

That said, face remained the largest segment in prestige makeup, though its sales also declined faster than others. The advent of mask wearing led to lip products posting the category’s “steepest declines,” per NPD. 

The top five prestige makeup brands in the U.S. market for 2020 were (in descending order): MAC, It Cosmetics, Clinique, Benefit and Lancome. Per data presented by Google’s Matthews, the top trending makeup brands in terms of search volume include Il Makiage, Ilia and Glamnetic, the latter reflecting the strength of the lash category. 

The top dollar volume sales leader for U.S. prestige makeup was the Too Faced Born This Way Natural Nudes Eye Shadow Palette. It was also the top online seller for the prestige makeup category. 

Prestige product categories that increased market share in 2020 included setting spray/powder, tinted moisturizer, bronzer and concealer, as well as eye makeup. Top online search volume trends within the makeup category, as illuminated by Spate’s Horwitz, included eyebrow slits, e-girl makeup, soap brows, aesthetic makeup, glossy lips, straight, eyebrows, emo eyeliner and smudged eyeliner. 

Nail was the only segment of makeup to grow in 2020 as consumers took a DIY approach to the category. Top online search volume trends within the nail category, per Spate data, include smiley face nails (up 977.8% year-over-year), butterfly nails (up 280.1%), cow nails (up 236.4%), evil eye nails (up 145.8%), anime nails (up 115.9%), cheetah print nails (up 106.5%), colored French tips (up 70.8%) and bandana nails (up 60.6%). 

Makeup represented the top prestige launch in only one country, Chile, led by the MAC Maker Lipstick. In the United Kingdom, per NPD, lip product sales dropped 50% due to work-from-home habits and mask wearing. 

Part 6. Fragrance: Surprising Resilience

Prestige fragrance unexpectedly performed incredibly well in 2020. Of the three U.S. prestige categories that decreased in 2020, fragrance dropped the least, just 8%, per NPD. In fact, the category had a year-over-year gain for the month of December, coinciding with holiday shopping. The organization reported 15 new fragrance brands entering the U.S. prestige market for the year. 

The top 10 fragrance launches in the U.S. prestige market were: Marc Jacobs Perfect, Acqua Di Gio Profondo, Armani My Way, Valentino Voce Viva, Coach Dreams, 1 Million Parfum from Paco Rabanne, Coco Mademoiselle L’Eau Privee, Good Girl Supreme, Polo Deep Blue and Coach Blue. 

The top five men’s parent brands in the U.S. prestige market were, in descending order, Sauvage, Bleu De Chanel, Acqua Di Gio Pour Homme, YSL Y Homme and Gucci Guilty Homme.

Globally, fragrance grew in two markets—Argentina (up 13% year-over-year) and China (up a whopping 51%).

No doubt, store closures hurt fragrance sales, but those impacts declined later in 2020. In fact, U.S. prestige fragrance returned to modest growth in August, spiked in October and sustained positivity through the remainder of the year, thereby somewhat offsetting the steep declines of the initial pandemic wave.

One of the key drivers of the U.S. prestige fragrance category? Scented candles, which gained market share based on a 17% sales gain in 2020. Candles also had a halo effect. Prestige fragrance sets featuring scented candles posted sales of $1.6 million in 2020, representing 62% year-over-year growth, per NPD.

This reflects the home-centric lives consumers have been living since the start of the pandemic. The at-home factor also boosted the overall home scents sector.

U.S. prestige parfum sales, meanwhile, grew in the double digits for 2020, highlighting demand for longer-lasting scents, despite their higher price tag. These price points certainly helped boost fragrance category dollar volumes.

Internationally, fragrance was represented by the top launches in the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Germany, Argentina and Brazil.

In the United Kingdom, per NPD, total prestige fragrance sales declined 17%, or 7% less than the general beauty market. Remarkably, 50% of the category’s losses came in the period April-June 2020.

As in the United States, once U.K. shops reopened fragrance rebounded. November even posted a 2% year-over-year gain, despite a second lockdown. And 57% of the category’s total sales came in the holiday shopping season of October-December (compared to 52% in 2019).

Part 7. Hair Care’s Self-care Moment

According to Google’s Matthews, 2020 proved that this is the moment to decommoditize hair care. Per NPD data, U.S. prestige hair care had a strong 2020, growing 7% year-over-year. Jensen explained that the category’s 2020 sales returned to positive territory in July and sustained healthy activity through the remainder of the year. 

Globally, top prestige growth markets for hair included the United States, Canada, France, Spain, Germany and China, the latter of which posted 122% year-over-year growth, per NPD.

U.S. growth was led by hair treatments (notably Olaplex's No. 0) and masks (notably Drybar's Blonde Ale Color-Enhancing Brightening Hair Mask). Overall, the hair mask and treatment categories comprised the sector’s market share gainers.

In addition, inclusivity—powered by the Black Lives Matter protest surge in 2020—had tangible market effects. As reported by NPD, Black-founded prestige hair brands captured 23% dollar share growth in 2020. Google’s Matthews concurred, noting that Black-owned brands overall were among the strongest gainers of search volume growth over the last year.

The top U.S. hair launch in 2020 was Living Proof’s Perfect Day Dry Shampoo. The top five prestige hair brands in 2020 were, in descending order, Olaplex (which jumped to spots to number one), Living Proof, Moroccanoil, Bumble and bumble., and Oribe, which jumped into the top five (up from number seven in 2019).

According to Google’s Flynn Matthews, top trending brands online in 2020 were Monat, Arctic Fox, Olaplex and Function of Beauty.

Per Spate data, top search volume growth leaders among hair trends include knotless braids, curtain bangs (up 650.6% year-over-year), hair streaks, bronde (brown/blonde blend), dyed bangs, bubble braids, e-girl hair (correlating with rise of e-girl makeup) and the unicorn haircut.

Part 8. Beauty’s Growth Drivers

A range of ingredients, claims and categories have been trending for consumers amid the pandemic, reflecting not only short-term concerns such as hygiene, but also longer-term commitments to anti-cruelty and sustainability.

Home-centric lifestyles, concerns over health and convenience demands also drove demand.

To illustrate, NielsenIQ’s Taylor reported that categories such as pet grooming (up 27% since the pandemic), supplements (up 17%), and a wide range of personalization concepts at a wide range of pricepoints (including YSL Rouge Sur Mesure Powered by Perso and Function of Beauty x Target) show just how widespread pandemic impacts have been.

Sustainable Beauty

According to NPD data, sustainable brands gained 1.5 points of dollar share growth in 2020. Mintel’s Jindal noted that 64% of U.S. beauty consumers would like to see more innovative sustainability ideas from bigger brands. These initiatives will require brands to be transparent regarding their sustainability goals and to deliver safety and ethics along with clean claims. 

Transparency is critical, particularly in the age of benchmarking apps such as MyLabel, which rates brands/products on health, environment and social responsibility. One example of creative people-focused initiatives was First Aid Beauty’s Fab Aid program, which paid off $1.3 million in student debt. 

Further reading: The Clean & Sustainable Beauty Agenda, 2021

Jindal added that sustainability could help luxury brands forge emotional connections with consumers through storytelling. 

Mintel’s McDougal concluded, “The next evolution of ‘clean’ will be created by marrying ethics with safety to cater to the conscious and careful beauty consumer focused on avoiding undue risk inside and outside the box. As consumers move into and out of big cities and small towns, the products and services they have access to will shift along with their priorities. In order to encourage repeat purchase, brands should invest in more diverse touch points that ensure optimal product discovery."


CBD beauty produced $8.8 million in U.S. sales in 2020, a nearly 21% year-over-year gain, per NielsenIQ’s Taylor. Top categories included hand and body care (78%), bath and shower (15%), and facial skin care (5%). 


U.S. vegan-certified beauty sales grew 40.7% in 2020, per NielsenIQ data. Hair care led market share (39%), followed by bath and shower (23%), and cosmetics and nail grooming (13%). Top performers included Dr. Bronner's, which posted a 52% year-over-year gain in 2020, and Sally Hansen's Good. Kind. Pure. plant-based nail polish, which posted 2020 sales of $19.2 million. 

Meanwhile, vegan brands gained 1.8 points of U.S. prestige beauty market share in 2020, per NPD. 


Cruelty-free beauty grew 74.6% in the United States in 2020, per NielsenIQ data. The sector was dominated by bath and shower (35% of market share), hair care, and cosmetics and nail grooming (10%). Dove expanded 34% during the year, while Bodycology proved to be a leading upstart brand, posting $7.1 million in sales. In U.S. prestige beauty, cruelty-free brands gained 3.8 points of market share in 2020, per NPD.

This category will also benefit from China's regulatory reforms around animal testing protocols (read on for details).


The U.S. organic beauty sector in 2020 was dominated by hair care (43%) and bath and shower (34%), driven by top brands such as Shea Moisture (2020 sales: $230 million) and fast-growing upstarts such as ME Bath (2020 sales: $4.4 million). 

Data: Organic Cosmetics

Beauty-Mind Interface 

Mintel’s Jindal highlighted the growing overlap between beauty and wellness, noting that 38% of U.S. women between the ages of 25 and 34 use beauty products to help reduce anxiety and stress. 

Related: Is Beauty Essential?

To harness the opportunity and provide consumers with relevant solutions, brands will need to:

  • assure shoppers on their safety using clear guidelines, provide a sense of greater normalcy (highlighting routines);
  • leverage technology that can generate quantifiable results and data—tracking metrics such as heart rate, sleep quality, diet, exercise habits, etc., and generating insights/recommendations/strategies to make consumers healthier via tools such as AI and wearables;
  • and back up wellness claims with recognized experts. 

Men’s Care

Premium men’s products grew 4.8% in 2020, per NielsenIQ, led by bath and shower (35% of market share), deodorant (28%), and hair care (27%). Raw Sugar was a top performer, driving $5.8 million in sales in 2020. 


Per Mintel data, 70% of U.S. consumers agree it’s worth paying more for products of higher quality, highlighting shoppers’ multifaceted view of “value.”

To illustrate, she explained that consumers are trading up and trading down, for instance saving money on cleansers while splurging on a shampoo they really love.

Echoing general market trends, value can be boosted by delivering benefits that are communicated clearly; providing at-home solutions, including those that can prolong benefits of professional services; adjusting pack sizes; and offering try-before-you-buy options.

Direct-to-consumer brands will have an edge on reducing customer acquisition costs and raising lifetime value via strong consumer-brand relationships. Jindal added that consumers are likely to remain loyal to brands that have adapted to the new market realities and which fit their routines.

Examples of value-boosting collaborations in the market include:

  • Glow-It-Yourself Kit from Zyu, featuring an at-home facial experience
  • Ikea x Ben Gorham’s Osynlig Collection of Candles, tapping into home-centric lifestyles with an affordable lux experience
  • Zara Emotions Collection by Jo Loves at Zara, which delivers an elevated experience via the fast fashion channel (featuring fragrances, candles, shampoo, body products and sets)

On-trend Ingredients

Google’s Matthews noted that niacinamide search volume has expanded 14% since the start of the pandemic. In addition, Matthews said, ingredients generally associated with wellness have been migrating into skin care and then, eventually, filtering hair care. 

Part 9. China’s Beauty Ascendancy

China was the only market to post prestige beauty market growth in 2020, totaling 71% (via e-commerce as tracked by NPD). 

Relatively strong control over viral spread in China allowed the country to outperform its peers in terms of growth. NPD’s Jensen explained that sales in China benefited from the sales holidays of 6/18 and 11/11, producing spikes of 94% and 75% year-over-year, respectively. 

61% of beauty shoppers intend to purchase beauty products in the next month, per NPD data.

She added that this portends accelerated beauty spending ahead, particularly given consumers’ reduced spending shopping on gym memberships, events, travel and other experiential costs.

Growth could be fueled by new partnerships in retail, she added. For instance, Sephora and Ulta will benefit from larger footprints via their partnerships with Kohl's and Target, respectively, as well as greater buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) expertise.

Further reading: Target x Ulta Beauty Com

As Global Cosmetic Industry previously reported, 2020’s 11.11 festival offered two shopping windows: an initial sales window from November 1-3, 2020, and a second window on November 11, 2020. Just 40 minutes into the start of the November 1 sales, beauty products generated more than ¥10 billion in gross merchandise value (GMV), or about $1.5 billion, and within the first hour, exceeded 150% year-over-year sales growth.

On November 11 itself, Alibaba racked up a record $74.1 billion in sales.

Part 10. What’s Next for Beauty?

Jensen concluded her talk by noting that 61% of beauty shoppers intend to purchase beauty products in the next month, per NPD data. She added that this portends accelerated beauty spending ahead, particularly given consumers’ reduced spending shopping on gym memberships, events, travel and other experiential costs.

Growth could be fueled by new partnerships in retail, she added. For instance, Sephora and Ulta will benefit from larger footprints via their partnerships with Kohl's and Target, respectively, as well as greater buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) expertise.

Further reading: Target x Ulta Beauty Coming in 2021

Deep dive: Inside the Sephora at Kohl's Omnichannel Partnership

Jensen noted that the retail partnerships’ strategies are quite different. While Ulta's deal with Target will expand the beauty retailer's reach with its existing consumer base, Kohl's provides greater access to new customers for Sephora, particularly among shoppers age 55-plus.

Meanwhile, brands will need to contend with lifestyle impacts of the pandemic. Indeed, health and economic concerns will persist for some time. An exodus from urban centers and online penetration of various categories will further reshape market needs. In addition, all beauty players will need to keep an eye on the rate of return to spending on travel and experiences.

Looking ahead 24 or 36 months no longer makes sense for many amid rapid change and near-term concerns.

Most importantly, perhaps, Jensen noted that the U.S. over-indexes for vaccine hesitancy, which could elongate the timeline for recovery.

Jindal recently told Global Cosmetic Industry that she is keeping an eye on the industry’s reemergence and recovery. She added that industry forecasts have shortened based on the speed of change in the industry—looking ahead 24 or 36 months no longer makes sense for many amid rapid change and near-term concerns.

Whatever the future brings, nimbleness will mark the path forward.

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