November 30, 2023

NEW YORK, United States — If suddenly failing eyesight can be considered on-trend (readers are the new it-accessory, have you noticed?), I’m super-chic lately. I’ve accumulated a small mountain of reading glasses (tortoiseshell, matte grey, etc.), which I have become attached to for many reasons, not least because they make it so I can read things, like what I am typing right now, for example. I only wish I could wear them in the shower — I think about this — so I could also read the very small print on the labels and ingredient lists of the products I use daily, to figure out what is — and is not — inside.

That’s where we are in beauty right now. What’s in our products? How were they made? Who do we trust? What can we believe? What’s marketing, and what’s legit? What is the law? (Spoiler alert: there basically is no law.) Most importantly, what are the implications for our health? And what does this mean for the beauty business at large?

The safe/wholesome/healthy beauty movement started with the liberal use of the word “organic,” a term that sounded great but was never a very good fit for personal care since it is first and foremost a food certification. (It is also exceedingly difficult for beauty products to be 100 percent certified organic, since almost anything that contains water is precluded.)

Organic as a category descriptor soon gave way to another spate of earthy, marketable, self-styled labels: “green”, “botanical”, “natural”, “eco”, “pure.” They conveyed grounded, ethical, farm-to-dressing table values. They paint a nice picture and inspire confidence, but what they actually mean is not always clear. As the category continued to evolve, “natural” came out ahead as the broad label that identified the space.

But “natural” is problematic for its own reasons, most notably that there are no official regulations ensuring a product is actually natural, and even if something is formulated with (some, or mostly) natural ingredients, there is the question of what else is in there? (A product could contain one-zillionth-percent of a botanical extract — along with a host of who-knows-what-else — and thus present itself as “botanical.” Think of fruit juice that contains 5 percent actual fruit.) What’s more, just because an ingredient is indeed 100 percent “natural” does not necessarily make it safe (see: lead, mercury). And finally, not all synthetic ingredients are unsafe.

Which brings us to “clean.” “Clean” is the new “natural.” It’s not a regulated classification; there is no official certification. It means slightly different things to different people, but the essential criteria are understood: “Clean means it does not contain ingredients that have been demonstrably linked to harmful health effects,” says Blair Lawson, head merchant at Goop.

That seems simple enough.

Gregg Renfrew, founder and chief executive of Beautycounter, adopted the term back in 2011 when she launched her beauty range and e-commerce site. “We are focused on safety versus source, and safe ingredients can be natural or man-made,” she says. Renfrew wanted to poise her brand for commercial — as opposed to niche — success, positioning it with a straightforward message aimed not just at “tree huggers,” but, “a mainstream person who wanted high-performance products safe for their health.”

Today, the “clean” banner is carried by a small (for now) but vocal group of individual brands, dedicated retailers, platforms and activists that have taken it upon themselves to define and uphold the strict guidelines around clean products, from personal care and cosmetics to household cleaning items. They have taken it upon themselves because the beauty industry in the United States is virtually unregulated. In Europe, 1,500 substances are banned from personal care products. In the United States, that number is 30.

There is a push by the customer for brands to be clearer and to help them navigate the ingredient list.

“The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, which is one-and-a-half-pages long and has not been updated since 1938, allows you to put anything you want in a formulation,” says Renfrew. “Consumers assume the FDA has the power to protect them, which it doesn’t, and that cosmetic products are labelled in the same way as food products, which is not the case. The FDA doesn’t have the power to recall products. They do research and they can suggest; they cannot enforce.”

Clean-focused brands and retailers like Goop, Follain, Beautycounter and Credo blend commerce with content, providing education on ingredients and health concerns, and publishing lists detailing the substances and chemicals one will never find in the products they make and sell. Top offenders include hormone and endocrine disruptors (parabens, phthalates, chemical sunscreens like avobenzone and oxybenzone), suspected and known carcinogens (certain preservatives, formaldehyde releasers), and “fragrance,” the most opaque “ingredient” of all, since it is basically a blanket term under which companies can hide any other ingredients they wish, without ever disclosing what they are (in the US this is perfectly legal).

Consumers are all ears. They’ve noticed. They care. They are demonstrating with their purchase power. Goop, which kicked off its e-commerce platform with fashion, started selling beauty — clean beauty, specifically — two years ago. “Now, it’s 35 to 40 percent of our business each month,” says Lawson.

Renfrew describes her company’s growth as “explosive since the day we launched. We’ve been growing about 200 percent each year.” Market sources estimate that the line will hit $225 million in retail revenue in 2017.

Beautycounter entered the market with 11 products six years ago, and now offers close to 130. Their latest introduction, Countermatch, a moisturiser based on bio-mimicry, sold out of 25,000 units in 12 hours when it dropped earlier this month. “We can sell a lot of product quickly,” says Renfrew. Of the category at large, she says, “We know for a fact that our segment is outperforming traditional brands. And it’s not slowing down at all.”

As Tara Foley, founder and chief executive of Follain, the clean beauty retailer backed by venture-builder Launch, points out, “The global beauty industry [mass and prestige] is growing at around 3.8 percent, but the natural segment is growing faster, at about 10 percent.” According to The NPD Group, natural brands across all categories are the swiftest-growing brand type within prestige, with skincare and makeup sales within the “spa/natural/wellness” segment accounting for $2.3 billion — up 11 percent — in the 12 months ending May 2017. Larissa Jensen, NPD’s beauty industry analyst, reports that in skincare, they represent a quarter of all sales; within makeup (a smaller shared category), 11 percent of all sales, and within fragrance, where natural brands represent a still-tiny segment, they make up less than 1 percent of sales, but are growing by 20 percent. They’re the fastest growing and only brand type within fragrance to gain double digits, she notes.

“The interest is there,” says Jensen. “Natural is not regulated, so any brand can have ‘natural’ positioning, but consumers are reacting to that natural positioning. It’s something they’re seeking out. We’re at a crossroads. The industry is very much in a flux of change.”

Thus far, the indies are the ones doing most of the work and reaping the rewards.

It’s slightly ironic: the “curation, “edit” and unique “experience” so many beleaguered department stores and brands are madly trying to offer once-loyal customers who have gone adrift in recent years is exactly what beauty’s troop of toxic avengers has been doing all along.

You’re going to see a lot more proof of performance, and thus conversion to these products.

From brick-and-mortar to online-only, retailers like DetoxMarket, Shen, Beautycounter, Follain, Credo and Goop actually are offering an authentic, specialised, hyper-edited selection. They’re scrutinising each product on their clients’ behalf, and earning their trust along the way. They’re engaging their customer in meaningful conversation and acting as a resource for information, and discovery.

“We screen every product to make sure it doesn’t include any ingredients that may be toxic for your body,” says Lawson. “We also screen for performance, experience, luxury. We’re making sure it’s a great product you’d want to use every day.”

“We feel we have a heavy weight on our shoulders,” admits Foley, who has a background in public policy, and worked for a contractor to learn about formulation, and then on a lavender farm to learn about sourcing before opening Follain in 2013. “When women try something that claims to be clean, and it doesn’t work for them, they say, ‘clean products don’t work.’ We test to see if it does what it claims to do, and if it fits in our portfolio — what we feel is the best of the best for each skin type and concern.”

Isn’t that how we all want to shop — without a magnifying glass and a chemistry dictionary? And with a friend who has good taste and cares about us? But, for real. Retail gold!

For Frédéric Benqué, General Partner at Nextworld, a San Francisco-based evergreen private equity fund that focuses exclusively on the natural space — food, retail, renewable energy, beauty — “natural” and “clean” are obvious entry points into the market because, as he says quite matter-of-factly, that’s where the market is going. “Customers are demanding it. They made it clear in the food segment. They’re making it clear in the beauty segment,” he says. “There is a push by the customer for brands to be clearer and to help them navigate the ingredient list.”

Three years ago, Benqué was searching for a small, multi-brand retail beauty chain to buy in order to convert it to clean, but after a year of looking, “We couldn’t find anything. We couldn’t do a deal. So we said, ok, we better create it.” And thus forth sprang Credo, founded in collaboration with the late beauty executive and entrepreneur Shashi Batra.

“Our thesis was twofold,” says Benqué. “There was one aspect linked to clean products, the other linked to shifting trends in retail — department stores losing market share and being less relevant to the customer, and this gap opening for local retail.”

Credo’s plans to dominate the category and spread the clean beauty message, neighborhood by neighborhood, are ambitious. In addition to an e-tail presence, it now has stores in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, with plans to open several more locations in the next year.

“The companies that are gaining trust are emerging indie brands, created directly around the clean, natural trend,” continues Benqué. The established legacy behemoths, he says, “are very good at doing massive marketing and massive channel push, but when it comes to clean products, they are not trusted to do that. They need to regain that trust somehow.”

Why doesn’t everyone make the switch?

1. Natural beauty, of which “clean” is an unwitting offshoot, still gets a bad rap.

To be clean, non-toxic or (truly) natural does not mean I-made-it-in-my-backyard; it-sort-of-works; there-is-a-two-week-window-before-it-will-explode-or-turn-yellow-which-starts-now.

Clean products can be — and the best are — stable, high-tech and high-performance. “It’s a bit of a misconception — a lot of the most effective ingredients, like vitamins, are natural,” says Lawson. Goop by Juice Beauty’s Exfoliating Instant Facial, for example, “is just AHAs, lactic acid and salicylic acid.”

In conventional products, it’s often the ancillary ingredients — preservatives, thickeners, fragrance — not the active ingredients that are the “problematic ones.” Take BHT, a preservative that has been linked to cancer, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “That’s so a product can live on a shelf for eight years,” says Lawson. “Is that really necessary? I’m ok with two. I’m even ok with one. If you haven’t used it in a year, maybe you should Marie Condo it. There are plenty of food-grade preservatives you can use that will still keep microbes from growing.”

2. It’s hard.

It’s not easy being clean. Ask Gwyneth Paltrow, who put Lawson and her chemists through more than 10 iterations of Goop’s night cream before settling on a winner that felt as luxe as her favourite conventional product. “We wanted to create a super-rich, almost cold-cream-thick cream without certain thickeners in the toxic camp,” says Lawson. “It’s hard to create that feel and have it be absorbent and not waxy. There are challenges, but it can be done.”

“Certain things are just harder,” she continues. “Sunscreen is a perfect example. It’s really difficult to make a mineral sunscreen that’s not white and sticky. You’ll never get a clear, beautiful gel or spray that’s easy to apply.”

Beautycounter found a way to make almost everything — including a sheer blackberry lipstick and matching gloss that I was (happily) surprised to find are as good as pretty much everything else I have always used. Renfrew feels they haven’t cracked the code yet on deodorant or nail polish, though. “There are lots of things we have to be comfortable saying, ‘We don’t know how to make it yet,’” she says. “Our promise to the consumer was always to create the safest products we could with the information that was available. It’s progress, not perfection.”

3. It’s expensive.

“It’s margins,” says Foley. “Products are much, much cheaper with the bad ingredients. It’s a pure business decision.”

Also, consider for a moment what it would take for an established brand to attempt to reformulate (and then re-label) basically everything they make. Ouch.

4. Making a change can (initially) be very bad PR.

Recall what happened in 2014 when Johnson & Johnson released an “improved formula” for its iconic Baby Shampoo. “The No More Tears Shampoo, Now with No Formaldehyde,” blared The New York Times. Lawson, who calls the episode “a bit of a communication issue,” says, “it begged the question, ‘How could you have lived with yourselves selling that for so long?’ and ‘What else is in your products?’”

True, true, but personally, I’d respect, admire, trust and patronise a company that acknowledged outdated practices, explained what they had learned and what positive action they were taking as a result. That’s called transparency. That’s also called good PR!

So, moving forward, how will the market change?

 – Clean brands will continue to proliferate, taking market share with them.

“We see these little brands nipping away. Ankle biters is what we call them,” says NPD’s Jensen. Tata Harper and Fleur are among those on her radar. As is Bite Beauty, “which markets its products as safe enough to eat, which is great —it’s lipstick.”

“We’re just now starting to develop the technology to use natural ingredients in really interesting ways, so as these brands grow, they will have more money to formulate like the conventional brands do,” says Foley. “True Botanicals has done a great job with their formulations, to the extent that they started running clinical trials, with unbelievable results. You’re going to see a lot more proof of performance, and thus conversion to these products.”

 – Updated guidelines will become de rigeur.

It’s already happening. This past January, Target, whose stores are visited by 30 million customers each week, announced a new “chemical strategy” and plan to promote full ingredient transparency by 2020, banning phthalates, formaldehyde and a host of parabens from all beauty, baby, personal care and household cleaning products.

In April, CVS, which operates nearly 10,000 pharmacies throughout the United States, announced that beginning in 2019, it will remove all “chemicals of concern” — again: parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde donors — from its in-house personal care and baby lines, which amounts to about 600 individual products.

“This is going to incentivise other companies, the brands that sell at Target and CVS, to find alternative ingredients to the ones they’re banning,” says Jensen. “They will have to react to this. The implication will be far-reaching.”

In 2013, Procter & Gamble removed Triclosan — an antibacterial agent — and phthalates from its own products, a move Scott Heid, PhD, a toxicologist and the company’s associate director of communications, calls “a no brainer for us.” They created a “preservative tracker” on their corporate website to help consumers navigate what is in their products and why. “We are very transparent about our point of view on preservative families people have questions about,” says Heid. “Safe for us is non-negotiable. When we’ve gotten out of stuff across the company, it’s because we’ve found alternatives that go above and beyond.”

 – New legislation will be put in place.

“There’s been a lot of momentum in the last year,” says Foley. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand are taking steps to ban outright the use of 1,4-dioxane, a chemical byproduct (and formaldehyde releaser) commonly found in PEGs, a class of widely used polymers designed to emulsify and enhance the penetration of ingredients. The FDA has said that in very low levels in cosmetics 1,4-dioxane is safe; the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies it as “possibly carcinogenic.”

In May, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Susan Collins introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act, an amendment to the antiquated Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, which provides guidelines for ensuring the safety of cosmetics.

“The root of the issue is our lack of regulation,” says Renfrew. “It’s not enough for us to create safer products. There are so many challenges in our industry, working in an unregulated market with an unregulated supply chain. We need to update the federal laws.”

Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Estée Lauder, L’Oréal, Unilever and Revlon have all come out in support of the proposed legislation.

 – The establishment will adjust.

“As more of the established brands lose business to cleaner options, they will address it,” says Lawson. “It’s hard to turn around a legacy ship.”

Yes, but aren’t the legacy ships the ones with the resources for R&D on a grand scale? It’s exciting to imagine the truly meaningful change and amazing products they could deliver. And, PS, if some of the heritage brands are currently feeling a bit dusty and dated… isn’t adopting cutting edge clean practices, and ushering in new innovation, a surefire way to make them modern?

Perhaps they will begin by scooping up a clean indie or two — after all, in the current acquisition frenzy, founder-led niche brands that come with rapt audiences are among the most desirable. Of course, that might turn an unwelcome spotlight on the other brands in a portfolio, raising the question of, well, what is in all of your other products? But at this point, isn’t everyone already asking, anyway? Aren’t the people who run these brands tired of getting “moderate hazard” rankings on the EWG’s Skin Deep database?

And while millennials’ shopping habits continue to keep analysts and marketers busy, Gen Z, coming up next, is what has Jensen’s attention. “Their purchase priority in beauty is that the product is formulated with pure and natural ingredients,” she says. “The fact that this is the most important thing to them means things are going to have to change.”

“Beauty is a good space to be in,” says Benqué. “Natural and clean is an even better space to be in.”

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