What is natural skincare, and why is it taking the industry by storm? Several high profile articles from Vox and the New York Times covers the origin and rise of a natural beauty and wellness industry, and the tone is decidedly critical. What’s the divide between chemical and natural, medicine and wellness, and whether the difference is in the marketing or substance.
The New Narrative
Vox describes the emergence of a new clean or natural beauty company. The “Natural Industry” isn’t the kind lady selling a handcrafted organic product that’s sold at the local Farmer’s Market,1 but a bigger and more corporate Wellness Industrial Complex that markets its identity, image, and brand, as wellness, self-care, and against traditional multinational beauty conglomerates.
The Consumer Pushes Back
The first concern is a legitimate concern about transparency and regulation (or the lack thereof) to protect consumers. Concerning cosmetic products, the relevant line from the FDA regulations on cosmetics for most consumers would be the bit on “who is responsible for substantiating the safety of cosmetics?”
Companies and individuals who manufacture or market cosmetics have a legal responsibility to ensure the safety of their products. Neither the law nor FDA regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients. The law also does not require cosmetic companies to share their safety information with FDA.
Essentially, “we’ll leave it up to the people who sell you said products to ensure that they are safe.” While this may have sufficed in the 1980s, perhaps leading up to the Internet era, but it won’t cut it today. Little wonder that people are skeptical of Big Beauty.
Transparency, or in some cases merely the perception of lack of transparency, is a big issue in every large industry; big food, big agriculture is facing a similar blowback by public opinion calling for transparency with GMO labelling.2
This brings us back to the Vox article headlines:
“Customer mistrust is so bad now that even huge beauty companies want more regulatory oversight.”
On this front, there appears to be some attempt being made in the form of a bill: Personal Care Products Safety Act, although it looks unlikely to pass at 3%.3 Whether companies want regulation or can be argued; consumer mistrust is a fact. Increasingly, consumers flock to independent sources of information like the Environmental Working Group or EWG. Other organizations have taken up the fight to put meaning to “labels” creating their standards and investigating claims of environmental friendliness, animal testing, and other concerns that consumers have. In some ways, the informed consumer needs to really research their definitions.
Trends: Green and Lean
It’s not a trend that’s set from some “marketing genius” in a corporation. The consumer and the overall culture have changed with the times. Trends have quick feet today, and consumers have gone beyond the “having it all” ethos of the 80s; that stuff feels positively icky today. Traditional “Barbie-perfect” beauty ideals were replaced with softer concepts of wellness and self-care long before today. We see similar trends with the explosion of soft cosmetic procedures like Botox and Dermal Fillers – which produce subtle changes, whereas the more invasive cosmetic surgeries that produce sharper, longer, and more significant changes have remained comparatively flat.
The cultural shift – comes with its own language:
This motto, juxtaposed with the traditional skincare industry, is effectively a critique and an accusation that many of the market products are non-natural (chemical), unclean and toxic. Is this true, and if so, what are the new skincare products doing to change this for the better?
Branding is mostly an exercise in word association. Words like “clean,” “green,” and “non-toxic” are not claims at all. None of these words have any legal definition, and consequently, it means…nothing but what consumers hope it means. The word “organic” also fares no better; while it has a legal definition in the context of food, under the FDA, organic is a similarly vacuous word in the context of cosmetics.4 Claims like “cruelty-free” or “not tested on animals” may appear like specific claims, but in fact, are not, at least in the United States. Part of the reason is that manufacturers of the finished product can claim to not test on animals since it is the laboratories that produce the raw materials that test on animals.5 Hence, consumers who care need to fact-check these types of claims, which are outsourced not to the FDA but to third parties.6
On the other hand, there are some specific claims, such as our product is X-free. The X can be parabens, a popular but probably overrated villain, or any number of other potential scares. These are verifiable claims. The trouble is that the actual evidence that X is dangerous or that the alternative that is used is safer or more environmentally friendly is often dubious. Some of the fears stoked have little or no credible evidence backing them. This is similar to the anti-vaxxer problem; it’s easy to get people to fear something like vaccinations and boogeyman chemicals, but once people are fearful, it’s extremely difficult to dispel them of this fear with mere facts. Science-minded folks have been trying hard to dispel the pseudo-science surrounding this space,7 but it will be a challenge.
The beauty industry has always played fire with the boundary between fact and fiction in its marketing. While nobody seriously thinks that purchasing a Nike shoe will make them LeBron, some claims that beauty products make seem just credible enough, and the line is a lot more blurred. This might be a case of marketing playing with the boundaries of fact and fiction too much; sometimes, it comes back to bite you in the form of massive consumer mistrust, an opening that other companies are happy to jump in on.
1 This hyper-local niche isn’t going away anytime soon, though, and will likely always stake out space.