A big number of consumers are leaning towards more expensive but natural-based cosmetics instead of chemical-filled ones. It’s a growing segment that is a game changer for the whole beauty industry.


The rise of the nature

The booming organic and natural beauty market’s value is expected to reach $13.2 billion by 2018. Brands with a natural and organic orientation now represent the largest combined share of premium skin care sales. Last year, they accounted for all gains in the category. “The space for cleaner, safer, better beauty has grown and is only continuing to grow,” says Gregg Renfrew, founder of Beautycounter, a cosmetics and skin care e-retailer that tries to educate consumers about the potential toxicity of some makeup. “In fact, natural and safer brands are outselling their traditional competitors by two to threefold.” According to Kline & Company, synthetic cosmetics sector will decline in the next two years, while the natural skin care segment will grow. Already, the firm found, naturals have grown by 7% in the U.S., compared to a 2% rise in the overall beauty market in 2015.

Organic products have become so mainstream, you don’t have to go rummaging through your local health food store to find your organic jasmine-infused eyeshadow. Sephora has sold botanical, chemical-free cosmetics for years and now offers a “Naturals” landing page showcasing hundreds of items. Nordstrom is opening dedicated natural beauty sections in 46 of its locations. Target announced plans to expands its natural beauty selection, thanks to a double-digit percentage lift in sales last year. And, reacting to customer feedback, CVS recently promised to remove chemical ingredients such as parabens and phthalates from approximately 600 of its in-house brands’ personal care products. Natural is available everywhere.


Natural vs Clean vs Synthetic

Educating consumers is a key piece of natural beauty movement, and one in which the e-commerce beauty site and subscription service Birchbox is heavily investing. The New York-based startup debuted an “Ingredient Conscious” shop category in 2014 as a way to differentiate between “natural” (i.e., using primarily ingredients found in nature) and “clean beauty” products (entirely free of parabens, phthalates, sulfates, and petrochemicals).

Natural Cosmetics

“We’ve noticed that our subscribers have a real desire to learn about ingredients,” says Jamie Johns, the senior merchant manager of Birchbox’s skin care division, via email. “Our approach at Birchbox is to demystify ingredients and provide an approachable way to try and learn about them.”

The company offers natural beauty products both online and in subscription boxes, with prices ranging from $7 to $105. Birchbox saw between 10%-50% growth in the overall category over the last year, driven by more customers trying and sticking with the natural brands.

People tend think that natural means simple or untested, but natural ingredients are actually some of the most powerful ingredients in the world. On the other hand, synthetic ingredients are, in many cases, cheaper, more predictable versions of natural ingredients created in labs to simplify the manufacturing process.

So what constitutes “clean beauty”? Is it organic? Paraben- and sulfate-free? Goop-endorsed? What does “all-natural” even mean? The terms “natural” and “organic” have no legal definition in this category, and even a non-synthetic ingredient found in nature can be harmful. Lead, for example, should not exist in any beauty products.

Drunk Elephant founder Tiffany Masterson, meanwhile, wants to simplify what constitutes “clean.” Her company uses a mix of natural and “low-hazard” synthetic ingredients, and each product comes with a simply worded explanation of how and why ingredients were sourced. Customers, Masterson believes, are growing weary of healthy living buzzwords like “non-toxic” and “organic.”

Drunk Elephant Cosmetics

“It is so overwhelming out there,” she says. “Consumers are fed up with marketing, gimmicky phrases that have been diluted over time. They want transparency. The future of skin care is going to be more straightforward.”

Beautycounter, the California-based startup launched in 2013, aims to increase awareness about the predominantly unregulated U.S. beauty market through blog and social media campaigns. Beautycounter’s own line of products range from makeup basics like lipstick and blush to sunscreen and body scrubs.

“We focus on the safety profile of an ingredient, rather than the source,” Renfrew says, Beautycounter founder. “In other words, just because something is naturally derived doesn’t mean it’s automatically safe.” To that end, Beautycounter developed a rigorous ingredient selection process, listing 1,500 questionable or harmful ingredients it vows never to include in its formulations. Roughly 1,400 of those chemical ingredients are already banned or restricted in personal care products by the European Union.


The Safer The Better

The organic beauty boom is part of the larger shift in consumer awareness about health and wellness. Thanks to a growing number of beauty blogs and social media accounts dedicated to the benefits of going chemical-free, consumers have access to more information than ever before. Late last year, Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator from California, introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act, a bill to strengthen regulation of ingredients in personal care products. “Our skin is our largest organ, and many ingredients contained in these products–whether it be lotion, shampoo, or deodorant–are quickly absorbed by the skin,” Feinstein said in her testimony to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “There is increasing evidence that certain ingredients in personal care products are linked to a range of health concerns, ranging from reproductive issues, such as fertility problems and miscarriage, to cancer.”

Parabens and phthalates, for instance, have been found to be endocrine disruptors linked to increased risk of breast cancer. A recent study led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, revealed how a short break from certain shampoos and lotions made with chemical ingredients can result in a significant drop in levels of people’s hormone-disrupting chemicals.

“It’s definitely something that will become more mainstream,” says Artemis Patrick, Sephora’s SVP of merchandising. Sephora currently offers a wide range of natural products–coconut cleansing oilkale and spinach age prevention cream, and oat milk dry shampoo among them–and is pursuing more brands to expand the category even further. One of its latest additions is the biotechnology-backed Biossance, a 100% plant-based skin care line that relies on squalane, a mega-moisture molecule that helps hydrate skin.

In terms of searches natural skin care is growing fast, almost eight times as much as compared to last year. According to Patrick, popular keywords include “organic,” “paraben-free,” and “vegan.” Sephora has also witnessed established brands like Estée Lauder go back and add natural ingredients or remove certain potentially harmful ones. That indicates that big brands are becoming more conscious too.

Or at least aware of what sells. Last year, after witnessing consumer interest in natural ingredients soar, Ulta, the largest beauty retailer in the U.S. with 950 stores, launched its own line of natural products that includes a top-selling lip oil infused with green tea and avocado extracts. According to Ulta SVP of merchandising Julie Tomasi, it’s good business: Ulta natural buyers spend 80% more in total beauty than the average customer. “We anticipate additional growth from this category,” she says.


Everything Comes With A Price or A Date

Going “clean” is costly. Sourcing fresh botanical ingredients, like exotic marula oil from overseas, does not come cheap. Organic farms tend to produce smaller batches because they don’t rely on growth hormones, so each ingredient is at a premium. Goods made without chemical preservatives also have a shorter shelf life. Most natural beauty brands recommends using its products within six months. Compare that to conventional drugstore brands, which give a window of two to three years. The longer shelf life allows big box retailers to buy in bulk without worrying about expiration dates.

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