Clean beauty’s reign is over.

The 90s may be making a comeback but we’re leaving ‘Clean Beauty’ behind. So what's next for beauty brands?

Caitlin Lister
Words by Caitlin Lister, 04.09.2023

The concept of ‘clean beauty’ emerged in the 90s as companies started to promote ‘natural’, ‘organic’ and ‘nontoxic’ products. This focus has grown exponentially since - today, 45% of the British public look for natural or clean ingredients with predictions that the industry will reach a whopping $22 billion by the end of 2024. So it’s no surprise that many new and existing brands want a piece of the pie.

But what was once considered a differentiator has now flooded the market. And today’s consumers are more savvy than we were back then. We know now that there’s no definition of what makes a product ‘clean’ - as long as it doesn’t contain any banned substances (the FDA only bans 11 in the US), you, your aunt, or the latest pop prince/ss can slap a ‘clean’ label on it and get it out into the world - there’s nothing stopping you. With public figures such as Stella McCartney famously branding the space as ‘bollocks’, consumers today are looking for something new. But how to stand out in such an over-crowded market place?

If you’re a founder attempting to scale your beauty brand or even launch a new venture, here are a few questions to ask yourself as you figure out your next move, with some brand inspo to get you started:

Am I contributing something new?

The last thing we need is another beauty brand replicating all others - you should be questioning if what you’re doing is worthwhile before adding to the growing pile. Why not focus on solving a unique consumer problem, re-think how we buy our beauty products like well-known favourites Beauty Pie, or take inspiration from brands like Starface by empowering customers by turning what was once an insecurity, on its head. Think beyond formulation.

Am I serving the audience?

Plenty of the population have been ignored since the beginning of the beauty industry; now’s the time to create for these under-served audiences. Fenty beauty is the go-to example, but smaller brands such as Kulfi, which holds the South Asian community at its heart, is a 2021 newcomer to watch. While products can be used with all skin tones, the brand celebrates beauty from within its community - not only in its product development and marketing, but by having South Asian creatives be a part of the brand creation from the very beginning. Black Girl Sunscreen does the same - creating products that avoid leaving a white cast on darker skin tones and thereby solving a customer problem that the industry had previously disregarded. Find your focus.

Am I speaking truthfully and clearly?

People have a strong BS radar these days so treat your audience with respect and avoid unnecessary marketing fluff. Be specific about what your product is, what the ingredients are, and the benefits. The Ordinary are the masters of concepting an ownable way to articulate product, while Brandefy democratises beauty by revealing truths about the provenance of high-priced products and intentionally presenting themselves in an authentic way. Stay true.

Am I making a positive impact, or causing unnecessary damage?

It’s 2023, and people are watching your impact, closely. So do something radical - Uni allows customers to ship their shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and hand wash bottles back to be refilled and reused, while Izzy’s mascara tubes can be cleaned and refilled a whopping 10,000 times. When customers buy from these guys, they get to feel good not only about their look, but their mark on the planet. Don’t just say you’re sustainable, ethical, eco-conscious, vegan – do something about it.

Am I showing my customer that I care?

If refillables aren’t for you, what causes can you get behind? Topicals - founded by two Gen-Z women of color who suffered from skin issues growing up - wanted to do something about the link between your skin and how you feel. Their response? To donate a percentage of their profits to mental health organisations. Koope has a similar ethos - putting their money where their mouth is and contributing $1 per purchase to efforts to end human trafficking. Showing your customers you care humanises your brand, encouraging loyalty.

How should I present myself?

Repeat after me: brands that challenge convention and inspire connection achieve sustainable growth. Having a strong point of view, distinctive personality, or unique positioning can be your differentiator but if its not baked in to your offering and operations it won't last. Youthforia positions their products as ‘makeup you can sleep in’. While the chances of this are unlikely, this clever hook tells you their ingredients are nourishing and gives them standout in an otherwise saturated space. And when it comes to personality, Vacation has a ton of it - infusing what may well be the same formulation as every other suncream with a fun-loving, nostalgic vibe that encapsulates how holidaying feels - something we all need.

Consumers of today are looking for something different. They’re hyper aware of buzzy marketing and they’re more skeptical than the 90s audience that first lapped up ‘Clean Beauty’. Over 50% of Gen Z users on TikTok use the platform to find new products - preferring to find recommendations from their social media community. TikTok is today’s ‘word-of-mouth’ (whether it’s gifted/sponsored or organic) - it demands authenticity.

So as you’re thinking about how you scale your business sustainably, keep in mind this increasingly-powerful consumer and cut the bollocks - the 90s may be making a comeback but we’re leaving ‘Clean Beauty’ behind.