“The most beautiful makeup of a woman is passion. But cosmetics are easier to buy.”
― Yves Saint-Laurent
Getting things for free
I love getting things for free. Every free sample that comes my way makes me feel a little better about my crushing student debt. I also can’t turn down a free party. Even if I am exhausted from working all day, I will rally if invited. My friends are fully aware of my weakness and frequently hook me into last minute events. The most recent was a Beautycounter event at a restaurant in Wicker Park – Birchwood Kitchen. The invitation promised “cocktails and conversation.” It also stated the following: This event will change the way you look at beauty.
I had never heard of Beautycounter so the free cocktails were an easy sell. I arrived about 15 minutes late and the place was overflowing with women. The majority of which were 20-something year olds wearing trendy jumpers, crop tops, and (of course) statement necklaces. There were two bars giving away three different kinds of decent wine and several platters of surprisingly edible hors d’oeuvres. Sliced baguette with garlic mascarpone and prosciutto? I will have twelve. After indulging in all the delicacies, I began to question – Why is all of this free?
At least sixty women crammed into the tiny room like stylish sausages. After a quick welcome, a Beautycounter representative introduced us to the brand – a “revolutionary” new company geared at bringing “everyone” safer and healthier products. We watched a short promotional video showcasing adorable people of all ages touting the slogan “I matter.” Next, CEO Gregg Renfrew took the stage and began sharing her passion for Beautycounter. I admit this woman is convincing. Think NYC chic fashionista in a peplum top and leather leggings meets fresh-faced Californian – a yoga-loving mom of two.
Renfrew’s speech included heartfelt dismay at the current state of women’s beauty, noting that only 11 toxic chemicals are banned in the US compared with hundreds in other countries. Further, she shared anecdotes about meeting Erin Brockovich and aligned her mission with that of the polluted water busting heroine. Beautycounter boasts a “Neverlist” which is a lengthy collection of harmful products the company will never use. While I do commend Beautycounter for creating a wide range of products that are arguably safer and healthier to use, I am not sold. Sorry Renfrew, but if you give an impassioned speech about “marching to Washington” and making sure “our kids never worry about labels,” you might want to consider the millions of women who it prices out of Beautycounter’s $495 product line.
Beautycounter is a young company but it’s structure is as old as hair curlers and red lipstick. It employs a multi-level marketing strategy which involves hiring individuals as “consultants” to sell the products direct to consumer. Unlike pyramid schemes, multi-level marketing is legal and does provide the opportunity for consultants to make more money than their seniors. In the 1960s, Mary Kay was one of the first companies to sell directly to consumers and it is currently netting almost 3 billion in annual sales. The success of Mary Kay has likely inspired many other beauty companies such as: Avon, Arbonne, and Nerium. All of these companies make claims that their products are well researched, minimally harmful, and dramatically effective – despite contradicting evidence.
As far as I can tell with Beautycounter, they did a good job creating “better” products, as determined by their safer ingredients list. Whether these products have significant benefits to the skin remains to be seen. Regardless, I think it’s wonderful and progressive to formulate beauty products with women’s health in mind. However, I wonder why Beautycounter spends so much money on packaging and branding, rather than finding ways to make these healthier products accessible to all individuals of varying socioeconomic statuses.
The reality is that we live in a consumer-driven capitalistic society that places profit over progress. I am one of those consumers. I spend $40 on Anastasia of Beverly Hills (ABH) eyebrow products because Instragram has convinced me they are worth it. I don’t take issue with ABH because they don’t promise to change legislation in Washington and benefit “all” American women. Beautycounter isn’t factoring in the 16 million women that live below the poverty line in the US. These women buy Family Dollar brand face-wash for $3 that is even more harmful that the “comparable” version of $7 Neutrogena at CVS. I realize Beautycounter is striving to become a multi-million dollar giant in the cosmetics industry. As a result, they are branding themselves to fit with the upper middle class – A group that comprises approximately 15% of the population and spends millions on high-end products every year. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, I have no qualms with Beautycounter’s products or tactics but I can’t help but wonder – Are these products worth their price?
Doing the Math
I was drawn to Beautycounter’s Rosewater uplifting spray, a 1.7oz bottle of refreshing toner for $32. The cost is actually competitive in the market, as similar products range from $15 – $50 depending on brand. Beautycounter is correct in that many comparable products contain more harmful ingredients. Their ingredients include: Water (Aqua), organic Rosa Damascena Water, Ethylhexylglycerin, Sodium Hyaluronate, and Phenoxyethanol. According to my research, Phenoxyethanol and Ethylhexylglycerin are safe and effective preservatives. They are also inexpensive. A quick Google search reveals you can buy the duo for $8.70 per 1.70oz. Considering a recommended dose for DIY products in a 1% dilution, this amount could make 100 bottles of Beautycounter’s product.
Organic Rosa Damascena Water sells on eBay for $25.95 per 17oz, which would make 10 bottles at approximately $2.60 each. The final ingredient is Sodium Hyaluronate, which “doesn’t easily penetrate the skin when it’s applied topically, so it is most successful when injected into the dermis of the skin through fillers like Restylane” (www.skinstore.com). I think we can leave this one out. Essentially, I could make 100 bottles of a very similar product for $268, or I could spend $3200 and buy 100 bottles from Beautycounter. Even when you factor in packaging, the discrepancy is huge.
Why I care
As a therapist, I value transparency and authentic communication. I am impressed with Beautycounter’s honesty about their ingredients and I eagerly support the movement towards health and harm reduction. What irks me is the contradicting messages in their business model. Beautycounter throws free parties enticing people to become consultants. They rely on educated women in middle classes to sell to others with similar privilege. Their campaign highlights our health, our kids, and our environment, yet exclude vulnerable populations by pricing them out of their consumer base. I expect this from most companies. However, when the mission is to “revolutionize beauty” and “provide safer and healthier products for ALL women” – I call bullshit.
If you want to go to Washington and ban more toxic chemicals from beauty products, why not educate and mobilize the majority of the population? If you really want to enact revolutionary scale change, why not focus on reducing costs and increasing accessibility? I imagine those with the most limited means likely need your products the most. It seems to me that Beautycounter’s mandate may be more authentically matched with a non-profit that truly wants to reduce harm and improve health. Ironically, if Beautycounter actually made a point to talk about themselves as a business, with reasonable limitations and a narrow consumer base, I probably would have bought into it. Looks like even free things come with a cost.