Beautycounter or Beautycontradiction? A closer look into a “new” beauty movement.

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“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?

Meet Beautycounter

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.

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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.

Reality Check

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?

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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.

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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.

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28 thoughts on “Beautycounter or Beautycontradiction? A closer look into a “new” beauty movement.

  1. I was wondering the exact same thing. To me if you are worried about people’s safety why not give them an option they can afford! I have tried the products and love them but haven’t signed up as a consultant for this very reason.
    Love the article

    • Hi All,
      Full disclosure, I just joined as a consultant at Beautycounter because I believe in the social message. I definitely hear you on the problem of getting these safer products to all individuals, including those unable to afford the high prices. I think the company made a huge leap in that direction in creating more appropriately priced items for the new Target line. I don’t know about you, but I used to buy my makeup at Target because it was inexpensive (until I realized it was full of carcinogens!!!). I can’t market Beautycounter to my friends because they can’t afford it, but they will definitely be able to once it hits Target–which is a huge win in getting these safer effective products out there. Unlike other companies, I chose Beautycounter because of their involvement in not just producing the safer products, but pushing for litigation to regulate cosmetics. They work closely with the Breast Cancer Fund and also work with the Campaign for Safer Cosmetics, which is a national coalition. They encourage you, as a consultant, not only to educate, but to call your senators and encourage others to do so; for me, making a sale is just an added benefit on my social mission to bring safe products to women, especially moms who are passing these toxins to their unborn children and breastfed children.

      https://corporate.target.com/article/2016/05/beautycounter

  2. I’m a Beautycounter consultant and I definitely get your frustration what may come off as a hypocrisy. Coincidentally, on the consultant call last week, the CEO specifically said she realizes that our products are NOT geared toward everyone because of their price, and that the company is working toward more budget-friendly options but also more education-focused outreach. The way I look at it is this, if in the past year I’ve spoken to 100 people about Beautycounter, whether or not they’ve become customers, I’ve armed them with information about hazards in products, ingredients to avoid, safer ingredients to look for, and ways to reach out to their legislators. While wooing clients and consultants with free wine and food may seem like a misguided expenditure, if that results in more people joining the company or even more people having an awareness of the problems in the beauty industry, it’s worth it. (By the way, I actually sought out Beautycounter after seeing them on the Today Show, so I’m kind of pissed I missed the free wine…)

    • Hi Jenny! Thanks for your comment. I hear you, BeautyCounter has its merits. I was frustrated after my experience at the event and felt inspired to blog about it. There are definitely far worse companies out there. I just can’t help wanting transparency…I’m a therapist 😉

  3. I was actually thinking the exact same things that you said in your blog. I use some Beautycounter products. I was reading what Jenny said and thinking WOW they just raised their prices today and not by a little, but by about $3 to $4 per item. Sets went up $5. This is the opposite of Gregg’s “wanting to get safer products in the hands of all women!” It’s all about the money and not at all about helping to make products safer for everyone. I am not saying I will stop buying BC, but if I can find clean products with a CEO that doesn’t use pretense like Gregg does I will say goodbye to BC (although I love my friend who is a consultant) and hello to a new company. It’s a shame, but her transparency is one of hypocrisy.

  4. While I applaud Beauty Counter for making safer beauty products I am upper Middle Class and I will not pay those prices. I have tried their samples for skin care and compared them to Bare Escentuals skin care samples. I like them equally. I do know that Bare Escentuals is not claiming to be natural. I just cannot see paying the price for either of their skin care lines. If I’m serious about what I use to wash and moisturize my skin I will see a dermatologist who has a medical background. MML in any form is not of interest to me.

  5. Great post. I realize that this article is focused on the hypocrisy of its sales model and not the products themselves but I would like to point out that if you want truly safe and non-toxic products, you wouldn’t use anything with exylhethylglycerine of phenoxethanol in it, however “safe” they are touted to be at the moment. I only use certified organic, good grade products on myself and my family and they are both inexpensive and work great. I also think we should as a society be encouraging women to stop wearing makeup altogether because it’s bizarre to have to paint your face like a clown everyday to look “pretty” or “professional” or “put together.” I call this bullshit too. This company doesn’t empower women, it greenwashes them and promotes the cosmetic industry that we all should be rejecting. And I believe there are many well-meaning and good-hearted Beautycounter sales reps who think this is a great company and an even greater cause. This is a real shame because all of that energy and passion could be focused toward something genuinely good, not another tube of lipstick.

    • Thank you so much Stephanie! Your point about societal pressure to wear makeup is really thought provoking. I often oscillate between my frustration with idealized/impossible standards of beauty and my admiration for artistic creativity and expression when it comes to makeup as art. As a feminist who loves fashion…I feel conflicted.

  6. I also want to point out that there are plenty of companies out there that offer safe and effective options. Have you tried Nourish Organic? Dr. Bronner’s, Dr. Mercola, Badger Balm, Shoosha Baby Organics, Earth Mama Angel Baby, Bariani Face and Body Cream, North Coast Organics, and Terressentials all offer safe, effective, certified organic and food-grade alternatives that you can feel great about.

  7. In response to Jen Wheelock’s comment, Beautycounter claims that it doesn’t market itself as “natural” either. However, this disclaimer is buried on its website in “Step 4- Source Respondibly” of its alleged steps toward developing safe products. I’m not sure this is clear to the average consumer who thinks safe = natural.

  8. Elizabeth- I totally feel your pain. I am a recovering “product junkie” myself and used to wear a lot of makeup everyday. I also used to think that it was a way of artistically expressing myself and had a really hard time seeing it any other way, and I suppose that is one way of looking at it. But because cosmetics are potentially carcinogenic and fuel a culture of objectifying beauty at the expense of undermining women’s self-esteem as well as the (lack of) respect they receive in society, I think it does more harm than good. I think there are other, healthier ways of expression out there (though you are the therapist, not me!). Thanks again for your thoughtful post and responses.

  9. Excellent points! I applaud Beauty Counter’s mission but they use synthetics which are typically cheap so that should keep their prices lower but it doesn’t. Too many clean lines are overpriced when they do not need to be. I am very happy to have found a few quality organic lines, like Pure Haven Essentials, that very reasonably priced & I’m on the hunt for more!

  10. Your article was very interesting to me. Because everything you claim Beautycounter doesn’t do- they actually do. First- they will never claim to be natural or organic, yes they do use synthetic ingredients as long as they are deemed safe (safe meaning they will not be hormone disrupting or linked to autoimmune diseases) natural items can also be dangerous, just because it’s organic does not mean it’s safe.. Second- they are a education first, product second company. They do not want EVERYONE to be consultants. They want women or men who WANT to educate others. There is a huge difference here. which brings me to the 3rd point- Yes the price range is not for everyone. But there is no other company like this out there. It is expensive to make safe products that also look chic and perform as well as our everyday products we currently use. Let me repeat that- we want SAFE products that PERFORM to our standards. Everyone has tried some kind of natural product that is just too oily, too dry, etc. Now my last point is they are trying to find a solution for everyone- that solution is making congress aware that we (you, me, your sister, husband) do want change, that we want to go to target and not have to worry about what’s in our foundation or lotion… They have called, emailed and have visited multiple people in D.C. to try and make some kind of difference in our standards. Now this is probably more that what any of you have done to make a difference for everyone. Yes it is a business you are right. Who doesn’t want to strive for greatness? But when the mission of a company is is to change the laws so everyone can buy safe products (expensive or cheap) then I think they are doing everything that needs to be done. I am a rep for Beautycounter. Im 22 years old and I am also a General Manager for Complete Nutrition. My job here is to educate others on how to get to their goal by using multiple resources other that “sell products”. I am very busy as a GM and and have not used being an educator at BC to make more money, but for me to get a discount and Educate my friends. I could care less if they buy- but if they want to help make a difference then I will give them whatever phone number or email I can get my hands on for them to reach their local congressman and let them know they want change. Please do not talk about a company like this especially when they are very open about all their information. If you are assuming something about a company- get the correct information first. This is a great company and someday you won’t have to do research on “safe” products before you buy- you’ll be able to go anywhere and buy whatever you need and not worry.. This 3 year old company has already made a big difference and I’m very happy with all they have taught me:

    • Hi Chanda. Thank you for sharing your perspective. It sounds like your experience with BC has been very positive and I want to clarify that I don’t think it is a bad company. I just don’t believe its expressed goal aligns with its business strategy. My perspective is just different than yours. I have no doubt you will make a difference for the people around you. I just believe that “changing the laws” without enabling the majority of women who don’t have access is a pipe dream at best.

  11. Pingback: My thoughts on Beautycounter | Eco-friendly baby/family products MADE in USA

  12. I have a few friends that are consultants for this product line, and it’s so sad to see that all about the hype and adding people to the down line. When you examine the products, you realize how outrageously expensive they are. I am glad I have never been able to get the products, because I have found recently many competitive organic skincare in the stores and online that are not only cheaper but certified organic. And what a surprise that Beautycounter has now signed a launch to sell in Target stores in smaller sizes and cheaper prices. This company is full of it, and it seems their launch into Target is going to hurt the consultants they claim to care about. They only care for MONEY!

  13. Chanda, you have expressed pretty clear logic… I’ve been printed to research Beautycounter and found they are pretty transparent. Elizabeth, do you agree that if the laws change and harmful ingredients are banned here, then all Beauty Companies would be forced to create safer products-therefore all women would have said access?!?

    This is similar to the auto industry who had the ability to create more gas efficient vehicles, but didn’t always until a LAW was passed.

    I’m surprised this point is lost on so many educated people? Thanks for your discussion.

    • Valid point. I would be impressed if BeautyCounter did get laws changed. However, I think that their mission would be more believable and likely to come to fruition if they actually connected with diverse groups of women rather than only being accessible to those with privilege.

  14. I love this post and the varied comments that have followed. I’d like to say that I feel that it is my duty as an educated woman of a certain amount of privilege to advocate for women of lesser resources and lesser means. I think that is the point of Beautycounter. It’s a trickle down effect. If upper middle-class women become activists for change in the personal care industry ALL women WILL benefit. Unfortunately, women of lesser means often do not have the time or resources to fight for this kind of change. They often aren’t in a situation where it makes sense to fight for change until it’s clearly a matter of life and death… like when the tap water runs brown and their children are deathly ill. Even then, there will be one crusader in the fight who usually goes to someone of more financial means to help her be heard. I think Elizabeth Aram’s observation that less money could be spent on advertising & packaging to bring points down is a good one but it doesn’t go hand in hand with Gregg’s brand. She is not trying to make products that are inexpensive enough for everyone to purchase. She’s created a brand that appeals to a certain segment of the population who will then influence the industry as a whole. Gregg Renfrew has to have a platform to stand on. Creating a luxury brand that encourages education and activism is one way to do that. If her business isn’t viable, sustainable or successful she has nothing to work with. I commend her for creating a brand that appeals to women like herself, who buy beautifully packaged, well branded products and inviting them to be influencers. If she is successful in her goal the whole industry will be affected and big brands (that will remain nameless) will no longer be able to peddle toxic products to unknowing mothers. Like the other women here have said there are many great boutique brands that are owned by women like Gregg who care about this issue and I love their products as well. But one thing that Beautycounter is doing that they aren’t doing is giving me an opportunity to sell their products. I’d sell them all if I could but Gregg Renfrew is the only CEO among them that is giving me an opportunity to benefit from her success.

  15. I believe Beauty Counters mission is first and foremost. It is what pulls you in. The products are great quality. It’s a stepping stone to educate. The price range is competitive. It just depends if you are someone who cares about your health. What you put ON your body is just as important as what you put IN it. And when it comes to putting safe products in everyone’s hand…it doesn’t really come down to affordability. This isn’t an outrageously priced product line. It comes down to your priorities. Hell…most kids, not to mention the majority of our society are spending anywhere from $200-600 for a cell phone. That goes for the lower middle class income too. So if you are concerned about your health and the health of your loved ones then this is company is about awareness and educating. It all comes down to one thing…your choice and your priorities. What’s important to your lifestyle? Beauty Counter resonated with me and if I can bring awareness to the people I care about, I’ve done my job whether I make $2 or $200,000. Our society has lost its way on what’s important in life. If you don’t have your health, you have nothing.

  16. Beautycounter’s mission is to “get safer products into the hands of everyone”. The mission statement is NOT “to get Beautycounter products into the hands of everyone”. That is why they are in DC trying to get laws updated since the last one passed was so long ago. It isn’t fair to make the argument that people can’t afford their products so therefore the mission statement is lacking integrity. I was looking for safer products that also work since cancer is in my family but I’m an actress so I came across Beautycounter. It is actually less expensive than some of the Clinique and Chanel products I was using.

  17. I have no affiliation with Beautycounter– but I have the business acumen and more importantly experience regarding starting and building a company to comment without shooting from the hip. I’ve also spent a great deal of time educating myself on what I should or should probably not be using in terms of chemicals, ingredients, organic/free-range, yada yada yada.

    Any product that is free of “bad ingredients”(we can use so many terms here– just keeping it simple) is unfortunately more expensive than those that contain them. Think of the last time you bought an organic apple from a grocery store or even a farmers market– chances were it was more than what you would pay for one that was not labeled organic. I recognize that not all of the products have this label, but let this but a smaller understanding of the bigger picture. The cost to research, develop, produce and manufacture these goods is MUCH higher than the roads most cosmetics lines have gone down. In order to keep profitability– products take that beating in price, although I don’t disagree this particular line is higher in order to speak to a higher income producing, better educated demographic. To also keep costs low they use Beauty consultants(along with their website and a few other affiliations). While these consultants are “as old as red lipstick and hair curlers” there is validity to this choice. From a business perspective– your largest expense is payroll and HR. By using women who believe in the products or have the drive to build their own income, they are greatly reducing the costs that come with 25,000 employees(no benefits, namely) without many other of the headaches that come HR. Further, they’re spreading the word of the company through good faith. It seems you got into a member-search party with some good cocktails, but that is more of an exception to the rule from what I’ve seen and heard.

    So these cost-cutting measures allow the company to make strides with government in regulations, something no other company I’m aware of is doing. Remember, building a company is A LOT of time, and time equals money. Those regulations if and when are passed, would therefore allow ALL demographics the access to makeup from CVS on up to use safer ingredients. You may call bullshit, but there are many ideas in business(and being you’re a therapist, you know in life) that work better in theory than in practice. Working in the society and economic state we are in, your argument to get these products way cheaper to everyone would crash and burn. I agree with you– it should be that easy, but it’s not.

    As far as product quality, like any other makeup/skincare line, is totally a personal opinion. Plenty of brands I love with certain products that I want nothing to do with.

    I ask you now–which of the following do you think is worth more? A company that is actively working for a positive change for everyone economically where you have to pay $40 for a product versus a company where you pay $7 for the “same” product that is NOT actively pursuing regulatory change AND is unconcerned with the chemicals in their product?

    • Hi! Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I hear you and think you have some valid arguments. I agree -it should be that easy, but it’s not. I sometimes feel emotionally pulled to rant about things from an idealistic place 🙂

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