Under the microscope: science-backed beauty

Cosmetic companies have been accused of misleading consumers with false claims for years, but a new breed of clinical brands is on the rise.
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For every action in the beauty industry, there's an equal and opposite reaction. In recent years, demand has grown for so-called ‘natural’ and ‘clean’ products, escalating to the point where multiple brands started boasting that their shampoos were gluten-free. Now, going against the grain, a mix of independent and big-name brands are quietly but confidently touting their white-coat credentials and celebrating the science behind their products. 

Consumers are waking up to the power of the pipette again, and brands are responding in kind. Instead of pushing a natural message, some are choosing to focus on science – and the communication around science – as a core pillar of their branding. 

‘I never thought I'd come back into the skincare world. It was just too samey,’ says Rob Calcraft, who co-founded REN Clean Skincare in 2000, before selling his company to consumer goods giant Unilever in 2015. Rob points out the prevalence of ‘free-from’ or ‘no’ lists, which some brands have used historically to detail all the ingredients or substances not found in their formulas. What was on those lists was more about consumer perception than genuine danger – hence the gluten-free shampoos.

But, in 2019, these lists came under fire when regulation from the European Commission (EC) came into play, establishing a common criteria for what cosmetic brands can and can't claim. The six criteria are: legal compliance, truthfulness, evidential support, honesty, fairness and informed decision-making. 

For example, under honesty and legal compliance, the EC stated that a brand shouldn't claim to be free from an ingredient that wouldn't typically be found in that type of formula, or free from an ingredient not permitted for use in cosmetics. But, perhaps most damningly, for fairness, the guidance suggests that free-from claims shouldn't be allowed if they imply a denigrating message about the safety of an ingredient that is authorized for cosmetic use, such as parabens. Usually used as preservatives, parabens have long been in the clean-beauty crosshairs, despite many of them being deemed as safe for use. 

Only the common criteria is legally enforceable, and it's up to member states to decide on a case-by-case basis which claims they'll allow. But, fine print aside, these kinds of decisions often garner global attention.

This is arguably something of a sea change, especially for business owners like Rob, who returned to beauty in 2021 with skincare line Cultured Biomecare. The brand's products are designed to help care for the skin microbiome, which is the billions-strong ecosystem of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms that live on the skin. It's thought to control how well products are absorbed, as well as determining a lot of factors about overall skin health.

‘When launching the brand, we absolutely ran towards science,’ Rob explains. ‘The whole world of the microbiome is science-based. We only know about it because of genetic sequencing. So, we thought we would embrace it and champion it.’

Science-backed brands have been steadily growing in popularity, but their success is down to a number of factors. First, Gen Z and millennials are getting into anti-aging skincare younger than ever; second, there's a new type of wealthy consumer nicknamed the ‘skintellectual’ who loves to research products and ingredients online before purchasing; and, importantly, our collective reliance on the power of medicine during the pandemic has helped swing the pendulum. In 2020, when skincare was consistently outperforming other beauty categories by a long stretch, market research and analytics company NPD Group found that clinical brands were the largest piece of the pie, comprising 34% of the whole skincare category.

For Barbara Paldus, who founded the skincare line Codex Beauty, leaning into science wasn't just about her own credentials – it was also about her desires as a frustrated beauty fan. ‘As a consumer, I want to be sure that the products I'm buying are going to work. And, if a brand doesn't have the data to show that its ingredients and formulas are efficacious, why would I take that risk?’ she asks, adding that botanical brands often have some of the most eye-watering price tags. 

‘Maybe it's a by-product of having lived in Silicon Valley for so long, where every year the memory on a computer chip doubles but the price halves, but it's never sat right with me charging so much for a product if you can't demonstrate the efficacy,’ she adds. 

Codex Beauty's standards are high. Barbara says that, for her, the bare minimum a brand should do to be considered scientifically rigorous is to have its products tested in independent clinical trials for efficacy, under the supervision of a dermatologist. ‘I think pricing should be determined by performance. I think it's insane that, in this industry, pricing is determined by image and packaging, rather than what a product does or doesn't do.’ 

Toronto-based skincare heavyweight DECIEM took matters into its own hands in June last year, launching a campaign named Everything Is Chemicals. According to CEO Nicola Kilner, the goal was to ease confusion around clean beauty and restore confidence in cosmetic chemistry. 

‘Sometimes it feels like there's one set of rules for beauty and another for everything else,’ says Nicola. ‘People might want sulfate-free shampoo, but almost every toothpaste is loaded with sulfates to make it foam up. So, why is it bad for hair but OK for your mouth?’ 

Similarly out and proud is Living Proof, a high-end haircare brand with the tagline: ‘We are the science. You are the living proof.’ ‘We began as a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) startup, and the idea was to leverage MIT science expertise and come up with new, innovative ingredients that hadn't been seen before,’ says Ron McLaughlin, who is senior vice president of product development. ‘Science is at the core of what we do, and so we'd never want to run away from that.’

Of course, misinformation isn't limited to the realm of all things botanical. Scientific concepts and statistics can also – intentionally or not – confuse people, unfairly demonize ingredients and, essentially, fearmonger. To that end, DECIEM, Living Proof, Cultured Biomecare and Codex Beauty all say that they're committed to maintaining clear, simple communication with their customer bases.

‘We try to take science to a level that's easily understood,’ says Ron. ‘Even though there might be a high level of science and engineering backing the products, we try to explain it using simple, real-world examples that people can follow along.’

Besides, science and nature aren't as diametrically opposed as social media may have you believe. Lots of science-first beauty brands use extracts taken from plants and bio-engineered in a lab, or they synthesize their own versions of natural extracts. Beauty brands would do well to think about a hybrid model for their marketing, too. For example, DECIEM frequently features images of fruits, plants and other natural extracts side by side with beakers, flasks and pipettes, showing the duality of its formulas. 

Bringing together the power of science with the comfort of nature seems to already be a winning combination for consumers. Within the 34% clinical share of skincare that the NPD Group observed, a further 20% of total sales are going to brands that combine a clean and clinical message, with sales up 49% from the previous year. 

While it might be assumed that clean, clinical brands would fall into the luxury sector, drugstore offerings like Boots Ingredients, The Inkey List and DECIEM-owned The Ordinary have products with single-digit price tags. Natural will likely never lose its appeal altogether, especially with certain consumers, but marketing and messaging will likely need a lot more nuance now. And lab coats.  

This article was first published in Courier issue 45, February/March 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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