Free the birds

Beauty, Wellness

What’s New On The US Indie Beauty Scene?

Sara Jones, Cosmetics Business

People talk about the personal being political. Well, in my case, working as a beauty junkie in beauty branding, the personal is very much professional. Almost nothing can beat that feeling of excitement you get spotting something totally new and inspiring. In recent years, much of that newness has come from indie brands who’ve disrupted the industry with their bold social media and word-of-mouth marketing. The evidence is on my bathroom shelves and in my make-up bag, which are filled with indie upstarts like Glossier and Eleni & Chris, alongside my usual MAC and Chanel. So, when a business trip to the States coincided with the Indie Beauty Expo (IBE) NYC, I knew it couldn’t be missed.

NYC – home of entrepreneurial spirit – was an apt host to the first ever IBE in 2015, which connects indie brands with potential buyers, press and investors (the consumer day being dropped this year to focus on B2B). Alongside it was a new section, Uplink Live, for brands to discover service providers such as PR companies, manufacturers and logistics firms.

IBE NYC was held right on the Hudson River at the Pier 94 warehouse building from 21-22 August, with a staggering 260 brands from around the US – from Idaho to Hawaii – and from far further afield, including Finland, Korea and Australia.

Taking a step back and viewing the offer as a whole – in addition to their ownership status – there were some overarching brand characteristics linking most of them together. Natural, organic, ‘clean’, cruelty-free, vegan and sustainable were the buzzwords of the day, and could apply to most of the indies present, according to their literature, indicating strongly that what was once a differentiator for indie brands is now pretty much a starting point.

Indeed, many of the products listed below, could have been listed in several trend areas due to this convergence. Beauty, healthcare, personal care: individual categories are fusing into a need-based hybrid. What’s clear is that if indies are to keep their momentum and remain as the driver of growth and innovation in beauty, they’ll have to further differentiate and elevate their offer beyond being ‘indie’ into truly novel areas and formats, and most importantly, compelling brand stories and communications to match.

With this in mind, here are my top five trend areas from the show:


1. Wonder Women’s Care

The beauty industry – and just as importantly the healthcare industry – has long been perceived not to centre women’s interests. But now, in the words of the immortal song, sisters are doing it for themselves. Holistic women’s products were in abundance at IBE. Demonstrating the fundamental truth that, rather than women’s sexual function and hormone cycles being divorced from appearance and wellbeing, they’re inextricably linked.

Even five years ago it would have been unthinkable to see ‘sexual support’ products on display in a beauty setting, but no longer. Quim – a ribald 17th century word for the vagina – offers products including Oh Yes! (an aloe vera serum to enhance sexual pleasure) and Happy Clam oil, billed as ‘an eye cream for your vagina’. Rockstar RollOn’s Woman is a high potency CDB, full-spectrum hemp oil that soothes, moisturises and stimulates a woman’s v-zone. Other offers from sexual health brands included the fabulously-shaped, brightly-coloured sex toys from Brooklyn company Dame; and those from another Brooklyn brand, Maude, which showcased jojoba oil massage candles, condoms, organic lubricants and a USB-charged vibrator designed for an Instagram flat lay.

There was a host of ‘fabulous femcare’ on show, both visually and in tone, an entire galaxy away from the traditional feminine hygiene space. Phoenix brand Kegelbell sells weights kits housed in striking egg-yolk yellow and white packaging, which help women improve their pelvic floor for sexual enjoyment and better bladder function. Menstrual cups were elevated way above a hippy eco-vibe. New Zealand-based Hello’s cup is both recyclable and made from TPE plastic, suitable for people with allergies to silicone, rubber or latex, and Idaho’s Saalt donates its reusable period care products to those in need and funding educational scholarships and life skills training.

There were also several products to keep ‘hormones in harmony’. Brooklyn-based Bootsy Health makes a hormone-balancing tincture with chasteberry to reduce PMS and reduce cramps. Blume offers Meltdown, an anti-hormonal spot treatment oil, as part of its wider mission to provide ‘self-care for the mind, body and spirit’. There was also Cloud 9, a cramp soothing oil and Knours, an app-enabled skin care range tailored to women’s period cycles.


2. Head-To-Toe Happy

Indie beauty has pretty much enveloped the personal care category, once functional and mostly no frills. IBE showcased hyper-specific products for almost every part of the body.

All clichés aside, ‘delightful dental’ is infinitely more developed in the States than in Europe. Terra & Co., housed in elegant black and white packaging, is indistinguishable from luxury skin care and focused around charcoal, peppermint and coconut oils. The standout is its biodegradable Brilliant Black Bamboo Toothbrush. Australia’s Black Chicken Remedies showcased a weighty copper tongue scraper and New York company Alka-White demonstrated its mint and coconut pH-balancing tablets to reduce gum inflammation, improve breath and whiten teeth as part of a week-long detox course.

Indie brands are really pushing the envelope with ‘sophisticated sun care’. Suntique, a brand from Korea, is aiming to become a global sun care brand by 2020, covering everything from A-Z (26 products in total), with nine natural products launched so far in beautiful geometric packaging. The range will cover everything from dark spot prevention and correction to sun cream cleanser, hair protection and more, with the intention of establishing sun care boutiques offering personalised sun care products and routines. Solara Suncare, meanwhile, offers mineral only sun care products in an incredibly strict ‘free-from’ range, with full transparency on ingredients. These are available in fragranced and fragrance-free versions.

There’s been a huge shift towards ‘deodorants of desire’ in the States too. Not just in terms of naturals, but also in packaging innovation (think Myro and humankind) and this was in clear view at IBE. LA-based Sway was exhibiting a charcoal detox scrub to exfoliate armpits and reduce BO. HK- based brand Coconut Matter’s Mood deodorants claim to be 100% zero waste and boast biodegradable ingredients and packaging, housed in pretty pastel cardboard tubes. Arizona’s Whish, meanwhile, offers a deodorant swipe with chaparral extract to inhibit hair growth, and Denver-based Little Moon Essentials is a clay and charcoal-based moisture-controlling foot deodorant.


3. Patches Plus

Physical masks and patches are now firmly established and it’s a rare skin care brand that doesn’t have at least one among their skus. As we’ve seen from ground-breaking brand Nannette de Gaspé, masks and patches are no longer confined to the face, they’re concentrating on the entire body and full of ‘hyperfunctionality’. IBE NYC was packed with them.

Popmask’s Starry Eyes claims to be the ‘world’s kindest eye mask’ and uses iron powder, water, vermiculite, activated carbon and salt to provide a self-heating mask that de-puffs, de-stresses and eases eye strain. And LA-based company Mask takes a biodegradable sheet mask and packs it with a range of cannabinoids including CBG and CBN, in addition to CBD, differentiating it from the rest of the CBD-only competition.

LA brand Lapcos was showcasing its herb and oil-infused foot mask, containing lavender, sage, rosemary and peppermint oils to perk up tired feet, and a soothing vanilla-scented hand mask with camellia and coconut oils in simple pastel Instagram-friendly packaging. Working on an even more unconventional part of the body was the New-Jersey based Korean brand Asamo’s After Brazilian Waxing bikini line mask, using aloe vera, hemp seed oil and bamboo to soothe and calm irritated skin post hair removal. And from the front bottom, to the back, Bawdy’s bottom-shaped, collagen and caffeine-infused butt mask Slap It, promises to exfoliate, detoxify and smooth. Cheeky!


4. Hypernaturally Healthy

As can be seen from the above, there is so much crossover and convergence in beauty, health and wellness, it’s hard to categorise, but there also some sub-themes that stood out strongly, particularly focusing on pain, sleep and mood.

You could have put ‘CBD’ almost anywhere in this trend summary (it was almost a game at the Expo to spot which brands weren’t using CBD in their formulations), but the brands that stood out were those focusing on efficacy and novel formats. LA LA Leaf, has included QR codes on its packaging linking to a third-party lab report verifying its ingredients and BLNCD Naturals, which offers ingestibles and topicals, stands out on this front, offering in-depth lab reports and dosing guidelines. LA company The Good Patch uses CBD and other actives (including black cohosh, capsaicin, melatonin and menthol) to infuse patches to help to relieve hangovers, PMS and more. I+I Botanicals showed off a CBD teabag with salts, dried herbs and flowers to go in the bath before bedtime with no cleaning up needed.

There were some interesting ‘perfect pain relief’ products being displayed. Mineralgia offered a camphor, menthol and Dead Sea mineral-packed cream in simple white and turquoise packaging, and Serena Williams-backed Asutra had its Melt pain away magnesium body butter.

The show was also full of ‘interesting ingestibles’ ranging from sleep aids through to plant-based pre- and probiotics. Stamba’s range of plant-based superfood, adaptogenic and probiotic products, tailored to various needs states like post-illness and jet lag, was particularly interesting.

There were also a whole host of ‘intensive ingredient’-based ranges that elevate the natural into something more potent with serious efficacy. Acaderma goes for full scientific transparency – and stunningly simple white and pastel highlighted packaging – for skin care packed with its own patented actives from intriguing ingredients like kinkeliba and picea leaf. Brooklyn-based biophile doesn’t actually launch until 2020 but gave a sneak peek of its proprietary bio-fermented Biotic Broths™made from ingredients including chaga mushroom, reishi and licorice, that will go into an essence, serum and oil.


5. Finally Frivolous

With all the above, you might be mistaken for thinking that IBE NYC 2019 was all about seriousness: serious efficacy, serious conditions, serious sustainability and serious transparency. And to an extent, you would be absolutely right. The indie brands present really have really focused in on consumer concerns about the planet, the chemicals they’re putting in their bodies and their wellbeing in very stressful times. But among all that were also some of the more fun things traditionally associated with beauty products – sensation and sparkle included – even as they stayed more earth-friendly.

Glitter got a natural makeover: the delightfully named Unicorn Snot highlighted its Bioglitter Sunscreen SPF 30, while French brand Merci Handy, showcased a limited edition unicorn-scented (think sugar-scented baby powder) glitter handcream.

The Bubi Bubi Lip scrub from unpa. Cosmetics was a foaming Korean lip treatment that bubbles up and tickles when used, helping to chemically exfoliate and smooth the lips without irritation. Still on the lips, Brooklyn lipstick brand Gorjue is quite literally inspired by the colours of food the founder enjoys on her travels, with shades including salmon nigiri, Southern fried chicken and New York hot dog, each bullet having a tiny model of the food in the clear perspex base of the bullet – all of which I could have devoured after the beauty marathon that was Indie Beauty Expo NYC 2019.

Sara Jones.

Published in Cosmetics Business September 2019.