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The Rise of Ingredient Led Beauty

Olivia Stelmaszczyk Profile Picture
Olivia Stelmaszczyk Bio

This article is adapted from a June 2022 issue of TeknoScience Household & Personal Care.

Today’s beauty consumer is smarter than ever, increasingly researching beauty products online in an effort to find the most efficacious products. Ingredients are starting to play a more critical role in consumers’ research and purchase paths. Brands such as The Ordinary have capitalised on this new search mechanism, with its ingredient-based product names pushing it towards the top of ingredient-led Google searches. So, what is driving ingredient-led beauty searches, and are they here to stay? 

What are the consumer motivations behind ingredient-led beauty searches?

Ingredient-led beauty searches could be partially motivated by the high number of clean brands and claims like “natural” in the US. Euromonitor International’s Product Claims and Positioning found that “natural” claims in online SKUs of skin care products in the US rose 8% in 2020 and 11% in 2021. On the consumer end however, the number of US respondents looking for “natural” or “organic” in skin care fell from 14% in 2020 to 13% in 2021 (Euromonitor’s Voice of the Consumer: Beauty Survey, fielded June to July 2021), suggesting a disconnect between what companies and consumers perceive to be “natural”. The definition of “natural” is quite varied, and consumer interpretations could range from being organic, vegan, or cruelty-free, to using plant-based or botanical ingredients, to being free from synthetics or fragrances, and even to “feeling” natural in terms of packaging or sensory textures. Since “natural” is not a standardised claim, this “clean washing” can sometimes contribute to a level of mistrust surrounding the ingredient safety of products, which may explain the decelerating importance of “natural” claims among US consumers in the past few years.


Source: Euromonitor International Voice of the Consumer: Beauty Survey, fielded June to July 2021

To overcome the hurdle that the subjective definition of “natural” poses, industry players have been pushing free-from claims or ingredient exclusion lists (e.g., Clean at Sephora), which leaves less room for ambiguity. However, with lists and claims varying by retailers and brands, consumers are informing themselves to better differentiate between claims with scientific consensus and claims used in fear-mongering tactics. For example, a paraben-free movement emerged after the media picked up stories linking the ingredient to breast cancer. But today, dermatologists and chemists warn that these essential preservatives were unfairly demonised, and companies touting “free from parabens” often end up replacing them with more toxic ingredients like methylisothiazolinone.

With consumers spending more time researching beauty products online before making a purchasing decision, they are becoming “skintellectuals”, and are better at understanding their unique skin needs. In turn, ingredient-led searches help consumers find specific actives to treat or prevent their skin concerns, like acne or dark spots, leading to a more personalised and efficacious skin care routine. Superfood trends in food and beverages also influence the ingredient-specific movement in beauty, as collagen has become a popular functional ingredient targeting beauty (e.g., Pact’s Flow With It Collagen Snack Bites), and claims like antioxidant and hydration have migrated to packaged foods. On the same note, the rising priority of health and wellness encourages consumers to dig into specific ingredients coming from Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, such as turmeric, moringa, ginger, goji berries, snow mushroom, etc.

The significant influence of digital media platforms should not be overlooked


Source: Euromonitor International Voice of the Consumer: Digital Consumer Survey, fielded March to April 2021

There is no coincidence that the rise of ingredient-led beauty coincides with the rise of educational content on social media, especially apps like TikTok. The platform is saturated with “skinfluencers”, dermatologists and cosmetic chemists developing content about their perspective on beauty brands and ingredients. Creators like Hyram Yarbro, who create videos that dispel common ingredient myths, have amassed large followings as they help consumers understand ingredient labels and make more informed decisions. Several ingredients have gone viral on TikTok, such as retinol and hyaluronic acid, underscoring the platform’s informative strength and influence on purchase paths. For example, Glow Recipe’s Watermelon Glow Niacinamide Dew Drops went viral with the help of Mikayla Nogueira, leading to numerous stockouts in the US. The substantial influence of TikTok should not be discounted, as Tim Natividad, US Head of Enterprise Sales at TikTok, highlighted a “very tangible link between brands that do well on TikTok and sales” and its impressive power in expanding the path to purchase in beauty during a Cosmetic Executive Women presentation in May 2022.


Source: Euromonitor International Voice of the Consumer: Digital Consumer Survey, fielded March to April 2021

Ingredient trends in 2021

Brought to the forefront by digital platforms, it is not surprising that beauty and personal care witnessed more momentum in active ingredients that support skin health in 2021, especially those with moisturising and skin barrier protection benefits. During the pandemic, heavy-hitting actives such as retinols, hydroxy acids and vitamin C were highly sought out. But, as stress on the skin increased (e.g., maskne, dryness from over-washing, etc.) and some consumers experienced sensitivity issues following frequent use or overlapping use of harsh actives, a shift towards softer alternatives is gaining traction. Tocopherols instead of vitamin C, bakuchiol instead of retinol, and plant-derived antioxidants like rosemary or ginkgo biloba instead of BHA and BHT are just a few examples of this gravitation toward alternative, but still effective ingredients. Educational content on skin microbiome protection is shining a light on plant oils, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, allantoin and fatty acids like ceramides. Players are exploring marine-sourced ingredients like algae and sea kelp extracts, delivering on demand for effective but also sustainable and naturally-derived ingredients. Euromonitor’s Product Claims and Positioning found that the top 10 claims in online SKUs of skin care products in the US remained the same between 2019 and 2021, apart from vegan overtaking the 10th spot from fragrance-free. However, claims like hydrating, no parabens and no phthalates are showing a downtrend in 2021, following impressive 2020 growth, while skin health is showing stronger growth in 2021 vs 2020, suggesting a growing opportunity for development.

How is this new search mechanism changing beauty players’ strategies in skin care?

With this new search mechanism, successful brands have responded by making ingredients information and their benefits more easily accessible to consumers via improved packaging, e-commerce filtration features, and various content efforts, like blog posts, quizzes, or live-streaming events with influencers, dermatologists, or chemists. Brands like Biossance, The Inkey List, and Byredo have launched ingredient indexes, as have retailers like Space NK and content platforms like Byrdie and Vogue. Meanwhile, brands like Alpha-H and Glow Recipe have added ingredient filtration features to their e-commerce sites.


Source: May 12, 2022:

What is next for ingredients?

Sustainability will influence the next wave of popular skin care ingredients and formulation methods. “Green chemistry” is coming to the forefront among beauty giants like LVMH, L’Oréal and Estée Lauder, considered the intersection of clean beauty and sustainability. The initiative focuses on eliminating hazardous substances and adding or replacing previous ingredients with biobased ones, creating a truly sustainable product from manufacturing to consumption. Seasonality could become another tool for players looking to improve their sustainable ingredient sourcing and stand out from competitors. Brands like Ekos use local harvesting methods and only release certain products during the growing cycles of their respective ingredients.

The increased focus on and scrutiny of ingredients is already showing evidence of spreading beyond skin care to hair care, colour cosmetics, and bath and shower. For instance, skinification is rising in hair care, with scalp treatments and hair masks featuring niacinamide and hyaluronic acid. While skin care overtook colour cosmetics, cannibalising some spend in 2021, colour cosmetics is poised to be the next area disrupted by the ingredient focus, with more skinified launches expected moving forward (e.g., foundations with Amazonian clay, concealers with nourishing coconut oils, etc.). Moving forward, consumers will be looking for colour cosmetics that go beyond covering or concealing skin problems, also supporting their long-term skin health. As an ingredient focus has become a tool that helps consumers reach their beauty goals, beauty players, and especially colour cosmetics players, should adjust their strategies amid the rising number of skintellectuals and consumers looking for the most nutrient-rich products.

Future outlook: Transparency to be key in gaining consumer trust

The pandemic-induced focus on health and safety will continue to foster a closer examination of beauty ingredients, as consumers continue questioning what is inside the products they use daily. Efforts are being made on the legislative side, with California’s Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act banning 24 ingredients, and more recently the proposed Safer Beauty Bill Package pushing for a federal ban on 11 toxic chemicals and ingredient transparency as an industry standard. Entertaining yet educational content, such as HBO Max’s “Not So Pretty” docuseries launched in early 2022, will continue sparking conversations around harmful ingredients and encouraging consumers to undertake further research.

Moving forward, brands will have to be more specific and transparent about the ingredients they are using, the claims they are making and the attributes they are spotlighting to appeal to an increasingly educated audience. Currently, there is a push for fragrance ingredient disclosures, as US regulations allow brands to simply list “fragrance” generically. Unilever has been ahead of the curve, disclosing fragrance ingredients down to 0.01% level, and also hosting its products on SmartLabel, with access to ingredient information and third-party certifications. Beyond formulations, brands could also explore precision dispensing formats or curated content that would help eliminate the guesswork for consumers when it comes to a safe yet effective amount of active ingredient to use.

For further insight read our article, Key Strategies for Value Creation Through Back to Basics.

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