More and more beauty brands are reformulating to be clean and vegan, but consumers aren’t always happy about it

Glossier is the latest brand to face backlash with its Balm Dotcom reformulation
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Hannah Minn

5 min read

In pop music, artists who release not-so-FCC-friendly songs make “clean” versions for the radio, while the profanity-laden original is still available to fans who want it. The same isn’t true in the beauty industry; when beauty brands release a “clean” version of a product, the original is typically scrapped, leaving some consumers high and dry.

The most recent example of this is Glossier, which announced last month its plan to reformulate its bestselling Balm Dotcom lip balm to be vegan. The product, introduced as one of the brand’s first four products in 2014, is now made without lanolin, and replacing beeswax with synthetic beeswax, and petrolatum—the first ingredient in its ingredient list—with castor jelly.

  • The new formulation debuted on its site this week, with the price increasing to $14.

The announcement garnered social media backlash, with comments criticizing the “thin” formulation and questioning the motives behind the move. (Glossier did not respond to a request for comment on whether it will receive the Clean at Sephora label).

The brand is set to make its wholesale debut at the beauty retailer this month after announcing it in July. The reformulation is “a pretty early example of them trying to figure out what type of consumer they want to get at Sephora,” Anna Keller, global senior analyst of beauty and personal care at Mintel, told us.

  • Haus Labs made a similar move last year when it overhauled its entire product line to be clean for the DTC-only brand’s exclusive partnership with Sephora. While prices went up as a result, its new foundation went viral last year.
  • Bite Beauty, on the other hand, reformulated its signature lip products to be vegan in 2020, and some said this contributed to the brand going out of business last year.

As more brands jump on this trend of reformulating products to be “clean” or “vegan,” they’re “future-proofing” their products as consumer sentiment evolves, Keller noted, and secure coveted labels like Clean at Sephora. But success isn’t that clean cut: As brands replace fan-favorite products in favor of using these unregulated terms, they risk leaving some consumers behind.

Clean sweep: “Clean” beauty (“Free from parabens, sulfates, phthalates, artificial colors and fragrances, and +600 other ingredients,” as defined by NielsenIQ) saw sales grow 18% to $544 million last year, and retailers are buying in: Sephora is the top clean beauty seller, accounting for 28% of category sales (it currently touts 80+ Clean at Sephora brands), followed by 16% at Ulta and 14% at Target.

  • Anna Mayo, VP of content and strategy for NielsenIQ’s beauty vertical, said the clean trend “has staying power” and has become “a little bit of table stakes,” for brands.

But use of these terms can be tricky. Unlike claims like “organic,” “clean” is not federally regulated, so “it’s a bit of a Wild West still,” Mayo said. That means retailers like Ulta, Target, and Sephora have created their own standards.

  • Sephora is currently facing a class action lawsuit regarding its Clean at Sephora label, with a lawsuit filed in November claiming many products the retailer dubbed clean, like a mascara from Saie, feature synthetic ingredients.
  • In 2018, Glossier had to refund customers amid outrage that its “vegan” Lash Slick mascara contained beeswax.

Coming clean: Over the last two years, clean beauty manufacturing company The GoodKind Co. has seen more brands looking to reformulate existing products “because of either the retailer that they’re selling in or what their consumer feedback is about their current ingredients,” Ellen Lennon, its SVP of partnerships, told Retail Brew.

  • Still, there’s always “puts and takes,” with reformulation, often leading to higher costs (which are generally passed on to the consumer) and products that perform differently than what customers are used to, she noted.
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Brands with particularly loyal fanbases like Glossier often face upset customers amid reformulations, Keller noted, as the shift can often make some consumers feel like they’re being pushed aside for a new desired customer. And there’s a big difference in perception between brands that have been clean or vegan to start versus ones that have just jumped on the bandwagon to get a label at a retailer, especially if that brand continues to sell other items that aren’t clean or vegan (While Balm Dotcom no longer uses beeswax, Glossier’s Boy Brow still does).

“When people see the shift in behavior that’s not necessarily part of the original DNA of the brand, or it’s not part of their core ethos—really just doing it for what it seems like a marketing perspective—that can be a big problem,” Keller noted.

Ultimately, of even more importance than being “clean” or “vegan” is being transparent and authentic, Keller said.

“They want to have trust in the claims that brands are making, but they also want to trust that the products are what they say they are,” she said.

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.