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As if the labels on cosmetics weren't already tricky to navigate, Janna Zittrer Appleby reports the industry is amping up its embrace of idiosyncratic ingredients

Zalto carafe no25, $70, Ichendorf Piuma sugar pot and spoon, $30 at Hopson Grace (

When it comes to launching beauty's next big thing, it seems no ingredient is too onerous or obscure. Hand-picking 70,000 flowers in 24 hours to yield a single pound of saffron, collecting bee venom by running a mild electric current through a hive-side pane of glass, and scooping up trails of snail slime are just a few of the lengths beauty innovators will go to bring the latest must-have to market.

But what, exactly, makes an "it" product so popular? "The greatest success comes when a product meets a very specific need and delivers on this promise," says Jane Nugent, vice-president, merchandising at Sephora Canada. "Even more powerful is if the product delivers on the brand's promise in an authentic way," she adds. "Beauty lovers are savvy consumers, and they let us know quickly if a product will be a best-seller."

For New York–based beauty startup Glossier, listening to the end user has been a leading source of success. "Our community has always been at the foundation of what we create, so when it comes to product formulation, we first and foremost want to address our community's needs," says Emily Weiss, Glossier's founder and CEO.

While crowdsourcing and product performance do factor into the equation, "it's really marketing that makes an ingredient become a trend," says celebrity facialist Kate Somerville. As for her namesake skincare line, Somerville says she doesn't believe in following trends. "Just because an ingredient is trendy does not mean it is the most effective. Tried and true ingredients like hyaluronic acid, retinol, glycolic and salicylic acid remain for a reason – they deliver great results."

According to Lev Glazman, co-founder of Fresh cosmetics, technology also plays a key role, propelling products from oblivion to omnipresence in a matter of days. "Social media drives things in a way that never existed before," he says. "If you are an influencer, and you come across an ingredient you think is weird and interesting, you can blog about it and reach seven million people. Then those seven million people tell so many others, and suddenly 30 million people are aware of it."

For a 26-year-old brand such as Fresh, an ingredient's star status can be an unexpected boon. Launched with little fanfare in 2000, Fresh's Umbrian Clay Purifying Mask has long been among the brand's top-selling products. "When we introduced the product 17 years ago, we were a small brand making many products. We couldn't have big launches and put a full marketing muscle behind each one," says Glazman. Capitalizing on the recent clay beauty craze, in March Fresh released a limited-edition version of its mask, with special packaging by famed Italian ceramic workshop Rometti. "I'm not upset others are doing clay now," says Glazman. "I just feel that it's very important for us to remind everybody that we were one of the first."

Likewise, Stephen de Heinrich, co-founder of Budapest-based skincare brand Omorovicza, has seen the benefits of a signature ingredient's rise to fame. Touted by celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow and Kim Cattrall, mineral-rich Moor mud has been making headlines in the past few years. Shortly after Omorovicza's 2006 debut, de Heinrich noticed more and more mud-based products hitting store shelves. "When GlamGlow launched [in 2010], we initially thought, 'Oh, damn. We put all this effort into these wonderful mud products when there were no others on the market,'" he says. But de Heinrich decided to ride, rather than resist, the wave. "Competition is actually a very, very good thing," he says. "[Mud] became much bigger than any way we could have done ourselves. The more people out there who are interested in the ingredient, the better it ultimately is for us."

Occasionally, beauty trends benefit not only a handful of brands but the entire industry. "I feel a lot of companies have jumped on 'naturals' because it's a trend," says George Korres, co-founder of natural skincare brand Korres. "Naturals" constituted a fringe category when the Athens-based brand launched in 2006. As demand for natural ingredients grew through the early 2000s, suppliers innovated quickly to keep pace. "The more brands were interested in natural ingredients, the bigger the push for raw materials. Because of this, we have solutions that didn't exist 15 or 20 years ago," says Korres.

The hype surrounding good-for-you ingredients has served consumers, too. "Holistic nutrition trends have had a huge ripple effect into the skincare world, as people are finally realizing that it is somewhat pointless to eat healthy if you're slathering crappy stuff all over your body," says Graydon Moffat, founder of Graydon, a plant-based skincare brand out of Toronto. "Using activated charcoal as an example, it's the holistic food world, including Toronto's own Greenhouse Juice Co., that has made ingredients like it super-sexy and recognizable to a wide consumer base that would otherwise not know about it."

Emily Ferber, senior editor at beauty blog Into The Gloss, agrees. "As more and more consumers start parsing ingredient lists, whole, natural oils and extracts are a more attractive sell," she says. "And if you can market a hero ingredient as the one crucial thing missing from your routine, even better."

Faddish ingredients do have a downside, of course. "I think one issue is the sustainability of ingredients," says Julie Clark, founder of Toronto-based organic skincare company Province Apothecary. "In the past few years, there have been shortages of ingredients like rosehip, apricot oil, frankincense and slippery elm. This really concerns me about 'trendy' ingredients," she says.

In an era of quickened trend cycles, it's unlikely that the quest for marketable ingredients will let up any time soon. "Chemists tend to come back to a few core ingredients simply because they work," says Omorovicza's de Heinrich. "But you can't really talk about just those core ingredients when you're launching new products, because, frankly, people might get bored."

Next big things

These ingredients are freshening up the formulations for skincare and hair products


Among the salad dressing staple's many beauty benefits, apple cider vinegar can brighten and balance the pH level of the skin, as well as seal the hair cuticle for added body and shine.

AG Hair Boost Apple Cider Vinegar Conditioner, $28 through

Graydon Super Sensitive Face Foam, $25 through


One of the oldest beauty remedies in the world, clay is a natural exfoliator that draws out impurities while releasing detoxifying minerals into the skin.

Fresh Limited Edition Umbrian Clay Purifying Mask, $75 at Sephora ( and Nordstrom (

Consonant 20% Clay Exfoliating Cleansing Bar, $18 through


Loved by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Kim Cattrall and Sarah Jessica Parker, Moor mud has been used for centuries to deeply cleanse, purify and nourish the skin.

Omorovicza Moor Cream, $100 through

Peter Thomas Roth Irish Moor Mud Purifying Black Mask, $72 at Sephora.


Mounting research shows that certain bacteria, including lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, prove effective in treating dry, sensitive and acne-prone skin.

Rodial Super Acids Sleep Serum, $98 at Murale (

Korres Greek Yoghurt Smoothie Priming Moisturiser, $55 at Shopper’s Drug Mart and through


Long ingested to reduce inflammation, turmeric can also calm cystic acne and rosacea flare-ups when applied topically, and contains potent antioxidants to slow signs of aging.

Province Apothecary Clear Skin Advanced Spot Treatment, $28 through

Kiehl’s Turmeric & Cranberry Seed Energizing Radiance Masque, $50 at Kiehl’s (

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