It used to be that natural beauty products were relegated to the spelt dust-covered shelves of health food stores. Boasting wild and largely unsubstantiated claims (i.e. deodorant crystals work) and wrapped in rudimentary recycled paper festooned with illustrations of woodland animals and cannabis leaves, they were crude and inelegant products that looked like they'd been cooked up on a hippie's camping stove. A stroll down one of those patchouli-scented beauty aisles was enough to make your eyes tear and catapult you back to the chemical mushroom cloud of your local drugstore.
But as a hippie once said, the times they are a-changin'. Today, the natural-beauty category has received a much-needed makeover and there's nary a woodland creature in sight. Thanks to the advocacy (and pontification) of beautiful, moneyed celebrities like Jessica Alba and Gwyneth Paltrow, and the mainstream consumer's increasing concern with "toxic load," natural beauty has blossomed into a $33-billion global category that's expected to reach more than $50-billion by 2019. It's backed by serious science and wrapped in chic packaging. Gone is the spiky sativa, and in its place is clean, streamlined and elegant branding that is as luxurious as it is effective.
"Organic beauty has well and truly shaken off the hempy, homespun image it had 10 years ago," says Sarah Brown, founder of London-based certified organic sensitive-skin line Pai Skincare. "The organic brands around now are premium, aspirational and are really starting to lead where mainstream brands follow."
Michelle Broda, category manager for prestige cosmetics at Shoppers Drug Mart, says authenticity and efficacy are the mitigating factors that dictate which natural products land on Shoppers's shelves.
"The formulas with some of the early organic and natural products were not very stable, smelled terrible and worst of all, did not offer the benefits they claimed," she says. "What we see today are fantastic natural innovations standing next to traditional products."
And that proximity is having an effect on the natural brands, too. For the most part, these companies are upping their packaging game to catch the eye of the fickle beauty customer.
"At the beginning, we were focused on our formulas and marketing was an afterthought," says Tata Harper, founder of her eponymous upscale natural skincare brand, based in Vermont. "As we've grown, our focus has continued to be on creating world-class natural formulas and finding packaging that delivers a great user experience for our customers."
Bill Baker, founder of Toronto-based natural botanical line Consonant Skincare, knew when he launched his brand in 2008 that rejigging the look of natural beauty was as important as being free of parabens. "We design our packaging to connect with customers in a meaningful way," he says. "Our labels literally talk to customers."
Although they aren't actually embedded with an audio chip, Consonant's packaging, which consists of a slick type-heavy design, uses clever, tongue-in-cheek rhetoric à la Bliss (a cult beauty brand with products like Poetic Waxing, their line for at-home hair removal). The result is a retro apothecary aesthetic with an ironic edge. In essence, exactly what hipsters want to showcase in their designer bathrooms.
"We stay on top of trends," Baker explains. "The worst thing we could ever become is irrelevant."
Shelf appeal is just as important at home as it is in-store, and it's not just because we all want to achieve Instagram-worthy water closets. Pai's pretty and minimalist packaging was inspired by Brown's own sensitive-skin issues, which meant she had to use prescription products with no aesthetic charm.
"While my friends were picking up items in beautiful, shiny packaging, everything I could use was ugly, medical-looking and embarrassing to have on my bathroom shelf," she says. "It might seem minor, but looking at those products every day just reminded me that I had difficult skin, and it slowly ate away at my self-confidence."
Now it's the traditional brands that are feeling insecure. The maturity and growing success of natural beauty is creating an industry-wide ripple effect. Since natural brands entered the mass-market arena and gained traction among health-minded consumers, Broda notes, powerhouse companies have started to feel the pressure to shine a green light on their identity.
"Brands like Clarins are going back to speaking to their roots and telling the story of how they use the power of plants to drive the innovation and ingredients found in their products," she says.
Zoe Roebuck, co-founder of Australia-based natural skincare brand Dr. Roebuck's, chalks it up to a growing consumer focus on going green. "There is what researchers call 'the health creep,'" she says. "Natural wellness and health is creeping into all categories from food to skincare. People are more and more conscious of not eating or drinking foods with nasty chemicals, and realize the benefit of eating healthy. The skincare space is definitely moving in the same direction."
In 2012, Johnson & Johnson announced it would remove all "chemicals of concern" from its products by the end of this year. And last year, the beauty-care giant reformulated roughly 100 different baby products to eliminate the potentially harmful ingredients formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, which were present in everything from baby lotion to the famous Johnson's Baby Shampoo most of us grew up on. That's one far-reaching health creep.
Despite the mea culpas that are starting to resonate, however, the natural-beauty industry still faces the uphill battle of balancing legitimacy with attractiveness – it's the classic brains-before-beauty conundrum.
"Brands that offer natural products have to convey dual messages," Broda says. "One about what the product does and the other about what makes it natural. They need to convey all of this information while still being eye-catching enough to grab the customer's attention."
Between consumer awareness, increased pressure to introduce new technologies and back scientific claims, and the terror-inducing power of entering "phthalates" into a Google search, natural companies have their work cut out for them.
In response, brands like Korres set up a virtual arsenal of scientific firepower to back up every botanical claim they make. The brand collaborates with eight different international institutes, including the University of Athens and France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, to rigorously test ingredients and their benefits.
"The top priorities for us are the science, the clinical research and the efficacy behind each formulation," says George Korres, co-founder of the Greece-based natural pharmaceutical brand. "Our Black Pine line has proven the exceptional action of black pine polyphenol in regulating MMPs [enzymes that promote healing], thus regulating the skin's firming and elasticity. If not the most natural anti-aging skincare out there – it has a natural content of up to 97.7 per cent – it is certainly one of the best-performing natural breakthrough lines."
Step aside, deodorant crystals and clay toothpaste.
But all this does, admittedly, come at a cost. Scan the aisles of any major beauty retailer and you'll notice that much like the produce at Whole Foods, natural brands can command considerably higher prices than their traditional competitors.
"The skincare lines that match us in price point have formulas that contain synthetic chemicals, so there are very few other options for high-performance 100-per-cent-natural products," Harper says. "We produce every formula from scratch and handle every element of production in-house. Plus, we choose the highest quality natural ingredients available on the market, which are usually the most expensive options."
Just like food, however, natural beauty's promises of a lighter toxic load render its prices almost irrelevant.
"People who are committed to natural products are willing to pay more for that feature," Broda says. "But if the product does not work, it will not be repurchased."
And so natural beauty's march toward a chemical-free future that delivers effective results continues – only now, it's no longer down the aisle of a dusty health food store.