I remember being a new graduate, working at a small recycling nonprofit outside of D.C. I made $30,000 a year and much of it went toward rent and bills. Any disposable income I had was usually spent during my lunch breaks at the nearby Ulta. Most days, I couldn’t afford much more than a bottle of nail polish (cost: $8), but it was always thrilling to walk out with something—however small.
Fast-forward four years and I was just starting a new career as a beauty editor. I still wasn’t making much money, but there was a crucial difference: I suddenly had all the access in the world to beauty products. Every day, new bags and boxes of shiny lipsticks and shimmery eye shadows were hand-delivered to my desk by a jovial man named Tomas. And every night I would spend hours scanning the labels, swatching every shade and sniffing every bottle before reluctantly forcing myself to go home (armed with an overstuffed tote, of course). It was pure heaven.
Another six years have come and gone, and I am still a (very lucky) beauty editor. But lately, I find myself feeling overwhelmed. Where there once were big launches tied to a season, there are now new! exciting! products coming out every day from all corners of the world—and from brands as big as the ones you find in drugstores to ones that just started a few months ago in someone’s kitchen.
Take, for instance, the rapid growth of the Indie Beauty Expo, which is the largest showcase of independently owned beauty brands in the world. Since its launch in 2015, the number of exhibiting brands jumped from 81 to over 500 in 2018 (and they’re projecting up to 750 participants this year). Mind you, these are just the brands that meet the criteria of being "commercially ready," meaning their sales, distribution and product support are all in place so they can fulfill orders. There are thousands of brands that don’t make the cut. Each with their own range of comprehensive skus.
And I don’t know about you guys, but when I look at all of these options, it’s hard to know what I should actually spend my money on—only it’s my actual job to make recommendations for what products women should spend their money on.
Part of how I do this is through an ongoing video series called Beauty Lab, where I review some of the buzziest products that are currently on the market (so everything from Fenty’s latest highlighter to a pocket-sized microcurrent device for smoothing away fine lines).
Generally, I choose which products to review based on their timeliness (did it just come out and are people curious about how it looks or works?) and how much it excites me (does it somehow make my life easier?). In an ideal world, the product in question is a healthy mix of both. But in the two years that I've been doing the series, it’s become increasingly difficult to maintain this standard because the life cycle of a product or trend is so damn short. Last year’s watermelon mask is this year's micro-needling patch. And folks who were once obsessed with jade rolling are now all about Gua Sha (present company included).
I put a lot of thought into the products I review, but the question that's been haunting me lately is how many of them are truly worth the investment? How many of them pass the test of time? Say a 21-year-old graduate making $30,000 a year has only $8 to spare per pay check. Can I, in good faith, recommend that she save up to buy a $55 face mask—or $200 serum? I don’t know.
What I do know is that I have to be more conscientious about what I’m telling people. And I need to go beyond showing them the next shiny new thing and provide specific tools so they can make informed decisions. For me, that starts with the ingredients.
In the past year, I've had many friends and colleagues get pregnant, and one of the first things their doctors tell them is to look at some of the beauty products they've been using. Commonly found ingredients like aluminum, formaldehyde, parabens and phthalates are flagged for their potential risk in harming the baby and mother. Which begs the question: Why are we using them at all—pregnant or not? Especially when we have so many choices.
Now, I'm not declaring all chemicals as bad and suggesting that you clean house of everything you own. Rather, I’ve started to clear through the clutter by swapping just three of my standbys: sunscreen (I only use physical blockers like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide), deodorant (no aluminum or synthetic fragrances touch these pits) and body lotion (I prefer botanical oils like argan, sunflower seed or jojoba and, again, no synthetic fragrances).
Of course, we all have different priorities and you may not agree with me on all my picks. However, I find that it’s increasingly helpful to at least identify some parameters for yourself to help navigate the sea of options. So, here it is: The three main questions to ask yourself when deciding what's worth the spend.
1. What's your budget? Back to the question of whether a $55 face mask is worth the money. There isn't just one answer. What I will say is this: After testing thousands of products through the years, I can objectively (and confidently) say that many of the drugstore cosmetics I've tried are just as effective and enjoyable to use as their luxe counterparts.
2. What's important to you? The ingredients? The cost? Or maybe you just want something that stays on your face without smudging? Decide what your non-negotiables are and prioritize your spending accordingly.
3. Do you identify with the brand or company? Is it family-owned or local to your town? Does it have a social initiative or support an organization that matters to you? Again, we have so many choices. Why not buy the things that make us feel good?
Because at its best, beauty should be uplifting, a small moment of reprieve from the craziness of this world and our lives—which is exactly why I got into this industry in the first place. Not for the love of lipstick (though, to be clear, I love it dearly) but to help people feel the elation of finding something that really works for them. Send me your questions. Lay down your concerns. Let me know how I can help you @jyjin.