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Since first hitting the market in 2007, Beautyblender has sold well over 6.5 million sponges. Each sponge retails for around $20 — do a bit of quick math, that means $130 million in sales. Considering that makeup sponges are typically thought to be an obscenely cheap tool that retail for mere pennies, the numbers are impressive.
Even more impressive is the Beautyblender’s impact on the reputation of the sponge. "Sponges were a disposable, throwaway product. We were taught very early on through marketing and the way sponges are sold in bags of 36 or whatever to throw them away and get a new one and use it," declares Rea Ann Silva, the creator of the Beautyblender. Instead, she’s managed to transform the sponge into a reusable, and highly coveted, part of any makeup bag.
Silva never set out to build an empire. Instead, the Beautyblender was very much crafted out of frustration. Silva, a veteran makeup artist for film and television, found herself as the department head for the sitcom Girlfriends, one of the first shows to be shot in high definition. "Prior to that season, most films were shot in 35mm film. High def was this whole new world where suddenly you saw the makeup. It was totally scary for directors, producers, and editors," says Silva. She was hired for her expertise in beauty make-up airbrushing, which looked flawless in high definition. There were no lines of demarcation; the makeup looked seamlessly blended on the face.
However, doing touchups with an airbrushing compressor between takes was practically impossible. "I had to find a way to make that flawless airbrush finish continuous throughout the whole day of shooting," she explains. At the time, Silva was also taking classes through her union; during one of these sessions a lightbulb went off.
Sponges were typically manufactured in a triangular wedge shape, because that was the most cost effective way to produce sponge material.
"A really noteworthy makeup artist [was] teaching the class and she talked to us about the beginnings of makeup — specifically pancake make up where activating a sponge with water gives you the flawless, seamless finish." That’s when it hit her that using an edgeless wet sponge could result in makeup with a naturally smooth, even textured finish. Alas, there was nothing on the market like that: Sponges were typically manufactured in a triangular wedge shape, because that was the most cost effective way to produce sponge material.
So, Silva turned to a pair of scissors. "I started beveling and cutting the triangular sponges into rounded shapes similar to the sponge today. It was a godsend. It allowed me to press make up that’s been on all day long back into submission." These wet, beveled sponges — sponges with sloped, trimmed edges — eliminated two of the biggest issues in high definition TV makeup: visible pores and caked-on makeup. Silva is quick to point out that special effects makeup artists have been cutting their sponges for years, but no one had really thought to apply the technique to the beauty makeup world.
Once she nailed down the shape, Silva began experimenting with materials. At the time, the industry started crafting more hydrophilic sponges that become softer when wet ("like a kitchen sponge"), which lent itself well to her makeup technique. Next came the arduous process of figuring out how to manufacture these sponges. "I’m a makeup artist," says Silva, "I never thought in a million years that I would invent a sponge that would change how people put makeup on. I didn’t really know where to start."
Silva is resourceful, however. "I would travel from country to country and would buy sponges everywhere, whether it be from mass market drug stores or high end makeup boutiques," explains Silva. "I would turn the package over and see who it was manufactured by and I started seeing a pattern." It turned out that at the time, most of the sponges were produced by one of four factories across the globe. So she simply called up the factory closest to her — Victoria Vogue in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. (The sponge company eventually fell victim to outsourcing, and Silva hired a handful of employees to join her Beautyblender team.)
Silva is many things, but shy is not one of them. "I cold called the company, it was kind of ballsy. I told them I am a makeup artist and I needed to talk to somebody in the product development department. They passed me on to this woman called Catherine Bailey." The year was 1998, long before Beautyblender launched its hot pink reign on the beauty world, but it was the genesis of a long and fruitful relationship. Bailey would eventually go on to become the COO of Beautyblender, but her relationship with Silva got off to a tumultuous start.
"She called me to say, ‘Rea Ann, I have to apologize to you, it was the palm slap to my forehead, I can’t believe we haven’t thought of this. I’d really like to help you.’"
"When I first called Catherine and told her that I wanted to produce a sponge, she was like, ‘Listen lady, we have a million people calling here wanting to make sponges… I don’t know if I can help you,’’’ recalls Silva. Unfazed, Silva pressed on, eventually convincing Bailey that there was no harm in at least looking at her idea. "I ended up disclosing my design to her and she called me to say, ‘Rea Ann, I have to apologize to you, it was the palm slap to my forehead, I can’t believe we haven’t thought of this. I’d really like to help you.’"
Bailey connected Silva with a manufacturer who would send her different sample foams to try. During the process, to keep Silva clear about what sample they were referring to, the company would make sure each one was a different color. She never intended for the Beautyblender to be bright pink — you can thank the samples for that. "One day, they sent me a box of samples and it was bright fuchsia pink and it just made me smile. It looked like candy, it just made me happy. And it turned out to be the foam we used today," says Silva.
"I decided that it was time for the makeup sponge to get a little respect and a little notice and it needed to have a little color to do that. To date, the sponge is really only made in white or beige." Silva adds she imagined the bright pink color would also draw customers’ attention. "I just envisioned them on counters and people being drawn to them. [They’re] like the Venus Flytrap of makeup sponges because [they’re] going to draw you in and you are never going to go back to triangle sponges."
With the material nailed down Silva set about producing a handful of sponges in 2003. Silva never intended for the Beautyblender to turn into a full scale company; she just wanted to have the sponges for herself, and maybe sell a few to her TV makeup artist peers. "I thought I’d be able to make a little supplemental income and sell a couple of sponges and help out with my kid’s college fund," she says.
Silva quickly realized that there was demand beyond makeup professionals, because her own sponges kept disappearing. "It turned out the actors were taking them and using them when they weren’t working and had to do their own make up," says Silva with a laugh. Makeup artists and actors began asking Silva for sponges for their friends and she began to re-evaluate her plan, soon selling them at small boutiques.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle Silva faced was convincing people that it really was okay to reuse the sponge.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle Silva faced was convincing people that it really was okay to reuse the sponge. She notes that it was a "challenge" to make people understand that sponges aren’t still dirty after a cleaning, they’re "very similar to brushes in that regard." That’s where the Blendercleanser, Silva’s cleaning solution for the sponge, came in. Combining the sponge and cleanser into one package was key. "It became a system," Silva explains.
While it may have been the biggest hurdle, the reusability of the sponge is also one of the most important aspects of the product to Silva. "I know, myself, I probably disposed of an airline hanger full of regular sponges that aren’t really going anywhere and are taking up space in the environment," she says of her pre-Beautyblender days.
It’s hard to deny the connection between the Beautyblender and the rise of contouring, the beauty technique favored by celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Nicki Minaj, and the majority of the beauty blogger world. Silva admits that she has "mixed feelings" about the connection. "I feel somewhat personally responsible for all the clowning videos out there. As makeup artist I want to cringe when I see people painting their faces like a clown and blending it into perfect makeup," she reveals. "It’s a trick… it’s not the way makeup artists work. But I am fascinated with the creativity of people."
Silva is quick to emphasize that contouring is just one of the techniques the Beautyblender is great for. To help showcase this, Silva began launching a variety of sizes in colors. "I realized it was kind of confusing for the consumer to use one sponge for everything, especially if you are just learning about makeup, you need separate things that you can use for each step. Different colors and sizes could help them learn how to use different products on their face with confidence." Hence the launch of products like the gray Beautyblusher, which is slightly smaller than the standard Beautyblender. "The sponge is the perfect creme blush applicator, but the original was a little too big for the cheek, so I made it slightly smaller."
Other variations include the Beautyblender Micro Mini, a tiny sponge designed for applying concealer around the eye. They originally only came in bright neon green ("I was working out a lot that year and was really into that highlighter workout clothes color") but eventually expanded it to four pastel shades dubbed Correct Four to be used with corrective makeup.
"I see myself first and foremost as a makeup artist. I wake up every morning surprised that this is my life."
Other variations include the red sponge (made for red carpet events), a purple one in conjunction with Sephora and Pantone, and a white version for estheticians and naturalists that "refuse to use anything with dyes." As for the black Beautyblender, it was designed with professional makeup artists in mind. "I made the black one in the universal wardrobe color of all makeup artists, black, which we wear all the time." It also happens to hide stains from long wearing makeup that can be visible on the pink version.
Silva says that even though the sponge has been on the market for nearly a decade, she is still shocked by its success. "I see myself first and foremost as a makeup artist. I wake up every morning surprised that this is my life." As for the future of Beautyblender, Silva says she is quite happy with where the company is. "We really have a nice little sweet spot because we are makeup’s best friend… I just plan on creating more tools that help people master the tricks of the trade." She hopes to get back to her makeup artist roots and start working with celebrity clients again, too. "I miss it."