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If you’ve browsed through the “Just Arrived” section of Sephora lately, you’d be forgiven for being overwhelmed. As of press time, there are 84 items in that section alone. In total, the store stocks 17,000 products, and it expects companies that sell in the store to have new offerings every three months in order to keep their spot. Ulta, one of Sephora’s main competitors, stocks “over 20,000 products” from “over 500 brands.”
And stores like Sephora and Ulta are just one part of the vast makeup industry — there are also indie brands, drugstore aisles, and prestige offerings like Chanel that don’t stock at Sephora or Ulta. Picking up a novel blush or foundation can be fun, but feeling lost in a deluge of new releases, without much of a guide about what’s worth your attention and what’s not, can be daunting. You can find yourself out hundreds of dollars with a vanity clogged with eyeshadow palettes, highlighters, lipsticks, and primers that it’ll take years to use up, if you ever do — cosmetics have expiration dates, after all. Which is why, in the past few years, one of the growing trends in the beauty community has been not buying makeup.
Take it from Reddit community Makeup Rehab, a spinoff of the larger beauty discussion board makeupaddiction. Whereas posts in makeupaddiction, which is about 360,000 members strong, often have the tone of a traditional haul video — gushing over the perfect foundation or presenting a look done with the newest Anastasia Beverly Hills highlighting palette — the smaller, 16,000-user Makeup Rehab board has posts centering on using the makeup you have and getting rid of excess, rather than caving to new releases. Members talk about sticking to “no buy” or “low buy,” either eschewing new makeup purchases entirely or limiting themselves to replacing items that they’ve used up.
One popular kind of thread is a “talk me out of it,” or “TMO,” wherein users list reasons that a makeup enthusiast doesn’t need something. (“You know what else is easy to swipe on?” one user wrote, in an attempt to convince another user not to a buy a new lip product. “Every other lip gloss ever.”) Other threads track a community member’s progress getting through the items already in their makeup bag — using up a whole lipstick or eyeshadow is such cause for celebration that there’s an entire subreddit dedicated to pictures of empty pans of products, dubbed Pan Porn.
In the last decade, major makeup brands have increased the number of new product releases per year. MAC cosmetics alone has more than 50 collections launching per year. (Often these include existing products re-promoted in different packaging, but still.) A Revlon lipstick will set you back about $5, and a Christian Louboutin lipstick costs $90. Surely there’s some difference between the two, but with many luxury brands owned by the same corporate conglomerate as drugstore ones — L’Oréal Group, for example, makes both the L’Oréal foundation in your local Walgreens and the Armani one at Nordstrom — is it really $85 worth of difference? If you bought every item in the most popular Sephora haul video from YouTube beauty guru Jaclyn Hill, you’d be out $475 for 16 items, including five lipsticks that fall in the “pinky nude” range and five jewel-toned eyeshadows.
Makeup is hard to be objective about. After all, everyone has different skin chemistry and aesthetic preferences. It also operates on a plane of label consciousness, even if makeup is less of a conspicuous consumption item than, say, a handbag. You might want to buy a Chanel lipstick as a treat-yourself purchase, rather than just something that makes your lips red. To a certain subset of makeup lovers, products aren’t just tools; they’re collectors’ items. Having the newest limited-edition Kat Von D palette becomes less of a question of whether it suits your taste and skin tone and more about a “gotta catch ‘em all” mentality. It can get very, very expensive.
The closest that the beauty industry has to a Consumer Guide is the beauty blog Temptalia, founded by Christina Mielke, royalty in both the Makeup Addiction and Makeup Rehab communities. Mielke has been reviewing beauty products on her blog since 2006, giving out letter grades based on the performance of products and how well they actually live up to their marketing copy. “When a brand makes specific claims, whether that’s about color payoff, texture, wear, or application, I use those as the metrics to review that specific product,” Mielke says. “When brands don’t make specific claims or there is just a lot of puffery involved, I default to what the type of product generally does within the industry — e.g., what are reasonable expectations for a powder blush.” Which means if an eyeliner boasts 24-hour wear but only lasts eight hours on Mielke, it loses points.
Mielke isn’t afraid to rub a brand the wrong way if their releases aren’t good. She recently gave several shades of the much-anticipated Kat Von D lipliners low marks for being patchy and uneven. One of her oft-cited reviews on Reddit is an all-F review of Makeup Geek’s sparklers, which she deemed “frustrating to use and a waste of money.” A regular refrain at MakeupAddiction, where Mielke is an active member, is how much money her reviews save her followers.
Mielke has shifted away from reviewing products based on the samples provided by a brand, preferring to buy them herself, which also gives her greater independence. Now, she doesn’t have to rely on good relationships with a brand’s PR to get products to review. In her 11 years reviewing, Mielke’s seen the beauty industry change its model for launching new products. “There seems to be a shift toward brands teasing products earlier on, leaning on limited-edition launches, and building more hype for all launches,” she says. “It can feel like a deluge of first impressions, pretty product shots, and press releases. It has been my experience that many influencers prefer to share products they love and ignore ones that they didn't like or didn't work for them, so this can contribute to a lack of ‘negative’ reviews on a product, which just gives an illusion that a product is well-loved when it might not actually be.” Mielke says that she prefers the term critical to negative, noting “all reviews should be balanced and present any pros as well as cons.”
On YouTube in particular, the line between marketing and reviewing is blurry. Plenty of beauty gurus on the platform offer reviews of products, but most of them aren’t objective. Influencers like Laura Lee or Nikkie Tutorials collaborate with makeup brands to put out their own branded products, and often have affiliate discount codes for a certain brand that earn them a commission. Even if the brand isn’t directly paying an influencer, there are good reasons not to criticize a new product — brands often provide influencers (and beauty editors and beauty writers) with lavish press trips, media events, and a steady stream of product “samples.” Negative reviews would surely staunch the flow of PR-related freebies. It’s not that the influencers are being dishonest, necessarily, about whether they like a brand’s products. It’s just that they’re not recommending it in a vacuum.
One of the most visible leaders of the growing backlash against the Youtube Beauty Industrial Complex is Kimberly Clark, a New Orleans-based drag queen and performance artists, who pioneered the “anti-haul,” her answer to the constant consumerist churn of haul videos and brand hype. In the 13 anti-haul videos Clark has done, beginning with one remarking on the holiday 2015 offers, she lists reasons why she’s not going to buy the newest, most coveted beauty product. “It’s like a disease, you’re just like ‘Gotta buy, gotta buy, gotta buy…’ And I don’t need to be buying this stuff. And neither do you,’’ Clark said in her inaugural video, “What I’m Not Going to Buy: Holiday 2015.” Her video launched a mini-genre of YouTubers posting their own anti-hauls, giving reasons why consumers should be more critical of big brand offerings rather than salivating over their pretty packaging.
“Youtube in a lot of ways is now like a home shopping network,” says beauty blogger Ellie Jane, who runs Anti-Haul Blog, a site inspired by Clark’s videos. “The difference is when you watch QVC or HSN, you know you’re watching advertising. When you watch someone on YouTube, it still has that outward experience of being this authentic experience until you look in the video description box and see a disclaimer at the bottom.” Ellie Jane started her blog after being inspired by Clark’s videos and her own experience with the marketing tactics of beauty brands. “Brands like Too-Faced are coming out with a new, big product almost every month… but frankly, makeup products are too expensive and have too much product in them to be that disposable. If you are just buying something for the gimmick or packaging or because people on YouTube say they love it, I think it’s important to consider how long that feeling will actually last. Chances are, once you get over the initial rush of getting a new item, the shine will wear off and you won’t use it.”
Perhaps the most prominent skeptic of the YouTube beauty hype complex is a YouTuber herself: Stephanie Nicole, a champion in the Makeup Rehab and Anti-Haul community. Stephanie Nicole’s full-time job is as a manufacturer’s representative for beauty companies, so aside from being a makeup enthusiast, she has a perspective on the industry that most influencers don’t. “When I started, one of the brands I worked with was Ardell, and I used to send eyelashes to some of these girls doing YouTube tutorials,” she says. “And I remember getting emails back from their managers saying ‘Oh, if you want us to even consider your product it’s $5,000.’ That’s just for considering a product, no contract or anything. And I remember thinking, forget this, I can do this.
“If you watch my videos, you see all that makeup storage behind me. I have bought so much crap since I started watching YouTube… most of the videos I’ve seen feature very beautiful, very charismatic people, but product information rarely goes beyond ‘ooh, a shiny thing! A pretty purple!’” So she decided to turn her critical eye to beauty reviews. Stephanie Nicole’s most popular video is an ingredient-by-ingredient comparison of the reformulation of Kylie Lip kits, in which she discovered that they’re almost identical to indie California brand ColourPop’s Ultra Matte Liquid Lipstick formula — except they ran $29 to ColourPop’s $6. Her video reviews not only include her first impressions of a new product, but also a price breakdown per ounce and a review of the ingredients.
One of the beauty industry trends Stephanie Nicole talks about is the way that products that were previously only marketed to makeup artists have been repackaged for consumers. Contour palettes, for example, that include options for multiple skin tones are all over Sephora and Ulta, even though most makeup users will only work with one skin tone: their own. “If you as a consumer, you’re watching this video, and a girl uses a foundation, a blush, a mascara, and an eyeshadow palette, that limits her to selling you four different items,” Nicole says. “By adding more products and telling you that you need these extra items, they’re increasing their ticket sales. But it also increases the cost for a consumer, to include extra shades you don’t wear. So I have pale skin, I’m like the color of paper. I don’t need a shade made for someone with a deep skin tone. If I buy that palette, I have to factor in wasting that color — which is foolish. You wouldn’t go buy a compact of the wrong color to throw in the trash. But people don’t think like that.”
So how to be a more conscientious beauty consumer? “I’m like the worst salesperson ever. I say stop watching YouTube,” Stephanie Nicole laughs. “People want to be told that they need everything. You don’t. How many neutral eyeshadows could you possibly use? How many purples do you need? They’re going to sit in your drawer and you’re not going to use them... if you find something that you love, keep that.”