clock menu more-arrow no yes
Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Sephora Collection

Filed under:

What ‘Cult’ Means When It Comes to Beauty

How a word about religion and devotion became our favorite adjective for popular lipsticks and serums.

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

You’ve heard their names before: the familiar litany of life-changers and skin savers that have earned one of beauty writing’s favorite epithets, the coveted title of cult favorite. They are MAC matte lipstick in Ruby Woo, which sells four tubes a minute globally, and Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion, which does 20. Maybelline New York Great Lash mascara, YSL’s Touche Eclat highlighter, Crème de la Mer, and Biologique Recherche P50 are longtime cult classics, but every year a few new products are inducted into the canon; recent additions have included Sunday Riley’s Good Genes and Glossier’s Boy Brow.

The phrase “cult favorite” is deeply evocative: It suggests mystery and obsession and even a little bit of madness. Which makes sense in the beauty space, which promises products so powerful that they can transform our very skin. “Everything about beauty has an air of unattainability to it; everything is a little mystical, and we’re always in pursuit of something,” as Brennan Kilbane, a senior writer at Allure and former Into the Gloss editor, puts it.

But the allure of “cult favorite” also hides the fact that the phrase is often used to describe an array of incongruous products. Aquaphor, for instance, can be purchased for under $10 at any drug store; Recherche P50 is only available in a handful of US spas and via two websites, both of which require that you create an account just to be able to see how much it costs. (Between $26 and $112, for the record.) Crème de La Mer will run you a cool $170 per ounce.

That’s in part because the phrase has evolved over time. It originated in a pre-internet era, when models and makeup artists would get hooked on Parisian drugstore products or Korean essences you legitimately couldn’t find in the US. Then cult often did mean secret, or at least hard to know about, much less find. It was imbued with the glamour of insider knowledge; it had the air of the savvy and well-traveled. The potential stigma of drugstore mascara washes away when it’s from a French drugstore, or even just bathed in the approval of professionals. It attains some of the glow of celebrity merely by association.

But then came Online, and as the internet connected us — first via community forums like MakeupAlley, and now with cheap international shipping — “cult favorite” came to mean something very different.

“I think there are two categories of products that can fall into ‘cult’ territory,” says Stephanie Saltzman, a beauty editor at Fashionista. “Established ones that have been around for years and have maintained a steady buzz around them, and then the ones that are niche, alternative, or aspirational/exclusive in some way. Cult beauty products are the ones people are constantly saying they ‘swear by’ and buy in bulk, just in case they ever get discontinued.”

Recherche P50, then, is the traditional aspirational-exclusive, and Great Lash is a swear-by, but Touche Eclat is a new, third thing: the kind of buzzy, best-selling product that earns the title “cult” not because of any kind of secret, but because its fans are so legion, and so devoted, for so long.

This dilution of the phrase has made it easy to overuse, and so Saltzman tries to steer clear of deploying it on Fashionista, except in exceptional cases: “I don’t have a hard-and-fast rule against it,” she says. “Every now and then — say, for this post about Glossier’s new take on P50 or when we wrote about Santal superfans — that cult comparison is apt.”

“These items can have an impact on self-image, confidence, and even mental wellbeing. Take, for example, someone who may have struggled with chronic breakouts throughout their teen years before finally stumbling upon P50 and seeing a real change in their skin. Skin, especially, can be so closely linked to self-esteem and the way we carry ourselves in the world,” Saltzman notes — so she understands why customers can start to seem like evangelists.

“Cult favorite” refers to a real phenomenon: the devoted fanatics that spring up around particular products, regardless of their price point and availability. But still, why is cult the word that gets deployed to describe them?

“The ‘cult’ term is almost poetic, because it’s like, when you’re talking about these products, you’re not talking about how good it is, really,” Kilbane points out. “The conversation surrounding the product is not really about the product’s efficacy. The conversation surrounding the product rarely has much to do with the product itself.”

Instead, “cult favorite” points outward: to our fellow fanatics, buying en masse, or else the elite professionals among whom a product is a well-kept secret. It contextualizes our purchases for us, giving them the promise of a human element. You’re not just buying lipstick because capitalism; you’re buying a lipstick because doing so will usher you into the good company of a mystical, elusive, semi-secret society.

And that’s particularly critical in an era when we’re so constantly aware of how deeply un-unique most of our preferences are. The internet has made beauty accessible, and it’s also turned “accessible” into something of a dirty word. We don’t want to be just like everyone else. We want to be our singular selves, and we want our purchases to affirm that individuality.

“Classic” can be another word for basic; it’s not that fun to hand over your credit card for a tube of Ruby Woo knowing that somewhere in the world, three other people are doing the same thing that very minute. But cult classic reframes that experience. You aren’t joining everyone; you’re joining others like you, whose beauty journeys, particular needs, and discerning tastes have lead them to this singular thing.

And so it’s particularly critical that our fellow cult members are people who participate in what Kilbane calls “the economy of word of mouth” of beauty: the added value that gets associated with a product when professionals recommend it.

This value is largely cultural and immaterial; it derives as much from those professionals’ association with celebrity (or status as celebrities themselves) as from the presumption that these are people who know their field deeply. Makeup artists swearing by something assures us that these products, you know, work.

It’s easy to write off beauty as frivolous, but studies have shown that wearing makeup has material effects on how women are perceived, hired, and paid on the job. A status lip kit looks great on an Instagram shelfie, but if the color washes you out at a professional interview or on a date, it’s not going to go into regular rotation.

This question of utility means that brands function differently in beauty than they do in fashion: An ill-fitting or unflattering garment can still bear a giant Gucci logo, alerting observers that it was expensive, and that its wearer has the access and cash to shop designer. But as long as your lipstick doesn’t feather or fade, other people won’t know whether it’s Cover Girl or Chanel.

Beauty products are applied in private; no one will see the tubes and vials, just the blush on your cheeks, the flick of your eyeliner. Shelfies and haul videos have allowed certain products to become status symbols — but the logic of the beauty market persists, and if they don’t work, they don’t really get recommended. (Someone alert me when Kim or Kylie’s products stop being collectors’ items, and start making some must-have lists.)

This interest in thriftiness and utility, which has allowed drugstore finds, international and not, to become cult classics, feels deeply tied to the history of how women interact with labor, effort, and money — particularly when it comes to our traditional realms of the personal and domestic. A housewife’s job was to figure out how to stretch whatever budget she was handed to make her husband feel good when he came home at the end of each day: to a well-kept woman and a well-kept house and a dinner fit for a king. She figured out how to use what she had to make life look effortless and feel luxe.

Beauty carries on this tradition: We are proud when we can use very little to look like a lot. It reframes what might be seen as frivolous and wasteful as instead practical and resourceful. We use whatever we use — crushed berries and shoe polish, Aquaphor and Vaseline, serums and essences — to make the appearance, which is actually what matters.

And so there’s something tender, too, about the fact that beauty has become a language we speak publicly: that we are willing to expose our secrets to one another, the economics by which we run our private selves. We trade tips that might once have been shared in a kitchen in the space of a comments section — the cheaper dupe and the sale code and the Sephora where the salesgirls love giving samples.

Women are not the only people who wear makeup, but we are the only people who are expected (and in some situations required) to do so. And so the language of beauty is, in many ways, a language of sisterhood: the way we have found to talk to each other about the work we aren’t supposed to call work.

That’s the last secret of the cult favorite: It’s a way of acknowledging and reifying the power that we want our cosmetics to have. It suggests that when we get together to put on our faces, what we’re doing isn’t silly, but instead something that can be powerful, vital, maybe even a little scary. Makeup gives us access to a witch’s transformative powers. No wonder we want to give the covens it gathers the name of cult.

Beauty

Why Gyms Should Be Worried

Beauty

Rihanna’s Newly Skinny Eyebrows Spark Mass Panic

Beauty

Stormy Daniels’s Fragrance Just Launched

View all stories in Beauty