As a beauty writer in 2016, I've come to find that most of my fellow skin-care obsessives fall into one of two categories: people who are devout users of the Clarisonic skin cleansing brush, and people who have a long-neglected Clarisonic lingering around their bathroom that they keep forgetting to use. In case you were wondering, I'm in the second group, which probably explains why I wasn't as shocked as some when the news broke this week that Clarisonic was undergoing a round of major layoffs. Specifically, the company is laying off 120 employees at their Redmond, Washington production facility over the next year as the company moves away from from producing their brushes in-house. The company was quick to assure everyone that the layoffs will only affect those involved in the production side of the company, and that all of the laid-off employees will receive help finding new positions, potentially elsewhere within the brand's parent company, L'Oréal.
In case you've been living under a rock, in a cave, or possibly under a rock inside of a cave for the last several years, Clarisonic is the brand that makes the ubiquitous facial cleansing brush everyone you know got for their birthday in 2012. The technology uses sonic vibrations to help loosen up dirt, oil and makeup lingering on your face, and if that sounds an awful lot like the face version of a Sonicare toothbrush pitch, there's a good reason. Both devices were developed in part by David Giuliani, who moved on to getting faces really really ridiculously clean-looking after his toothbrush brainchild became the number-one selling device in the market in 2001. (Robb Akridge, Steve Meginniss, Ward Harris and Ken Pilcher were also co-developers of the device.)
Clarisonic was founded that same year and released its first brush, now known as the Mia 1, in 2004, but the big Clarisonic boom didn't hit for another few years. Ever ahead of the curve, Oprah featured one in her iconic Favorite Things episode for 2007, and by 2011 the brush had become a big winner of awards from the likes of Allure, InStyle and Elle. Since then, the brushes have become a beauty-world staple, featured in nearly every women's interest magazine you can think of and selling more than 15 million brushes, according to the company's website. They've spent the intervening years developing five additional models, including a travel version, a face and body one, and a special brush made just for men. Despite a couple of less-successful forays with a now-defunct under-eye device and a pedicure brush (which has since been integrated into the aforementioned body brush), the brand established itself as a household name in under a decade, making it no surprise when the purchase offers started rolling in. Clarisonic was bought out for an undisclosed amount by L'Oréal in 2011, but kept its offices and production in the original Redmond facility — until now, that is.
The news of the layoffs comes after a report that Clarisonic sales failed to meet expectations in the first half of the year, according to WWD, which has some speculating that this might be the beginning of the end for the fabled face brushes. [Update: L'Oréal has said that this speculation is false and that production will continue.]
The reasons for the sales decline still aren't clear. It's possible that Clarisonic just oversaturated the market, though Giuliani told The New York Times during the brushes' heyday back in 2012, "Most women don't own one yet. There's a lot more Clarisonics to sell." Likewise, dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner hasn't noticed a decline in use among his patients. "Over the past few years, there has definitely been an uptick in the number of patients using cleansing devices," he says. "Technology is now being used in all parts of our skin-care regimens, from skin-care apps to high-tech cleansing or anti-aging devices."
Though the initial buy-in for one of the brushes can range anywhere from $130-$300 depending on the model, even following the brands recommendation of replacing the removable heads every three months (which, let's be honest, few people probably actually remember to do) only earns Clarisonic about $120 per year. The model they've set up depends heavily on new brush purchases (it should be noted that Clarisonic also has its own line of cleansers and serums, but none of the products have ever taken off like the brush sales). Now that the initial gotta-have-it scramble for Clarisonics seems to have subsided and most people who are interested in a brush already own one, it's possible that the profit expectations were simply unrealistically high.
Of course, like any profitable idea, competition is always an issue as well. Almost immediately after Clarisonic hit it big, a slew of other brands started coming out with their own, often less expensive facial cleansing brushes. Neutrogena, Conair and Olay all got in one the game with proprietary versions at price tags as much as 75 percent cheaper than the Clarisonic original, and home-shopping mega-brand Proactiv came out with one to accompany their celeb-favorite acne regimen, all of which may have chewed holes in Clarisonic's business plan.
It's hard to believe in the era of 12-step Korean beauty cleansing regimens, but effort might also be keeping Clarisonic down. I surveyed people via social media, and I found my fellow beauty fans generally divided on the device. Some were ardent advocates for regular facial vibration: "Yes! [I use a Clarisonic] 5x a week (or so). … It helps my face stay super smooth/soft and prevents breakouts which also makes my makeup look better! If I skip a few days I can really tell," wrote one woman. Others found adding one more thing to their to-do list to be too big of an ask now that the first blush has worn off: "I still use mine occasionally. Probably should use it more often," said one. "Out of the habit and generally exhausted by bedtime," responded another. Notably, to me at least, the major difference between these groups seemed to be age, with the 20-something women favoring an extra step, while the 30-and-up contingent were more interested in seeing a bigger payout for less work. All of this is anecdotal, but considering that that second group is made up of women who've been in the workforce longer and have more disposable income, it does seem worth noting that this demographic was generally less enthused.
Then again, the Clarisonic decline could simply be a case of a trend playing itself out naturally. The beauty scene had a very different landscape when the Clarisonic brushes first buzzed onto the stage. We're talking pre-home microdermabrasion, pre-home light therapy, pre-Korean beauty explosion. Like Sun-In and Epilady before it, it could be that Clarisonic fans were lured away by the siren song of newer, flashier, more Instagram-ready treatments.
And then there are those pesky, lingering outcries that the brushes don't actually improve the condition of skin, with some detractors going as far as to say it made theirs worse. A quick online search for Clarisonic reviews pulls up a mixed bag of people who say it saved their skin and others recounting skin-care nightmares: "6 WEEKS FROM HELL! MY CLARISONIC EXPERIENCE!!!" screams the title of one YouTube video with more than 2 million views. Some argue that the negative skin reactions some experience are the results of a "purge" wherein buried dirt, oil and other stuff you really don’t want to think about being buried in your face come to the surface. Zeichner wasn't impressed with that explanation, pointing out that, as usual, the simplest answer is often the best. "The sonic brushes are designed for daily use. Rather than working as an exfoliator, the sonic vibrations help dislodge dirt from the outer skin layer," he explains. "Despite its gentle design, some people with sensitive skin may not be able to tolerate using a brush. Also, some people who are using potentially irritating skin-care products, like retinol or some acne treatments, may be sensitive to use of the brush as well."
What remains clear is that things aren't looking good for Clarisonic. It hasn't yet been announced where the manufacture of the brushes will be moved to after the layoffs are finalized at the end of 2017, or, for that matter, if production will be continuing at all. Either way, expect to see Clarisonic fans hoarding up replacement brush heads like doomsday preppers in the months to come.
This article has been updated to clarify that David Giuliani was one of five creators of the Clarisonic and that speculation about ceasing manufacture of the brushes is incorrect.