A Spike in Single-Ingredient Marketing Is Changing How Shoppers — and Brands — Approach Skin Care

Shoppers have never been more keen to understand the science behind their beauty products, and this trend seeks to capitalize on that.
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Photo: Imaxtree

Photo: Imaxtree

When The Ordinary launched in 2016, it sought to democratize the skin-care industry as Warby Parker had done for prescription glasses. Countless brands have claimed to be "the Warby Parker of…" "disrupting" prices in just about every product category you can think of, but not many have been able to do so for the price of a fancy latte.

As The Ordinary become ubiquitous, skin care's most ardent fans — Redditors — generated threads full of information about how to best combine the products, something normal people could actually do with abandon thanks to the affordable pricing.

In addition to its unprecedentedly low prices, The Ordinary's simply marked, lab-sample-esque packaging enabled the at-home skin-care obsessive to experiment in their very own lab. Giving customers access to key ingredients opened the floodgates. However, as Deciem became increasingly entrenched in its own beauty industry soap opera, fans gravitated toward alternatives to the brand — something the beauty market was more than happy to provide.

According to Patricia Hong, a partner in strategy and management consultant A.T. Kearney's retail practice and head of its beauty and luxury division, this burgeoning trend is the result of a perfect storm. "First, they [single ingredient/ingredient-centric products] appeal to the rising demand for simplicity and radical transparency — ingredient focused formulations are easy to understand and easy to market," she says. "Secondly, because of their simplicity, it's clear what you are applying to your skin. This is becoming increasingly important to a growing consumer segment. It complements the convergence of health and wellness and makes it much easier to be hyper-educated about your skin-care choices, a trend amongst millennials," she adds. 

From the brand perspective, this type of marketing and product development is a practical approach, according to Hong. "It allows beauty companies that play in this segment to get to market faster, as they are typically leveraging well-known, proven, tested ingredients like vitamin C, cutting down on development time. This has helped fuel the growth of the smaller companies playing in this space," she says.

The Ordinary's heir apparent, Be For Beauty's The Inkey List, notably gets products to shelves just 18 weeks after inception. The brand takes a similar tack on pricing but is far more willing to handhold its customers than Deciem has been. In comparison with The Ordinary, The Inkey List is friendlier, guiding skin-care novices along as they (hopefully) continually shell out on the next potentially skin-altering hero ingredient. They've billed themselves as "Your Beauty Translators." 

According to Be For Beauty co-founders Colette Newbury and Mark Curry (both of whom are beauty industry veterans, having worked for Boots in the past), The Inkey List's goal is to prioritize accessibility. While "price is still king," according to the duo, they're also keen to introduce another kind of accessibility, claiming that,"true democracy comes through making the complex world of skin-care simple to understand and easy to use." 

Be For Beauty introduced the line with 15 products created to fill "a white space for a brand that offers proven, premium quality products combined with support on what, how and when to use — a brand that truly democratizes skin care." Newbury and Curry promise that the prices will always be in the "pocket change, give-it-a-go," range, which allows for one of single-ingredient skin care's greatest draws — financial freedom to experiment. As Gloria Lu and Victoria Fu, the experts behind Chemist Confessions put it, "Single-ingredient product lines can be a great starting place to understand how your skin reacts will react to specific active ingredients."

Consumers have never been more keen to understand the science behind their beauty products. They're willing to put in the research. This phenomena is why an Instagram account founded by two skin-care chemists who identify themselves as being "just as tired of the bs as you are," have accumulated a question-asking audience of nearly 50,000 followers. 

Newbury and Curry understand this, too. "People are increasingly curious. Transparency is huge right now, and consumers want more and more info," Curry says. "The Inkey List wants to cut in and provide simple, transparent information that could be easily accessible to all." The company offers a 24/7 "beauty translator service" where it accepts questions from the public both on its site and via Instagram. In addition these two forms of accessibility, Newbury and Curry are, unsurprisingly, believers in shifting consumer focus to ingredients. "Ingredients are hot, but most of the beauty world — 73 percent, in fact — don't understand them," says Curry. "The Inkey List is there to translate and help you understand the products, and when to use them in your routine for maximum effect."

The genius of single-ingredient beauty marketing is that it inherently appeals to two nearly opposite ends of the skin-care shopper spectrum: the total novice who's completely overwhelmed and wants beginner-friendly basics, and the beauty junkie who relishes the chance put their expertise to use as an at-home-chemist. The Inkey List is fully aware of this paradigm: "We have a very clear strategy to cater to two consumer types — the 'mass confused' and the 'beauty junkie.' We want everyone to feel like they can give our range a go," says Curry.

Dr. Shari Marchbein, a dermatologist based in New York City, is slightly more skeptical. Her main concern is that consumers may not be aware of which ingredients are not meant to be mixed. "In short," she explains, "many products just chemically do not work well together. A prime example is niacinamide and vitamin C, two very common antioxidant ingredients in skin-care, but their potency is significantly diminished when used together, unless application is spaced about about 30 minutes between each serum," she warns. Another example is benzoyl peroxide and retinoids, which are also typically less effective when used together. 

Beyond those concerns, Dr. Marchbein is also a bit wary of the notion of consumers becoming at-home formulators. "Dermatologists are skin-care experts and should be the ones providing key information to patients in directing them as to which products are best for their skin. Mixing ingredients at home without proper knowledge of how these ingredients work and what other ingredients they may interact could be not only a waste of money, but also time, and could lead to frustration if less-than-expected results are seen," she says.

Of course, to an extent, "single-ingredient skin care" is a misnomer; the fact is there are many ingredients in each of these formulations, and choosing to focus on one key "active" or "hero" element is more a marketing tactic than anything else. To that end, one possible outcome of at-home product cocktailing is that so much mixing and blending can dilute the efficacy of products. "The consumer [may need to do] a lot of layering to get the blend of benefits they want," says Lu. "Since each product also comes with a host of its own ingredients that support the formula like preservatives, solvents and thickeners, excessive layering can easily overwhelm the skin." 

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