In mid-March, Vox editor Julia Rubin got a text from her medical resident friend explaining how her protective masks were ruining her skin and asking if she knew of a way to get a discount from a beauty company. Rubin sent a screenshot of the text to New York-based beauty reporter Cheryl Wischhover (who — full disclosure — I used to work with at this website), asking if there might be a way to mobilize the beauty community.
"I thought about it for five minutes and was like, yes," Wischhover tells me over the phone.
It started with a simple tweet on March 19: "Beauty editors/brands: I've heard from hospital staff that their faces are breaking out/skin a mess from wearing masks. Trying to organize some donations — acne products, cleansers, gentle moisturizers, balms. It's small but something we can do rn."
Brands, editors and healthcare workers began reaching out immediately, eager to help or request product. Less than a month later, that tweet turned into Donate Beauty, which now has an official Instagram account and a four-person team of industry professionals including Wischhover, writer Caroline Moss, Women's Health Beauty Director Kristina Rodulfo and The Cut Beauty Director Kathleen Hou, as well as a number of volunteer helpers (including our own Steph). Many of them have large social media followings of their own and were thus able to amplify the call to action significantly. As a result, they've had to do very little direct outreach.
At Donate Beauty, they work together to coordinate donations, acting as middlemen between brands and hospitals, since they obviously can't gather in a room and box things up themselves. Typically, they'll liaise directly with individual healthcare workers, tell brands where to send the product, and then those workers distribute it to their units. As of April 10, over 140,000 beauty products have been donated to over 30,000 healthcare workers at over 400 hospitals. They get the most requests for hand cream, as well as lip balm and moisturizers of all kinds, but also things like cleanser, shampoo and conditioner and body wash, because many healthcare workers are staying at hospitals overnight and showering there.
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Before establishing her career in beauty, Wischhover was a nurse and knows firsthand, to some degree, what today's frontline workers are dealing with: "What I can tell you about PPE is I have worn it; it is not comfortable to wear just for a couple of hours. To wear the level of PPE that these healthcare workers have to is beyond anything I've experienced; I can't imagine how uncomfortable it is on every level. The emails and pictures and messages we've been getting have been horrendous: face indentation, breakouts and cracking skin. And it hurts."
Donate Beauty isn't the only journalist-fueled initiative sending beauty products to healthcare workers. Across the pond, The Guardian beauty columnist Sali Hughs has been doing just that through a project she began long before the coronavirus outbreak, called Beauty Banks.
While Donate Beauty is working around the clock to make sure as many healthcare workers as possible are more comfortable from the neck up, another editor is ensuring they're comfortable from the ankles down.
When Jennifer Barthole, Senior Fashion Editor at Shape, began working from home last month, brands began reaching out and offering to send her care packages. "After receiving a few, I started to feel uncomfortable that I was the one being pampered while the essential workers — particularly in healthcare — were fighting on the frontlines," she tells me over email. "I began reaching out to my personal network of medical professionals in the tri-state area, asking if I could forward them these care packages and they all expressed that they really needed new footwear ASAP."
She's heard that back pain has been a major issue, given the hours they spend on their feet all day and that constantly disinfecting their shoes has caused them to wear more quickly. "It became clear that providing new, supportive footwear was a simple way to give them additional comfort and let them know that we are appreciative for all that they are doing," she says.
Barthole immediately began reaching out to her brand contacts in the hopes of collecting 50 pairs of shoes to donate to her friends and family in the medical field. "Not only were the brands quick to jump on board," she tells Fashionista, "but they also offered additional pairs for anyone else that I knew in need. I started to realize that this could help so many people, so I reached out to my contacts and Instagram followers, asking them to refer me to any healthcare workers who could benefit from a new pair of sneakers."
As with Wischhover and her team's experience, the response was overwhelming. "People were sending me heartbreaking messages about the toll of working in hospitals day in-and-out and how exhausted they were," she says. "I decided to expand the initiative, giving it the name Sneakers For Heroes, and quickly doubled my list of brand outreach. What started as a list of 50 recipients grew to 400 names." She's been working with brands including Adidas, APL, Hoka, North Face, Skechers and Under Armour, confirming how much product they can send and then telling them where to send it.
"It's become a second job for me in a lot of ways," Barthole adds. "Right now, I am doing everything myself, including daily outreach to brands to request donations." She hopes to coordinate 1,000 donations by the end of this month.
Because of their careers, the writers and editors involved in these initiatives are in unique positions to mobilize them. They've spend years working with brands on stories and developing strong relationships and trust. "I am not sure that I could've done this without Shape's platform and the connections that I've built there," Barthole explains. "Not only do brands trust my editorial integrity, they know me well enough to help out, no questions asked."
Barthole and Wischhover both acknowledge that beauty products and sneakers may not be as vital as the PPE so many healthcare workers still lack, but their efforts have not gone unappreciated by any means.
"The heartwarming messages that I have received from healthcare workers has shown how vital this initiative is," says Barthole. "They all express how important it is for people to check on them and how such a simple gesture can do so much to lift their spirits."
"We have heard and know from experience that beauty products do bring joy and they bring comfort and they bring a tiny moment of self care and pleasure," adds Wischhover. "You would not believe stories we've heard. They've been so grateful for the small moment of joy of opening a little Drunk Elephant package."
Something else that's surprised her (and me, to be honest): "Very few of these brands have looked at this as a PR opportunity," she says. In other words, they're sending product without looking for anything in return.
This could just be the beginning for Donate Beauty and Sneakers for Heroes. The former has already been discussing going 501(c)(3) official. (Wischhover says some bigger brands have had a hard time donating because they can't write off the donations.) They've also discussed keeping it going after this is all over as something of a "clearing house" for beauty editors and makeup artists to send their own products for donation to shelters and others in need.
"In the future, I would love to help other essential workers — grocery store employees, postal service carriers and many more, with getting new, supportive shoes," says Barthole, who says this whole experience has completely changed the way she looks at her role in the industry.
"Sometimes working in fashion, I find myself disconnecting from the real world and buying into the often-materialistic 'Instagram' reality that so many of us subscribe to," she explains. "This experience was a huge wake up call for me and asked me to question how I'm able to make a difference using my platform at Shape. Moving forward, I don't think I'll feel truly comfortable doing this job (or any job) without a charity component."
Homepage photo via donatebeauty.com.