What's left to say about the year 2020 that hasn't already been said? These past 12 months may have tested humanity and the planet and every institution on it in ways most of us could never have fathomed — but even in the bad, weird, living nightmare times, the beauty industry did not quit.
Despite the odds, the economic downturns, the flailing retail structure, the unstable political climate, the sheer number of times the word "unprecedented" was uttered, beauty charged on. After all, there were game-changing formulas, groundbreaking technology and conversation-shifting campaigns to bring to market.
And so, as we look back at 2020 (and slowly but surely claw our way out of it), we've turned to industry experts — ranging from dermatologists to Insta-famous makeup artists to beauty editors — to identify the most noteworthy beauty launches of the year.
It was a big year for celebrity beauty, and a handful of star-backed brands had an impressive showing on this list, with multiple experts highlighting their superiority or buzz-worthiness amidst a sea of so many other celebrity lines. Skin care also reigned supreme, particularly as so many of us spent a record-breaking amount of time at home, staring at our own faces during Zoom calls. And perhaps most promisingly, brands that emphasized inclusivity — by serving marginalized and too-often underserved communities, by bringing all genders into the beauty conversation, by broadening the definition of what "good" skin can look like — were a welcome addition to 2020.
Whether specific products that became staples for our experts personally or highly anticipated brand debuts and collaborations that had the whole industry talking, these 18 newcomers will go down in 2020 history (or at least in the margins next to all that other living nightmare stuff). Ahead, the experts tell it in their own words.
"The first-ever Black-owned hair-care brand dedicated to thick, kinky curls like mine called 4C Only made the most impactful launch in the beauty industry this year. Because it boldly declares that this often overlooked, misunderstood and underrepresented texture is indeed beautiful and worthy of products that help to maintain its uniqueness." —Dana Oliver, Beauty Director, Yahoo and Founder, Beauty for Breakfast
"I've fallen in love with all things Klur. Lesley Thorton, a licensed esthetician and the brand's founder, set out to create a collection of products that aligned with her values — i.e. each one had to be clean, ethical and inclusive. The most recent in the line-up, Klur's Supreme Seed Delicate Purification Mask, is balancing, nourishing, gentle and formulated with long-term sustainability in mind. It's packed with gems like cacao and calendula to calm and soothe, as well as kaolin clay to decongest. It's added comfort and pleasure during a year that's offered anything but." —Hallie Gould, Senior Editor, Byrdie
"Biden Beauty is an initiative that was near and dear to my heart because Very Good Light was behind it. It was a small idea that became a reality and was really amazing to see it thrive. We wanted to support the 2020 elections — arguably the most important of our lifetimes — and engage Gen Z and the beauty community to vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. To do this, we [sold] a beauty sponge by the name of the Biden Beat from a beauty brand called Biden Beauty. We ended up selling one sponge every 60 seconds and it was probably the most meaningful initiative I've been a part of." —David Yi, Founder and CEO, Very Good Light
"We don't include men enough in conversations on skin care. Although Humanrace was created for all genders, [it's] exciting to have a man at the forefront of the push to normalize skin care beyond just facial hair grooming. I love that the brand is guided by the expert input of his dermatologist with carefully selected science backed ingredients and prioritizes exfoliation and hydration as part of its simple three step routine." —Dr. Adeline Kikam, Board-certified Dermatologist and Founder, @BrownSkinDerm
"[I] particularly [like] the Humidifying Cream. I wasn't expecting to be floored by this product, but it's honestly one of the best moisturizers I've ever used. I think we're all a little burnt out when it comes to celebrity beauty launches — especially this year — but it seems like Pharrell actually put a lot of time and care into this one. He was thoughtful with his collection, from adding braille to the packaging to working with the brilliant Dr. Elena Jones to create simple and clean, but effective formulations, and I definitely appreciate it." —Kayla Greaves, Senior Beauty Editor, InStyle
"Many men are not as passionate about skin care as they should be. And [Pharrell] is Benjamin Button! He's pushing 50 and looks arguably 20-30 years younger. It's about time he shares his secret to the fountain of youth." —Ron Robinson, cosmetic chemist and Founder, BeautyStat
"Humanrace was a late entry this year, but made a lot of noise upon release. Although it's a small launch it has the potential to attract a whole new audience to the skincare industry. It’s exciting to see." — Saleam T. Singleton, men's beauty advocate and contributing writer for Byrdie and AskMen
"I think Pharrell Williams' Humanrace debut was incredibly successful and highly anticipated. The man is practically a vampire and for years we’ve been dying to know (beyond the fact he has melanin on his side) how he continues to look like he's in his 20s. Not only is it a simple system of just three products, but it's also eco-friendly. Wins all around!" —Julee Wilson, Beauty Director, Cosmopolitan
"I'm already a loyal fan of the entire dewy skin collection, but the stick is like Chapstick for the face and perfect for the random seasonal dry spots. I also use it as a highlighter in makeup applications when I'm looking for a shine without any pearl. Being a hands-free application and a multitasking product, it feels like a true hero of the year." — Shayna Goldberg, makeup artist and consultant at The Wall Group
"The best, most mind-blowing product introduced this year has no buzz, no celebrities, no influencers, no razzle-dazzle. But what it lacks in fanfare it more than makes up for in performance. It's called Pep Revitalizing Essence, and it comes from a renowned doctor and researcher at the Mayo Clinic. It's a precious serum that contains exosomes, which stimulate the body's own healing process, repairing damaged skin, reducing redness, lines, wrinkles, discoloration — you name it. The packaging isn't sexy, the branding isn't sexy, but the actual product is a big wow." —Linda Wells, founding Editor-in-Chief of Allure and branding consultant
"This concealer-meets-eye-cream has enough coverage to work on the toughest spots, but is flexible enough that the 16 shades work for every one of my clients all wrapped up in a dreamy formula." —Tony Tulve, freelance makeup artist
"The brand that I kept going back to this year was Topicals, the new, Black-owned skin-care brand that celebrates skin in all of its forms, not just [when it's] clear and smooth. Its two products are very solid, but its identity as a brand is disruptive and inclusive in a way that I don't think we've really seen yet, at this scale at least, and it makes me even more excited to watch it grow." —Tynan Sinks, beauty writer and Co-host, "Smell Ya Later" podcast
"I'd say the most exciting launch of the year was Topicals — I wanted so badly to be on their list! They were able to create a product that was both specific and inclusive and actually works. I'm excited to see what they launch next." —Tembe Denton-Hurst, writer at New York Magazine’s The Strategist
"I haven't seen something that didn't have a celeb or influencer attached blow up this quickly in a while. I think people really connected with the genuine, fun messaging of the brand (the founders are two young women, so the brand's social presence felt extremely natural) — and it helps that these highly-photogenic products are also actually great and effective." —Kara McGrath, Deputy Editor, Allure.com
"I think Topicals just knocked it out of the park. I feel like its products really captured what so many people were craving in the beauty space — science-backed, dermatologist-approved formulas, gentle yet effective ingredients and campaigns that promote real, unretouched skin (acne, texture and all). And yes, it also doesn't hurt that the packaging is just downright adorable." —Rio Viera-Newton, writer at New York Magazine's The Strategist
"Patrick Starrr's One/Size truly brought some new, better and different to the market. Yes, it was makeup, but it was gender-neutral makeup and represented a new breed of founder at Sephora. Patrick is unabashedly himself and wants others to be as well, which is so needed in an industry that's striving to be inclusive but not quite there." —Priya Rao, Executive Editor, Glossy and host, "Glossy Beauty" and "Unfair" podcasts
"My top pick of 2020's many new launches has to go to Nue Co.'s Forest Lungs fragrance. Aromacology, or the study of scent and behavior, is a new obsession of mine, and considering this year was essentially a massive dumpster fire, I'll take anything that can help improve my mood and lessen my anxiety. Forest Lungs is the sister scent to 2018's highly touted Functional Fragrance, and I'm a huge fan of its woody, vaguely smokey notes — all of which promise to decrease your stress by 96% in 30 minutes (with studies to back it up). Even as the bulk of my beauty habits have fallen by the wayside this year, I'll always apply my SPF and add a spitz of this to my neck and wrists. Am I less anxious? Perhaps. Maybe it just serves as a reminder that the world will eventually return to something resembling normal. Above all else, as we slowly wade out of the garbage of 2020, I just want to smell really really good." —Hannah Baxter, Senior Beauty Editor, Coveteur
"This year has been undoubtedly marked by the sudden proliferation of water-activated liners. This type of makeup isn't new, in fact professional brands like Kryolan and Mehron have had them in their collections for ages, but over the past year they've become much more mainstream. It's exciting to see the rise of products like these. It makes me hopeful for a much more colorful, playful, down-to-break-rules industry." —Mi-Anne Chan, Video Director at Condé Nast and content creator at @mianne.chan
"It seemed like the world stopped when Rihanna came out with her skin-care line. Everyone either had already tried it, wanted to try it or was watching YouTube videos of people trying and reviewing it. It's so revolutionary for the simple fact that it's Rihanna, a well-known Black woman, showing that you can [create a] business that feels true to you." —Ali, beauty model, creator and makeup artist at @SweetMutuals
"I haven't tried any of the products myself, but many of the reviews I've seen have been more lukewarm than I would have expected. Much of the trepidation from the online skin-care community came from the use of fragrance in the Fenty Skin products. This product launch ignited a wide-ranging debate about the function of fragrance in skin care and whether the fears surrounding it are warranted. While most consumers probably have no idea about the debate around fragrance, I think there are a few lessons to be learned here: First, skin-care hobbyists can be extremely discerning, and not even someone as universally adored as Rihanna may not be immune to their criticism. Second, for the many celebrity skin-care launches that followed it (we've already seen entries from Pharrell and Jennifer Lopez this year), we can expect even more criticism as these people are seen as outsiders with little experience by the industry." — Dr. Angelo Landriscina, board-certified ermatologist in New York City, @DermAngelo
"Fenty Skin broke barriers when it came to promoting sun protection for darker skin tones. The brand messaging is very inclusive, showing that skin care is for everyone." —Tiara Willis, esthetician and influencer, @MakeupforWomenofColor
"Fenty Skin was for sure the most talked-about, most debated, most anticipated launch of the year, mainly because of innovation (Fat Water and the idea of the toner essence), effectively speaking to young, Black consumers about the importance of SPF and because of ingredient discussions on witch hazel and fragrance." —Dr. Ranella Hirsch, Board-certified dermatologist in Boston
"Melé is a line of skin-care products designed to address the specific needs of dark skin tones. 2020 has been a year of cultural awareness and acceptance, so it seems appropriate that this line would have launched in 2020." —Dr. Joshua Zeichner, Associate Professor of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City
"[Selena Gomez] entered the already crowded celebrity-with-a-beauty-brand space, but gave it purpose in 2020. It's so refreshing to have a brand centered around giving back to the community Gomez herself is part of with the Rare Impact Fund. Everyone at Elle has been obsessed with the products to the point where we won't shut up about them. To more inclusive and transparent brands with a mental health impact in 2021!" —Chloe Hall, Beauty Director, Elle.com
"Rare Beauty was the most exciting launch for me, mostly because it felt genuine. Celebrity brands will always make headlines, but not all launches are up to snuff. But the team managed to carve out a unique space for themselves while creating a great lineup of staple products. It was a cohesive launch with purpose. I respect the brand for creating the Rare Impact Fund, which promises to donate $100M over the course of 10 years, starting with 1% from Rare’s first year of sales. As someone who's often pitched new brands and products on a daily basis, it’s important for me to see that this celebrity-faced brand has a long-term vision." —Kirbie Johnson, content creator and Co-host, "Gloss Angeles" podcast
"When Selena launched Rare Beauty, it was clear that she really took her time to build this brand. The product formulations are innovative (that Lip Soufflé is so good!), the packaging is gorgeous and most impressive was Rare Beauty's commitment to being a mission-driven brand. While I'm hoping fewer celebrities feel the need to launch their own beauty brands in the future, I do hope that those who do take note from Selena." —Sara Tan, beauty editor and Co-host, "Gloss Angeles" podcast
"I love the Sunrise Service Mask from Loops Beauty, a line of hydrogel masks launched earlier this year, designed to fit into moments of your daily life. The Sunrise Service Mask is rich in baobab oil, pumpkin extract, flower extracts and a probiotic, designed to hydrate, moisturize, brighten, smooth, de-puff and protect from free radicals. All of the Loops masks are compostable, cruelty free and free of parabens, sulfates, phthalates and synthetic fragrances." —Dr. Hadley C. King, Board-certified dermatologist in New York City
"I have preached about layering vitamin C and SPF in the morning to all my clients for years. They work so well together: vitamin C protects against pigmentation and free radical damage, and SPF protects against UVA and UVB rays. This product also gives you a layer of blue light protection, so it's great for all our work from home laptop usage. The texture is light and easy under makeup, and gives you a great illumination. I’m a huge fan." — Sofie Pavitt, licensed esthetician and owner, Sofie Pavitt Skincare Studio
"This was Supreme's first foray into makeup in its 26-year history, and the Pat McGrath Labs brand was the perfect co-conspirator. Streetwear is supposed to be about breaking the rules and foraging new paths; McGrath has done both her entire career. I think there are a lot of lessons the beauty world can learn from the streetwear space from both a marketing and storytelling perspective, and visa versa. So much so, I once wrote about it earlier this year. I'm interested to see how else these worlds may dance together." —Darian Harvin, Beauty Reporter, Beauty IRL
"I'm always looking for products that can retain longevity and stretch makeup to new boundaries through intense color payoff or innovative formulas. Tatcha's launch of Liquid Silk Canvas Primer in the spring of 2020 was the [brand's] first bridge product integrating innovative skin-care ingredients into makeup. This product became the makeup magnet of the year locking down whatever you put on top of it." —Daniel Martin, makeup artist and global director of artistry and education at Tatcha
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