It's Time For Our No-BS Beauty Awards

Today is a very special day, my friends. It marks the return of R29's annual beauty awards. We know, we know — everybody and their mother has an award these days (looking at you, artisanal pickles). But the Refinery29 Beauty Innovator Awards aren't your average monotonous parade of best this and best that. In addition to looking for the products that perform, we cut through all that marketing crap to bring you the truly unique and, yes, innovative launches of the year.

Our love letter to these inspiring and cool brands, products, and people is short and sweet: You're the shit.

Head on over to our mind-blowing nominee page to learn all about the products that earned the R29 seal of approval, plus where to get them so you can take your beauty arsenal to rad new heights.

And let's not forget our all-star roster of judges. Keep clicking to learn their beauty style and the products that made their hearts go pitter-patter. From a super-famous YouTube star to two singing sisters with a little-known mentor (have you heard of this Beyoncé character?), you're going to want to read up on these beauty trailblazers.

Want to get your hands on these pro-approved beauty buys? We've partnered with Birchbox to bring you the products we love on Birchbox. Click on over to snag them for yourself and learn what our editors are crazy about right now.
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First discovered by Queen Bey after seeing their YouTube covers of her "Pretty Hurts," sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey comprise one of the hippest singing sister acts around. They are also some of the sweetest people you will ever meet, forgoing handshakes for heartfelt hugs and exuding gratitude for every opportunity that has come their way.

The two have a lot to be thankful for: "Drop," the first single off their new album, Sugar Symphony, features some of the most breathtaking imagery to go along with their heavenly voices and is causing major buzz in the music world. The duo just ended their stint on Beyoncé's "Formation" tour and will be hitting the road for their concert tour next month.

When asked to be judges for our awards, 18-year-old Chloe and 16-year-old Halle jumped at the chance. "We just do what we like, dibble and dabble — we're not pros or anything," says Halle. "We're the voice for the kids who just do what they like and don't know too much about it. We're the people walking into it not knowing anything and doing what speaks to them."

Their now-signature locs immediately drew our attention, so of course we had to ask all about them. "I love my hair. I love that I stand out, and whatever hairstyle you wear is all about how you rock it and your confidence," notes Chloe. As to caring for them, they're fans of SheaMoisture, Carol's Daughter, and "lots of coconut oil."

While sifting through the MASSIVE pile of products we sent their way, the girls had some clear favorites. We had a hard time getting Chloe to wipe off the OCC Artifact Lip Tar, while Halle kept reaching for the Drunk Elephant B Hydra Intensive Gel Moisturizer. For so-called beauty novices, these talented ladies sure seemed hip to the coolest product picks.
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With her signature style of soft, effortless waves, it's no wonder stars like Lauren Conrad and Lucy Hale flock to hairstylist Kristin Ess. The fiery-maned Ess is also a cofounder — with Conrad — of the popular The Beauty Department site, where she teaches readers cool new ways to use hair accessories and what the hell drying gloves are.

While honored to be a part of the judging process, Ess got real and said what we were all thinking: The products that landed on her doorstep were the best part of this whole enchilada.

"I love communicating with people digitally and online, but as a girl, two massive boxes arriving at your door is like Christmas," she says. "Aside from that is getting to see the new things, the innovations in our industry, because there are so many brands out there trying to do their thing and I think it's really cool."

She adds, "It's one thing to be asked to be a judge on a small, digital online-voting thing, but this is the new beauty awards. If I [click] into a story and Refinery has their stamp of approval on it, I'm buying it." We're blushing.

As a hairstylist, Ess went in knowing a lot about the featured hair-care brands — she counts Oribe Hair Care as one of her go-tos. Makeup, on the other hand, was new for her. "I feel like hairdressers never get makeup dibs or introductions to new products. You see things and try to take notes [on set], but you also have to do your job. Give me all of the makeup."

Ironically, among all that makeup, there was only one product that truly stole her heart. "Oh my god, the Too Faced matte liquid lipstick. I feel like I can throw out my old ones, and that will be my one."
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YouTube star and L.A.-based makeup artist Claire Marshall is no stranger to testing beauty products for her roughly 870,000 YouTube fans. "Anything that comes to my inbox, I'm going to treat the same way for what my needs are versus what someone else's needs are. I tried to look at these products from the perspective of someone who's using it," she says.

Unlike our other judges, who dove headfirst into their boxes o' products with unbridled glee, Marshall was all business with her process.

"I laid out all of the categories across my office floor and paired up the product with category in order to have the description of each product," she explains. "I took a category at a time and just went through it. Some of them were fairly easy — if I was already familiar with the brand, or a specific product, it was a lot easier to make a decision."

As for how her influencer background applied to her judging, Marshall says it was just an extension of her usual process. "A lot of beauty influencers are trying out products and they're telling people in every video what they're currently liking. It was just on a grander scale. I'm giving my real opinion of the products as a real person."

Marshall was another fan of the Drunk Elephant moisturizer: "It was a brand I've never tried before, and now it sits on my vanity and I use it every morning." The Giorgio Armani Maestro UV Defense Primer Serum is also a new player in her beauty routine.

Speaking of routines, you won't find Marshall telling her followers there's a certain aesthetic they should be striving for. "There's no rules when it comes to beauty," she notes. "It's all about expression, and people are becoming less and less scared about that." Hear, hear.
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For anyone who complains about the younger generation being unmotivated and self-involved: You've clearly never heard of Mars. The 16-year-old Gen-Z self-described creative is the cofounder (along with 25-year-old artist Jam) of the Art Hoe movement — a way for POC to both create and consume content that changes the conversation around depictions of race and sexuality.

Identifying as gender-queer, Mars notes that their contribution to the judging panel was to show that makeup goes beyond sex and gender. "Beauty shouldn't be a tool only designed for conventionally attractive people, and shouldn't be marketed towards only cis-passing people."

They continue, "This experience definitely opened me up to that, and I really hope people will learn that makeup isn't an exclusive thing."

That attitude, they say, is ever-so-slowly changing. Speaking with their friends recently, Mars noted that it's great to see more POC wearing boldly colored makeup or pastel braids.

"A lot of Black girls tend to shy away from those colors with the fear of being stereotyped as 'ratchet' or 'ghetto,'" they say. "So if we market beauty in a way that it's available for everyone to explore without the fear of being profiled, beauty would be so much better."

As an admitted face-mask addict, Mars dove right into testing that category first. Their favorite? "The Kiehl's Turmeric & Cranberry Seed Energizing Radiance Masque that decreases the redness, but [gives] a very dewy, fresh-faced glow."

And while the majority of the hair products weren't a match for their textured hair, they were impressed with the Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture Jamaican Black Castor & Murumuru Oils Edge Control & Shape Paste (whew, that's a mouthful). "I don't normally use gels for my hair or my edges because I find it leaves my hair very brittle and harsh. But I liked that this contained castor oil left my hair moisturized, while also slimming it down in the front."

While they loved testing out all of the products, they believe that there is more to this story than just appreciating pretty things. "We can use beauty to build a dialogue [around race] because I feel like people shy away from that conversation and political dialogue out of fear. The fact that beauty is [now] being marketed as this inclusive and multifaceted thing is super-important, since it's going across all these attainable channels [like YouTube and Instagram] for everyone to get the message." We hear you loud and clear.
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As the founder of R29's beauty department, features director Megan McIntyre has seen pretty much everything (blackhead vacuum, anyone?). The self-described beauty nerd has a tendency to hoard everything from brightening serums to purple lipsticks — for the record, her current favorite is MAC's Liptensity Lipstick in Hellebore.

Because of that, she was one of the tougher judges, not easily swayed by pretty packaging. Innovation was top of mind, as well as tech savviness, new ingredients, and sometimes the just plain weirdness of the nominees.

"One of the best things about beauty is there is always something new and exciting just around the corner," she says. "It's the reason I love my job so much. That and all the free mascara, obviously."

Speaking of mascara, McIntyre was majorly impressed by Pacifica's Dream Big Volumizing Mascara and its nifty shape-shifting wand. She also gave top marks to Julep's Love Your Bare Face Hydrating Cleansing Oil for its ability to wipe away every last trace of foundation and make skin feel soft and smooth post-cleansing.

In addition to beauty newness, McIntyre says that the cultural shift she's seen in the last decade or so of her work as a beauty editor is its own type of innovation. "Seeing brands not only market to POC, but also start to realize that showing a white model alongside a Black model or Asian model doesn't really give you credibility as being woke anymore. Not that it ever really did."

Which is why the advent of brands starting to more holistically represent those of color, as well as use gender-free and plus-size marketing, is encouraging. "From CoverGirl appointing James Charles as a spokesmodel and the boys-in-beauty movement on YouTube, there's been a real effort to expand our definition of that word. We've got a ways to go, but it's important that we're — for the most part — aware of it and working towards a change."
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As a former product developer and assistant to makeup legends like Pat McGrath and Pati Dubroff, makeup artist Daniel Martin has an unconventional history that makes him the perfect judge for our awards.

The high-fashion artist is a regular in the pages of Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Interview; and is sought out by designers, fashion darlings, and celebrities like Kate Bosworth and Chloë Sevigny. Not to mention his gigs as Dior's celebrity makeup artist and creative color consultant for Honest Beauty.

As for what he brought to the table as a judge, Martin says, "I think my background in development helped the bias with the products I was able to play with. I knew how some things were made, I knew what pigments were put in to get certain payoff. So, having that background really helped make the choices I did."

While Martin had his fair share of makeup favorites — including the Maybelline Lip Studio Blur Matte Pencil and the Surratt Beauty Prismatique Eyes (he called its two-in-one gloss-and-powder compact "genius") — it was the skin care that really revved his engine.

"[Judging] really got me into trying out new things that a lot of people don't have the opportunity to because sometimes skin care can be so expensive," he says. Those picks included the French Girl Organics Neroli Cleansing Wash, with its unique ability to both destroy pore gunk and soften skin, and the Apoterra Activated Purifying Mask with Charcoal + Flowers. Martin loved that you can mix the latter with water, milk, or honey to achieve different results on the skin.
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Feminist author and "beauty anthropologist" Autumn Whitefield-Madrano does not seem like an obvious choice to judge a round of beauty awards. But Whitefield-Madrano believes there is a place in the feminist conversation for discussion of the importance of beauty and how their relationship with it can be a defining moment for many women.

"One of the biggest selling points of beauty is its ability to connect women with each other," she says. "That was my favorite part of being a judge. The night these two enormous boxes came, I called one of my friends and was like, 'We've got to go through this.' Throughout the month, we were testing back and forth with each other."

As the author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women's Lives and a writer for numerous women's magazines, Whitefield-Madrano knows a thing or two about products. But that didn't stop her from being surprised by our nominees.

"It was interesting that there were products called 'blur' creams, and that got me thinking of the idea of all that talk of Photoshop damaging us. And I don't even know how true that is sometimes, but I think when you see a product that's basically promising to Photoshop you...that sort of got my wheels spinning," she says.

Which is probably why she was such a big fan of Algenist's Sublime Defense Moisturizer SPF 30. "Even though it makes your skin a little whiter, it fucking blurs your skin. It's like magic." She also found some new drugstore favorites that have made their way into her rotation. "I'm all about the Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel," she raves. "The Marlowe No. 002 Extra Moisturizing Body Lotion, as well. It absorbed really quickly and left me hydrated."

We asked Whitefield-Madrano to tell us what she thinks one of the most important innovations in beauty has been so far, and she answered immediately and definitively: social media.

"Before social media, unless someone was publishing an op-ed in the newspaper, it was hard for something to catch reactions. In social media, you see people raising these points that you haven't seen as problematic within the world of beauty. It just raises this genuine consciousness."

She adds, "We're in the middle of this intense and necessary moment of race and equal-power distribution. I think the beauty space has been great about taking that and interrogating it and doing the best to broaden it."
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As a former beauty buyer and current head of brand development for Violet Grey, Sarah Czuleger knows her products. "As you can imagine, I'm constantly on the lookout for newness and innovation, and always trying to find the next big thing," she says.

But that doesn't mean she wasn't surprised by a few of our nominees. "I love beauty, and I love testing products. That's why I'm in this world and space. I think it was really interesting to test some of the products that I may not necessarily come across. [I liked exploring] some of the drugstore brands that have very much the same technology that exists in the luxury space, but for a different price point."

A few of the budget buys that caught her eye? ColourPop's eyeshadow: "I didn't expect too much from those — I thought they were going to look too shimmery, but one of the rose-gold, copper colors looked really beautiful on." The La Roche-Posay Anthelios AOX Daily Antioxidant Serum with Sunscreen: "I really like the texture, and I was impressed with the formula — that is something I will definitely continue to use on my face." Shu Uemura's Dry Cleaner: "I love that it's not going to create a lot of texture, it just truly cleans your hair." And, Shiseido's Ibuki Multi Solution Gel: "It's my new go-to for hormonal spots — that will take care of them pretty quickly."

Czuleger noticed more than just the products, remarking that women's approaches to expressing beauty are changing. "There's been such an awareness with ingredients, which I think is incredible. In general, it's in a positive way. I think women feel more empowered, and feel more positive and better about themselves." And that's innovation we can all get behind.
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