Did anyone else live and die by Britney’s Fantasy perfume in the early '00s? Fragrance was big business for celebrities looking to diversify their income streams but fast-forward to 2021 and celeb-fronted perfume is on a decline. Only JLo’s fragrance collection continues to storm the charts; indeed it was Glow (launched in 2002) which kicked the trend into overdrive. Now, the focus is shifting towards other avenues of beauty. It began with makeup – namely Kylie’s Lip Kits and Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty – but celebrities are cashing in on our love of skincare, too.
There’s a clear split in the celebrity skincare ranges hitting the shelves. They’re either luxury (such as Victoria Beckham Beauty) or aimed at Gen Z, for example Fenty Skin and Florence by Mills, dreamed up by actor Millie Bobby Brown. Most brands push a full skincare routine using their products, often launching with a small offering which aims to cover the basics of cleansing, exfoliating and moisturising. As to why skincare is suddenly the new big celebrity trend, where once perfume or lipstick reigned supreme, the answer is simple: it’s what we’re buying.
Beauty predictions for 2021 are all about skincare rather than makeup as we’re spending more time at home and dealing with the effects of stress and anxiety on skin. Celebrities are simply following the money. Whether it’s Pharrell’s debut skincare brand, Humanrace, or JLo’s JLo Beauty, all sorts of famous faces are selling us on the idea that we could look like them. It’s not always explicit but there’s definitely a subliminal message there. And while brands have been hiring celebrities as the faces of their ranges for decades, now those celebs are moving beyond being brand ambassadors; they want ownership, and the big sell is their face and name.
I’ll happily buy anything which suggests it can make me look more like Miranda Kerr (thank you, Kora Organics) but there are questions around the efficacy and manufacturing standards of some of these celeb brands. Last year, Kylie Jenner’s skincare line ignited discussion for including a walnut facial scrub, which many aestheticians and skincare lovers agreed was too harsh for use on the face. Some reports and experts claim that abrasive scrubs can cause microscopic 'tears' to the epidermis (the surface of the skin), making it sensitive and sore. Fenty Beauty also recently ventured into skincare with Fenty Skin. Expectations were high but for some, the products fell flat. On Twitter, Fenty fans were upset by the inclusion of fragrance, which is known to irritate some skin types. Similarly, the initial excitement over JLo Beauty was followed by scepticism from beauty experts and fans alike after JLo's announcement that she had never had Botox and the secret to her beauty is olive oil.
This raises questions about just how effective said products really are and how involved the face of the brand actually is. What do the experts think? I asked Dr Kemi Fabusiwa, medical doctor and director of Joyful Skin, to share her thoughts on celebrity skincare lines. "A significant part of the branding and appeal that comes with most celebrity skincare is the glamorous look and smell of their products, and glamour isn't a wonderful ingredient in skincare. As a doctor, science and a strong evidence base take priority. The thrill and sparkle that is attached to a celebrity skincare line does not necessarily equate to healthier, nourished skin, which is the goal that we should be striving towards when it comes to our skincare."
Unlike perfume, which generally requires the celebrity simply to describe what they’d like and then choose their favourite blend, skincare is a lot more complex. Not only are there different skin types to be catered for but many celebrities seem fixated on having a hook for their range. It’s true that when done well, this can help drive sales and lend authenticity to the brand. Look at Rihanna’s championing of diversity in beauty and Fenty’s success at following through. Compare that with Melania Trump's caviar-focused range, to which caviar added not much beyond the price tag. Developing a skincare range requires expertise which many celebrities are perhaps unable to provide. In other words, we should be looking at who they’re working with.
Pharrell’s skincare range, Humanrace, openly discusses the involvement of his longtime friend and renowned dermatologist, Dr Elena Jones. The brand’s initial press release talks at length about the importance of avoiding harmful ingredients and highlights the absence of "rocks, nuts, seeds, or plastic particles in our formulas to ensure no microtears occur which can result in damaging your skin". It may not be deliberately throwing shade at Kylie Skin after the walnut scrub mishap but the contrast in its approach to best-practice skincare is clear. Similarly, Victoria Beckham Beauty is aligning itself with other skincare experts, such as the widely renowned skincare authority Augustinus Bader, to produce Victoria Beckham Skincare by Augustinus Bader. It’s clear that scientific standards are important to the brand and it lends Beckham's foray into skincare a degree of credibility, which other brands arguably lack.
Brands which are backed by incubators such as Beach House Group (the company behind Florence by Mills and Kendall Jenner's Moon Oral Care) often raise questions of credibility. These incubators churn out celeb brands on a regular basis and rarely mention expert involvement. Celebrities may be little more than brand ambassadors with a cut of the profits, or they may be intimately involved in the creation process. It’s impossible to tell, and all the celebrity skincare brands Refinery29 reached out to declined to comment.
Dr Fabusiwa thinks we should be careful and try to distinguish between what’s just marketing and what is effective for our skin. "When it comes to these skincare lines, branding and the skincare experience are as important as the efficacy of the product," she says. "Some of these products are highly fragranced or contain artificial colouring to appeal to the consumer. The aim of fragrance in skincare is to mask the inherent odours of certain ingredients and increase the perceived value of the product. Unfortunately, these fragrances can irritate the skin barrier and potentially lead to allergic reactions, dermatitis, redness, hypersensitivity and blemish-prone skin. It is important to note that even natural scents, such as those derived from fruits and flower extracts, can still be irritating to the skin," continues Dr Fabusiwa. "In general, the better (or stronger) the product smells, the more irritating it is for your skin. The same can be said for artificial colourings and preservatives. You want each ingredient to contribute to fantastic-looking skin instead of a fantastic-looking product."
Trends suggest we’re moving towards a more scientific-focused skincare world. Cult Beauty's 2021 forecast suggests brands with medical-grade approval or standards are thought of as more effective and trustworthy by consumers. The pandemic may be partially responsible, as scientists solve the world’s current problems; it’s not surprising to see this reflected in skincare. We’re increasingly educated consumers who are demanding more from our skincare and are less likely to put up with half-baked products.
I spoke to Jenni Middleton, director of beauty at trends agency WGSN, to learn more about the future of celebrity skincare. "It depends on the celebrity and their popularity and social media profile, but for some companies, being a celebrity is enough to sell the brand. That said, beauty shoppers are very discerning and know their products, formulation, ingredients and benefits well, so they will be highly vocal on shopping sites and beauty forums if they find brands do not deliver the promised results or do not live up to the hype." Middleton continues: "To drive loyalty long-term, brands have got to work. Some of the most popular celebrity brands generally tend to appeal to a younger audience, so affordability is vital for them to gain buy-in. This has driven early uptick."
This educated consumer market is here to stay and we are demanding more from our products. Popular brands like The Ordinary, The Inkey List and Drunk Elephant all have an active-ingredient focus which is behind much of their success. They may have meant very little to most of us 10 years ago but ingredients have become selling points. Think hyaluronic acid for hydration, AHAs (or alpha hydroxy acids) for exfoliation and retinol for combating wrinkles, pigmentation and breakouts. In order to survive, celebrity skincare lines need to pay attention to the science as well as the style. Dr Fabusiwa says some celebrity lines are better than others. "I recently tried Dr Barbara Sturm’s skincare line aimed towards darker skin and the collection was gentle on my skin and didn't contain any additional fragrances," she tells R29. "I also felt safe in the hands of a fellow doctor. This line manages to strike the correct balance between branding and science."
A celebrity may be a selling point for some but it is unlikely to help a brand last in the long term. Middleton says: "The celebrity culture is booming, and will not go away, but brands must also offer sustainability, transparency and results to be successful." Trust and authenticity are valuable currency in the modern beauty world and a celebrity can be worth their weight in gold when fans feel like they really know them thanks to social media. However, ill thought-out products can’t be disguised by a perceived emotional connection.
As to whether we can really trust celebrity skincare lines, the answer is only as much as you trust anything designed to make money. There will always be those looking to make a quick buck and celebrities who don’t look too closely at what they’re selling. Mine and Dr Fabusiwa's advice is this: look for signs that a brand has actual scientific backing, like dermatologist involvement and transparent ingredient lists. Ultimately though, skincare is all down to personal preference.