Up In Arms: Why Some Makeup Swatches Are A Scam

Companies are eager to show their products work for all skin tones — even if they have to fake it.

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Christina Grant, a Black hand model, has gotten used to seeing images of herself that have been digitally altered. “I have seen my hand lightened in post[-production] to the point where I thought, ‘Wait, that doesn’t look like me,’” she tells Refinery29. Over the course of her career, she’s worked with about 15 different beauty brands and knows firsthand how a shot can be doctored to get the effect a brand is looking for — sometimes even before the shot is taken. “I remember one time on set, the makeup artist put all of this makeup on my hand, which is normal sometimes, but she made my hand three shades darker. I asked her if she was going to blend it out, but she said she was done.”
Beauty photographer and makeup artist Hayley Kassel is also familiar with the lengths some brands go to for perfect campaign images. Things get especially murky when beauty brands don’t make the products that suit the skin tones of the models they hire. “Sometimes a brand doesn’t have a particular model’s exact shade of foundation,” says Kassel. “So they end up Photoshopping [her] skin tone. Honestly, it confuses the hell out of me. I feel like some brands think the people won't notice, but we do, and we care.”

"I have seen my hand lightened in post[-production] to the point where I thought, 'Wait, that doesn’t look like me.'"

Christina Grant, hand model
It’s an issue that’s become especially prevalent in a post-Fenty era. As brands race to develop new foundations, or add shades to existing lines, swatches — images that show the full extent of a brand’s shade range by painting product directly onto the skinhave become the name of the game in an increasingly e-commerce driven world. It’s one of the many ways these companies can try to prove their new inclusive products are legit (years of mistrust aren’t erased overnight). Get them right, and the brand will be a hit before the products are even unpacked at Ulta. Get them wrong, and you might end up like StyleNanda, Becca Cosmetics, and Il Makiage, three brands who have been accused of Photoshopping swatches of their products recently.
“Swatches really become the only way someone can accurately guesstimate what shades to purchase when shopping online,” says Ofunne Amaka, founder of @Cocoaswatches, an Instagram account and mobile app that showcases swatches on underrepresented skin tones. “Swatches are especially important for women of color and people of color who often aren’t able to find their shades in stores.”
Even if a brand does have a great shade range, it can get skewered on social media for a Photoshop fail. Tweaking skin tones or lazily superimposing computer-made swatches over a model’s arm undercuts the admirable efforts brands are making in product and shade development. Companies are rendering their own product swatches useless with excessive — and often offensive — photo editing.
Earlier this summer, StyleNanda was called out for showcasing its nail polish on a hand that appeared “blackfaced.” The brand didn’t reply to our requests for comment. However, the team did apologize on Instagram for the questionable swatches and removed the image from its social media feed. But this was just the first in a string of incidents.
In the case of Becca Cosmetics, the brand posted a now-deleted Instagram photo of the new 24-shade Skin Love Weightless Blur Foundation swatched on four different arms. It seemed as if the models’ skin had been altered in order to check off the light, medium, dark, and deep skin tone boxes. The resulting effect looked fake, and nobody on Twitter or Instagram was buying it.

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"So did Becca Cosmetics really refuse to hire black women for these swatches? They just edited a white hand darker?" Twitter user @xfarahalyx asked, before going on to add, "Sometimes, I wonder if these people have actually met a Black or brown person in their lives." Users on Instagram, including beauty blogger Mai Thy Ly, were equally confused. “Most people don’t have palms that are the same color as the rest of their arms,” she wrote in the caption of a repost of Becca Cosmetics’ now deleted image. “This is Photoshopped as heck and it is shameful that you’re trying to promote your ‘inclusive’ foundation range but can’t even bother to hire real models for the swatches.”
Courtesy of Becca Cosmetics
When we reached out to Becca Cosmetics, the brand directed us to its Instagram statement which is, for now, its last word on the matter. In a post featuring a new swatch photo (right), Becca Cosmetics asserts that it did in fact hire four different models for its original shoot. Becca also acknowledges that “the way we adjusted the image missed the mark” and maintains that the brand is “committed to showcasing the lightest to the deepest skin tones and hiring inclusive models for our campaigns.”
Fledgling brand Il Makiage got called out for a similar incident. In its case, the swatch photo featured four arms of different skin tones wearing an array of 50 foundation shades (yes, the brand one-upped Fenty Beauty). Commenters called foul, saying that the hands weren’t from actual models of color. Co-founder Shiran Holtzman Erel says that’s not the case: “The models used were four diverse women, including an African-American woman,” she told Refinery29 over email. “The only digital alterations performed were in order to differentiate between the shades to help shoppers choose accurately.” So in this case, it wasn’t the hands that got touched up, but the foundation colors themselves.

We’ve got a shade for everyone. 50 ? to be exact, b. #WokeUpLikeThis

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By making it a point to hire models of color, both brands prove they’re backing claims of inclusivity with behind-the-scenes choices, but that doesn’t completely dismiss the shady swatches. When we followed up with Ly, the blogger, over email about Becca Cosmetics’ statement, she held her ground. “The Becca swatches might be due to the use of makeup vs. Photoshop, but the issue still stands,” she writes. “It’s pandering and deceitful to recognize the buying power of people of color without ensuring that they meet the needs of their customers.”
It’s not necessarily shocking that Photoshop was involved in these social media images. Post-production editing is regularly used on makeup and skin-care campaigns to get rid of a pimple, erase a smudge, or whiten teeth before finalizing an ad. Beautiful images are the goal, after all. Osase Emokpae, creator of @BrownGirlFriendly, an Instagram account that showcases new beauty launches on deep skin tones, understands the delicate balance brands are facing. “Brands have it in their best interest to create the most visually appealing photos and swatches for their promotional material,” she says. “I absolutely expect to see a brand’s swatches looking almost too perfect, but I don’t really mind because I understand that it’s meant to look as enticing as possible.”

“It’s pandering and deceitful to recognize the buying power of people of color without ensuring that they meet the needs of their customers.”

Mai Thy Ly
But along with beautiful images, brands are responsible for supporting their customers with useful — and truthful — information. Emokpae is quick to point out that inaccurate swatches are bad for everyone. “No matter who you are, from the very fair to the deepest dark, we all have the same question: Will this product look good on me? That can’t be answered without accurate representation.”
Courtesy of Osase Emokpae
Where brands fall short in authenticity, Instagram bloggers like Amaka and Emokpae pick up the slack. Both women have built their social media followings around swatches for darker skin tones, and thousands of followers check in for their content when a new launch hits. The whole purpose of these swatches is to help women find shades that work; whereas brands are always hoping to sell more product.
For Emokpae an image can take hours to create, and post-production isn’t priority. “I always post video of my swatches so people can see them in action and know that they’re actually legit,” she says. “It’s a very time-intensive process for me. I’m not paid to do any of it, which sucks because countless times, people have thought my swatches and product photos are official images from the brand or that they look better than what the brand has produced.”
Until we can be sure that the swatches brands offer are free of retouching, we’ll be turning to bloggers and influencers who don’t stand to gain financially from jumping on the inclusivity train. “It's more than just giving us a 40-shade foundation line and going back to your regularly scheduled program,” says Amaka. “True diversity and inclusion require a holistic approach. You can tell when a true effort is being made and when it's not.”

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