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Why the Beauty Industry Is Betting Big on Supplements

With a new cast of indie brands going all-out and prestige beauty’s biggest retailers going all-in, are ingestible supplements a flash in the pan or a true industry disruptor?
Goop's 'Balls in the Air' supplement | Source: Courtesy
  • Sarah Brown

NEW YORK, United States — A few weeks ago, as I was returning from a quick trip to Bermuda, a particularly cranky TSA agent busted me with the packet of pink-flecked sand I had painstakingly collected on a deserted stretch of Horseshoe Bay Beach (for my sand collection, duh). After callously throwing my treasure in a trash bin, she ran my carry-on bag through the X-ray machine once more, frowned dramatically, and dove back into my stuff, immediately producing, and opening, a white plastic jar filled with a greenish-blue powder, which she triumphantly presented to me, cocking one evil eyebrow. "NO!" I practically screamed."That's my beauty supplement!"

I mix this mysterious powder into a glass of water each day so that my skin will glow and I can have more balanced gut flora and less inflammation, I could have told her. A new wave of dietary supplements — which includes everything from curated vitamin packs to mineral-rich elixirs meant to kick-start collagen production and capsules to fuel hair and nail growth — are now considered by many (especially those in the briskly growing “naturals” space) to be as essential to one’s beauty routine as the jars of un-travel-friendly-sized creams that TSA agent is no doubt coldly chucking into the garbage all day long.

In the last three to four years, the supplement business has moved from drugstore vitamin aisle and fringy, health food extra to mainstream — prestige — beauty staple, complete with Insta-worthy packaging, irresistible product names (Beauty Dust, Skin Food, Freaky Health Chocolate), and major marketing. Type in “Supplements” on and 61 options pop up; Net-a-Porter’s Wellness section (found under Beauty), yields 51 results. According to Karen Grant, NPD’s global industry analyst for beauty, the category has doubled within the last two years.

Are ingestible supplements — which the FDA technically classifies as food — beauty’s next big boom? Zion Market Research reports that, worldwide, dietary supplements are a $133 billion market, projected to reach $220.3 billion by 2022. In its 2016 Consumer Survey on Dietary Supplements, the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) found that nearly one fifth of supplement users in the United States take them for skin, hair and nail benefits. The beauty supplement market is still small — “tiny” is how Grant describes it. In the United States’ $18 billion prestige beauty market, they represented just $13.1 million for the year ending April 2017, she notes. But the potential for expansion should not be overlooked.

“It’s not entirely new in the sense that the ingestibles category has been around for the last 15 years,” she says. (Treatment-oriented haircare brands — Phyto, J.F. Lazartigue, Philip Kingsley, Rene Furterer — have been selling hair-growth supplements for years. Most people I know would rather skip a meal than give up their Viviscal.) “What is new,” continues Grant, “is that we’re seeing really strong growth.”

Ashley Lewis, senior director of Wellness at Goop, calls ingestibles “the next frontier.” Talk to Jessica Richards, founder of Brooklyn’s pioneering non-toxic-beauty boutique Shen and head of beauty and wellness for Urban Outfitters-owned Free People, and she’ll tell you how ingestible beauty accounts for 27 percent of beauty sales at Free People, in-store and online. “It’s a third of our business — that’s not niche,” she says.

Those who are genuinely committed to pursuing a deeper level of health and wellness tend to be patient.

Richards reports that at the most recent Expo West, a natural products trade show, “It seemed like 15 percent was ingestible beauty products. It’s never been like that before. Any investor who doesn’t invest in this category is quite frankly not looking outside the box, or at what’s staring them straight in the face.”

Key disruptors in the space include Sydney-based Carla Oates — a.k.a. The Beauty Chef — a former beauty editor who originally developed her Glow Inner Beauty Powder, a blend of 24 specially fermented (she’s got a patent on her process) pre- and probiotic-rich superfoods, in an effort to treat her daughter’s eczema. Seven years later, her range is stocked in over 200 retailers around the world, from Net-a-Porter and Goop to Selfridges, where her products are consistent blockbusters.

WelleCo’s pH-balancing Super Elixir — a collaboration between co-founder Elle MacPherson and her Harley Street nutritionist, Simone Laubscher, PhD — which launched in Spring 2014, is now available in 60 countries and is a top performer at retailers like Net-a-Porter, Lane Crawford and Australia’s David Jones.

Unilever Ventures recently invested in Nutrafol, the all-natural hair supplement favoured by a roster of top dermatologists and hairstyling stars. It’s formulated with nutraceuticals like saw palmetto, clinically proven to show hair regrowth.

Sephora counts Perricone, Murad and Hum Nutrition — capsules and powders for everything from clear skin, dark circles, and collagen production to weight loss — among its bestsellers.

Earlier this Spring, Goop crashed the party with its own Gwyneth Paltrow-endorsed curated vitamin packets aimed at solving a range of specific issues, like crowd favourite “Why Am I So Effing Tired?”

Richards sees a surge in anything touting turmeric — the latest anti-inflammatory — as a key ingredient, and can’t keep Kalumi’s $6 Beauty Food Marine Collagen Protein bars in stock. She estimates that 50 percent of her customers at Shen add a tube of 8G’s Essential Greens Booster to their purchase, which she wisely merchandises at checkout. “They’re just your eight daily greens freeze-dried in an effervescent tab: quickie wellness. These are super-simple ideas people can get behind,” she says.

What’s to account for all this growth? There are three key factors:

1. Beauty, health and wellness are converging.

“It was bound to happen,” says Richards. “It’s a lifestyle choice.” This Spring, Free People opened a beauty and wellness shop within their fitness-centric Soho Movement store with the thought that, “If you believe in yoga, you’re going to buy the wellness supplements. Because we think they go hand-in-hand,” says Richards. “It just makes sense.” It’s working: They plan to open 20-30 more shop-in-shops by year’s end.

At Bobbi Brown’s new justBOBBI concept shops at Lord & Taylor, the makeup artist-turned-life guru offers a mix of everything from her perfect pair of jeans (Hudson) to WelleCo’s Super Elixir, Dr. Frank Lipman’s Be Well supplements, and of course, her new book, “Beauty from the Inside Out.”

At Sephora, vice president of Skincare merchandising Priya Venkatesh says, “We are excited about this category and its potential because we’ve seen how lifestyle trends continue to spill over into beauty. There’s greater awareness of how what goes in the body can affect the outside, with clients increasingly equating beauty with health and wellness.”

“It’s becoming all-encompassing,” says Grant, who notes that rather than supplement companies creating messaging around their products being an extension of one’s doctor, “now it’s an extension of health. It’s feeding into a slightly different dynamic than before.” She sees evidence of the trend blossoming throughout the beauty sector. “We’re not seeing plastic surgery booming,” she says, “but where beauty is growing is in more basic care categories like high SPF products, cleansing and masks: Health, wellness and care have dialled up to be the trend to drive beauty.” Even makeup’s continued acceleration, says Grant, has something to do with people’s desire “to look healthier — naturally healthier, quicker.”

2. The belly-beauty connection.

It’s this simple: What you eat has an affect on how you look. “For so long we’ve looked at beauty as one-dimensional, as what you put on your skin. With this wellness revolution, people have noticed that when they look after their body in a more holistic way, their skin benefits. Skin, hair, and nails are the last places to get nutrients, so if you’re not receiving enough nutrition, they’re the first to suffer,” says Oates, who has worked on papers with the two microbiologists she employs studying the relationship between rosacea, acne and gut health, and recently published her first cookbook. (I also must recommend British makeup artist Wendy Rowe’s “Eat Beautiful,” which has a terrific glossary, cheeky commentary and beautiful photography.)

“People are saying, ‘Ok, I’ve had acne all my life, all of a sudden everyone has a dairy or gluten allergy. What can I do to balance all of that?’ You can attain great skin by changing what you put in your body,” says Richards.

The interesting thing here is that people are approaching the new beauty supplements not so much as “medicine” — the way one might dutifully take vitamins for, say, an iron or calcium deficiency — but as an extension of their beauty (which, remember, now also means health) regimen. It’s another step, the way adding a toner is another step.

“The consumer just knows more now,” says Grant, “that you can’t fix it all from the outside.”

3. The M-Word: The younger generation is on board.

“Historically,”’ says Lewis, “the largest audience for supplement users was 55+ — they’re ageing and starting to have more aliments; doctors are telling them to supplement their diet. Now we’re seeing younger populations, especially millennials, concerned with treating their bodies right, and talking about how that can have an effect on certain aspects of their life, starting with how their skin looks.”

Eating fresh has grown among younger consumers, reports NPD, and among people who take supplements specifically for beauty benefits, 26 percent are between the ages 18 and 34 — whereas 17 percent are 35-54, and 14 percent are over the age of 55 — according to CRN’s 2016 survey.

That said, not everyone is climbing on the bandwagon. Tara Foley, founder of Follain, the “zero-toxin” beauty retailer with stores in Boston, Nantucket and New York, has adopted a wait-and-see mentality. For now, “We’re not getting into vitamins,” she says. “I know eating clean changes everything, but the vitamin and supplement industry is even less regulated than the beauty industry. It’s like the Wild West. We’ll share information with our consumers from herbalists and nutritionists, but we’re not going to sell that stuff yet. We can’t stand behind any of it.” With traditional skin care, continues Foley, “I know the questions to ask. With vitamins, I don’t yet — and I don’t think anyone does.”

It’s true: Pretty much anyone can enter the market (it’s the same for beauty products). According to the FDA’s website, regarding dietary supplements, it is each company’s responsibility to ensure that “the products it manufactures or distributes are safe,” that any claims they make “are not false or misleading,” and that they comply with FDA regulations “in all other respects.”

While supplements do not require FDA approval before they enter the market, once they get there, there are significant regulations. But that still does not guarantee a good product. “It’s important which manufacturers you choose,” says Goop’s Lewis. “You want to make sure you have the highest quality product. Any good lab has been CGMP-certified [the FDA’s Current Good Manufacturing Practices]. They do strenuous testing on the front and back end, from raw materials through packaging.”

Clinical tests and trials — which are optional — are also really important, adds Lewis. “Without that, no one knows what they’re putting in their body. With our vitamins, we were very careful. We do not claim any benefits that have not been specifically tested in trials. We would never say, ‘we’ve heard this supplement works this way.’”

Still, how does one know who, and what, to trust? Seek out companies that are transparent. Ask questions; expect answers. “Companies that are doing it right are sharing all of the information they can— ‘our product comes from here; we’ve conducted these studies,’” says Lewis. “When you put something inside your body, it’s a whole new ball game. The stakes are higher. You have to find the right materials, someone to make it for you. You have to trust everyone with whom you’re working. It’s not easy and it’s certainly more expensive. Companies doing it with quality are up for a much tougher ride. Those are the big barriers.”

Another barrier: Unlike a bronzing powder, the radiant glow of actual inner health takes some time to appear. “People want things that have immediate results,” says Grant. “That’s been a challenge for the market overall, because it’s about taking better care of yourself, and that takes time.”

That said, those who are genuinely committed to pursuing a deeper level of health and wellness — members of our juice-cleansing, coconut water-drinking, meditation app-using, athleisure-wearing, yoga/spinning/boxing/Pilates-taking culture — tend to be patient. The supplement companies are just hoping there are lots of them, armed with not insignificant amounts of disposable income, out there.

What does the future hold? Will the big establishment brands eventually get in on the action — once the indies have the customer conditioned — and take it to scale? Are beauty supplements a business worth betting on?

"It's definitely a trend right now, and growing really fast," says Grant, before pausing to mention the cautionary tale of the electric cleansing brush category — the fastest-growing, white-hot must-have a few years ago which has now all but flat-lined. The difference as I see it, and the bigger picture, is that beauty supplements don't represent one singular category, trend or behaviour, but are part of an entire way of living — and shopping. Also, unlike the cleansing brush, supplements must be re-purchased each month. And they're expensive.

"Ingestibles are going to continue to grow because they're having an effect; people are seeing a difference," says Lewis. And as long as they see a difference — in their skin, their hair, their sleep patterns, their weight, their energy levels, their sex drive (there are supplements for everything) — they'll most likely be open to trying more things as the category continues to innovate. And with that, I am off to take my daily shot of The Beauty Chef's (reluctantly TSA-approved) Inner Glow powder.

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