Is The Beauty Industry Suffering From A Product Quality Crisis?

Lorne Lucree, chief innovation officer at contract manufacturer Voyant Beauty and head of its business unit Atelier by Voyant Beauty, believes the beauty industry is suffering from a product quality crisis. He points to mold, formula separation and packaging issues as evidence. We were curious if he’s alone in his belief or if it’s widespread among beauty industry insiders.

So, for the latest edition of our ongoing series posing questions relevant to indie beauty, we asked 14 beauty manufacturing executives, cosmetic chemists and other experts, including Lucree, the following questions: Do you think there’s a crisis of quality happening in the beauty industry? If you think there’s a crisis, how should it be addressed?

Lorne Lucree Chief Innovation Officer and Head of Business Unit, Voyant Beauty and Atelier by Voyant Beauty

Beauty consumers are naturally curious, so trust is critical, which I believe we’ve seen challenged recently. For me, this crisis of quality is the result of a perfect storm of several factors.

First, social accounts like Estée Laundry have provided a peek behind the scenes of beauty industry drama, and we’ve now seen that expand into proactive analytical product testing, calling into question being able to take for granted inclusion of ingredients at efficacious levels as well as the exclusion of harmful regulated incidentals.

Compounding this is consumers trusting ratings and reviews more than brand-provided product performance claims, which can quickly and widely amplify any negative product experience in real time, whether actually related to the formula or not.

Lastly, the continued market push for clean has resulted in the market moving to more natural preservative systems, which require a much more high-touch technical approach to not only formulating, but also formula testing as well as more natural ingredients which can affect how a formula looks over time.

MoCRA will help in the future, but, in the meantime, fully addressing the crisis of quality will take equal participation from brands, manufacturers and raw material suppliers. More indie brands mean more demand and more contract manufacturers to service this demand. Brands should audit their manufacturing partners upfront to ensure they have stringent quality standards and expertise in formulating clean.

Brands must also proactively educate their consumers on any visual impact of natural content to manage expectations and prevent perceptions that it is due to quality. Manufacturers must ensure close partnerships with raw material suppliers to work through formulation challenges that could impact quality and ensure all upstream testing is completed and buttoned up when documentation and support are required.

Lastly, timelines are often challenging, but package testing is critical and cannot be overlooked both during development as well as first production.

I wouldn't refer to this as a crisis. However, even the best manufacturing companies have occasional issues. This is why reputable manufacturing companies have standard operating procedures (SOPs) and conform to good manufacturing practices (GMPs), at a minimum.

There are a wide variety of reasons for product quality issues. However, most quality issues tend to come down to human error. These errors may be more frequent due to employee turnover, inadequate training, unrealistic timing constraints, formulation miscalculations or manufacturing and process errors.

As a brand is exploring manufacturing options, they need to ask the right questions and, if possible, visit the facilities where their products will be made. A good manufacturing partner will be able to address all of the questions and concerns that a brand may ask and should be receptive to a site visit.

Transparency is important in this type of partnership and a contract manufacturer should be invested in the success of all of their clients.

Robyn Watkins Founder, Holistic Beauty Group

In the world of beauty, the pursuit of speed can often compromise the desired outcome of quality. The industry is currently experiencing a quality crisis largely attributed to the prioritization of timelines over the long-term impact of the product.

Additionally, there is a notable scarcity of seasoned professionals with extensive expertise in product development and quality assurance among emerging brands.

At Holistic Beauty Group, we hold a steadfast commitment to safety testing, which is mandatory for all formulas we develop. Despite occasional debates on the relevance of this step, we recognize that compromising safety standards can be detrimental to our clients and their brand's reputation.

While launching a product always carries inherent risks, it is imperative to weigh the options carefully. After investing years in developing a product, the prospect of having to start over due to quality issues is a situation that no brand wants to face.

Matt Stearn President, Innovative Cosmetic Labs

Yes, there is a crisis of quality happening in the beauty industry. Quality assurance costs time and money. The best contract manufacturers make a conscious commitment to higher quality by investing in staff, training and SOPs. Quality is part of company culture. It’s about actions, standards and daily maintenance.

Today’s consumer with social media can share their experiences with poor quality products and create a PR nightmare for brands. To help address this situation, here are questions a brand can ask a contract manufacturer to get a sense of the quality assurance program:

  • How frequently does your company have quality assurance meetings? Weekly? Monthly? Yearly?
  • Can I see the SOP manual table of contents?
  • Are there internal testing requirements for PET (preservative efficacy testing)? Finished goods? Bulk? Raw Materials?
Laura Lam-Phaure R&D Director, Product Society

Personally, I believe that the clean beauty movement is the main reason we have a crisis of quality happening in the beauty industry. This is because clean beauty has blacklisted many ingredients that have been known to be safe, effective and efficacious due to a level of fearmongering.

Due to this, chemists have been forced to turn to using ingredients that are less studied, therefore more difficult to formulate with. Now, this is not to say that you can’t create an efficacious, safe and clean product, but, due to the clean beauty movement, it has touted non-clean beauty products as “dirty,” which is far from the truth.

When it comes to the proliferation of yeast, mold and bacteria, this often comes from the usage of less studied, less efficacious preservative methods being selected or, even worse, brands choosing to choose no preservatives in order to be a part of the clean beauty movement.

The irony is that the clean beauty movement was built from the ideals of creating safer, more efficacious products. However, it’s done the absolute opposite by creating less efficacious products that are difficult to stabilize. While the science doesn’t back clean beauty, marketing does.

So, here we are seeing the crisis of quality within the beauty industry that we essentially did to ourselves. This has been proven with the increased mold activity as well as more formulas that are separating on the market due to use less studied ingredients that may or may not be compatible with each other.

Additionally, due to the beauty industry being a trend-based industry, this forces brands and companies to produce products as quickly as possible before any sort of safety testing can be completed. This results in untested products landing on the market and into consumer hands.

The best way I personally believe for the beauty industry to move forward is full transparency on safety, the types of testing that we are doing to ensure safety. Safety is more than what you can read on an ingredient list, and we should push for a movement of beauty backed by science, not by influencers or even brands. The focus should be around science-based products that work and are safe.

I think it’s crazy that the clean beauty movement has created a narrative that brands are intentionally putting toxic ingredients into their formulas. As a chemist, I don’t sit behind the bench just going, “Oh my god, what toxic ingredient can I add next?”—definitely not, although sometimes it can be easily overlooked that beauty products are made for humans by humans.

I can’t speak to every manufacturer or even every brand that creates product, but at my current company, Product Society, we work hard to audit every single ingredient that we add in to make sure that it’s safe and effective for the user and even at times check for fair trade practices.

In conclusion, I believe in educating consumers properly and transparency on what goes on behind the scenes.

Valerie George President and Cosmetic Chemist, Simply Formulas

Lorne is not wrong. There is a lot of pressure on brands and manufacturers to generate sales and increase profitability. That doesn’t happen if product has to be disposed of because it fails a quality inspection and needs to be reproduced. I believe it’s more common than I would like to think for off-quality product to be shipped in an effort to avoid being out of stock or marked as a loss.

I also believe that brands don’t have enough or any good quality control or assurance measures in place. They’re relying on their manufacturer to enforce a culture of quality, but the reality is the brand needs to have someone knowledgeable on their team responsible for cultivating that culture.

This includes making sure your products have all adequate testing, making sure the testing is an adequate method, reviewing the testing reports, checking incoming product from your manufacturer against a certificate of analysis, and holding responsible parties accountable through investigations and corrective action plans.

This culture only works if company leadership puts full trust in this quality individual to call “stop” and quarantine the product while the risks are outlined. It also only works if company leadership also believes in a culture of quality. Often, those conflict.

Angela Umelo Founder and Green Chemist, Salt and Earth Labs

Quite the contrary! Overall standards have increased as have consumer expectations. You used to see products on the shelf with separation, color and odor changes, etc., but brands and formulators have become more savvy with solutions, especially now when any "perceived" quality issue can be blown up and literally destroy your brand.  Let's be frank, no brand wants a quality issue. It is not good for business!!

What you do see more of, however, is the following:

  1. Social media hyperbole: The drama and sensationalism that feeds social media may not even be factual, but now you can share it with a larger audience faster than ever before. Social media is that microscopic lens that can often make issues seem bigger or more commonplace than they are.
  2. DIY culture: I'm a major advocate for getting scrappy and getting it done. A lot of businesses, especially self-funded Black female businesses have started this way, and I would never call for more bureaucracy and red tape to stifle the natural inclination for human innovation. More education may be needed and the good news is we are seeing it, including more training courses, chemist "influencers" and information that people can use to develop the products they need.
  3. Ingredient shifts: They have led to more unchartered territory for formulators. There was a time when you could rely on certain default ingredients. You knew what worked as they had been used for years and years before, but the consumer drive for cleaner, more eco-conscious formulas does mean chemists are challenged to work with alternatives. I've seen many struggle with this, but again this drive spurs innovation from raw material vendors to brands and formulators, so if any chemist can’t formulate without their TEA (triethanolamine) and parabens, then I might suggest that they need to move into the 21st century.
  4. Speed to market: I have seen the temptation to cut corners sometimes to get to market faster. After all, no one really wants to wait 12 weeks for stability, six weeks of PET testing, plus safety tests and assessments, etc. Emerging brands may not enforce the same rigorous requirements as multinationals or have the team to check and vet their suppliers in the same way. So, it comes back to education, responsibility and good partnership. Both brands and manufacturers are responsible for adhering to industry standards for QA/QC regardless of market pressure. Again, quality issues are not good for business!
Mary Berry Founder and CEO, Cosmos Labs

I actually agree that there is a “crisis of quality” in the beauty industry, but I think it should be easily held at bay by ethical manufacturers.

As a private-label manufacturer, we are constantly challenged by brands to try new preservatives and system chassis because brands are being pushed by consumers for natural, clean and innovative products.

While we are all for things that are better for people and the planet, our first and foremost thought as manufacturers must be on safety and quality. The proper preservative and stability testing schedules and procedures must be followed to ensure product safety and quality.

This takes time and, in my opinion, it’s the responsibility of the manufacturer to enforce these longer timelines.

Krupa Koestline Founder And Clean Beauty Formulator, KKT Consultants

It’s difficult to pinpoint whether or not there is a “crisis” of quality happening or that there’s more buzz surrounding it due to social media.

In the past, if a product had mold, consumers didn’t have a platform to share that information as quickly as now. By the time a mold problem is known to the general public, the brand likely has already pulled the batch of products to investigate it.

The “lack of quality” might also be preordained with the growth in the sector that we have seen in the last few years. Beauty in general has seen explosive growth, with brands wanting to launch products as quickly as possible. Many have done so without the due diligence a formula requires in order to establish quality and safety.

Newer brands try to fit into a clean bucket, trying their best to comply with an RSL (restricted substance list) without fully understanding the responsibility that comes with it. For instance, many have attempted to move away from proven, broad-spectrum preservatives and have replaced them with a combination of newer preservative systems.

Although this is not in itself a quality issue, it takes expertise to formulate well with these newer preservatives. A handful of formulators understand the nuances when working with these. Older preservation systems tend to be much more forgiving.

In general, when it comes to cosmetics in the U.S., there could definitely be more stringent oversight across the board. Without clear, established standards on product safety and stability, the lack of quality is imminent. MoCRA is a step in the right direction, but we need to keep moving.

Eric Korman CEO, The Goodkind Co

While I think it’s fair to say that there has been a rise in issues related to finished good quality, I do not believe that it represents a crisis. The overwhelming majority of goods in the marketplace are of high quality and should not raise concerns to the public broadly.

That said, as we all know, the industry continues to grow at a rapid pace with minimal government regulation and oversight. And our industry’s (over)reliance on self-regulation remains challenged by fast-paced entrepreneurial brand development and changes in retail distribution.

On the brand side, the rise of “clean” beauty and its intersection with indie beauty has exacerbated the lack of regulatory oversight and common standards. At times this leads to folks with good intentions making poorly researched tradeoff decisions around things like preservative systems.

Phenoxyethanol is a great example of this trend. It has become a bogeyman on INCIs, yet it’s a completely safe (even certified as such by Made Safe) and highly effective preservative.

On the distribution side, most retailers require products sold in their stores to meet stringent quality standards, yet there is a lack of consistency in these standards and how they are enforced.

The continued rise of the DTC business model and digital marketplaces makes consistency even worse, as many products are no longer even subjected to retailer driven quality standards.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. The recent passing of MoCRA last December represents a significant advancement for product quality and consumer safety.

The implementation of this new regulation will take time and it will be messy, but it’s an important first step toward ultimately ensuring we close the gaps in quality that we’re experiencing today.

Kelly Dobos Cosmetic Chemist and Adjunct Professor, The University of Toledo

While the clean beauty movement has good intentions, one of the consequences has been the removal of safe, effective preservatives from the cosmetic chemist’s toolbox. This has led to the amplification of issues with hygiene in manufacturing and microbial contamination.

Quality controls might catch these failures, but it’s really the implementation policies and procedures upfront that can help prevent problems.

Recognition of these concerns has been felt across the industry and, to that end, the University of Cincinnati and PCPC (Personal Care Products Council) recently collaborated to bring together a specific training program that focuses on plant hygiene and address the need for education to address this urgent matter.

Anthony Standifer Co-Founder and CMO, mSEED group

I believe we're far from a crisis when it comes to quality in the beauty space. The sales data shows significant growth in consumer spending in categories like textured hair and skin care for melanin rich tones. If consumer confidence was challenged because of quality issues on a massive scale, we would feel it across all sectors of the industry.

That being said, as a contract manufacturer in beauty, I do know that clean beauty formulations offer new challenges from both formulation and scaled manufacturing perspectives. There is significant opportunity for new clean preservative systems that allow longer shelf life yet hold up the desired standards of the clean beauty movement.

Yaumara Camacho Co-Founder, Bayport Laboratories

I disagree with the notion that there is a new crisis in quality issues. Nevertheless, I do acknowledge that the advent of social media has increased the level of awareness about quality issues.

In my capacity as a co-founder of Bayport Laboratories, a meticulous color cosmetic manufacturing company, we view this development as an opportunity to refine our final-mile quality assurance protocols and enhance our overall approach to quality management.

By leveraging the power of social media, we can identify emerging quality concerns and address them proactively, while also highlighting our commitment to delivering high-quality products to our customers.

Amy Hart Chief Innovation Officer, Elevation Labs

I do think we are in the midst of an interesting time in the beauty industry. More than ever, there is pressure on brands to launch new products in record timing with very little wiggle room for error.

This pressure is compounded by the fact that we are still experiencing supply chain challenges, which ultimately result in plan B and plan C backups that can create last-minute changes to raw materials, formulas, packaging or a combination of all three.

As a result, project timelines are compounded, and certain criteria may be condensed resulting in risks taken. Risks, as we all know, are risks. Some end well, but some do not.

Additionally, retailers are playing a huge role in providing input into new product development in partnership with many brands, which can throw in last-minute ideas or suggestions, also causing condensed timelines or unexpected twists and turns into what otherwise is normally a pretty straightforward development plan.

Iva Teixeira Co-Founder and CEO, The Good Face Project

Lorne's observation is very astute. At Good Face, we have the opportunity to study the metadata of the formulation, regulatory and innovation processes of thousands of product development cycles. Our platform enables us to analyze the steps best-in-class R&D organizations take in order to ensure quality and consumer transparency. For me, the most heartbreaking moment is when a new customer tells us about the processes or lack thereof it had before adopting Good Face.

The average brand with $5 million to $100 million in revenue thinks that product quality, regulatory compliance and raw material verification are all "stuff" that its manufacturer(s) should be handling. As such, few brands invest in the understanding of their products beyond the initial manufacturer sample approval and the outsourced regulatory review steps.

This attitude poses a number of risks, not just for the brand, but also for its customers because, essentially, the brand sells a product it does not fully understand. This is when lawsuits for unsubstantiated claims, mold in the jar and greenwashing can happen.

Brands who use our platform have made a commitment to own everything about the goop in the jar—sustainability and naturality claims, impurities, allergens, ingredient sources, etc. By adopting the "trust-but-verify" attitude, these brands demand a transparent process and supply chain from their R&D partners and, in turn, elevate the overall quality of the products they launch. You won't believe the frequency or magnitude of product launch disasters they avert just because they adopt the attitude of wanting to know more.

Because of the average brand's lack of inquiry, manufacturers who are always pressed for time focus on getting the product samples out the door for the brand's approval and only then worry about the integrity of its documentation. The lack of systems to aggregate and track ingredient quality documentation as well as product specs and quality controls is appalling.

We meet dozens of manufacturers who do business with 20 to 50 brands at a time and are still managing formulation with Excel, Dropbox, Hubspot or Trello. Those who choose to move away from such antiquated and laughable practices must resolve to make a real investment, not just in better technology to save them time and manage risk, but also in change management.

They face the significant hurdle of changing mindsets on their teams who often come with very high technical skills in developing high-performance formulas, but a very low understanding of business process scalability.

All in all, there is a silver lining. It is that the consumers are very loudly declaring their demand for transparency in our industry. Brands are quickly responding to that need, and their best manufacturing partners are already prepared to offer process visibility and product integrity. A new way of doing business is slowly but surely taking hold, and all of our faces (and all other body parts) will thank us for it!

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