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Natural Beauty Brands Go From Hippie to Hip at Expo West

Natural beauty brands leave their crunchy reputation behind for good at Natural Products Expo West.

If there was any doubt, Natural Products Expo West made it official: Natural beauty is no longer niche.

As the category thrusts mainstream, its players are swiftly pouncing on mainstream trends. Name a hot product or skin-care ingredient at Sephora or Ulta Beauty — sheet masks; essences; Konjac sponges; a multiplicity of oil formats; turmeric; charcoal; kale, and inside-out beauty supplements and waters — and it was on display at the bustling trade show, during which  attendance swelled by 6.9 percent to 77,000 from March 9 to 13 at the Anaheim Convention Center.

“Our industry is really evolving. What I have seen now is the lines are blurred a little bit between natural and conventional. It is really important for us to keep up on trends,” said Clare Blunt, a regional buyer for the Whole Body department at Whole Foods. “Until the last few years, our suppliers were really limited by the ingredients available to them. We are really excited that these companies are innovating and finding great plant-based ingredients. They are starting to set the trends instead of trying to copy the trends in a weird hippie way.”

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Natural beauty brands and retailers that carry them have to stay relevant as they go head-to-head with conventional brands chasing Millennial dollars. “I still want the core customer, but we have this opportunity with a younger customer,” said Cindy Young, wellness buyer at New Seasons Market, a Portland, Ore.-based grocer. “We have this new shopper who could be 20, 25, 30 or younger. They are shopping online. They are shopping at Sephora. They are used to more exciting packaging and trends, and we are learning how to keep up.”

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Andalou Naturals, Alba Botanica, Burt’s Bees and Derma E came out swinging in the on-trend department. Burt’s Bee’s presented Intense Hydration Nourishing Facial Water — its take on a skin-care treatment popularized by Japanese and Korean brands — and Cleansing Oil, an unusual product for mass retail. Andalou Naturals exhibited eco-friendly versions of Konjac beauty sponges and four varieties of single-use sheet masks to clarify pores, soothe, brighten and lift skin. “Andalou is the first in the natural channel to adopt the [sheet mask] trend coming out of Korea,” Blunt said. “They are serum based. So, whatever is left, you massage into your neck and décolletage. It is like a spa experience at home.”

Derma E unveiled a Purifying line of six products with activated charcoal. “It’s really great for the younger demographic, who may have issues with blemishes and hormonal breakouts, and is geared toward skin health,” said Virginia DeSimone, communications manager at Derma E.

Alba Botanica is releasing four sheet masks to address acne, hydration, tone and wrinkles, and a five-item Hawaiian Detox line containing volcanic clay, an ingredient with antipollution properties similar to charcoal. “Alba is [for] a young consumer, and detoxing is a big trend with that consumer. There is an understanding that detoxifying your skin makes it more beautiful,” said Sarah Galusha, director of marketing for personal care at Alba Botanica’s parent company Hain Celestial.

A trend in natural beauty brands’ wheelhouse, essential oils, continue to proliferate. They’ve even filtered down to children. Three alumni of Advanced Beauty Inc., which sold Cantu and Bodycology last year to PDC Brands, launched Oilogic, a brand offering essential oil personal-care items and roll-ons for babies and kids priced from $7.99 to $9.99. The line has been picked up by Target, Meijer and Buy Buy Baby. “We think there are moms shopping at stores every week, and they’ve heard about essential oils, but they haven’t tried them because they’ve been hard and expensive,” said cofounder Worth Anne Herrell. “These are all pre-mixed, so there is no worry and fuss.”

Historically a difficult segment, natural color cosmetics are gaining momentum as makeup has surged at conventional beauty retailers. Burt’s Bees is pushing into cosmetics aisles with 14 lipstick shades and a BB Cream with SPF 15. Sun-care brand Coola is rolling out six sheer shades of Mineral Liplux with SPF 30 as part of an effort to amplify its year-round business. Originally conceived as a fragrance brand, Pacifica Beauty has become a color cosmetics authority, and its latest introduction is Dream Big, a mascara featuring a brush that extends outward to lengthen lashes and contracts to boost volume. Today, cosmetics account for roughly one-third of Pacifica’s revenues.

“A true red in natural is really, really hard to achieve [in lipstick] because it [the red] is artificial. Pacifica has been really striving to get those bright colors. Brook [Harvey Taylor], the founder of Pacifica, said for the longest time, everything in her skin-care routine was 100 percent natural, but she used bright red lipstick from Chanel. She was on a mission to replicate a true red with natural ingredients,” Blunt said. “We are not 100 percent there yet, but I see a lot of innovation, and people are finding ingredients so you don’t need to resort back to the not-natural color cosmetics to get your full look.”

With most natural beauty classifications firing on all cylinders, investors are vying to get in on the action. During a visit to Coola’s booth at Expo West, executives from two investment firms were eager to chat with founder and chief executive officer Chris Birchby — and for good reason. He reported sales of the brand’s products, which are available at Ulta Beauty and Sephora, skyrocketed more than 150 percent last year. “It feels like everyone is hungry around here. I have seen a lot of private equity folks. It’s crazy,” said Birchby, who emphasized he’s not currently looking to make a deal.

Sensible Organics Inc., producer of Nourish Organic and Promise Organic, a brand that premiered exclusively at CVS in September, is looking to make a deal. The company has hired Threadstone to solicit interest from investors. Sensible Organics ceo Rob Robillard revealed sales have doubled annually since 2012, and he’s bullish on growth going forward. “The challenge with M&A in this space is to find brands that could turn into $50 [million] to $100 million brands. There are not a lot of brands here [at Expo West] that will get to that place,” he said, adding about Promise, “We are already doing a huge business. I believe Promise has the potential to be a $100 million brand. Nourish will be slower, but will get there.”

One of the only black clouds hanging over Expo West was a Wall Street Journal story published during the trade show suggesting detergents from Honest Co. Inc. were filled with sodium lauryl sulfate or SLS, an ingredient Honest vowed to avoid. Vendors and retailers seemed concerned by the report — as well as an earlier controversy surrounding Honest involving a mineral sunscreen — could diminish trust between brands and consumers, and impact sales. Honest has denied the claims made in the  Journal article. “We stand behind our laundry detergent and take very seriously the responsibility we have to our consumers to create safe and effective products,” the company said in a statement.

Honest’s troubles don’t seem to have affected other companies. Mineral sunscreen specialist Goddess Garden Organics grew 60 percent last year, according to Jill Taylor, national sales director for the natural channel. Asked about the sunscreen controversy at Honest, she lamented, “We don’t want anyone to get the idea that mineral sunscreens don’t work. Mineral sunscreens do work.” Some brands sense an opportunity to nab customers possibly retreating from Honest. Hain Celestial is positioning Live Clean, a Canadian brand it acquired last year, as an alternative to Honest. “Our formulas are clean, and our price points are lower,” said Roseann Fernandez, a beauty industry veteran shepherding Live Clean’s U.S. launch. The company’s products are priced from $4.99 to $5.99.

Honest’s controversies have put pressure on third-party certifications to help keep the bonds of trust between shoppers and consumer product companies intact. The Environmental Working Group recently inaugurated a seal that verifies that companies are fully disclosing what is in their formulas, don’t utilize ingredients deemed unacceptable and adhere to suitable manufacturing processes, among many stipulations. MyChelle Dermaceuticals is the first personal-care brand to incorporate the seal. Kimberly Heathman, the brand’s chief marketing officer, said, “They [consumers] don’t want to be second guessing products.”

Young at New Seasons Market applauded companies’ willingness to rid their formulas of dubious ingredients, but questioned whether certifications influence purchases. “We do look for ones that we can stand behind, and there are a lot of them,” she said. “Unfortunately, it is very confusing to the customer. I don’t think it is driving a large percentage of them.”