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Skin-care Flexitarians: The New Wave of Beauty Enthusiasts

Consumers are seeking clean beauty with a side of clinical — and even a Botox injection or two.

A new wave of clean skin-care enthusiasts is embracing leniency in their regimens.

The term flexitarian has been used for more than a decade in reference to diet, i.e., the notion of being flexibly vegetarian. Registered dietitian nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner wrote a book on “The Flexitarian Diet,” presenting 140 recipes to those looking to reap the benefits of a plant-based diet without the pressure of strictly adhering to vegetarianism.

This approach has become popular in recent years, thanks to wellness-obsessed consumers and the exposure of the meat industry’s environmental impact, and beauty lovers are now applying the practice to skin care. The goal: a bathroom shelf stocked mostly with clean products, with a few clinical ones thrown in the mix — and the occasional Botox injection for good measure.

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“It’s a sign of the times,” said Nicci Levy, founder of Alchemy 43, an aesthetics bar that specializes in micro-treatments and offers products by clean and clinical brands, including Coola, Wander Beauty, SkinMedica and SkinCeuticals. “We’re seeing a big trend toward specialization with regard to services and products. It’s a function of people becoming very educated and savvy about products and services via all the information online and peer reviews, and using that savvy to make decisions about which products they’re going to use based on specialties. There’s the general acceptance that no one brand can meet all of your needs, so you use different brands to curate your selection.”

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alchemy 43
The interior of Alchemy 43’s New York City store. Courtesy of Jeenah Moon and Alchemy 43

Erin Cotter, Goop’s general manager of beauty and wellness, echoed the sentiment, noting societal pressures as an added reason for flexitarian beauty’s rise.

“We have this huge trend toward wellness and taking care of yourself and being conscious of ingredients, and at the same time, women are still under incredible pressure from society to not age and to continue to look like they’re 25 when they’re in their 50s or older,” Cotter said. “Those two things colliding is creating this trend.”

Part of the new flexitarian approach in skin care is also reflected in an increasing penchant to buy products across brands. “Traditionally people would buy religiously from one brand,” said Sarah Brown, founder of Pai, a British certified-organic skin-care brand geared toward consumers with sensitive skin. “Now that is definitely not what happens. People have go-to products across multiple brands. Within that, there is exploration into organic.”

Pai used to be carried in a clinic on London’s renowned Harley Street, where patients would come in for treatments such as microdermabrasion, chemical peels, Botox and other fillers. Pai’s Rosehip BioRegenerate Oil, $44, was a common post-treatment purchase, said Brown, as patients wanted “something natural to use afterward to heal.”

Skin-care sales in the U.S. reflect the dichotomy of clients looking for an all-natural healing product after a clinical procedure. Last year, prestige skin-care sales totaled $5.9 billion, with natural skin-care brands representing 20 percent of the overall prestige skin-care market, according to NPD. Natural skin-care sales grew by 14 percent and were driven by cleansers, moisturizers and targeted treatments such as acne treatments, brighteners, exfoliators and lip treatments. Simultaneously, nearly half of the U.S. prestige skin-care market uses clinical ingredients, the most popular of which are retinol, collagen and hyaluronic acid, according to The NPD Group.

While beauty lovers may be curious about clean beauty, they want it with a side of clinical.

Jessica Richards, founder of Brooklyn-based retailer Shen Beauty, said before the coronavirus, customers often came in looking to overhaul their skin-care regimen with exclusively organic products, only to come back in-store for not-clean or clinical-grade products later on.

“They say, ‘I love all my organic products, but,’ and there’s always a but, ‘I still want this pigmentation to go away,’ or ‘my natural deodorant really doesn’t work’ or ‘the mascara doesn’t give me the length Diorshow Mascara does,” Richards said. Her staff proceeds to educate customers on nonorganic products that are known to deliver more visibly noticeable results.

“Typically, [customers are] like, ‘well that’s OK because I’m doing the best I can and this really bothers me,'” Richards said.

The idea of doing one’s best is at the heart of beauty’s flexitarianism. For Shen Beauty customers, that means spending $600 on organic groceries for their family every week, only to go to Starbucks and “get a GMO-laden latte,” said Richards.

For influencer Jackie Aina, it means mixing products from clean brand Biossance with clinical-grade ones containing retinol.

“I do find that because clean skin care is stripped of a lot of chemicals that would otherwise increase how quickly something shows results, unfortunately you don’t get results,” Aina said. “I do want to get something out of what I’m using. If I’m spending money on it, it should work.”

For Levy, doing one’s best means wearing regular deodorant during the day and natural deodorant at night. It also means splurging on a La Mer face cream, but saving on a Neutrogena cleanser.

“The way I rationalize it in my head is that cleanser’s only actually on your skin for, like, 20 seconds versus a moisturizer, which is on your skin all day or all night,” Levy said.

And for Sheena Yaitanes, founder of clean beauty brand Kosas, doing one’s best means abiding by a clean skin-care and makeup regimen, but making an exception for Botox.

“Nourished and healthy skin is such a driver of self-confidence, [but] sometimes there are things you cannot treat with topical skin care,” Yaitanes said, noting that the coronavirus pandemic has not changed her feelings about Botox. “I have two lines in between my eyebrows and they’re really deep and I really don’t like them. There’s no amount of skin care I can do that can make those go away and I don’t feel as confident as I do when I don’t have them. Using Botox periodically for that purpose makes sense for me.”

Sheena Yaitanes
Sheena Yaitanes, founder of Kosas. Courtesy of Olivia Katz/Kosas

As beauty is increasingly linked to wellness, flexibility in one’s beauty regimen helps soften the rigidity that can accompany the larger wellness movement. That rigidity, Yaitanes said, sometimes manifests in the form of unhealthy obsession.

“Being part of the L.A. wellness community, I have seen that sometimes it becomes almost like an addictive behavior, which is extreme wellness,” Yaitanes said. “There can be some self-righteousness and judgment wrapped up in that, too. Wellness is not supposed to be used as a tool to shame other people.”

Yaitanes is a supporter of “the 80-20 rule,” aka Pareto’s principle, and a general attitude of acceptance that “everything has a time and a place.” Including Botox.

Beauty’s flexitarian movement stems, in part, from the fact that there still isn’t a singular definition of clean beauty. What is considered “clean” frequently varies.

“Today, there’s no regulations or standard framework that everyone uses or that stays the same,” said Prudvi Kaka, chief scientific officer at Deciem. All of Deciem’s products are formulated without parabens, sulphates, mineral oil, methylchloroisothiazolinone, methylisothiazolinone, animal oils, coal tar dyes, formaldehyde, mercury and oxybenzone. Deciem, however, doesn’t market itself as a clean brand.

“When someone says, ‘elderberry is natural,’ but that elderberry has a chemical which is undecylenic acid, which is sold as a preservative, unless you educate the customer, the customer would just think, ‘I’m using a natural product,'” Kaka continued. “It’s hard to come up with a standard knowing that there are different types of natural ingredients. People can’t find one category of products that does all.”

Melissa Sansone, vice president of public relations firm Seen USA, said conversations about flexitarianism with Seen’s clients have cropped up more often in the past year.

“One of the first times we heard it come up, we were in conversation with a new client, and we were talking about how it relates to ‘clean,'” Sansone said. “She gave me this look like she was gonna ask me a question, like, ‘what’s clean to you?’ The whole conversation blossomed into what’s clean for one person is not what’s clean for another person.”

Clean beauty has become an individualized concept, with brands, retailers and consumers left to rationalize and philosophize on their own.

Richards, for one, said she defines organic as “something you can put inside of your body, literally no chemicals, food-grade quality.” Biossance, which launched a clean beauty education platform called Clean Academy, defines clean beauty as “products that are made without harmful ingredients, safe for the planet, sustainable and cruelty-free.”

Jessica Richards, founder of Shen Beauty
Jessica Richards, founder of Shen Beauty. Courtesy of Shen Beauty

Sephora’s Clean at Sephora campaign includes 45 ingredients that qualifying products must be formulated without. Detox Market’s list of banned ingredients totals 27, while Follain’s totals 34. Credo’s Dirty List includes 24 ingredients and ingredient categories.

While the industry struggles with a coherent definition of clean beauty, one thing is clear: efficacy is the ultimate decider.

“Customers will put efficacy now before everything else — way before price, particularly the U.S. customer,” Brown said, citing an analysis of Pai’s customer base. “When we broke down by region, we saw efficacy is the primary driver for purchase beyond price or promotion. They are deciding on a product-by-product basis or a treatment-by-product basis what’s going to deliver what and best.

“Those who were traditionally in the more synthetic camp looking for efficacy and more activity in their products are starting to be presented with the evidence of natural,” Brown continued. “They’re starting to see those consumer perception trials and the data to support and they’re being persuaded to buy natural in a way that they might have been skeptical before. We’ve been marrying the age-old natural remedies with modern-day botanical ingredients that have mind-blowing properties. We always had the confidence they could deliver. It’s been taking a long time to persuade.”

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