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Skin-care Lovers Build up a ‘Wardrobe’ of Single-Ingredient Products

Consumers are personalizing purchases and building stocks of skin-care items with targeted formulas.

LONDON — Beauty consumers are taking a page out of the fashion books, building up seasonal “wardrobes” of skin care, reaching for multiple, single-ingredient products with targeted formulas rather than using a single product with multiple ingredients.

Active ingredients have become a hot topic driven by brands such as The Ordinary, and more recently by The Inkey List, according to Nigel Lawmon, commercial director of beauty e-tailer, FeelUnique. Both have sought to educate people about specific, targeted ingredients, and to demystify and simplify what has, to date, been hidden behind lifestyle packaging and marketing in the ingredient lists of brands.

Thanks to these brands, key ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, glycolic acid and vitamin C have increased in popularity and as a result luxury beauty brands such as Tatcha, Drunk Elephant and By Terry have begun listing these hero ingredients within their product names. These ingredients along with a few others have acted as a gateway into the world of single-ingredient products.

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Ingredient searches on Cult Beauty, a leading beauty e-tailer based in London, have rocketed. According to Alexia Inge, cofounder and co-ceo of Cult Beauty, “both Google and our site have had year-on-year growth in searches for ingredients such as caffeine and squalane,” a plant-derived emollient with fatty acids and antioxidants.

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Vitamin C searches have grown 368 percent, Retinol is up 582 percent, glycolic acid 435 percent, Marula oil 528 percent and caffeine 853 percent in unique searches year-on-year in 2018 on Cult Beauty’s web site.

Consumers are increasingly hunting for — and demanding — products that address specific needs. “People are asking really complex questions now, and it is fascinating. They are playing with their needs more as they start to understand their skin more,” said Colette Newberry, cofounder of The Inkey List, a 15 ingredients-led skin-care line that launched last year on FeelUnique and Cult Beauty with prices starting at five pounds.

Like The Inkey List, other independent skin-care labels such as Lixirskin and Garden of Wisdom, which hail from the U.K., and the American brand Timeless, have built their brands around this new concept by offering targeted skin care at an affordable price.

According to Shabir Daya, pharmacist and cofounder of, the online beauty retailer, the popularity of single skin-care products and the concept of skin-care wardrobing has been increasing over the past four years. “Sales have grown tremendously and people are buying multiple products rather than one because they are affordable and they have serums ready to target specific needs like hydration or a breakout,” he said.

“It’s just like a wardrobe of clothes, you change from a spring wardrobe to a summer wardrobe and the same thing applies to products and treatments,” added Daya.

Newberry, of The Inkey List, used a similar fashion metaphor. “The term ‘skin wardrobing’ is important, since it really factors in your lifestyle and environmental factors. We think of some of our products as denim jeans and white T-shirts and others as statement pieces. The single ingredient for us is about adding in,” she said.

According to research conducted by Google and insights agency Kantar, the shift to wardrobing reflects changing consumer loyalties. “People are more loyal to their individual needs and their personality rather than to a brand,” said Gabri Hermann, director media and Internet clients at Kantar.

Beauty e-tailers, too, have seen an increase in purchases that target specific skin concerns. At FeelUnique, the online beauty retailer, consumers are shopping by ingredient instead of by category. “Some of our ingredient-related features are getting high engagement on site and we have seen an increase in skin-care searches by ingredient type rather than by skin type,” Lawmon said.

Timeless skincare
Timeless skin care. Courtesy

While the desire to wardrobe may be new, skin-care personalization is not, said Veronica Pedersen, chief executive officer of Timeless, which carries a line of paraben-free, active ingredient serums and spray formulations. She believes that brands are only just starting to figure out how to deliver — and monetize — this demand.

“Before there was all this content available, DIY options existed in skin care. There were all these recipes out there teaching you to use natural ingredients that you could find in your pantry. You could make your own face peel with egg whites, do a hydrating and antioxidant mask with avocado, honey and some olive oil,” Pedersen said.

Newberry agreed that brands are now attempting to speak “to” the consumer, rather than “at” the consumer who is more eager than ever to learn about the science behind the product. Products with generic names such as ‘Anti-aging Serum’ or ‘Brightening Moisturizer,’ no longer read as well as matrixyl or glycolic acid.

Inge of Cult Beauty, refers to these new, highly informed consumers as “skintellectuals.”

“They know exactly what they want from their skin-care ranges,” she says. “This is driven by a growing consumer who identifies the individual ingredients that work best for their skin and cuts out formulas that don’t focus on their exact and well-researched needs.”

Thanks to forums and social media, consumers are moving away from buying a formulation made up of many ingredients that will likely house a very low concentration of each.

“People are moving toward single molecule [ingredients] because they want products that focus on one thing, or else your skin will start running around like a headless chicken and not know what to do when you use a cream with dozens of things inside it that don’t work,” said Colette Haydon, founder of Lixirskin, a seven-product line of active molecule products sold on Net-a-porter, who has seen a growing demand for her products in the U.S. and the U.K. markets.

Because of all the readily available information, consumers have also begun to look at value for money. Pedersen argues that customers are expecting a new narrative, one proving that skin care doesn’t need to be expensive to be effective.

A hyaluronic acid serum from Garden of Wisdom, which carries a range of natural serums that encourages skin balance, costs nine pounds, and a few years ago, a serum retailing at that price point would not have existed. “There were certainly new market trends that pushed this, such as the [inexpensive] sheet masks from K-beauty for example, and they set the trend with wardrobing and with pricing,” said Daya of Victoria Health, who also works on the brand’s formulations.

Mark Curry, cofounder of Inkey List, agreed that consumers have never had more power. “There is no room in the market anymore for misinformation or profiteering and letting things like packaging inflate costs. We’re taking that complicated science and high-end formulation and making it simple to use and democratizing it through understanding and price point.”

The Inkey List products sell across 32 countries and the brand is looking to launch in Canada and Australia, as sales soar. Lixirskin has witnessed slower sales in France and Haydon chalks that up to the consumer mind-set. “The French prefer more classic items,” Haydon said.

Timeless said their demographic is broad, “anywhere between 25 to 65,” Pedersen said. Of late, she has seen a growing male clientele. Pedersen believes this is due to the straightforward information and “no fluff” packaging.

“It’s also because of the narcissistic nature of social media. Men are using filters, too, and they are more aware of their grooming habits and how they are represented. They’re just more aware of their own face — as are we all,” she said.

Niche brands are thriving on personalization. New skin-care brand Atolla Skin Lab, which launched on Kickstarter last year, is using data science to create custom formulas. They provide customers with a tool kit that allows them to track their skin’s progress over time and the brand uses this data to update and customize formulas for every repurchase.

Big brands are getting in on the action, too, Clinique launched Clinique iD in November last year, and as the name suggests, the new line is a personalized, ingredients-based skin-care range. It claims to treat specific skin-care concerns by using active ingredients such as AHAs, caffeine and salicylic acid.