The Real Dirt on "Clean Beauty"
How (and why) Vermouth set out to be a sustainable beauty brand.
By Jill Jago
July 15 is National Clean Beauty Day, and as Vermouth’s chief marketing and sustainability officer, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on our company, its values, and what led us to launch Vermouth in the first place. But as I sat down to write about “clean beauty,” I only got a few words in before I found myself stuck. A series of questions started to bubble up around the subject, and the more I thought about it, the more frustrated I felt. Why do we need a special day to raise awareness about this topic? If “clean beauty” is a thing, then it means that the alternative is “dirty beauty,” and seriously, who wants that?” Why do we even HAVE that?
We can ask all the questions we want, but it won’t change the current reality—that the beauty industry is full of toxic ingredients, wasteful practices, and a staggering amount of environmentally harmful materials—all factors that galvanized us to create Vermouth. It was time for a Lipstick Revolution!
When I tell people about the night we founded Vermouth, I often describe the brand as being born out of a sense of indignation. Let’s put aside the emotional burden of the notion of “beauty” for one moment and focus on the physical product. Lipstick has changed very little over the past 100 years. Walk into your nearest pharmacy or department store and you’ll find rows and rows of plastic, single-use tubes, each one offering an excess of product that won’t likely be used by the recommended one-year toss date. But the packaging isn’t the only place where you’ll find plastic. As we dug deeper into the industry, we were shocked to discover how prevalent plastic and toxic ingredients are in lipstick formulas. Here’s what our research uncovered:
In 2018, 7.9 billion units of rigid plastic were created for the cosmetics industry—in the United States alone. And don’t fool yourself into thinking that it’s recycled. Most of the plastics used for cosmetics packaging are not recyclable. Even if you try to be a good citizen by sorting your waste, only 9 percent of plastic worldwide is actually recycled. In the U.S. that number falls to just 5 percent.
Before launching Vermouth, our CEO and color formula genius Meg Diaz examined more than 100 popular lipstick brands commonly available in stores like Sephora, Nordstrom, Blue Mercury and Ulta. She focused on the presence of three common ingredients that slide by as “clean” (that is, they allow a product to get rated as “clean”). But they have these dirty little secrets:
- Polyethylene: the most common plastic in use today.
- Microcrystalline or synthetic wax: petroleum-derived alternatives to ingredients such as beeswax. These allow brands to declare a product vegan.
- Ozokerite: a wax that occurs naturally but, as a fossil fuel, requires mining to retrieve.
We found that polyethylene and microcrystalline wax in over 75% of the 100+ products we studied. Of the 25 or so lipsticks rated “Clean at Sephora,” 75% have at least one of the above ingredients.
I’m not telling you this information to scare you or to point fingers. What’s important here is to recognize that this is the current landscape of the lipstick industry. Here at Vermouth—and I’m back to the indignation part now—we believe that IT REALLY SHOULDN’T BE YOUR PROBLEM!
As a consumer, you have every right to expect that companies making products you put on your body have done their homework and will not sell you anything that is harmful for you or the environment. This is a goal we set out to achieve... and the reason why we basically had to start from scratch!
Of course, we started with our formula—the most important part! If you use sumptuous, plant-based ingredients with lots of moisturizing properties you get a lovely lipstick. It’s logical that you would only want to put food-grade ingredients near your mouth, but a formula without preservatives and chemicals has a shorter shelf life. We solved this by reducing the amount of lipstick we put in each tube, or what we at Vermouth call “playsticks.” I mean, seriously, how many half-used tubes of lipstick do you have rolling around in your drawers?
Once we had our formula, we had to figure out what to put it in. Pots and tubs are cute, but rather messy and not very elegant to use. They also invariably require a plastic cap. There are some lovely bamboo tubes and re-usable metal tubes but behind that sustainable exterior is a tricky little plastic device that secures the lipstick inside the tube. After much experimentation, we couldn’t find a good way around it. Then our fabulous Meg—inspired by her days apprenticed to a fresco painter in Florence— found a way to insert a color tip into a cardboard tube, which is an ancient method for sampling paint! We loved it. Sustainable and playful.
Our beautiful little crayons were crying out for a box. That was the easy decision. The real work began when we had to find a partner to design the box. We had many false starts—companies that import their paper from overseas, don’t use sustainable printing practices, aren’t forestry commission certified, or saw us as too small and unimportant to invest time in! However, in our refusal to compromise, we were rewarded when we found Hemlock, a sustainable, B-Corp certified, carbon-neutral printing company who couldn’t have been more excited about what we were trying to achieve.
And this is the true joy of taking the road less traveled. We’re not alone! In the timeline of a business, our journey is just getting started, but we’ve already met and partnered with so many intelligent, like-minded, caring people in order to create the lowest-impact, most beautiful product for our customers.
From those who make Vermouth to those who use it, we share a vision of the world in which people and the planet coexist in harmony. We vow to continue to keep that at top of mind with every product we introduce.
We all deserve guilt-free beauty. Count on us to rock a few boats and challenge many assumptions to get there!