Drunk Elephant Raised Our Expectations of What Clean Skin Care Can Do and We’re Never Going Back

Photo: Drunk Elephant
Tiffany Masterson has always been an entrepreneur. As a Houston stay-at-home mom, she had a knack for the side hustle: She was a representative for the direct sales cosmetics company Arbonne, developed a healthy pantry renovation company called Holi Pantry, and sold an independent company's bar soap that, used alone, was heralded as a save-all for skin. Then, of course, she founded Drunk Elephant, which grew to be a brand worth $845 million dollars in just seven years before being acquired by Shiseido in October 2019.

Dazzled by the reviews and accolades from beauty editors, dermatologists, and consumers, it's easy to miss that the "clean beauty" category didn't exist outside of a choice few (e.g. Ren, Skinfix, First Aid Beauty) when Masterson, who was crowned one of our 2020 Changemakers, began creating her candy-capped empire. Yet, as the decade chugged along, her point of view on skin care—what’s in your products is only as important as what’s not—became the standard for clean beauty that the entire industry would come to know as gospel. It also catapulted the demand for clean, clinical products at large, which today has grown to be a massive section of the beauty industry. In fact, market researchers at The NPD Group have indicated that roughly half of all prestige skin-care lines make claims about their clinical ingredients (such as retinol, hyaluronic acid, or vitamin C). Of these clinical brands, those touting "clean ingredients" are rising by upwards of 100 percent, enough so that the firm coined the phenomenon "clean-ical" skin care.

Taking a step backwards to clock why this has happened, for decades, wellness enthusiasts who were concerned about the safety of the balms they were slathering onto their skin swore by "natural" beauty products, which only used ingredients that were plucked from the Earth. In contrast to natural beauty's exclusive relationship with botanicals and minerals, clean products also incorporate synthetic ingredients, which are often made in a lab, but haven't yet been shown to have negative effects on the body. Given that the beauty industry hasn't seen regulation since the 1930s, this new formula delivers the best of both worlds—active products that don't require a fear of compromised health. The move away from naturals, towards formulations that use "clean synthetics" alongside non-irritating natural ingredients (which has been Drunk Elephant's formula from the get-go) propelled the entire industry forward.

Everyone has hopped onto this bandwagon, from drugstore superstars like Olay (in February the brand will launch three clean clinical serums, debuting a "free-of" list on labels) all the way to dermatologist-led brands such as Dr. Loretta, which launched in 2018 as an ingredient-forward solution to skin care. And as the decade has drummed on, newer, more accessible brands such as Versed and The Inkey List have made this a tangible benefit for those who are looking for a lower price point.

“What 'clean' meant to me was that everything in the product, every single ingredient, needed to be something that could get along with your skin and also not be linked to any disease or disruption inside your body." —Tiffany Masterson

The shift to clean happened not only so that big brands could get in on a burgeoning new part of the beauty business, but because not all botanicals work for all skin types. While natural ingredients may be in the clear in terms of health concerns (though dig deeper and you'll find small studies that show lavender essential oil could also be an "endocrine disruptor"), many separate studies have shown that some botanical extracts are often culpable for skin irritation or creating "sensitized" skin. By contrast to sensitive skin (which is an inherent skin type one is born with), any complexion can become sensitized if exposed to irritant ingredients or environmental aggressors.

This is why Masterson, who aimed to create products that would minimize contact irritation and work for all skin types, came to adopt a different guiding principle. “What 'clean' meant to me was that everything in the product, every single ingredient, needed to be something that could get along with your skin and also not be linked to any disease or disruption inside your body,” she says. To her, there were six categories of ingredients—which she named the “suspicious six"—that had no business in her products because they were responsible for sensitizing skin: essential oils, drying alcohols, silicones, chemical sunscreens, fragrances and dyes, and sodium laurel sulfate.

By stripping out the suspicious six, Masterson found that dermatologist-backed ingredients that often got a bad rap in natural beauty circles could actually be made to work for all skin types. “How many times have you heard someone say: ‘I’m too sensitive to use vitamin C or glycolic acid?’” she asks. “It’s usually because vitamin C and glycolic acid products are all made with essential oils or drying alcohols or fragrances and dyes.” Today, the thought of creating a line with clean, potent actives is commonplace, but at the start of the decade, it was revolutionary, and it's been a driving force throughout the decade, with 70 percent of skin care gains happening thanks to the clean beauty sphere.

This ability to dive deep to the heart of what skin really needs has kept Drunk Elephant ahead of the sea of products that have flooded the market, and Masterson is continuing to look for new ways to innovate. While clean beauty was this decade's mountain to climb, Masterson's next frontier is bio-compatibility, which flips the principles of clean beauty on its head. Meaning that, if this decade was meant to rid our formulas of ingredients that posed risk, expect for the next decade to be all about doing that, while also identifying the ingredients that are the most efficient and efficacious for skin.

With the influx of dollars from Shiseido (a parent company that’s proven its dedication to science-backed ingredients and products that tap novel research), Drunk Elephant continues to make good on its distinction as the most powerful and prominent skin-care brand of our time. “My goal is to get people so back in touch with their skin, they can read it like a book,” Masterson says, and she’s well on her way. In the span of seven short years, Drunk Elephant raised our expectations for the results clean skin care could deliver for one's complexion. No longer were those who wanted the best for their bodies forced to sacrifice on using science-backed ingredients.

As we look ahead to the next decade, we've only begun to see the impact of an industry that's become enamored by clean ingredients and what they can do for the skin. While the industry itself may be so young that it doesn't yet need to use "no-nasties" solutions to skin aging, thanks to Masterson, and her influence, it has some.

Alongside clean beauty, one of our fave changes over the past decade is that people are wearing SPF and if we've learned anything over the past decade, it's that you can literally milk anything.

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