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Beauty from the earth: Plant-based beauty makes mainstream waves

A host of plant-based offerings — from CBD to vegan formulations — are hitting the beauty aisle and driving innovation.

Is plant based the next big thing in the beauty category?

Many industry officials believe that it could be, especially since beauty trends frequently mirror the food industry. 

In fact, plant-based food sales soared 27% during the pandemic as consumers purchased products they considered healthier, according to SPINS data. More than 57% of households bought plant-based foods. Now that is spilling over into beauty and could supplant the current move to “clean” formulas, an enigmatic term with no regulations from the Food and Drug Administration. 

As the beauty category looks to rebuild from its 16-month hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many in the industry are looking to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to consumer demands. Some are willing to bet that plant-based products could catch on with shoppers and lead to a big uptick in sales at mass-retail outlets that get involved with the segment.

Industry officials said that plant based is more transparent and gaining momentum from some beauty companies. A quarter of consumers report they are buying plant-based skin care already, according to Linkage research, while 39% indicate they would like to buy products with plant-based ingredients.

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Although sometimes used interchangeably with vegan, plant based has its own nuances. Plant-based entails that no ingredients are derived from animals, minerals or petroleum, while vegan means there are no animal-derived ingredients. Vegan can also include synthetics. Some beauty experts said they feel the term “plant-based” is more approachable and can appeal to a larger audience than vegan.

Perhaps the best example of plant-based products are those from the cannabis sativa plant — CBD and hemp seed oil. Both ingredients are making moves in beauty and personal care. 

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With shoppers scampering for toilet paper and protective masks, CBD and hemp seed oil were not always at the top of conversations last year. That led some industry pundits to mistakenly assume the buzz was gone. Stressed-out consumers studied up on ingredients like CBD and hemp seed oil to help them sleep or relax. With skin irritated by constant washing and protective mask wearing, people looked for the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabinoids.

According to the New York-based NielsenIQ data, CBD beauty sales increased 21% in 2020 over the year before. The biggest gains were produced in hand and body care, bath and shower, and facial skin. 

In what she called an “unforgettable” year, NielsenIQ’s Tara Taylor, senior vice president of the company’s personal care vertical, said CBD/hemp products were among only a small group of categories that expanded. CBD and hemp seed oil, along with vegan certified, organic and cruelty-free, will be growth drivers this year, she said. 

Expectations remain high for CBD. Euromonitor projects the global market for legal cannabis-related products will soar 77% to $166 billion in 2025. In the United States, Brightfield Group predicts sales will hit $16.8 billion by 2025. 

Last year not only boosted usage from existing consumers for Denver-based HempFusion, but also enticed new users, said Ola Lessard, chief marketing officer. Buoyed by demand, the company increased the amount of CBD in its sleep and support products. 

The industry entered 2021 in a better position to flourish. Industry consolidation, such as Cronos’ purchase of Lord Jones, Canopy Growth’s acquisition spree that includes This Works and Charlotte’s Web’s buy of Abacus Health, resulted in bigger and stronger players. There also was a shakeout of brands that merely jumped on the bandwagon without either expertise in beauty brands or growing crops. Consumers also have more faith in products thanks to certificates of analysis that can be accessed through QR codes. 

“There is more acceptance of CBD products and especially companies that have highly efficacious products on the market,” said Nancy Duitch, CEO and founder of Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Sera Labs and chief strategy officer of Cure Pharmaceutical. 

Her brand received a boost when actress Nicole Kidman signed on as brand ambassador. Duitch said that Kidman became a fan of CBD and Sera when she hurt her ankle and used the products to quell her pain. 

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“We are very fortunate to have Nicole Kidman as our strategic business partner and global brand ambassador for our Seratopical by Sera Labs topical products,” Duitch said. “Every time Nicole speaks to an outlet like Vogue, InStyle or People magazine, or posts a video on social media about one of her favorite products like Overnight Hand Therapy, Cracked Heel Souffle or Radiant Glow, our sales explode. Consumers are excited to learn about CBD products they can trust.” 

In addition to CBD-based products, the company recently launched Seratopical Revolution, a skin care wellness range that does not contain CBD, but offers natural, plant-based ingredients. A proprietary Triple Peptide Complex ensures that the ingredients penetrate the skin for maximum results. 

“There is more acceptance of CBD products and especially companies that have highly efficacious products on the market,”
Nancy Duitch, CEO and founder of Sera Labs and chief strategy officer of Cure Pharmaceutical. 
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Other celebrities are bringing attention to CBD — Jane Fonda, Earvin “Magic” Johnson (who is also an investor) and Toni Braxton are all spokespeople for Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based Uncle Bud’s. The company offers both CBD and hemp products that are sold at major retailers like Kroger, Walmart and CVS Pharmacy.  

Co-founder Bruno Schiavi said he is confident cannabis will continue to rise. “CBD is not going away. It is getting stabilized. Retailers are creating space and planograms,” he said. He pointed to The Vitamin Shoppe as a prime example and a retailer that can serve as a model for mass marketers. The Vitamin Shoppe opened CBD HQ, an online and in-store destination for brands, including Uncle Bud’s, Garden of Life, Charlotte’s Web, Irwin Naturals and SoulSpring among others.

Some retailers and consumers prefer hemp seed oil as an ingredient, Schiavi said. In fact, Uncle Bud’s launched with both CBD and hemp seed oil, with the goal of converting consumers to CBD as legal pathways opened (as long as products contain below 0.3% THC or no THC, they can be sold online and in stores). Along the way, Schiavi saw sales breaking out almost evenly. He compared it with wine preferences: “Some people like red wine, some white wine,” he said. The company’s sales break out 55% hemp and 45% CBD. The beauty range includes anti-wrinkle creams, cleansers, eye serums, moisturizers and acne treatment.

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Venus Williams is an investor and chief brand officer in Asutra, which bills itself as “active self care.” Chicago-based Asutra’s lineup includes plant-based products meant to help with pain, stress, sleep, energy, focus and other goals, and spans aromatherapy mists, bath salts and skin care. CBD is an ingredient in one of its items, the Chill Pain Away Magnesium Hemp Cream. 

Tarang Amin, chairman and CEO of e.l.f. Cosmetics in San Francisco, credited the brand’s Cannabis Sativa and full spectrum CBD ranges as producing strong results, especially during the stressful times of quarantine. “These collections support our consumer’s desire for wellness and self-care at an incredible value,” he said. 

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The lineup includes a 100-mg CBD facial oil, a 50-mg CBD moisturizer, a 50-mg CBD eye cream, a 50-mg CBD body cream and a 5-mg CBD lip oil. In keeping with the brand’s largely accessible price points, the products range from $13 to $18, with a bundle of all the products priced at $79. 

With the benefits of CBD in topicals, it was a logical leap to add to other categories. Cannuka, sold at Ulta Beauty, expanded beyond skin balms and masks into a CBD and manuka honey Cleansing Body Bar. Columbus, Ohio-based Cannuka was Ulta Beauty’s first foray into CBD beauty two years ago.

CBD helped consumers transform rough skin last year — a trend expected to carry through this year. One of the benefactors was the Hempz Lavender Oil CBD Body Moisturizer. The product offers a balance of hydration, antioxidants, vitamins and key amino acids to transform tired, rough skin to velvety-smooth healthy skin, according to a representative of the Dallas-headquartered brand. 

Last year, Palmer’s launched its Cocoa Butter Formula Calming Relief Hemp Oil body collection, which taps the power of hemp oil. According to the company. Palmer’s Hemp Oil produces a 92% reduction in irritation. 


CBD is also making a splash in bath. SaltWorks’ Saltology division recently introduced a line of bath salts, featuring nano-emulsified full spectrum CBD. The Woodinville, Wash.-based company’s Relief Rx line features formulations that put CBD to work with Antarctic sea salt and essential oils. 

Plant-based formulas are gaining attention in several makeup categories. Pacifica Beauty, a trailblazer in vegan and plant-based products, added Shoppers Drug Mart to its distribution, which also includes Ulta Beauty and Target. The Portland, Ore.-based brand updated its nail polish, replacing up to 80% of its formula with ingredients that are bio-sourced, originating from vegetable biomass.

Nail polishes traditionally have been among the most chemical-laden products. 

Over the past few years, the nail industry has cleaned up, removing chemicals including formaldehyde, toluene, DBP, formaldehyde resin, camphor, triphenyl phosphate and xylene. Plant-based polishes take the lacquers to the next level.

The move has paid off, especially for Sally Hansen, which, according to its New York-based parent company Coty, is returning to growth on the tailwinds of its new Good.Kind.Pure nail polish. 

Hauppauge, N.Y.-based Beauty Partners’ Nailtopia also checks off the plant-based box. Its sustainable formulas are made with plant-based bio-sourced fruit and vegetables. Ingredients like potato, corn, wheat and manioc partially replace petrochemical solvents, plasticizers and nitrocellulose, said Barry Shields, the company’s managing partner. 

Dove also is positioning its new Men + Care Eucalyptus Oil and Cedar Body Wash as plant based.

A new plant is sprouting on the radar for use in beauty — mushrooms. Inspired by traditional Chinese medicine, beauty experts predict mushrooms will be used more in formulas and even in packaging. As part of its zero-waste goal, New York-based Loli Beauty used mushrooms and upcycled hemp fiber for packaging for the brand, which recently added its first retail account — Ulta Beauty. 

Although CBD and other plant-based products gained traction last year, a great deal of that was online. With shoppers returning to stores, the challenge will be to build departments that are compelling and inspire in-store purchasing, said Uncle Bud’s Schiavi. As retailers search for the right merchandising strategy, he recommended placing all CBD procurement under one buyer and building out a central home. “Instead of pain relief or sun care in separate departments, create one destination,” he said. 

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