How One Company’s Mascara Became A Symbol Of Political Protest

With it’s #100Lashes campaign, Beautycounter compared unsafe products to torture. And it believes that the comparison is totally warranted.

Talking about mascara in the same breath as torture is a bold and, at first glance, perhaps ill-advised move for a beauty company. But when Beautycounter came up with the hashtag #100Lashes to describe both beautiful eyelashes and the beating that women receive as punishment in some parts of the world, the company felt that the comparison was warranted.


Beautycounter, a 3-year-old certified B Corporation, is lobbying hard to change how the U.S. government monitors beauty products. “Contrary to popular belief, the beauty industry is one of the least regulated industries in the marketplace,” says Lindsay Dahl, Beautycounter’s VP of community affairs and engagement. She points out that while the European Union has banned or restricted the use of more than 1,300 ingredients in beauty products, the U.S. has only banned 11. That means American women are regularly slathering themselves with creams and lipsticks that contain substances either considered by foreign regulators to cause harm or that haven’t yet gone through the necessary clinical trials to ensure they are safe to use.

Beautycounter believes that this lack of supervision over skincare and cosmetics is a serious women’s health issue. The argument of its new campaign is that harm toward women comes in many different forms: Sometimes it is overt, as with torture. Other times–as in the case of poorly regulated makeup–it is more subtle, albeit still worth taking seriously.

To make this provocative point, Beautycounter debuted its brand-new mascara with a commercial that involved the largest professional beauty photoshoot of all time, bringing together 100 women who had the product applied to their lashes. Besides showcasing the new mascara, the video was designed to convince viewers that there are many ways to empower women–from ensuring that they have access to safe cosmetics to working to keep women safe from violence and poverty. To this end, the company pledged at the mascara launch to donate $100,000 to the Girl Effect, a global nonprofit that helps young women in developing countries stay in school and obtain access to health care, among other initiatives.

In the mind of Gregg Renfrew, Beautycounter’s founder and CEO, these various forms of activism are intertwined. “It’s not just about creating a high-performing mascara,” she says. “We are empowering women to choose a product that is significantly safer for their health. There was an intentional double entendre meant to say that, as women, we don’t want to be harmed—either through makeup or any other way.”

It was an important launch for Beautycounter; the company has spent nearly four years developing the mascara, which is several times the average product development cycle in the cosmetics industry. With the new mascara, Beautycounter aimed to do more than just add something new to its product line; the company was trying to prove that it is possible to make effective cosmetics that don’t contain any chemicals that are known to cause harm or that haven’t yet been clinically tested for safety. “At the end of the day, if we create a product that does not perform particularly well, customers are not going to want to use the product and therefore we haven’t created a solution through our products,” Renfrew says.

When formulating the new product, there were 1,500 ingredients that the company’s chemists were barred from using. Mascara was particularly challenging to create because the chemists were not allowed to use the vast majority of commonly used darkening and thickening agents. “[Mascara] is one of the products on the market that uses the most chemicals to achieve results,” Renfrew says. “They were able to use some of the lengthening properties you would find in a traditional mascara, absent the sulfates, parabens, and other worst offending ingredients.” In the end, the chemists used ingredients like shea butter, cocoa butter, pomegranate oil, sunflower oil, and acai oil to create a mascara that managed to define lashes without clumping.


Besides using product development as a form of activism, Beautycounter also aims to spark political change in more traditional ways. The company is organizing a massive campaign that involves sending women to Capitol Hill on a regular basis to meet with lawmakers, getting everyday customers to call and write to their senators, and working with the media to draw attention to the use of potentially unsafe chemicals in beauty care products.

Last month, Beautycounter sent 100 of its consultants—a network of women who sell the products on behalf of the brand—to Washington, D.C.. Two delegates from each of the 50 states were represented, and collectively, the women took 90 meetings with various senators, representatives and staff members. “You need a groundswell of consumer and public interest in order for a new law to be passed in Washington these days,” Dahl says. “It’s the constant drumbeat of people talking about the issue that leads to action.”

Renfrew believes that Beautycounter is in a unique position to make important change because it is both pro-regulation and pro-commerce. She points to the company’s own success as a proof point: it is on track to make $150 million in revenue this year, and she is optimistic that the new mascara will be Beautycounter’s first million dollar unit. “The general sentiment is that regulation is an impediment to growth, [that] it squashes innovation, and it makes it harder to do business,” Refrew says. “We’re here to say it is possible to have safe products and enjoy remarkable growth.”

A year ago, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Susan Collins introduced the Personal Care Products Safety Act which called on the FDA to regulate the ingredients in personal care products. If this bill were to pass, it would be the first time in 75 years that federal regulations of the beauty industry would be updated. However, the bill hasn’t yet been heard by the Health Committee, though the Beautycounter team is pushing for a hearing to take place. There isn’t a date for the hearing on the books yet, but by the end of their week in Washington, the company’s consultants felt like they had made progress. “This trip was the culmination of everything we’ve worked so hard for,” Renfrew says. “I think we really made some headway.”

But until the laws change, Beautycounter is working hard to develop better products so that women have more options available to them when they shop. The company will move one step closer to this goal in the fall, when it launches a capsule collection at Target. “This will help us fulfill our mission to get safer products into the hands of everyone,” Renfrew says.


About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts