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The 10 most innovative beauty companies of 2021

Why Sephora, Credo Beauty, Madison Reed, and Prose are some of the most innovative beauty companies of 2021.

The 10 most innovative beauty companies of 2021
[Icon: Assignment Studios]

Though the pandemic has shifted our perspectives on wearing makeup and styling our hair, the beauty industry didn’t wither in 2020—it just brought treatments homes. From hair color to manicures to laser facial treatments, this list is packed with innovations that help us look (and feel) better even when we’ve canceled all our usual appointments.

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1. Credo Beauty

For tackling the beauty industry’s packaging problem

Last March, clean beauty retailer Credo Beauty announced its Sustainable Packaging Guidelines, which require its 135-plus brand partners to meet specific standards meant to reduce the use of single-use items, virgin plastic, and non-recyclable materials. The ambitious packaging directive mandates that all brands carried in its stores to fix their packaging in phases over the next three years, in addition to meeting the company’s already stringent safety, transparency, and sustainability requirements for ingredients. The move marks a major challenge and innovation opportunity for an industry that for decades has relied heavily on plastic bottles and containers.

2. Madison Reed

For stripping dangerous chemicals, inaccessible prices, and outdated business models from the haircolor industry

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On a mission to lift the curtain on hair color’s dangerous chemicals and sticker-shock pricing, Madison Reed has embraced a hybrid online-physical retail model. That became even more pertinent during COVID-19, when customers were able to order the same nontoxic hair color to their home as they find in their local Madison Reed salon. (The company’s products are also carried by beauty giant Ulta.) In 2020, the company introduced a membership model, offering customers unlimited touch ups at its salons for a flat monthly rate. The company also launched a Mr. hair color line for men along with facial dye through MadisonReedMR.com. It opened new stores on the premise that women will still want to go to salons, albeit less frequently than before, and continues to pay colorists 30% to 40% more than the average salary, plus healthcare and childcare benefits. The company projects more than $100 million in sales for 2020, more than double that of 2019.

3. Mira Beauty

For filtering through BS beauty reviews

The litany of fake and altered internet reviews on beauty products makes it hard to suss out what comments are legitimate and what came straight from a bot. Mira Beauty, which is backed by Unilever Ventures, uses AI technology to sift through thousands of brands and products and aggregate reviews and prices from all over the internet into one easily shoppable interface. The software can also make personalized product suggestions based on skin issues, age, skin tone, and price range, so you don’t have to spend so much time piecing it all together on your own.

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4. Kinship

For formulating a clean beauty brand for—and with—Gen Z

Kinship, a clean skincare brand, launched in Ulta stores nationwide in August. The company was founded in 2019 with the mission to be a “Gen Z beauty brand.” Its first six products—which are clean, cruelty-free, sustainable, and acne focused—were developed with the input of the Kinship Circle, a team of 20 young people who tested and gave feedback on everything from formulations to the color palette and typography of packaging. The Ulta launch was targeted: A 2019 survey found that the beauty outlet was the most popular beauty retailer among teens. Since then, the company has welcomed more than 125 testers to the Circle, and partnered with TikTok influencers including Hyram Yarbro to promote the brand.

[Illustration: Ellen Porteus]

5. ManiMe

For customizing stick-on manicures with 3D modeling

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Jooyeon Song cofounded ManiMe in late 2019 after being disappointed by her nail-care options. Gel manicures were time-consuming and damaging, while stick-ons didn’t fit right or last long. Using her background in 3D modeling, Song devised a way to turn 2D smartphone photos of users’ hands into a 3D model, then custom print gel polish nail stickers that fit perfectly. ManiMe’s manicures range from $15 to $25, and work on both long and short nails. The company’s sales grew tenfold in 2020 as the pandemic shuttered salons. ManiMe also commissioned designs from hard-hit nail artists, providing them with a new revenue stream. “We envision ourselves as a community of nail artists and enthusiasts,” Song says.

6. Prose

For betting big on personalized hair care

Bespoke beauty is booming right now, and Prose is setting a new standard in manufacturing within the category with a proprietary 60-foot, 10-ton manufacturing machine that’s powered by machine-learning capabilities. The machine will not only reduce the brand’s carbon footprint, but will allow Prose to scale up to packaging 30,000 custom shampoo and conditioner units a day, making it one of the most mass-scale custom beauty operations in the world.

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7. Sephora

For pledging to help Black-owned beauty brands thrive

In early 2020, Sephora commissioned a study on the prevalence and impact of racial bias in retail. After making efforts to curb bias among its staff with trainings, this summer Sephora became the first major retailer to commit to the 15% Pledge, dedicating 15% of product assortment to Black-owned brands. (An internal audit found that, before making this commitment, only 3% of its brands were Black-owned.) It also formed an advisory board of business owners of color to help spearhead industry-wide change.

8. Starface

For embracing (and showing off) blemishes and imperfect skin

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Founded by a former Elle magazine beauty editor, Starface is flipping the concept of pimple patches on its head with its cute, colorful Hydrostars—healing pimple stickers in a variety of bright, noticeable shapes. Running counter to the beauty industry’s typical “cover it up” approach to acne, these bright and bold patches stand out on skin while treating blemishes and preventing skin picking. It’s all about embracing “flaws.” The company’s yellow stars, and numerous collaborations including rainbow pride stars and Hello Kitty stickers, are a hit with Zoomers, and make the whole ordeal of acne feel a lot more—dare we say it—fun.

9. Lyma

For cracking the code on a home laser treatment that is both safe and effective

Until Lyma, no one has been able to figure out how to harness the strength of an in-office skin laser and make it both safe and effective to use at home. This new pocket-sized gadget is officially the strongest at-home laser on the market, with clinical evidence backing up its ability to help improve hyperpigmentation, rosacea, acne, and wrinkles in just 20 minutes daily. And its safety is impressive: You can treat the area around your eyes without goggles. Anyone who’s seen a dermatologist for laser treatments and had to don a pair of futuristic light blockers knows how major that is.

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10. Opte

For printing customized skin-perfecting serum directly onto our faces

After 13 years of development, Procter & Gamble debuted its high-tech customized skin-perfecting device, the Opte, at CES this year. The handheld retouching tool uses a high-speed camera to scan your skin and zero in on age spots and imperfections, then disperses just the right amount of correcting serum to cover them up flawlessly. The tinted serum treats the skin simultaneously, so that dark spots fade over time.

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