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February 01, 2015

Company Focus

Beautycounter: Safer Products Changing Lives

by Andrea Tortora

Click here to order the February 2015 issue in which this article appeared or click here to download it to your mobile device.

Photo above: Beautycounter Founder Gregg Renfrew is committed to changing the beauty products industry for the better and getting safe products into the hands of customers.

Company Profile

  • Founded: 2013
  • Headquarters: Santa Monica, California
  • Founder: Gregg Renfrew
  • Products: Beauty and skin care


Beautycounter is a content first, product second kind of company. The California-based upstart maker of safe, nontoxic beauty and skincare products is focused on advocating for public health as it defines its own way of doing business in a crowded market.

“We are not all-natural or organic,” says Founder Gregg Renfrew. “We are focused on safety. We make sure we don’t ever say we are perfect. It is about progress.”

Beautycounter defines itself as a “direct retail brand.” It sells to consumers through consultants, at, and via strategic partnerships with companies such as J. Crew and Gwyneth Paltrow’s

Renfrew is on a mission to change the regulation of the beauty products industry, and she thinks telling the Beautycounter story through person-to-person interactions is the best way to do it. “We want to be an information first, disruptive beauty brand,” she says. Beautycounter’s mission: to get safe products into the hands of everyone.

“We are not all-natural or organic. We are focused on safety. We make sure we don’t ever say we are perfect. It is about progress.” —Gregg Renfrew, Founder

Explosive Growth

At just under 2 years old, Beautycounter is already making an impact on the $59 billion U.S. cosmetics and personal-care industry. In 2013, natural and organic personal-care products accounted for $12.6 billion in sales, according to data from Sundale Research.

Since January 2014, Beautycounter has grown over 550 percent. From its initial launch in March 2013, the company’s multi-channel strategy now claims more than 5,000 independent consultants. 

Renfrew started her company with a few SKUs for essential skin and body care. Today Beautycounter offers more than 75 products for men, women and children, including face and body collections, sunscreen, and a color collection.

The company’s e-commerce channel is also booming. The Band of Beauty membership program lets direct customers earn rewards and free shipping for online orders, all while supporting Beautycounter’s push to promote safe products. Loyal clients pay a $25 annual fee in order to receive extra online discounts; $10 is donated to one of three nonprofit groups that Beautycounter supports: Environmental Working Group, Breast Cancer Fund (which coordinates the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics,) or Healthy Child Healthy World.

In addition to the consultant base and their customers, there are now more than 6,000 consumers in the e-commerce Member Program who support Beautycounter’s social mission, Renfrew says, a fact of which she is very proud. “The only way we can bring about change is to be a large movement of lots of people.”

An Eye-Opening Start

Beautycounter is well on its way, says Janet Nudelman. She runs the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and is Director of Program and Policy at the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund.

“Beautycounter is one of the first companies to ever emerge in a public-facing way regarding safe cosmetics,” Nudelman says. “They start the conversation with the safety issue while most other companies bury it.”

“Beautycounter is one of the first companies to ever emerge in a public-facing way regarding safe cosmetics. They start the conversation with the safety issue while most other companies bury it.” —Janet Nudelman, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics

Renfrew’s eyes were opened to the lack of regulation of personal-care products after she watched the 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, about former Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to educate citizens about global warming. The film drove her to dive deep into researching what really goes into the products she uses. As a result, Renfrew changed many of the items she uses at home, from pots and pans to sunscreen. But she says she still was challenged to find products she loved.

A move to Los Angeles in 2008 led to Renfrew working with actress Jessica Alba. Alba hired Renfrew to research the personal-care industry and look at toxic and nontoxic ingredients. The work aided Alba as she launched the Honest Co., which makes nontoxic items for baby and home.
“That work helped me see that there was a void of products that were safe to use,” Renfrew says. Some of what she learned:

  • Only 10 percent of the 10,000 chemicals used in personal-care products have safety data.
  • Known toxins, such as lead and formaldehyde, are allowed in products.
  • The last time the U.S. passed a law to regulate ingredients in personal-care products was 1938.
  • The U.S. bans 11 ingredients; the European Union bans or restricts the use of more than 1,400 ingredients.

Science and Safety

Renfrew spent four years working full-time to lay the groundwork for Beautycounter. She teamed up with industry heavyweights Mia Davis, who had worked for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and celebrity makeup artist Christy Coleman to formulate a line of products based on safety and performance.

Gregg Renfrew’s background includes starting her own bridal registry, The Wedding List, which she sold to Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and consulting for high-profile clients such as Jessica Alba.

Davis’ sourcing background led to a strict Beautycounter screening process and the company’s “Never List,” which can be found in its entirety on the Beautycounter website. This is a roundup of ingredients Beautycounter will never use in its products. It began with the 1,400 ingredients banned in the E.U. and grew by a few hundred more to include anything linked to cancer, reproductive issues or endocrine disruption. Many are known or believed to cause irritation, allergic reactions or cancer.

“We think we have the most health protective and strenuous process in the U.S.,” Renfrew says.

Beautycounter also provides an online Ingredient Glossary on the site, which describes every ingredient used in all Beautycounter products. Products are formulated and manufactured in the U.S.

According to Nudelman, Renfrew and her team are aligned with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and constantly lobby for public health. “The way they do business raises the bar for the rest of the cosmetics industry,” Nudelman says. “They are a small company, but they are doing so much more than firms 50 times their size. That speaks volumes for those firms that want to be a part of the solution.”

Building a Brand

A lot of work went into establishing the Beautycounter brand and making sure the message remains consistent across all channels. To Renfrew, this is key. She champions the motto, “A million voices, one brand.” Renfrew makes herself available on a weekly basis to answer consultant questions and to do her part to ensure that the brand message is consistent across all platforms.

She says most consultants are drawn to the direct selling segment of Beautycounter because of the firm’s mission. This is a company driven to educate customers and consultants. It aims to create and provide solutions with its products.

Passion for creating a grassroots demand for change at the federal level—and the passion that mission evokes in consultants and customers alike—is what keeps Renfrew energized to continue her quest for change in industry regulations.

“We are focused on people,” Renfrew says. “We are defining our own way of doing business, and we have tried hard not to look at other companies. Change is good and change is necessary.”

Trained to Educate

With a slew of retail, sales and entrepreneurial experiences under her belt, Renfrew is a newcomer to the direct selling world. She started out at Xerox. She later sold her startup bridal registry, The Wedding List, to Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and is a former CEO at the Best & Co. children’s retail group. She has consulted for high-profile clients such as Bergdorf Goodman, Ann Taylor and Jessica Alba.

Renfrew says she is taking best practices from traditional and direct sales models, as she builds a comprehensive guide to a long-term sustainable business. “We really train hard on ingredients and being authentic in terms of our story and the ways in which we talk about our products,” she says.

Frequent and weekly trainings are offered for regional directors and all consultants through newsletters, videos, calls and webinars. And Renfrew makes a point to be available. “It is really important to be with the people who are working for you,” she says. “I do not like the arm’s length distance of management. We very much focus on internal clients and the end customer.”

Social media is one way Beautycounter reaches out, but Renfrew says the company is still learning how to use the platform. She encourages consultants to use their networks and break out of the mold of traditional home parties.

When Beautycounter trains consultants, it encourages organic information sharing, whether that takes place on the playground, at school or online. Consultants also get a personally branded website that ties into the main Beautycounter site.

“We make sure people are not just selling, but are interacting with others in ways that feel natural and comfortable,” Renfrew says. “We want them to put their personal touch on it but also be consistent with our message.”

Investing in Challenges

If you have several days, Renfrew will be glad to sit down and explain that trying to create products that are safe and work is not an easy process. It takes years. “What’s difficult is to create excellent and amazing products that really perform and are truly safe,” Renfrew says.

Investors like Beautycounter’s model of sharing relevant information through social networks. The company has raised $15 million to date and at the end of 2014 was getting ready to close on another round of funding.

Beautycounter is fortunate in that investors like its model of sharing relevant information through social networks. The company has raised $15 million to date and at the end of 2014 was getting ready to close on another round of funding.

While Beautycounter is experiencing explosive growth, it does not come without challenges, such as managing inventory on limited funds. Inventory lead-time has been long and sometimes raising capital is a struggle, Renfrew says.

As investors signed on, Renfrew used their dollars for product development and research to create the technology and infrastructure to support the field. She also created robust marketing and branding materials.

Renfrew says she invested heavily in people early on to create “less of a homegrown situation” and to ensure the long-term validity of the Beautycounter brand. This comes right back to the company’s larger worldview and passion for public and consumer health as well as the need for more regulation of the personal-care products industry.

Proof of Concept

What makes Beautycounter such an important company, Nudelman says, is that it proves the concept: You can be a safe and profitable company. “That is the message that the Campaign (for Safe Cosmetics) is trying to get out. That consumers will buy safer products,” she says.

Renfrew and Beautycounter take a strong position on the issue. Renfrew has made it her mission to affect change all the way to Washington.

“We want to be the face of the newer, safer, highly effective beauty company,” she says.

Renfrew and others with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics are meeting with senators about cosmetics reform.

The issue is becoming a worldwide concern as more national governments take it seriously. Canada issued a “hot list” of chemicals, and Japan and China are also taking action, Nudelman says. Yet the U.S. is lagging behind as toxic chemicals still remain in cosmetics—from lead in lipstick to heavy metals in face paint for children.

For change to happen, Congress must authorize the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the cosmetics and personal-care products industry. The Safe Cosmetics Act has been introduced in Congress in the last three sessions, but has not advanced to a full vote. “Consumers are waking up to the problem,” Nudelman says.

In Renfrew’s view, there has never been a better time to be in the direct selling world, especially when looking to inform the public and find support for a worthy cause. “The whole direct selling industry can embrace what is going on at a macro level and share relevant information through social networks and use it to drive commerce,” Renfrew says. “Everyone has been touched by one of these issues. We are creating social impact and educating people so they can take control over their personal exposure to toxins.”