How ‘It’ Skin-Care Ingredients Come To Be

In the early 2000s, during that brief period of time when the internet held promise and chatrooms were filled with booksellers just looking for love, there was a website called Socialite Rank. It existed to vie the upper crust of New York’s society against one another for the top spot as the City’s “it” girl. Through complicated press dynamics, marketing machines, and scandals galore, the town’s biggest names rose and fell week by week.

Fast forward to now. The internet is no longer shiny and new, and the allure of chatrooms has faded into digital nostalgia. But the marketing mechanisms that push the next new thing, whether we’re talking about “it girls” in New York City or “it ingredients” in beauty products, persist, propelling certain ingredients into the limelight. Just like the socialites of the past, these ‘it ingredients’ are celebrated for their novelty and promise, becoming the center of attention in a constantly evolving landscape of trends and consumer desires. Simply put, it’s no coincidence that everyone was adding retinol to their routines back in 2019, or that niacinamide is suddenly everywhere. 

“People care more about ingredients, clinical results, and cleaner formulas. They’re shopping at places that vet products they sell—and make—for harmful ingredients,” says Megan O’Neill, senior beauty editor at Goop. “Big conventional beauty brands are shifting their approach, as a result, creating products geared toward an audience that craves efficacy and clean formulas.”

The chain from a product’s conception to creation involves dozens of hands, including ingredient sourcers, formulators, marketers, and beauty press, who all play their part in pushing a product into the must-try category. So how does an ingredient rise to “it” status? Let’s dive in.

What makes an “it ingredient”

To understand the launchpad for “it” ingredients, you have to go to the source of where many of them come from— cosmetics trade shows. “Raw material suppliers have a lot more influence on the ingredients that become trendy in beauty products than most people realize,” says Jennifer Goldstein Sullivan, a longtime beauty editor and host of the popular beauty podcast Fat Mascara. “Indie founders, corporate product developers, independent chemists, consultants— they’re all going to the same trade shows and meeting with the same suppliers, and these suppliers spend a lot of money developing and doing non-independent clinical research on their ingredients so they can spin impressive stories to convince brands and formulators to use them in their products.”

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This trickles down and inevitably results in a cascade of products with the same ingredients hitting shelves at the same time. For example, in the 2019 Well+Good Trends report, editors wrote that bakuchiol—a plant-based alternative to retinol—was being introduced into products, making it an ingredient to watch. Since that time, Google searches for the retin-alt have steadily risen year over year. The same is true for searches of the beauty ingredients niacinamide, which helps reduce inflammation and strengthen the skin barrier, and azelaic acid, which assists in lightening hyperpigmentation and smoothing the skin’s texture.

When shoppers start asking for a certain active they’ve seen buzzing around on the market, brands are pushed to create a supply that meets the demand. “I have [brand] clients give me their must-have lists, and it’s nothing short of hyaluronic acid, peptide, niacinamide, and vitamin C. But if every brand has these ingredients, what differentiates your products from others?” questions Ginger King, a New Jersey-based cosmetic chemist. To help the clients she works with stand apart, she workshops different technologies that get straight to the core of the brand’s DNA. “For example, if it is a brand about sensitive skin, I will put together ingredients that are proven for sensitive skin and have synergetic effects to boost hydration and radiance,” she says.

With all of that in mind, the “newness” of an ingredient isn’t quite as important as it used to be—especially because most of the heavy hitters that we know are effective (retinol, vitamin C, AHAs, etc) have been around for decades. Nowadays, one person’s experience with fill-in-the-blank active ingredient can serve as a launchpad for its renaissance (especially if they have a huge following)—and drive brands to hop on the trend as quickly as possible. “In general, brands don’t wait for groundbreaking research to come out and then develop new products around that research,” says Sullivan. “They need [new launches in their product lines] first and foremost—it’s almost become like the fast fashion model.” Fueling this, in large part, is social media, which is at once pushing curiosity around ingredients, educating consumers, and, in some cases, leading them astray.

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The Tik-Tok-ification of Skin Care

In today’s day and age, many brands are using social platforms for product formulation research. King, for one, says that clients frequently approach her with what’s trending on TikTok—leaving her in a position to have to tell them that the trendiness of the moment likely won’t hold true in the 9 to 12 months it takes to create a product. “Trends are trends, and by the time product launches, trends are gone, so basing consumer research on social is dangerous,” she says. According to reporting from Business of Fashion, for example, trends on TikTok have a lifespan of about 90 days, though some trends can last up to six months, which can often leave brands behind the eight ball.

Before the advent of Instagram and TikTok, the beauty press largely controlled narratives around which ingredients were buzzy and who should try them, delivering a level of vetting that’s absent in today’s landscape. While it’s great that everyone can now have a mouthpiece to share experiences with and learn about ingredients, it presents new challenges. “I’ve noticed an increased awareness about ingredients. People write to me and DM me all the time with this similar question format: ‘I heard about X ingredient; does it work?’ So they’re definitely hearing about new ingredients.” says Sullivan.

What’s potentially missing from the discovery equation—minus fact-checking it with an expert like Sullivan—is that people are being misguided by a product’s abilities and limitations. “First and foremost, an ingredient must do what it says it does,” says Jennifer Ruff, the founder of Ruff Communications, a press agency that represents brands and experts in the beauty space. Whereas most beauty experts are trained to present a product’s benefits and limitations, that’s not always the case on social platforms.  Algorithms are created to sell products, not meet the specific needs of your complexion, so anything that promises life-changing skin benefits will likely rise to the top of your feed regardless of whether or not it works. In contrast, with something more balanced—and less salacious—that might not be the case. Horror stories of ingredients gone wrong abound on the internet, and without the technical knowledge of which ingredient is right for which skin type, you might find yourself reaching for something that isn’t right for your skin.

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How all of this impacts your own approach to skin care

While the latest ingredients always sound promising in theory, it’s important to educate yourself about what they do and not get caught up in the buzz. “When you speak to most medical professionals, regardless of their field of study, less is more, and quality is better than quantity,” says Ruff. This message, which most beauty professionals co-sign, is contrary to what you might otherwise hear on social media, where products are regularly slung around in more-is-better fashion.

That means that when you hear about an ingredient or a product, it’s most important first to ask yourself whether or not it’s right for your skin-care conditions and then stick with it for at least a month, the minimum time it takes for our skin cells to turn over and show if a product is working. This approach, explain experts, will be more cost-effective and net you better results than constantly chasing what’s new or what’s next.

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