Beauty industry watchdog Estee Laundry, an Instagram account made up of an anonymous collective, is calling BS on the beauty industry — and they’ve got the receipts.
Estee Laundry has pulled back the glossy curtain on everything from copycat packaging and racial appropriation to bullying and mistreating employees, bringing transparency to a traditionally opaque industry.
“There wasn’t a specific event that triggered us to form the collective,” a representative from Estee Laundry who wished to maintain anonymity told HuffPost in an email. “Over time, we observed a trend of shady, unethical business practices occurring in the beauty industry, but we also noticed there wasn’t an independent and objective entity out there to hold these brands accountable.”
Estee Laundry’s content is fueled by email and direct message submissions, around 100 a day, from their 172,000-plus Instagram followers. “Once we review all submissions, we collectively decide as a group which ones to post. We vet them as necessary through the proper channels and resources prior to publishing. We are careful to only post submissions that have merit,” the rep said. Estee Laundry does not accept ads or sponsorships, but it does have a Patreon page for followers wanting to support their cause.
When Estee Laundry started in May 2018, its audience was mostly made up of people who worked in the beauty industry. Then, in October of that year, the account posted a leaked email from a former employee of skin care brand Sunday Riley, saying that the company had asked employees to write fake product reviews on Sephora. The post went viral, and Estee Laundry’s audience rapidly expanded as the mainstream media began following its movements and citing the collective as a beauty industry watchdog. Sunday Riley’s fake review scandal resulted in an FTC investigation and settlement in 2019.
“Their rise was meteoric because it was needed,” said Claire McCormack, an editor at Beauty Independent who has covered Estee Laundry in the past. “Certain brands treating their people terribly, coming out with four foundation shades and thinking they are being inclusive and so much other questionable behavior. It’s a very crowded market with a lot of brands putting out crap. It could use a thinning out.”
Estee Laundry said that its most satisfying posts invite constructive conversation and/or invoke change. “A prime example of this is Fenty Beauty’s ‘Geisha Chic’ highlighter. We posted about how consumers found the name offensive and Fenty Beauty was quick to reach out to us stating they heard us and agreed. They immediately pulled the highlighter off the shelves and planned to rename it.”
The collective acknowledges that there are two sides to every story and that it hasn’t always gotten it right. “While we always try to do the right thing, there have been a couple of times where we had to delete a post after hearing the other side’s perspective,” the group said to The Guardian last year.
Kelly Kovack, a beauty industry expert and founder of Beauty Matter, believes watchdogs like Estee Laundry are a good thing because they hold brands accountable. “Twenty, thirty years ago, the beauty industry had a moral compass. At some point that mentality shifted to the bottom line, profit at all cost. [Estee Laundry] is hopefully making brands think twice about bad behavior.”
If Estee Laundry wasn’t enough to make beauty executives shiver in their corner offices, beauty journalist Jessica DeFino urges readers to give up their entire beauty regimens on the pages of national magazines, and has started a newsletter called The Unpublishable, “a place for the investigations, op-eds, and critiques that mainstream beauty publications can’t, don’t or won’t cover.” So far, the headlines have read “Where Are All The Brown Hands?” and “You’re Not Wearing Makeup For You.” The newsletter is free, but DeFino does have a Patreon page.
DeFino’s provocative articles like “Are Sheet Masks the New Plastic Straws?” and “The COVID-19 Pandemic Is Changing What I Consider ‘Essential’ in Beauty” as seen in Vogue and Allure, respectively, are the antithesis of magazines’ traditional “Buy! Buy! Buy!” messaging and basically gives the middle finger to the entire beauty industry.
There has always been a sneaky symbiotic relationship between advertisers and print editorial. Brands spend big on ads and their newest products magically end up on “editor’s picks” pages. That’s why DeFino was surprised when Harper’s Bazaar accepted her pitch exposing hyaluronic acid, an ingredient touted as a miracle hydrator found in thousands of skin care products as a potential irritant.
The story “Hyaluronic Acid Might Actually Be Dehydrating Your Skin,” ran March 4 online and was taken down without explanation within a day. DeFino can’t comment on why the story was pulled, and Hearst, the parent company of Harper’s Bazaar, did not respond to HuffPost’s multiple requests for comment.
So how does DeFino find her information? “I start with expert sources and I try to use a variety: dermatologists, aestheticians, product formulators, cosmetic chemists, functional medicine doctors, naturopaths,” she said. “I always request studies to back up what they’re telling me, and then I dive into those studies myself. A lot of times that is what gives me the angle or break in the story.”
Through all this, DeFino consistently questions the idea that you can buy hope in a jar.
“The message we have been fed for 100 years is that we have to be better, thinner, prettier,” she said. “Now, that message has been reframed as empowerment. ‘I’m putting on makeup for me. I’m getting Botox for me.’ But we have to go deeper and ask, why does that make me feel good? I personally feel absolutely crushed by the beauty standards forced on me. I don’t feel confident without makeup. I don’t feel good about my wrinkles coming in. But for some reason, I’m not compelled to change those things. I’m more compelled to change society’s thoughts about those things.”
Since the nationwide protests began following George Floyd’s death, both Estee Laundry and DeFino have dedicated their social media feeds to amplifying “Pull Up for Change,” an initiative that demands companies share the number of Black people they employ on a corporate level, exposes “Karens” in the beauty industry and acts as a resource for readers to find Black-owned beauty brands.
DeFino and Estee Laundry are clear allies in yanking consumers out of the matrix made by the beauty industry, hoping they will ask questions and make their buying decisions based on facts.
“We’re just gaining steam, and have more work to do, but we are excited and optimistic about the future of the beauty industry,” the representative from Estee Laundry concluded. “We need to continue to challenge the status quo and change the narrative. Our goal is to get the beauty industry to a place where inclusivity, transparency and sustainability are no longer an afterthought but are mandatory and the norm.”