Our love of indie beauty and makeup brands comes down to more than just supporting “the little guy” in a corporate-dominated landscape. Oftentimes these smaller, self-funded makeup, skin care, and personal care brands provide a glimpse into niche-specific interests and values that are shared by beauty consumers — almost like glimmers of the industry’s future before the mainstream catches on.
Take, for instance, the rise of “clean,” sustainable, and shade-inclusive brands, which are indicative of not only societal movements, but major shifts in the way we shop. Retailers like Credo, The Detox Market, Beauty Beez, and Clean at Sephora are leading this push towards inclusivity and environmental responsibility. And in many ways, indie makeup brands help shape the industry’s future evolution — but their efforts to survive, grow, and thrive face significant challenges.
“I’m not going to sugar coat it: Being a founder is hard,” says Molly Hart, founder and CEO of HIGHR Collective. “Every purchase counts and makes us realize that there are others out there who share our values — and that’s why we keep going.” ‘Indies’ are almost always rich in backstory and brand purpose, but funding — for product development, large-scale production, and marketing — is always a challenge.
In a saturated and competitive market, retailer Credo is using its growing platform to support like-minded indie brands. “I would consider the majority of Credo brands to be indie,” says Michelle Connelly, Credo VP of Merchandising and Planning. “They are almost all founder-led, are often newer to market, and have limited retail distribution. They may have taken outside funding to support growth, but the direction and leadership is still coming from the founder and their unique vision.”
She goes on to explain that the different facets of Credo’s business model, like their stringent Clean Standard, recently re-vamped Sustainable Packaging Guidelines, and a Radical Fragrance Transparency Initiative, has allowed the retailer to position and market these brands directly to an interested consumer base, while still being small enough to connect with each brand’s founder, purpose, and story.
Clean beauty, although a legally unregulated term in the United States, refers to the transparency of what ingredients are used in formulas, and the adherence to using only those that have been proven to pose no adverse health outcomes. Because legal regulations and definitions of the term do not exist (yet) — not to mention experts frequently disagree — brands must identify for themselves what their “clean standards” entail. Credo delineates theirs in The Credo Clean Standard that excludes 2,700 ingredients. For reference, the EU has over 1,300 banned ingredients (which are determined by the EU Cosmetics Regulation) for personal care products. Comparatively, the US has a grand total of 11. Clearly, we have a long way to go.
There are multiple facets within the eco-friendly category: vegan makeup bypasses emissions-heavy industrial farming; sustainable sourcing speaks to responsible practices in product acquisition; transportation-related emissions due to shipping and travel; and packaging are all major discussions being had in the eco-friendly beauty space. “I definitely see the rise of a lot of innovative categories within packaging — refillable, waterless, and [plastic alternatives],” Connelly notes.
Beauty inclusivity speaks to a brand’s consideration of who their customer is and who can use their products, especially when it comes to developing shade ranges for things like foundation and concealer. Fenty Beauty set a new industry standard with the 2017 launch of 40, and eventually 50, foundation shades. Multiple makeup brands have since followed suit, with Pür Cosmetics offering their 4-in-1 Love-Your-Selfie Foundation and Concealer range in 100 different shades. Note that truly inclusive shade offerings must also encompass different undertones (i.e., cool, neutral, warm, golden, etc.).
If you’re in the market for a new under-the-radar makeup product to add to your collection, these are 10 brands to keep in mind.
Indie Makeup Brand: KYPRIS
Chase Polan is the founder and CEO of KYPRIS, a natural cosmeceutical skin care brand that recently made the leap into makeup, starting with an eyeshadow palette. Polan views her brand as a vehicle for sharing her vision of what beauty can be, while also prioritizing compassionate brand messaging and sustainability. “This can be seen throughout our supply chain, how we formulate, and how we convey beauty to our patrons and community,” Polan says. “We consider both the social and environmental impact of each ingredient we source.”
The brand considers where ingredients are sourced, how they are grown, who grew it, and whether there are any socio-economic, labor, environmental, or political issues surrounding it. The eyeshadow palette incorporates two different ingredients from UN Global Compact Projects — one that supports women shea farmers and another that aims to create a socially sustainable mica supply chain to ensure fair pay, safe working conditions, no child labor, no modern slavery, access to education, and access to health care.
As Polan points out, the responsible sourcing of mica — the naturally-derived pigment responsible for the shimmer effect in many beauty products — takes real effort; the ingredient is notorious for unseen human rights abuses. “At KYPRIS, one of our mottos is Beauty from Beauty. You can’t make beauty from exploitation,” she says.
Indie Makeup Brand: HIGHR Collective
Molly Hart worked in social media for beauty brands for 15 years before creating Highr, a carbon-neutral line of clean and sustainable lipsticks. She noticed that customers were raising concerns about ingredient safety and environmental impact, which went then largely ignored. “I don’t believe that big brands are responsibly making products for women,” she says. “I wanted to be contributing to something positive. That’s when I quit my job and created a brand that had a higher purpose — hence the name, HIGHR.”
In addition to emphasizing ingredient safety in their 66-74% organic formulas, the brand keeps the climate crisis in mind with every decision. “[The beauty industry] does not run sustainably — it’s carbon intensive, filled with environmentally harmful ingredients, and tons and tons of plastic,” says Hart. “It takes diligence to avoid these pitfalls on a daily basis.”
HIGHR’s first step was to prioritize sustainable packaging options. “If there isn’t a sustainable packaging option, we simply won’t bring that product out,” she continues. The brand’s packaging prioritizes metal over plastic, and recycled, biodegradable boxes printed with vegetable ink. They track their CO2 emissions — including employee and product car and air travel, freight, facilities, warehousing, and more — in order to offset their emissions with their offset provider. “To date, we’ve saved and negated a total of 13.1 metric tons of CO2,” Hart explains, noting, “Buying one HIGHR lipstick saves a total of 5.8 pounds of CO2.”
Indie Makeup Brands: Range Beauty
Alicia Scott, founder and CEO of Range Beauty, decided to create a beauty brand for what she calls the ‘forgotten shades,’ meaning customers with skin tones that often couldn’t find their perfect complexion product. For indie makeup brands hoping to launch inclusive foundations, the challenge is one of funding; Scott began with $150 worth of tools, pigments, toners, but has since raised over $250,000 through pitch and grant competitions.
Her initial inspiration came from a former job in fashion where she noticed Black models bringing their own makeup kits to set. She then found out that a makeup artist had told one of these women that she had nothing in her kit to match her skin. “It’s crazy to me because Black women consistently outspend every other group when it comes to makeup and skin care, but there is no normalcy around creating for us. I wanted to prioritize these shades and any other shades [that] felt left out,” Scott explains. “It doesn’t stop at our foundations — it’s across our full range of products and with our marketing, too.” Range takes it a step further by formulating with clean ingredients that have been selected for their skin care benefits.
Beauty consumers hold more power than they might think, and can influence the industry with how and where they choose to spend their dollar. Purchasing from an indie brand is an opportunity to show that a company’s identity, values, commitment to inclusivity, and sustainable practices aren’t just some passing fad, but rather a reflection of the current social landscape. Consider the fact that you can align your purchases with your beliefs the next time you peruse the beauty e-shelves, and consider buying from one of the under-the-radar makeup brands below.
We only include products that have been independently selected by The Zoe Report's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated to include links to featured retailers.