The beauty world is in the midst of an existential crisis. As an industry dedicated to the celebration of fantasy and play, embracing a new cultural climate of honesty and transparency was always going to be a challenge. Even the most hardened beauty fanatic now has a mistrust of products that overpromise, of complicated routines, and a distaste for flashy, excessive packaging.

As a result, a new wave of brands and products that aim to simplify, demystify and even underplay your beauty regime is emerging. It’s reminiscent of how “normcore” – defined by sneakers, jeans and T-shirts – infiltrated the fashion world some years ago in reaction to the extravagance that had previously prevailed. (The term reached its peak in 2014 when it was shortlisted for the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year – losing out to “vape”.)

Beauty’s new “superbasics” come minus the traditional bells and whistles. “One and done” products that you can use head-to-toe are challenging the need for those designed for a specific body part. Do you really require a foot/neck/hand/eye cream, as well as something for the face and body? As a reaction to the multiple steps in Korean beauty-inspired regimes, the “skinimalism” movement promises to shrink your daily skincare routine down to a mere two or three steps.

One of the beauty brands that helped pave the way for this new “generation real” was Milk Makeup, started in 2014 and born out of New York’s legendary Milk Studios, a creative hub for fashion and photography in the Meatpacking District. “We would be at the studios, and these major make-up companies would come in to do shoots,” remembers Milk co-founder Mazdack Rassi. “The models would walk in looking incredible right off the street: jeans, sneakers, no make-up. Then they’d go into hair and make-up for three hours and come out looking so overdone, so much older and less cool. And we’d be thinking, ‘If that was us, we’d have put her in front of the camera the way she walked in.’ And that’s how Milk Makeup was born.” He sees the brand as having more in common with “a Nike or an Apple” than with most beauty brands “because they’re still about chasing youth or covering things up, whereas we’re about products that just fit with your life”.

The new superbasics

Milk Makeup Vegan Milk Cleanser, £27
Milk Makeup Vegan Milk Cleanser, £27
CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser, £9.50
CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser, £9.50
Neighbourhood Botanicals Face Off Oil-To-Milk Cleanser, £27
Neighbourhood Botanicals Face Off Oil-To-Milk Cleanser, £27
The Nue Co Barrier Culture Cleanser, £32
The Nue Co Barrier Culture Cleanser, £32
Jo Malone Orange Peel Cologne, £55
Jo Malone Orange Peel Cologne, £55
Glossier Body Hero exfoliating bar, £12
Glossier Body Hero exfoliating bar, £12
Fussy Refillable natural deodorant, £20
Fussy Refillable natural deodorant, £20
LF Markey x Kankan Starter Set, £29
LF Markey x Kankan Starter Set, £29

Erika Geraerts, who co-founded cult bodycare line Frank Body in 2013, is another who believes in demystifying things. “The world doesn’t need more products,” she says. “There is little to no innovation left. But the world does and will always need better products, better brands, better messaging.” She left her original business in 2016 and has since created a new line, Fluff, as a reaction to the “old world” beauty mentality, which she saw as being increasingly driven by Instagram-fuelled notions of perfection. Geraerts believes the future of cosmetics is rooted in a more “real” approach – an aesthetic she has termed “casual beauty”. “We forget that the concept of drag make-up was once performative, and is now normative,” she says. “At Fluff we believe it’s OK to feel more with make-up, so long as you don’t feel less without it. For decades, the industry has sold consumers the idea that their worth is realised through consumption and application of ‘more’ – that make-up is the answer to their questions about identity. Ultimately, this sells the idea that your starting self is not good enough or needs fixing. Casual beauty should be about the empowering form of self-expression, not correction.”

The Seated Queen Cold Cream Cleanser, £39
The Seated Queen Cold Cream Cleanser, £39

A more casual approach to beauty is also about comfort and ease. Products that you can use everywhere, in multiple ways, are a big new trend, and “cleanser and overnight treatment in one” products are the current hot buy: the beauty world is going crazy for the Seated Queen Cold Cream Cleanser, a cleanser and overnight mask created by sisters Josephine and Libby Banks, and the Bask 2-In-1 Cleansing Balm with Salicylic Acid from US brand Ode To Self, founded by Kimberlee Alexandria-Day. 

French pharmacy brands such as La Roche-Posay and Avène, which were once seen as beauty basics, now have a kind of reflected glamour thanks to the supermodels and make-up artists who recommend them. So too does the plain-packaged, accessible, dermatologist-recommended CeraVe, which has been around since 2005 but in the past couple of years has become the “badge of honour” skincare brand (particularly the Hydrating Cleanser, which can be kept in the shower and used head-to-toe) for those who believe in superbasics over super-luxury.

And full credit to Procter & Gamble, the owner of many household beauty brands, which has taken the superbasic approach to its logical conclusion with the unassumingly named and pleasingly bland-looking EC30. Its single-dose, waterless “swatches” offer cleansing “for both home and body”. You can buy a kit that contains water-activated laundry detergent, toilet cleaner, shampoo, body and hand wash in one box. They’re so travel-friendly that, surely, they must signal an end to the packaging nightmare of plastic minis in hotel rooms?

Forgo hand wash starter kit, £45
Forgo hand wash starter kit, £45

There are elevated basics too. Of all the beauty brands vying to lead the beauty “refillution”, one of the best has to be Forgo. Its handwash refills are powder-to-liquid sachets, you add them to hot water straight from the tap – and its frosted glass bottles with heavy black lids are just the right mix of simple and functional. 

“The beauty industry needs a shake-up that does away with a lot of those old conventions about what luxury beauty means,” says Michael Murray, group head of elevation at Flannels. The luxury UK retailer is expanding its beauty division as part of a five-year plan to open three new flagship stores; inside, products that are deliberately separate to the traditional hallmarks of beauty will line up alongside more conventional brands.

For Murray, it’s not just about showcasing brands that feel more “real”: it’s about rethinking the way we buy them too. Unlike the usual department store model, Flannels Beauty staff won’t be incentivised to sell one brand over another. Similarly refreshing are the “beauty changing rooms” that allow you to try on products (or apply your own) away from the glare of the shop floor. These, I think, could well be a game-changer. We may be living in an era of honest beauty, but there’s only so much transparency a girl can take.

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