Zing Tsjeng | Contributing Writer | 1,047 day ago

Why We're Giving Three Gender-Neutral Cheers For Unisex Cosmetics

The Debrief: There's a new wave of beauty brands championing unfussy, gender-neutral packaging

It’s almost Christmas, which means you’re three weeks away from adding yet another hideously over-perfumed toiletries kit to your collection, courtesy of your nan or the random aunt you only ever see during the holidays. It will, on the whole, smell like flowers tossed on a compost heap. The hand cream (there is ALWAYS a hand cream) has a strong whiff of stale baby powder. Oh, and the packaging is bright fuchsia and covered in flowers, of course. It’s enough to make Caitlin Moran weep: a gift box of smellies that says being a woman is all about pink and reeking of a swamp filled with dying roses.

But there’s a new breed of unisex cosmetics that are trying to shake things up. Don’t call it androgyny: this isn’t about boys’ products looking like girls’ or vice versa. It’s about truly gender-neutral beauty brands which cut out all the marketing bullshit – including all those extraneous pansies on the packaging. 

It’s about truly gender-neutral beauty brands which cut out all the marketing bullshit – including all those extraneous pansies on the packaging. 

Into The Gloss blogger Emily Weiss is one example. The appearance of her new skincare line, Glossier, might nod to girls with its strategic wash of pink – but the rest of the packaging is minimal and fuss-free. It looks like something your graphic designer boyfriend might use on the sly. Other brands like cult Aussie label Aesop have made their name on its effective unisex formulations, bottling its eco products in dark glass bottles with tasteful cream labels. And across the pond, Target has just picked up the S.W. Basics of Brooklyn line, which promises “no frills skincare” that work on both men and women.

But the new rise of genderless beauty isn't just confined for New York hipsters and Aussie skincare fiends. British label Sam Farmer is one local skincare brand that champions the unisex look. Set up by a stay-at-home dad turned cosmetic scientist, it's explicitly aimed at teenagers and young adult (although I know a few people in their late 20s and 30-somethings who also sneakily pick it up). 

Sam, whose line has just launched this year, says that he was inspired to create a unisex beauty line after finding himself in despair in the toiletries aisle. ‘My daughter was just reaching puberty and said, “Can you just grab me some deodorant?”’ he told me. ‘I went to the shop and went to the girls aisle for personal care. My daughter's Barbie days were long gone, but everything was still all sparkles and hearts and flowers – with the sinister addition of names like Minx, Tease and Be Sinful. She's 12. She just wants a deodorant!’

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Things weren't much better in the boy's section, where everything was blue, grey or black and named Adrenaline, Control and Power. ‘It really hit home with me,’ Sam says. ‘I've always brought my kids up to be equals and to treat each other as equals. But right at the age where they are most vulnerable, the industry splits them into what a boy should do and what a girl should do.’

Enraged by the discovery, he went home and promptly enrolled in a diploma course for cosmetic science. Three years later, his eponymous label is now stocked in Space NK, with plans to expand to the States in 2015. Sam Farmer does face wash, shampoo, conditioner, body wash and deodorant, all without a hint of sparkles, flowers or Adrenaline-themed marketing. 

It is, he says, the ‘sexual stereotyping’ that has him riled. ‘For young people, skin and hair have essentially the same structure,’ he argues. ‘There are very slight molecular differences, but personal care formulations don’t work on a molecular level when you’re washing your hair. Shampoo doesn’t differentiate between girl hair and boy hair when it’s on your head. It’s irrelevant.’ 

While male and female skin may develop different needs over time, many skin and bodycare products are perfectly capable of working on both, as anybody whose male housemate has nicked their face wash can attest. In fact, sometimes male equivalents of female products – like shaving foam – can be just as effective and cheaper.

Male equivalents of female products can be just as effective and cheaper.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using girly, uber-femme cosmetics, especially if that’s what floats your lilac-scented boat. But, as Sam argues, it’s the lack of choice and ‘sexual stereotyping’ that has riled. ‘I object to that,’ he says. ‘I’ve hopefully given people an alternative – that’s what I’m about.’ 

Options: that’s what most unisex brands are essentially about. For a long while, women who hated their cosmetics divided along pink’n’blue gender lines didn’t have much to pick from. But now there’s a bigger chance that you can find something that does appeal. And just in time for Christmas, too.

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Tags: Beautification