From Brad Pitt to Travis Barker, celebrity skin-care lines vex experts

“Does anyone believe that Brad Pitt even cares about skin care?”

That was Charlotte Palermino’s reaction to the actor’s announcement last month that, like many of his celebrity peers (Idris and Sabrina Elba, Ciara, Scarlett Johansson, just to name a few), he had launched his own skin-care line, Le Domaine. The “genderless” collection includes a cleanser for $80, a cream for $320 and a serum for $385.

Palermino, a New York City aesthetician and co-founder of skin-care company Dieux, was still reeling from the announcement less than 24 hours before that Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker was also coming out with a “pricey” skin care line, Barker Wellness.

“It was a one-two punch. The timing was very unfortunate for both [Pitt and Barker],” said Claire McCormack, an editor at Beauty Independent. “It really sent me and a lot of people I know into a tailspin.”

The back-to-back launches seem to have sparked an open rebellion within the beauty industry: Brand founders, skin-care content creators and their devout followers have made it clear they’ve had enough of celebrity beauty brands.

Winnie Awa, founder of personalized hair advice platform Carra, joined five other London-based beauty brand founders in issuing “An open letter to Brad Pitt” in the hope that others would join them. “Over the past few years, it seems that every celebrity feels like they can waltz into the industry that we have worked in our whole careers and gain the awareness overnight that we are so fighting for,” the letter reads, in part. “If this industry is an industry that you truly want to be a part of, then … invest in early-stage founders who are already in the arena, building innovative solutions to make the industry more inclusive, sustainable, and climate-friendly.”

“We’ve had so many new celebrity brands in such a short period of time that this was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Awa, who wants celebrities to stop creating beauty brands just because they can. “Why not collaborate with people who are doing the work? Why not invest in some of these innovative independent brands that can’t get funding?”

Skin care is big business. U.S. sales revenue for prestige skin care was $6.3 billion in 2021, according to market research firm NPD. But while celebrity brands enjoy instant awareness and an edge in capturing that first sale, the products need to work for consumers to come back, said Larissa Jensen, beauty industry adviser at NPD. “Creating a loyal consumer is what will drive long-term success.”

Skin care became huge during the coronavirus-pandemic lockdown, Palermino said, because people were looking at themselves on Zoom calls all day and seeing skin-care content on TikTok and Instagram. “I think [celebrities’] business advisers came to them with deals, showing them the explosive growth of the skin-care market and the potential revenue,” and they subsequently capitalized on the expanded interest, Palermino said. Now stars such as former talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres and “Stranger Things” teen Millie Bobby Brown are among an expanding class of big names that have their own skin-care lines.

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Launched in 2017, Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty may not have been the first celebrity-led beauty brand, McCormack said, but it may have started the recent “tsunami.” “Fenty was really well-executed and [Rihanna] was so involved in being the face of the brand, it did very well.” That partly laid the groundwork for other stars thinking they could do it too, she added.

But for Kevin James Bennett, a cosmetic developer and makeup artist, there’s only one way to describe the proliferation: “a cash grab.” Bennett made headlines in August when he called out Kylie Jenner for a photo she shared on Instagram with her 370 million followers, in which she posed in an active manufacturing lab with her hair down and no gloves or a mask. (Jenner countered his claims, saying the photos were not actually taken in a manufacturing facility; Bennett responded that she was standing on a platform looking into a homogenizing kettle of complexion product in one of the images.)

Bennett said he thinks that celebrities like Jenner often get away with skirting industry regulations, including making unsubstantiated marketing claims: “Look at Kate Moss’s new line. Her brand is saying their signature extract can turn back the clock 20 years in four weeks. Really? Where are the clinicals?”

The actual differences between some of these famous-name skin-care brands can be nearly indistinguishable, according to Lalita Iyer, a cosmetic chemist and product formulator. They’re made by the same contract manufacturers who “take one of their stock formulations and just tweak it slightly, like add point-one percent of fairy dust [marketing ingredients] and call it a new brand,” she said.

There is also concern over many of these brands’ sustainability claims, said Ann Oh, a beauty critic and content creator known as Minsooky on social media. Kim Kardashian’s SKKN brand, for instance, boasts “sustainability” and “eco-friendly materials” in its initial press release. But “if you compare the actual products versus refills, it’s literally just an additional container that surrounds the refill, creating more plastic waste, in my opinion, not less,” Oh said. “Brad Pitt’s brand Le Domaine sells refills but they are literally just the same product sold without a cap.”

The press materials for Le Domaine — which is co-owned by winemaker Marc Perrin, who shares ownership in Pitt’s Château Miraval, a French estate and vineyard — also state that the brand found ways to “upcycle” grape pomace, the end product from the winemaking process. Yet Jason Ruppert, vigneron for Ardure Wines in California, said that pomace usually goes to a compost management facility where it is turned into soil, or is used for chicken feed or for the vineyard’s own compost, which helps with regeneration the following year. In other words, pomace doesn’t need to be “upcycled.”

Vi Lai, a skin-care content creator known on TikTok as @whatsonvisface, thinks many celebrity founders underestimate today’s beauty consumer. “They are so out of touch because they don’t take into consideration how much more educated and savvy the average skin-care consumer is these days,” she said. “They think they can just slap their name on a product line and everyone will buy it.”

A bigger issue, according to Lai, is the lack of transparency into cosmetic surgeries and other treatments famous people selling skin care may have undergone. She said it’s “harmful” if celebrities “deny they’ve gotten Botox and plastic surgery” and then sell products that suggest fans will have similar results, all while their own Instagram pages are populated with “heavily edited photos.”

Tiara Willis, an aesthetician and content creator, thinks these brands have a specific audience. “Celebrity skin care is more about creating merchandise for their fans than trying to innovate,” she said. “I just don’t see their intention being to add something of value to the skin-care community.”

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There are outliers, though: Willis, Palermino and Lai mentioned model Hailey Bieber’s Rhode skin-care line as seeming a head-above-the-rest. Bieber, who launched her brand this June, contacted Lai and other skin-care creators (including Palermino) two years ago for advice. “She came off as very-well-researched and like the skin-care line was a real passion project,” said Lai, who also commended Bieber for her team’s diversity and knowledge base.

Lai and Palermino also cited as an exception Pharrell Williams’s Humanrace skin-care line, which he launched with his longtime dermatologist Elena Jones in 2020. “Go back to interviews from 10 years ago and you’ll find Pharrell talking about skin care,” Palermino said. “It’s just that when you’re a celebrity coming out of nowhere with a skin-care line, it seems like there’s little respect for people’s intelligence.”

Despite the fact that Pitt did an interview with British Vogue about Le Domaine and appears in the promotional photos, co-owner Perrin said they don’t see their newest venture “as a celebrity brand.” “I know it can look strange when you have such a celebrity onboard, but we have been working together for more than 10 years now, and we are willing to build something that is for the long term,” he said.

Perrin said he was “confused” by the negative reactions he saw on social media and in the press. “These are people who have never tried the products or seen them,” he noted. Regardless, the negative attention doesn’t seem to be hurting Le Domaine’s bottom line. “We were very impressed that we made in two days what we had planned for three months,” Perrin said. They have plans to launch an essentials collection next year, which will be at a “more accessible price point.”

Janna Mandell is a San Francisco-based journalist covering the beauty industry.