The importance of transparency and sustainability in skincare

In the fast-paced world of skincare, South African consumers are increasingly seeking transparency and sustainability in their products. File picture:

In the fast-paced world of skincare, South African consumers are increasingly seeking transparency and sustainability in their products. File picture:

Published Oct 13, 2023


In the fast-paced world of skincare, South African consumers are increasingly seeking transparency and sustainability in their products. The quest for clear information about ingredients, pricing, and environmental impact has reshaped the industry.

IOL spoke to The Ordinary CEO Nicola Kilner on the the brand’s goals for sustainability, giving back and their cult following on TikTok.

The Transparency Paradigm

The traditional pharmacy shopping experience has long served as a model for consumer trust, but Kilner argues its a different case for skincare.

She explained that when you go to pharmacy, prices for a painkiller or other medicine don’t vary as much as you would find in the skincare industry. The pharmaceutical industry also does not need to “over-explain or over-promise” about their product because chances are, we know exactly what we want or how much we can expect to pay.

“That (concept) never existed in skin care. You don’t know what you were spending for. Is a $300.00 serum better than a $30 serum? It was very difficult to understand. Are you paying for a celebrity for the glossy adverts? Where is that value coming from?”

By adopting the principles of the pharmacy model, The Ordinary made ingredient transparency a cornerstone of their business. Ingredients like vitamin C, retinol, and various acids have been used for decades, making them safe and effective choices.

Since these ingredients lack patents, many suppliers can produce raw materials, eliminating the need for extravagant claims. Consumers now know that, just like aspirin for a headache, these ingredients can deliver the promised results. She then raised a point on the importance of using old, and thus trusted ingredients.

“Would you trust a brand new tablet to get rid of your headache or would you just take the thing that's been around for decades that you know is safe and effective?” Needless to say, the answer is a resounding ‘Of course I would trust the older tablet’.“

With the rise of TikTok, transparency is more important now than ever for skincare and health brands. The Ordinary’s biggest audience is millennials and Gen Z and the brand is not a stranger to viral hits, but sometimes this has its downsides.

“We have different expectations and I think maybe it's partly through the rise of social media that the world has to become more transparent. If you think 20 years ago, we would just consume traditional media, whereas now through social media every person can have a voice, which has downsides. But you have to be much better as a business because if not, TikTok will call you out and it will go viral and people will boycott you. And so I think actually it's kind of demanding more from businesses now.”

Sustainability in Skincare

Transparency isn't the only aspect reshaping the skincare industry. Sustainability has become an integral part of the conversation. In an era marked by increased environmental awareness, consumers are concerned about the impact of their skincare choices. They want to know if the products they use are eco-friendly, cruelty-free, and ethically sourced.

Sustainable skincare means adopting practices that minimise harm to the environment and support ethical principles. This includes responsibly sourced ingredients, eco-friendly packaging, and cruelty-free testing.

“Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. We work significantly hard on having a positive impact on the planet. Most of our packaging is recyclable. It’s just the droppers that aren’t, but we are working on an option that will allow us to make it recyclable.

“We also do a lot for social impact. We will be putting over 3 million dollars into impact initiatives which we will have a portion of that for South Africa. We very much believe in giving back and giving to the communities and countries.”

The Rise of TikTok and Social Media

The advent of social media platforms like TikTok has further fuelled the demand for transparency and sustainability in skincare. Skincare products, especially those that go viral on TikTok, have found themselves in the spotlight.

Kilner said while TikTok has been incredible for The Ordinary, with people becoming more educated and sharing information, the downside is that there can be misinformation. She used the AHA peeling solution as an example. She said it was and is a “phenomenal product” - but only if you are about 30-years-old or so.

“When it went viral, it was used by 15-year-olds or 16-year-olds who don’t need to be using such a strong acid. It was this time when we felt we had a responsibility. We did paid work to get the message out there that ‘If your teenage daughter is using this, take it off her and use it for yourself,” Kilner said, adding that the difficult part of going viral is not knowing when something will go viral and the fact that it can’t be influenced.

Empowering Consumers Through Knowledge

The combination of transparency and sustainability is empowering consumers. They now have the tools and information to make informed choices. Brands that embrace these principles are not only meeting consumer demands, but also aligning themselves with the ethical and environmental concerns of today's society.