She was the little girl always playing in her mom’s makeup drawer. In high school, she started beauty blogging before it became a big thing. As a student at Georgia Tech, she was the go-to makeup artist for her friends during formal season. Still, Atlanta-raised Sarah Biggers, 27, never thought she would pursue a career in the cosmetics industry. That changed after a post-graduation trip to Vietnam.
There was no big light bulb moment. No earth-shattering come to Jesus meeting. “I had a lot of downtime to think about what I wanted,” Biggers said. On her return home, she built a following as a makeup artist working for a range of corporate and personal clients. Then Biggers took another unexpected turn. In 2017, she launched Clove + Hallow, a clean, cruelty-free, vegan makeup line that is also affordable, inclusive and high-performing. In just two years, the independent Atlanta-based brand has quickly gained a large following, won several beauty industry awards and is in the process of expanding to Europe and Mexico.
“When I look back on that period, it is hard for me to even know what happened,” Biggers said. “It was a lot of nothing, and then things would fall into place.”
Not long after returning to the U.S., Biggers began to feel ill. She had picked up stomach parasites and a staph infection along with some unexplained symptoms. Doctors and specialists from neurologists to oncologists couldn’t uncover the cause of her illness. For six months, she was bedridden with vertigo, panic attacks and other health concerns.
At the time, Biggers had not been particularly attuned to a natural lifestyle. She thought of such things as froufrou, but her mysterious illness led her to naturopathy and holistic medicine. Following the protocol of a holistic doctor, she said she returned to normal in just 30 days. Biggers viewed her recovery as miraculous. “I was miserable and unhealthy and unhappy, and all of a sudden, I came back to where I was,” she said.
With her new mindset, Biggers began to deeply examine the beauty industry and the ugly effects it can have on health and the environment.
Congress enacted the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938, and little has changed regarding the regulation of chemicals and contaminants in cosmetics. American women use an average of 12 personal care products each day that contain 168 different chemicals, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. While most of those chemicals are safe, some, such as formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic, or dibutyl phthalate, an endocrine disrupter, remain unregulated in the U.S. The Food and Drug Administration relies heavily on makers of personal care products to self-regulate, and it is pressure from consumers and advocacy groups that has brought change to the industry.
Major retailers and manufacturers have moved toward cleaner products and greater transparency as more small independent beauty brands have entered the market. CVS announced it would remove all parabens, phthalates and the most prevalent formaldehyde donors from its store brand product lines by the end of 2019. Calls for more transparency led Revlon to list an ingredients page on its website that outlines how the company uses certain chemical ingredients in its products.
“I think clean beauty is going to be the standard. The FDA and the regulatory bodies are going to become stricter, and that was a lot of the way I rationalized getting into this industry,” Biggers said.
The risk she was undertaking became clear when Biggers sought manufacturers and chemists who would produce a small run with tough standards for ingredients while remaining affordable. “They told me to call them back when I could produce 5,000 t0 10,000 units,” she said.
So Biggers first focused on creating the perfect lip color that was both healthy and had good color payoff. She reasoned it would be easier for people to understand the importance of healthy lip color because it is something we ingest. Lip Velvet, a liquid lip color with high pigment and serious staying power, provided enough cash flow and experience for her to dive into other product categories.
Working primarily with suppliers in California and New Jersey, Biggers was able to keep all 64 products in the current collection made and produced in the U.S. That includes the pressed mineral foundation that is free of talc, synthetic fragrance, animal byproducts and other ingredients and comes in an eco-friendly refillable compact. Hydratint, a blendable blush serum, is free of parabens, phthalates and several other worrisome ingredients and is packaged in an easy-to-recycle glass container.
Biggers stands by her Clean 15 guarantee: 15 or fewer ingredients per base formula in each product. “Clean 15 was really important to me because I found that as I was shopping for clean beauty, even a product that was 100% natural would have an ingredient list that was more than 40 ingredients long. As a consumer, you feel like you need a Ph.D. just to read the label,” Biggers said. If she uses synthetic ingredients in her formulations, they are safe and used as a supplement for pigmentation, preservation or performance, she said.
Each Clove + Hallow product goes through rigorous testing — it took almost two years to create the best-selling Conceal and Correct concealer — with 40 to 50 samples per round until it offers the ingredients and the look Biggers desires. She is amazed by the extent of the brand’s reach — the brand is sold in more than 50 retail locations across 26 states and Washington, D.C., as well as in Canada and the Caribbean — in just a few short years, but she believes it is all about having the right timing and offering consumers the kind of transparency they desire.
“It is disclosing everything that is in your product, disclosing your values and ethics and details about where and how your brand is manufactured,” she said. “Big or small, clean or not, the goal is to be more personal and authentic.”
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