How Custom Beauty Brands Are Shaping A More Accessible Industry

Custom lipsticks and nail stickers just might be the first step in unlocking a more enjoyable –and inclusive– beauty experience.

by Chloé Toscano

When I was 20 years old I was involved in a Vespa crash. My left arm took the impact and wound up paralyzed from the elbow to the fingertips. Now, I rely on my right arm, a lot of patience, and some creative adaptations to do literally everything. I've always loved makeup, and I still do post-accident, but I’ve come to love it in a different way. It’s not always a lot of fun playing with makeup because it involves a lot of feuds between my one hand and the products, so the enjoyment isn’t so much in the application process, but in the product discovery. I’ve found that customizable beauty products introduce not only an a more accessible component, but also provide a different, hopeful energy.

For starters, being involved in the product creation brings back some of the fun I had lost. SheSpoke Makeup was created with inclusivity in mind and way more options than simply, “pick your color”. The brand’s SheSpeaker is an online tool that lets you design your ideal lipstick or gloss down to finish, color, texture, shimmer, scent, and shade name. (For me, that was cherry-scented with pink shimmer.) Stephanie March, co-founder of SheSpoke makeup gets it: “Our mission is to bring the element of play and a feeling of being truly seen back to beauty." Beauty and disability advocate and Forbes contributor Xian Horn, agrees with me about the joy attached to lipsticks: “I love lip color because it’s very tactile. How it feels on my skin is a huge part of my enjoyment.” But that’s not the only value attached to specially designed products. “Customizable is as close to couture as you can get when it comes to beauty, and that’s the dream,” says Horn. “As someone with dexterity issues, I never really admitted to myself that makeup kind of intimidated me. Now, I realize that beauty is something I want to conquer in my own life. I want to say that I’m able to do my makeup myself,” she asserts. Aside from the satisfaction that comes from tailoring beauty products to your wants, it’s also fulfilling to know that sometimes products made especially for you can improve your independence.

Often, individuals with different needs are left looking for products that are “accidentally accessible”

Asking for help is unavoidable sometimes, but there’s nothing I love more than a beauty routine that doesn’t require me to ask my neighbor to help me sharpen my eyeliner. Of course, it’s often cheaper, quicker, and less complicated for beauty brands to develop fixed shape or “single form” products rather than adaptable ones. Products that are geared towards people with disabilities are often considered niche and for disabled people exclusively. And although accessible in certain ways, those products can also be harder to get your hands on. For example the new “Easy Open Lid” design from Olay is an incredible step for inclusivity, but it’s still only available online and can’t be picked off the shelf on a quick stop at the store. More often, individuals with different needs are left looking for products that are “accidentally accessible”. But as celebrity makeup artist and founder of Guide Beauty, Terri Bryant points out, the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Bryant, says making beauty products more accessible is a choice brands can make. (Bryant was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease five years ago, her makeup products are all specially designed to provide a greater level of control.) “In the industry, there has long been a misconception that you either create products for those that are able-bodied or for some niche market with a specific disability,” says Bryant. “But, when we account for the needs and challenges of the most diverse user group, we can then build in features and options for customization that solve exclusionary design roadblocks,” she explains.

Finding products that are one-hand accessible has always been a matter of trial and error. For instance, I struggled finding eyeshadow palettes because simple cardboard palettes, while easy to open one-handed, tend to close if you’re not holding them open. I had to test out a few different types until I found the Haus Laboratories Glam Room Palette. In a hard plastic case, it’s easy to open and also stays open, and perhaps most importantly, has colors I enjoy. Stumbling upon Drunk Elephant products was also a revelation because their unique twist top packaging eliminates the need to fuss with a cap. Olive and June’s new press-on nails come with 21 different nail sizes in one pack, which is more than any other brand I’ve tried. Finding these products feels like a win–because it is– but the process can also feel tedious. As March stresses, "Makeup should not be a test you have to take every time you buy it.” For many people that means finding just the right shade of red, for others that means finding products that are just usable, period.

"Makeup should not be a test you have to take every time you buy it.”

I'm hardly the only one to be living with a disability, or any sort of “uniqueness” for that matter. That's why it's problematic when companies design products based on what’s considered the "global body average.” It’s the same as the concept of a one-size-fits-all– and it certainly doesn’t live up to the promise to work for everyone. “The universal average standard excludes too many people,” says Soumyadip Rakshit, CEO of MysteryVibe, a company that specializes in sexual wellness products designed with accessibility in mind. “Unlike products, people don’t fit into presets or manufacturing molds.” He notes most sexual wellness products on the market are designed for healthy, able-bodied young adults of a certain body shape and size, and was determined to break the status quo and pioneer adaptive products, even though the design process was more complex. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also good for business. “With personalization, we not only can deliver more inclusive products, but also better long-term customer loyalty,” Rakshit explains. So, why should the beauty and wellness industry, which is often marketed as forms of self-love and self-expression, design products based on averages? Hint: It shouldn't.

People have pointed out to me that designing products for one-hand use is a particular and uncommon demand. However, Horn explains that even when designing for a minority disability, the design could ultimately be advantageous for all if it makes a product more universally accessible. If you’ve ever tried stick-on gel polish, you’ve likely experienced a bit of an awkward fit from having pre-sized nails. I had long lost hope in finding a properly fitted set that would come with enough narrow nails to fit the atrophied ones on my left hand. When ManiMe surfaced about two years ago, they shattered that sizing mishap with their customizable concept. The brand uses an app to generate a perfectly sized set of nails for every customer regardless of nail size or limb difference which addresses the smaller population while simultaneously offering a product that’s more widely inclusive to everyone regardless of disability. “We can accommodate nearly all sizing scenarios, including fewer fingers.” shares ManiMe CEO and co-founder Jooyeon Song. “In the case of someone who has one hand, we’ll custom fit the existing hand, then mirror it. The customer will still receive 15 total gels for their mani set,” she explains. Talk about customer service.

As inclusive brands continue to emerge with customizable beauty concepts, they pave the way to innovate far beyond just designs and colors. It opens up the conversation for people to expect more than the previous industry standard that told us, “This is what you get and if it’s not right for you, so be it”. Enabling this ongoing conversation is vital to taking note of and addressing the full spectrum of needs for inclusivity and as someone with a disability, that makes me feel considered. It’s always great to discover an “accidentally accessible” product that works for me, but when I know I was specifically taken into account during the product design process, it feels even better.