Illustrated by Sarah Lutkenhaus


Minimalist Beauty Isn't Exactly Simple

Trying to define it is much more complex than you think

Minimalism in beauty has been steadily increasing in popularity over the past few years, something that can be credited as a response to the overly contoured and caked-on "Instagram makeup" look made popular by YouTube stars and beauty influencers.

But what actually is minimalist beauty? Is it all just a façade presented to us through chic, simple packaging and good marketing, based solely on aesthetic, or does it actually have something to do with the products and formulations themselves? To further explore the topic, we chatted with skin-care experts and board-certified dermatologists to get the low-down on what they think minimalist beauty actually is, and, more importantly, what it should be.

Dr. Cynthia Bailey, president and founder of and diplomate of the American Board of Dermatology, explains that the definition is, currently, a bit blurred, though there are some basic tenets that are followed. "There are no strict or well-established criteria for using this term," she said before adding:

In my opinion, minimalist beauty would be achieving one's goal with a minimum of simple tools and a simple approach to both the process and the final result-enhancing one's natural beauty, not overwriting it. As a skin-care and skin wellness expert, I would say that using a minimum of multipurpose and clean products would be at the heart of minimalist beauty. Simplicity would characterize the process. Moderation would characterize the final appearance, which would be restrained and natural.

While many products perceived to fall into the minimalist category may achieve a natural-looking result or be easy and simple to use (cue in the multipurpose, three-in-one, all-over color products), their formulations are not, in fact, anywhere near being minimal.

Is there a solid number of ingredients that should be used per product type? While opinions varied, the answer was clear: the fewer ingredients, the better. Bailey feels that, in terms of cosmetics, products should have just enough ingredients to achieve the color and final look. "Formulations should be as simple as possible and well-thought-out so that the solution to achieving the final goals is elegant," she says.

What are examples of some truly minimalist products, in Bailey's opinion? Certain mineral makeup products, for starters. "Loose powder or a compact should contain not much beyond the powder," she says. "Fragrance and filler would be omitted. It can be applied dry or wet. They have minimal ingredients that are clean."

Bailey also champions BB creams as minimalist products. "In one product, you have tinting as a replacement to foundation, sunscreen for sun protection, and hydration. The simplicity of using a BB cream necessitates a more complex product formulation; more ingredients will be necessary to achieve the three goals in one product. However, fragrance, fillers, and extraneous ingredients should be excluded."

While it's not really possible to set a particular number of ingredients, as different products yield different results, which would require different ingredients to get them there, Bailey summarizes it as follows: "Minimalist beauty would exclude the superfluous ingredients ubiquitous in most beauty products. Those are fragrances—both natural and synthetic—fillers, fairy dusted 'actives' added only to enhance marketing appeal, and excessive packaging done for the same purpose. The exact product formulation would vary depending on the product."

Elizabeth Trattner, doctor of Chinese and integrative medicine and green beauty expert, has a similar opinion, stating that, to her, minimalist beauty is all about transparency from the brand and clean formulations. "I love the minimal look in packaging, but I am all about transparency and lack of chemicals that can bind up the endocrine system," she says. "Too many women are getting sick from SLS, petrochemicals, and other chemicals that are bioaccumulative, meaning the chemicals build up in the system." On her list of non-minimalist ingredients? "Phthalates, parabens, heavy metals, and endocrine disruptors that can cause cancer, including breast and other female-based cancers. Also avoid petrochemicals, sodium lauryl sulfate, and artificial fragrance."

Sure, most of us aware that synthetic fragrance isn't clean, but even natural fragrances are typically unnecessary and could actually cause adverse effects—and are otherwise not considered part of a minimalist beauty regimen. Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, dermatologist and author of Beyond Soap, mentions that some essential oils—commonly used to scent products naturally—are highly allergic, irritant, or hormone-disruptive.

In general, clean is the way to go, but this doesn't necessarily mean natural and plant-based—natural, green beauty and minimalist beauty are two very different ideas.

Multiple experts have agreed that solely natural is not always better in terms of minimalism (yes, we gasped too). It's important to keep in mind that, like with essential oils as natural fragrance, some naturals are also known allergens. For those with sensitive skin, use of a minimal, natural product could end with less-than-desirable results. "Natural products can be problematic—they can lead to allergic reactions or irritant skin rashes just as easily and sometimes more than other products," says Dr. Melanie Palm, board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon. "Natural and preservative-free also may mean that these products are more susceptible to microbial contamination, which could cause infections in the skin. Instead, I like the idea of hand-selecting products with clinically proven results and safety. Using a few products maximally is what I consider minimalist beauty."

So, what really is minimalist beauty? Well, unlike the idea of minimalism itself, it's pretty complex.

All experts we spoke with mention using the least amount of ingredients that render the product effective, simple application, and a more natural-looking end result as being the main components of the minimalist beauty movement. Yet, many of the products that consumers think to be minimalist (hint, hint: some of the trendier "Instagram brands" of today) are quite the opposite. In many ways, it's all smoke and mirrors, unclean and unnecessarily complex formulas masked by minimalist packaging in a neutral color palette.

In short, a lot of "minimalist beauty" is essentially bullshit, and, according to the experts, it's not what minimalist beauty should entail. "The minimalist movement is sometimes more about packaging," says Skotnicki. "What we want to see, as dermatologists, is fewer ingredients."

It's up to us as consumers to not buy into a brand's packaging and advertising, thinking we're slapping on quality, effective products. "Consumers have to look behind the packaging," says Trattner. "Anything can be packaged in a clean white container, but, let's be real, with the green beauty movement at an all-time high—doubling almost every year—why go halfway?"

Before buying into the movement, then, make sure you're reading ingredients, researching the brand, and making sure they're on the same page as your ideals—and that you're not just getting sucked into a brand's "cool" aesthetic.