So, what are indie cosmetics? What's an "indie" product? That depends on who you talk to. I've been an indie maker/crafter/artisan since around 1994, and have been witness to many changes in the indie community. I feel confidently qualified to answer the question based on my personal experience over the past 25+ years.
It's only in the last five+ years that other types of cosmetics products have started to be marketed (and accepted) as "indie". Where once handcrafting was seemingly a requirement, now the definition of indie is solely seen as any business not owned by a parent company/conglomerate. As you can guess, this has resulted in a massive expansion of products being marketed as #indiecosmetics, but it has also muddied the waters and created a whole host of issues for those businesses that are truly handcrafting. Many well-known indie cosmetic makers have sadly, shuttered their doors in the last five years.
As a long-time indie maker, I'm a purist. To me, indie products will always be:
- Handcrafted by a single artisan, or team of trained individuals utilizing manual production techniques, or small-scale automation, such as mixing apparatuses, filling equipment or presses.
- A true indie producer will almost always be proud of their handcrafting process and regularly share some aspects of it with customers- such as formulation, jar/tube filling, pigment mixing, etc. True indie producers are small-scale cosmetic formulators, and they have knowledge of their ingredients, and FDA Good Manufacturing Practices (or equivalent outside of the USA)
- Indie cosmetics and body care businesses typically stay small (many are just 1-2 people), or employ a small team to assist with formulated product, jarring/labeling and packing orders.
- True indies typically don't/can't produce large quantities, and products generally have some aspect of a handcrafted vibe to them, utilizing available stock packaging, such as the popular clear sifter jars and tubes.
- An example of true indie cosmetic businesses would be the long established trend of small companies crafting loose powder cosmetics, pouring their own lip products/balms, and/or doing small-scale pressing of their own products on-site using pressing equipment or machines that they've purchased.
- Before we explore the various types of manufacturing that's being marketed as "indie", Aromaleigh is a traditional indie cosmetics company. I've handcrafted cosmetics and body products since 1994, opening Aromaleigh officially in 1998. While I have explored some options with very small scale custom manufacturing, I found that it didn't mesh with my creative vision, and discontinued it.
There's many other types of cosmetics available in the marketplace, and while many of these are marketed as "indie", because it is a hot buzzword right now, very few of these companies are truly "indie" in spirit and under the original understanding of the word.
A more accurate word for them would be "boutique brands" - small businesses selling products that are private label, repackaged, or contract manufactured.
This involves purchasing finished cosmetics in bulk, and repackaging into one's own jars and branding. This historically was found in the mid-aughts, with mineral makeup companies. Many consumers became suspicious when they'd find the same exact colors available in many different shops, especially the "pops", a series of bright rainbow loose powders sold as eyeshadows. This continues today, but is less prevalent due to customers becoming aware of it and making clear across the community that this practice wasn't acceptable to them. Nevertheless, one can still purchase bulk powders, and bulk colored lip products to package into tubes. Some private label cosmetics companies also offer bulk, which leads us to the next category...
Private Label Cosmetics:
This involves purchasing pre-packaged/mass manufactured cosmetics from a private label brand. They typically have set packaging and you simply select the colors you want to order. Why is this called "private label"? Because it's privately produced, and sold wholesale to private businesses. These type of products were very popular in some salons and spas, especially in the early 2000's. Some of you who have been customers for a long time might remember the "third party" products that I offered, such as the gel eyeliners and indelible lip and eye liners. These were third party products, i.e. "private label". I was transparent in my sale of these, always specifying that they weren't my formulation or manufacturing. If you google "indelible gel eyeliner", you'll come up with many results of companies selling this product, at all different price points and often with the same photographs. This is an example of a mass-manufactured private label product. Are these good products? In many cases- yes! Are they indie and handcrafted? No.
This is the pinnacle of manufacturing and involves an indie formulator's own personal recipe being manufactured in larger quantities. Many large cosmetic companies and/or conglomerates also utilize custom manufacturing and have their own cosmetic formulators on staff, doing research and development.
I experimented with customs on a small scale in the mid-2000's, with my bullet lipsticks, pump color washes, and pen lip glosses. Most custom manufacturers are scaled for much larger companies, but occasionally you can find one that will work on a small scale, as I did. Ultimately, around the same time I decided that custom manufacturing wasn't for me, the company I used increased their minimums per color from 144 to 720, which was impossible for me as a small company to meet and still maintain shelf life.
Once an indie handcrafter takes their formulations to the custom manufacturing level, I feel that they've moved into "boutique brand" territory. A perfect example of this is Burt's Bees- a brand that started as a small-scale indie handcrafter in 1984. They scaled up their manufacturing with their own factory, and then became a boutique brand. Now, you can find their products just about everywhere!
I chose to not take Aromaleigh to boutique brand level, because it was not only complicated and costly- but it would have completely altered my company as I knew it, and changed my creative process. I chose to stay small.
Contract Manufactured Cosmetics:
This involves contract manufacturers that offer a vast range of products, and you simply choose the ones that you wish to carry, and they are then branded for you. Can contract labs do custom work? Yes, and most do, creating small differences in formulas from brand to brand that they formulate for.
Most boutique/celebrity/smaller but still mainstream cosmetic lines are contract manufactured. If you see slick-looking brands that have professional, glossy and press-printed palettes, tubes, pencil liners, bullet lipsticks- all available in volume-- these likely come from one of the many contract manufacturers. Most contract manufacturers also offer custom box printing and palette printing with your branding and design (and designers on staff, if you need them).
Utilization of contract manufactured cosmetics is considered a "boutique" brand, not indie or handcrafted.
Imported Mass Manufactured Cosmetics - AliExpress
This category has risen meteorically in the last five years to encompass a massive percentage of "indie" cosmetics being marketed on Instagram/TikTok- in particular, the multichrome products. These have become incredibly popular, but so little of what's being offered is handcrafted. Much of it is repackaged, and you can tell as you start to see the same exact colors and the same exact tubes/packaging available from all different businesses marketing them as indie and even handcrafted, similar to how the "Pop" eyeshadows were so prevalent on Etsy in the mid 2000's. Much of it is offered with the option to custom label with customer's brand logo, as well.
There's also pressed manufactured chrome powders that are imprinted with fish, lion's heads, peacocks, gemstones, ornate patterns and all sorts of fanciful designs- again, these aren't indie or handmade, but are mass manufactured in Chinese factories and sold on AliExpress. They're very common on Instagram and Etsy, sold as handmade.
Are these manufactured products fun, fanciful and colorful? Yes! Are they indie? No.
Can the multichrome pigments as raw ingredients be handcrafted into unique, custom products by an indie shop? Yes! Of course they can. I did this back in 2015 with my Fatalis line of eyeshadows, and I continue to offer some multichromes in my shop. There are other indies that are clearly handcrafters that do as well- but we are in a small minority these days, for sure.
So after reading this, you're probably wondering- why doesn't Aromaleigh offer pressed products? That's a whole other post that I have planned- the benefits and beauty of loose powder cosmetics. Stay tuned!