Rare Beauty’s Products Have Sparked A Critical Conversation About The Beauty Industry’s Lack Of Inclusivity

“Disability only exists because of the barriers that society puts forward for us, so when we educate, when we share our lived experience and take time to learn how other people's bodies move, then we can be in this together.”

As a person with short arms, Christen Roos sometimes finds it challenging to watch “long-armed” people do ordinary tasks, like reach for items in top shelves and twist jars with ease. The 37-year-old from Canada was born with a rare genetic disorder that impacts nearly every aspect of her life, but perhaps one of the most frustrating is her relationship with makeup.

So when someone posted a video on TikTok saying that Rare Beauty’s liquid blush, a product from Selena Gomez’s makeup line, “sucks” because it “gets everywhere” when you open it (it doesn’t), Roos decided to share how much the packaging means to her. Unlike other makeup products that have slippery, gripless handles, this particular blush has a circular lid that makes it easy to twist, something Roos struggles with during her makeup routine.

“I don't know how many times I've come home from Sephora, excited about my products, then try to open them and I can’t. It's heartbreaking,” said Roos, who added that she has chipped a tooth trying to open makeup products with her mouth. She’s missing a bone, along with muscles and tendons, in her arms, so she has limited hand strength and reach. She’ll often ask store employees to open a product before leaving so she can use it when she gets home. 

“I’m really good at having short arms, but I don’t think anyone understands how challenging it is to live in an able-bodied world,” Roos told BuzzFeed News. “I’m always surprised when something is easy to open, but it should all be easy to open. So when I bought this Rare Beauty blush, I was amazed.”

Other people with disabilities, ranging from low vision to rheumatoid arthritis to limb amputations, have noticed Rare Beauty’s accessibility too and have used TikTok to rave about its unique features: Some products have a matte finish for better grip, flat edges to prevent rolling, and easy-to-press buttons with pop-up features.

Rare Beauty declined to comment, but a statement on its website notes that its products are “designed to Selena's personal preferences to emphasize ease of use.” While the company hasn’t conducted official testing on the packaging, it said that “ease of use and inclusivity are highly prioritized.”

Gomez has lupus — an autoimmune disease that tricks the immune system into attacking itself — so she often experiences muscle weakness, shaky hands, and other mobility issues. Despite the lack of “official testing,” Roos said, “we can read between the lines. … Selena and I have similar dexterity limitations, so it benefits both of us.” 

Roos never expected her reaction video to get nearly 15 million views and spark critical conversations around inclusivity in the beauty industry. The positive response has motivated her to post more “makeup accessibility critiques” and pursue talks with makeup brands. 

“Makeup is the thing that allows me to be like one of the ‘cool girls.’ If the only thing that stands in my way is the fact that I can’t open a package, that's a problem,” Roos said. “Disability only exists because of the barriers that society puts forward for us, so when we educate, when we share our lived experience and take time to learn how other people's bodies move, then we can be in this together.”

“Leisure is a necessity; it helps you feel good and it is a big deal.”

Makeup plays a major role in helping 27-year-old Mariadeliz Santiago feel confident, but sometimes she struggles so much to open products that she skips doing her makeup altogether. 

Santiago has Schinzel syndrome, also known as ulnar-mammary syndrome, a rare inherited disorder that affects bones in the hands and forearms and involves the underdevelopment or dysfunction of sweat glands and/or the breasts. Because of Santiago’s condition, foundation pumps are hard to press and eyeliner pencils often slip out of her hands, both of which are missing two or more fingers.

What bothers Santiago the most, however, is the belief that leisurely activities, like makeup, don't need to be inclusive. 

“Disabled individuals have the right to have fun and engage in leisure activities like makeup that are accessible, just like vehicles and buildings are expected to be accessible,” Santiago said. “Leisure is a necessity; it helps you feel good and it is a big deal.”

She notices this disparity most on social media, where she said it’s been difficult to establish a presence as a makeup influencer with a disability.

“A lot of people on social media see disability as a curiosity, as a means of entertainment. It's hard because I have a passion for beauty yet some people aren’t on my page for the reasons that I want them to be because [I don’t fit] the social norms of what beauty is supposed to look like,” Santiago said. “On the flip side, being vulnerable on TikTok has helped me advocate for my community and show that we deserve to be in the beauty space just as much as everybody else.”

Besides Rare Beauty, Santiago said she’s not aware of other mainstream makeup brands prioritizing accessibility, but she’s optimistic that the company is setting a new standard in the industry — one that will hopefully expand into even more affordable drugstore makeup brands.

“As a consumer, I don't want to invest in a makeup product that’s difficult to open. I want to invest in brands that are taking accessibility seriously and bringing that to the forefront,” Santiago said. “We as a community also don't want accessibility to mean a product doesn't look or make us feel pretty. We deserve the same quality and that same feeling that everybody else experiences.”

“Trying to do something for the disabled community is better than doing nothing at all.”

Emily Davison is a blogger and full-time journalist in London, but makeup is her passion. As a person who is “severely sight impaired,” Davison frequently reaches out to brands with the hopes of helping make their products more inclusive — but the response has been underwhelming, she told BuzzFeed News.

“I just don't think that there's enough interest from brands at the moment, which is a real shame because we are a valid community. We like makeup, and if companies understood that, they would actually make quite a lot of sales,” Davison, 28, said. “The general perspective is that vision-impaired people wouldn’t have an interest in makeup because they can’t see it. People don't understand the spectrum of sight loss; not every person who's got an official impairment is blind. It's a big misconception.”

Davison has septo-optic dysplasia, a disorder that occurs during early brain development and that has also caused a condition called nystagmus, in which the eyes make repetitive, uncontrolled movements. 

She struggles to distinguish shades on eye shadow palettes if they have unhelpful descriptions like “dancing queen” or “dirty martini,” which she can read with the help of an app called Seeing AI. Developed by Microsoft, the app rolled out in 2017 and provides descriptions of products by scanning their barcodes. However, not all companies have joined that system, so its help is limited. Davison said she’ll try to remember the order of the colors but those with multiple shades pose a challenge; circular products are problematic because they can be hard to find when they roll off flat surfaces. And anything with similar shapes like mascaras and lip gloss tubes, for example, can be confusing to tell apart.

Davison said that products like Charlotte Tilbury’s Instant Eye Palette, which has 12 colors separated into four sets of three complementary shades, are helpful because she doesn’t have to search the entire palette for the ones that work best together. She also noted that in January, Estée Lauder released a Voice-enabled Makeup Assistant app in the UK and Ireland that uses artificial intelligence to help people with blindness or low vision apply their makeup.

Meanwhile, products outside beauty, like personal care items, are further ahead in the accessibility game, Davison said. Herbal Essences shampoo and conditioner bottles now have tactile markings so people with limited vision know which product they’re using. Degree released a deodorant with Braille letters, a hook for one-handed use, grips, a roll-on feature, and magnetic clips for easy opening for people with various mobility and vision disabilities.

Despite some improvements, Davison said there isn’t enough consistency to allow people with vision loss to navigate the beauty industry “completely unaided.”

"There's so many people who want to help these brands do better, they just need to ask us for help,” Davison said. “I think makeup brands are daunted by the prospect of trying to be more inclusive and thinking they're going to get it wrong, but you've got to start somewhere. Trying to do something for the disabled community is better than doing nothing at all.”

“If you’re going to design for your community, you have to design with your community.”

Terri Bryant is one of a select few people who are trying to do something for disabled communities. At the height of her 25-years-and-counting career as a celebrity makeup artist and beauty educator, Bryant was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a central nervous system disorder that affects movement. Her arms lock up with pain, she’s lost dexterity in her hands, and now tremors are beginning to take over the left side of her body. 

It wasn’t until her own skills started to shift that she recognized what was happening in the beauty industry. 

“There was a level of exclusion in how products were being designed, and I was able to see it from a unique perspective,” Bryant, 50, told BuzzFeed News. “Makeup has been a huge part of my life. It's my creative outlet, how I choose to present myself to the world, my career, my community. It was devastating to think that makeup was something I wasn't going to get to own for myself anymore simply because nobody was considering my needs, which is just shameful.”

Bryant founded a company called Guide Beauty (actor Selma Blair is its chief creative officer) in 2020 that sells makeup products with thick, rounded handles and knobs for easy and stable gripping — a universal design approach. Its eyeliner wand includes a curved, flexible applicator that acts as a guide so you can follow the eye’s natural shape and also has a built-in finger rest to steady the hand. An eyeshadow palette has an “extended lip for struggle-free opening.” (The UK-based company Kohl Kreatives makes similar products.)

“We've all been conditioned for so long to think that people with disabilities have to be separated in ways that we don't need to be,” Bryant said. “I hope that universal design will start to close that gap so that in our industry, it becomes a big beautiful moment where we all get to play with makeup together.”

It’s not that other companies don’t care about people with disabilities, at least that’s what Bryant hopes; it’s just a laborious process to change products’ mechanics, she said. “Unfortunately, there’s a misconception that it's not worth the spend; it's kind of us and them. Sometimes you just don't know what you don't know.”

But Bryant feels a shift happening.

“People are starting to realize that scalability and disability is part of the conversation around inclusion,” said Bryant, who added that Rare Beauty is a “fantastic” example of this. “What I found in this process is that it's very often this ‘aha moment.’ You can see it in people's eyes. It's not because people are not inherently good.”

People from various backgrounds are included in Guide Beauty’s design process — professional makeup artists, makeup newbies, as well as people with multiple sclerosis, arthritis, and Parkinson’s. “You want to cast the widest net possible because what helps one person may not help another,” Bryant said. “If you’re going to design for your community, you have to design with your community.” 

The results are manifold. 

“When you seek out exclusion and solve for it, you not only allow people to come to the table who were never invited before, but you also create products that are better for people who are already there,” Bryant said. “The truth is, disability is the only minority group that we will all find ourselves in. If you are living, then you're aging. It’s a part of life.”

“Independence is such a beautiful and amazing gift.”

Makayla Noble also knows what it feels like to grow up able-bodied and suddenly lose her mobility. In 2021, she was teaching football players from her high school how to do a common cheerleading stunt when she landed on and broke her neck. In an instant, Noble became paralyzed from the chest down, with limited mobility in her triceps and hands. 

Now 18 years old, Noble is still getting used to using a wheelchair. She needs help with most activities like getting into bed, using the bathroom, and cooking. Among the tasks she’s gained enough strength to do on her own is her makeup routine, which she told BuzzFeed News has given her “so much power and joy,” especially since she’s been doing it herself since childhood for cheerleading competitions. 

“Makeup, and even just washing my face and brushing my teeth, has really helped my confidence and has made me feel so good,” Noble said. “Just being able to express myself and do my makeup the way that I want to has been amazing.” 

A friend gifted Noble some of Guide Beauty’s makeup brushes and she said the products have “changed the game.” Noble struggles most with applying primer and foundation because it’s hard to hold a sponge and tap her face repeatedly for an even distribution. Poor hand control also means it’s easy to poke herself in the eye when applying eye makeup, so she has to rest her elbows on her vanity, hold a brush or pencil with both hands, and then move her head around to apply the product. 

“I think pretty often about how easily able-bodied people do things and don't even think twice about,” Noble said. “But now having so many things stripped away from me, I’ve realized that independence is such a beautiful and amazing gift.”

“Makeup can be a refuge for disabled people.”

As a cosmetologist with an invisible chronic illness, Brittany Wisowaty, 21, has become proficient in masking her disabilities. For about five years, she’s had chronic abdominal pain that makes it hard to eat and acquire enough energy to work or do her own hair or makeup in the morning. She’s been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and cyclical vomiting syndrome, among other conditions.

Having worked in salons since she was a teenager, Wisowaty has witnessed firsthand how people with disabilities are treated in beauty spaces. 

“People are shuffled in the back door. People can’t get up to the second floor for their massage because there’s no elevator,” said Wisowaty, who’s a patient advocate for the Epic Foundation — a nonprofit that offers support for people with chronic illnesses. “It's really disheartening to be honest with you. It's hard to tell a person in a wheelchair that they can't get their haircut because we don't have a ramp or that our bathrooms can't accommodate them so they have to either wear a diaper or figure it out.”

Wisowaty often wants to be that “angry vigilante of justice,” she told BuzzFeed News, but she has to stop herself “because people just don’t understand. We have to make people aware that there are others who don’t have access to beauty but want and deserve it.” 

In the grand scheme of things, people with disabilities aren’t seen as profitable, Wisowaty said, but a look into Gen Z and millennials’ interests prove otherwise: “They have the highest buying power in this industry and they’re interested in a more conscious capitalism — they are more willing to buy products if they feel like there's a greater good behind it.” 

When makeup brands make their products more accessible, they’re acquiring loyal customers that give them free publicity because the disabled community will “shout it out from the rooftops,” she added. “They will tell everyone because they found something that works for them.”

That’s why Rare Beauty has been “going absolutely viral” on TikTok, Wisowaty said. “They’ve been so thoughtful in their design process so it sets them apart from other brands.”

“As a disabled person myself, that’s where my love of beauty started,” Wisowaty said. “It was almost a shield of armor to protect myself from the way people viewed me, because maybe I couldn't control what they thought of me in terms of my disability, but that was something I could control.”

Her goal is to work with beauty salons and help make their products, employment, and spaces more accessible. Ultimately, she would like to open her own salon that will give people with varying disabilities “the services they deserve at a reasonable price.” 

“Engaging with the beauty industry can be extremely valuable when you live in a world that makes you feel so different,” Wisowaty said. “Makeup can be a refuge for disabled people.” 

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