The makeup counterculture thrives on Etsy

New York TimesApril 9, 2014 

When Tara Graff was searching for makeup that would not irritate her sensitive skin, she did not head to Sephora, Macy’s or the cosmetics counter at Bloomingdale’s. Instead, she turned to Etsy.com.

“I couldn’t wear regular makeup,” said Graff, a homemaker who, as a military spouse, divides her time between Sitka, Alaska, and Brigantine, N.J. “I was breaking out and getting itchy, so I started reading labels and getting disgusted with all the chemicals in the products.”

Graff said she tried mineral makeup from Bare Escentuals but found it expensive and irritating to her skin, so her mother suggested she take a look at Etsy.

Introduced in 2005, Etsy is best known as a marketplace for handmade and vintage goods, ranging from jewelry and art to sweaters. But many people don’t know that the website also sells handmade cosmetics. You have to dig around for them, as makeup is categorized under the Home & Living section.

Many of the cosmetics sold on the site are organic, vegan and mineral-based and are not tested on animals. Some sellers also customize their products to buyers’ taste (adding or omitting a particular ingredient, or creating a custom color) and prices can be negotiable.

“It was cool to see all these small businesses, and it’s better than Amazon, because you can contact the owner and have a conversation about what is in the products,” Graff said.

Customization is key

After sampling makeup from a few different brands on Etsy, Graff stumbled upon Erzulie, a line created by Rhonda Demars Farland and based in Swansea, Mass. Named for a goddess of love and beauty, the company sells organic, mineral and gluten-free products, ranging from foundation and lip balm to blush and cleansers.

Graff and Demars Farland emailed multiple times to discuss Graff’s skin concerns before Farland mailed her a foundation.

“She got it right the first time,” said Graff, who has been using Erzulie products for two years and said they have cleared up her skin.

Brooke Marton, owner of Firebird Bath & Body in Baltimore, Md., has been selling tinted lip balms and perfume on Etsy since 2008. She said she’s sold 29,000 units since then.

“Etsy is the best thing that has ever happened to me, businesswise,” Marton said. “There is a lot of help and support through Etsy, and I can connect with a community of like-minded sellers.”

An ‘ick’ factor?

Not everyone thinks that buying or selling makeup on Etsy is a great idea.

There is the “ick” factor. Some people are just grossed out by the concept of buying makeup that has been made at someone’s kitchen table.

“It’s like what your mother told you: don’t share makeup with your friends,” said Dr. Rebecca Baxt, assistant professor of dermatology at New York University and a dermatologist in New York and New Jersey. “You don’t know where the makeup has been or how it was made. Or how clean the person’s kitchen table is.”

In a worst-case scenario, Baxt said, consumers could contract pink eye, a staph infection or contact dermatitis (effectively, a rash). “This could happen with regular makeup, too, but at least you know what is in it and how it was made,” she said.

According to a spokeswoman for the federal Food and Drug Administration, independent makeup brands must adhere to the same FDA laws regarding packaging and labeling as major cosmetics companies. But actually following the law is largely a self-regulated process. And although problems are rare, they can arise.

Here today ...

As at a bake sale, the goods sold on Etsy can disappear overnight. Jackie Pfleuger of Rochester, N.Y., had been selling Noella Beauty, a range of organic mineral-based makeup about half the price of Jane Iredale and Bare Escentuals, on Etsy since 2010. She got better results, she said in an interview months ago, than on competitor sites like Artfire.com and Zibbet.com. “Etsy is just so well known,” she said.

But a search this week for Noella Beauty on Etsy produced a dead link; a personal site, noellabeauty.com, bore an expiration notice. Calls and emails to Pfleuger went unreturned, and it seemed that those wanting to try her high-coverage foundation or eye shadow were at least temporarily out of luck.

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