California-based Ilia Beauty takes clean beauty mainstream.
Ilia beauty is redefining clean beauty. And it’s not just about the ingredients.
Sasha Plavsic decided to start a company shortly after the 2008 recession. That too, she wanted to build a clean beauty company, which was a niche market and a largely unheard idea over a decade ago.
She quit her job, moved back home to Vancouver, Canada, and started on the journey with one idea: how to make her tinted lip conditioner that she’d been wearing for years from more natural ingredients. Two years of exploration followed. Then, she took the leap to start her own company.
“People get so scared to just start. You cannot know everything when you start. But you have to jump in. If you wait, you may never be ready,” she says.
Now, based in southern California, Plavsic is thinking through the environmental details of her beauty brand: from the packaging to maintaining a balance between natural and organic ingredients in her skincare-meets-color range.
But the slew of clean beauty brands that have emerged in the past five years, Plavsic says, is a bit of a mixed bag. “Some of us had to really figure it out, working from the zero up,” she says, referring to early start-ups in the space. “It’s not been a straightforward path.”
Now, it’s chaotic and confusing for customers, she admits. “Get educated. There isn’t one list you should be referring to. You have to dig further into a brand’s philosophy and understand where they’re coming from.”
For her, it’s always been a balancing act between what’s natural and organic and what works. “At the end of the day, the product has to work. Yes, we have some products that are entirely natural, and have a high organic content, above 80 percent. But others, may not.”
Her emphasis is instead on what’s safe for consumers. For instance, she notes when a product has water, a preservative is necessary to make sure the product doesn’t go rancid. Safety, in those scenarios, she says is more important than being entirely natural. But as a whole, most of the products contain 75% or more organic ingredients. Specific ingredients such as Vitamin E, she notes, are hard to find organic; so they opt for a natural source, stemming from sunflowers.
There’s also the challenge of materials used in packaging: most of their lipsticks are housed in recycled aluminum cases. The boxes are 100% recycled paper and the print is all done with vegetable-based dyes. “More and more people want to know about these fine details.”
Aluminum can be infinitely recycled; glass is bulkier, more costly to ship, and harder to recycle. Promotional bags that Ilia uses are made with silicone and designed to be reused. Lastly, as an animal-friendly company, they choose not to sell to countries that test on animals. “Brands and companies need to take the lead on this. Yes, the government can help by making more favorable policy and infrastructure, but companies can start choosing what they package in, how they sell, and so on.”
Ilia is introducing an option with the recycling company TerraCycle to make it easier for customers to dispose of their empty containers—and those include any “empties,” she says, “they don’t even have to be ours only.” It’s a long list of deliberate decisions and choices that Plavsic says she has spent time thinking about. “This is all very nuanced. Some people want a beauty product to last for 24 hours and not come off. That’s harder to do with truly natural ingredients—and maybe that’s something we cannot offer.”
Instead, the aesthetic and vision for the company, she says, has been about bringing together skincare and cosmetics—products that highlight elements of a woman’s face without completely masking them, she says. “It’s not about piling it on, but accentuating, and playing up a few features.”
In 2015, Ilia started talking to Sephora, the ubiquitous brick-and-mortar beauty retailer. That transition to Sephora’s shelves, Plavsic says has helped them make clean beauty a more mainstream offering and continue to expand these conversations on sustainability from a small group of rookie brands to something that’s now being discussed in the big beauty houses of the world.
In 2018, New York-based Silas Capital invested in the startup. Although Plavsic started the company with a loan and her credit cards, she had grown it significantly in 7 years; this month, they announced another round of capital from Sainbridge Capital, which has a series of investments in fashion and consumer brands.
A decade later, the idea that Plavsic developed in her free time of transforming a lip tint into a more a natural product has developed into a global business. “The next big thing,” she says, “is sustainability — in a real form, not just greenwashing. That’s for very industry, not just our industry.”
Plavsic’s hunch about more eco-friendly and people-friendly products, a decade ago, was spot on.