I need a new mascara. Loyal as I am to certain beauty brands, I’m currently a free agent in the mascara department. 👀
There are well over 200 beauty brands sold through my local drug store, and another 250+ represented by Sephora. Any one of those brands may sell 10 different mascaras, promising every feature from lengthening to curling to water resistance. As a customer, I’m faced with a good problem—there’s too much choice.
For would-be entrepreneurs pursuing a business idea in the beauty space, this saturation presents a real challenge.
Those with the ability to go quick to market, can jump on makeup trends and fill gaps in the industry.
Is there really room for another BB cream? Another matte lipstick? How do you, a budding makeup brand founder, get your products to stand out in a crowded market? How does a new mascara get visibility among the literal thousands?
Luckily, ecommerce solutions and access to manufacturing resources have democratized beauty in the past decade, opening up an industry once dominated by a few massive brands. And, surprisingly, there’s still room. Trends and niche markets spring up almost daily, ready for the taking. Those with the ability to go quick to market (we’ll tell you how), can jump on these trends and fill gaps in the industry.
Here, we’ll take you through how to start a makeup line from scratch, with expert advice and real examples from successful beauty brands.
Meet the beauty business experts
We interviewed four beauty founders who sell makeup online (and in-store) to hear first-hand about their experiences building makeup brands.
Joanna Rosario-Rocha and Leslie Valdivia
Founders, Vive Cosmetics
As first generation Latinas, Joanna and Leslie wanted to build a cosmetics brand that represented their culture and community. They launched Vive as a side hustle, with a small business loan and no industry experience, bootstrapping and Googling their way to success.
Founder, The Lip Bar
Melissa had become increasingly frustrated by the lack of diversity in beauty and decided to do something about it. She quit her Wall Street job to pursue her side gig—making inclusive cosmetics from her kitchen. Since then The Lip Bar has grown into a force in the beauty industry. Read Melissa’s full story.
Founder, India Rose Cosmeticary
India founded her namesake beauty store to bring her favorite natural and cruelty-free cosmetic and skincare brands together in one place. She curates collections in her Vancouver, Canada–based brickand-mortar and online stores.
Founder, Redhead Revolution
KateLoveless created Redhead Revolution after finding very few suitable options to suit her ultra-fair complexion and light eyelashes. She now sells makeup products like subtle shade mascaras to redheads around the world.
We’ve also pulled insights from many of our past articles and included examples of a variety of brands using Shopify to sell makeup online: from a science student turned beauty founder to the manufacturer of Kylie Cosmetics to a slew of super-niche brands selling makeup to athletes and tweens and women of color.
What to sell: positioning your makeup line in a crowded market
It’s projected that the global beauty industry will be worth an unfathomable $756 billion by 2026. Want a slice of that pie? Go for it! But first: coffee (it pairs so well with pie). Now *sip* ask yourself a few questions:
- How is your idea different from what’s already on the market?
- Can you identify a customer for your products?
- Is that customer underrepresented by current brands?
- Have you identified an emerging trend?
- Is your differentiator something other than the product itself? For example, your product formulation is common or indistinguishable from other similar products but you stand out on experience, brand, ethos, or cause.
“Do your research,” says Melissa. “It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many people get into business without really understanding their value proposition in comparison to the competitive landscape.”
Navigating beauty trends
If you’re planning to enter the beauty industry, you should already be consuming beauty content regularly. Follow influencers, brands, bloggers, YouTubers, publications, and beauty journalists. Subscribe to email lists and set up alerts to stay on top of emerging trends. You can also check Google Trends to see, based on search data, if there’s growing interest in your idea.
Beware of hinging your entire brand to one trend, though. What happens if it’s a fad and interest dies as quickly as it was born? Consider if you will be able to pivot and develop new products as quickly as beauty trends change.
Vive’s overall brand doesn’t ebb and flow with beauty trends because it focuses on its specific customer’s needs. “Since day one, we put diversity first,” Leslie says, noting that many other brands see diversity as a trend.
Finding niche markets
Many brands have carved out some steady business for themselves by going after audiences with specific beauty needs. For India, she focused on the challenge some Canadians have accessing and importing niche international brands. “It’s really hard to import to Quebec, because the laws are much different,” she says. “But our online store can ship to them, which is great.”
Vive Cosmetics focused on an underrepresented group. “After doing market research,” says Leslie, “it confirmed that our idea of a cultural beauty brand was going to work because Latinas are top consumers across beauty categories.”
Some other examples to inspire you:
- Studio10 targets an older customer, addressing the issues specific to mature skin.
- Rapidly growing awareness around animal welfare and interest in chemical-free formulations has contributed to the success of vegan, cruelty-free, and organic brands like 100% Pure.
- Trixie Mattel used her influencer power to develop a line of cosmetics made for (and by) drag queens—and anyone who wants to “feel like a legend, icon, and star.”
- Workout-proof makeup is a thing, and Sweat Cosmetics is targeting athletes.
- Petite ’n Pretty found its niche in the tween and teen market, offering subtle colors and gentle formulations for young skin.
- Professional makeup artists look to Makeup For Ever for products specifically designed for film and TV.
- Black Opal is an industry leader, representing a wide spectrum of shades designed for women of color.
- Sugarpill’s hyper-pigmented colors and extreme looks appeal to a cosplay audience.
Make, manufacture, white label, or resell?
Starting your own makeup line can range in difficulty from simple (reselling, making basic lip balms from your kitchen) to complex (developing formulations in partnership with a manufacturer). How you decided to produce or procure products for your store will depend on your time, skill level, and funding as well as the complexity of your product’s formulation. Here we’ll explain four ways to produce—or procure—products for your makeup brand.
1. Making your own cosmetics
Some beauty products, like lip balms, face oils, and bath products, are so simple to make that you can start a makeup line from home. If you do, carefully test and document your process so your formula remains consistent as you grow or move to a commercial facility.
Even though your “manufacturing facility” may be your kitchen at first, be sure that you’re still following local regulations. To manufacture cosmetics in the US, for example, the FDA sets guidelines for ventilation, air control, and surfaces.
This is a great starting point for new brands if you have a product you can make yourself. Factories often have high minimums that are difficult to meet. Soon, though, you may graduate to a more formal manufacturing process.
I realized there’s no way that I should keep doing something that I wasn’t an expert at. In order for us to effectively sell, I needed to be able to produce en masse.
Melissa Butler, The Lip Bar
“I had no idea how to make lipstick,” says Melissa about building The Lip Bar and learning the ropes through research and connecting with cosmetic chemists. She made early formulations from her apartment but eventually hit a wall. “I realized there’s no way that I should keep doing something that I wasn’t an expert at,” she says. “In order for us to effectively sell, I needed to be able to produce en masse.” This freed up her time for creativity and storytelling.
Making your own cosmetics might bring you joy, but if your strengths and interests in the business lie elsewhere, know when it’s time to outsource.
💄 Essential reading: How to Make Lip Balm: Turning Natural Lip Care Into a Homemade Business
2. White label manufacturing
White label (or private label) refers to generically manufactured products that may or may not be customized slightly with color or fragrance and are packaged and sold under your own branding. Many brands may use the same formulation made by the same facility, with subtle variations and different packaging.
White label is an ideal option for brands selling a novelty item or unique concept versus a unique product. For example, if you were to launch a unicorn-themed store, maybe you’d sell private label lipsticks with unicorn packaging and magic/fantasy inspired names. In this case, the lipstick itself is not as important as the branding or concept.
White label is a great way to move quickly from idea to finished product, especially if you’re jumping on a hot trend—there’s no need to test and tinker with new formulations over time.
Megan Cox, founder of lash brand Amalie, took her experience building her own brand and formulations and launched Genie Supply, a “beauty lab for entrepreneurs” that specializes in private label clean cosmetics customized for small brands making a first foray into manufacturing.
💄 Essential reading: Powering the Pout: The (Other) Woman Behind Kylie Cosmetics is a case study about Seed Beauty, the white label manufacturing company behind ColourPop and Kylie Cosmetics.
3. Manufacturing cosmetics (unique formulations)
Here, we’re referring to making formulations from scratch in a manufacturing facility. Large brands may have their own factories, but many manufacturers produce products for multiple brands in the same space. This is a more accessible option for young brands.
When Kate launched Redhead Revolution, she was producing products as a home business, selling on online marketplaces. When she introduced mascaras to the line, she contacted chemists to help her get the formulas right before outgrowing her home operation.
I was actually able to go to the factory in person and meet the people and create a relationship with them.
Kate Loveless, Redhead Revolution
Kate eventually settled on a manufacturer, but only after she did plenty of research. “I knew that I was looking for companies that focused a little bit more on higher quality, more natural ingredients,” she says. Finding a local manufacturer was important to her so she could stay close to the process. “I was actually able to go to the factory in person and meet the people and create a relationship with them.”
When building Vive, Leslie says she and Joanna did research and reached out to several manufacturers—sometimes being ignored—and requested many samples before finally settling on one. “We went with the manufacturer we felt gave us the most attention and could deliver quality products.” New to the industry, the two women spent a lot of their own time and money to figure out manufacturing on their own. Leslie’s advice for others? “I recommend finding a product developer or consultant to help you navigate the process.”
There are many online resources to help connect you with manufacturers both in North America and overseas.
Start with these:
💄 Essential reading: How to Find a Manufacturer or Supplier for Your Product Idea
4. Curating and re-selling cosmetics
You can also sell makeup online by skipping the manufacturing altogether. Buy wholesale from multiple brands, bringing a curated shopping experience to your customers. Think themes: local-only brands, natural or organic products, products for specific skin types or conditions, etc.
“I started out pretty low-tech,” says India. “I had a whiteboard in my dining room with a list of all the brands I wanted to contact and whether or not I had heard back from them.” She curates brands for her online and physical store that are cruelty free and natural, bringing coveted labels over the border for her Canadian customers.
If you’re looking to curate and resell, consider:
- Compatibility of brands. Is there any competition?
- Availability in your market. If you’re shipping to Canada, for example, who else is shipping that particular brand in this market?
- Importing fees. Factor in any after-the-fact fees you may incur when pricing your products. India suggests setting up an account with a shipping carrier rather than relying on vendors to ship.
- Dropshipping. This is a great solution for online cosmetics businesses, as you don’t need to manage your own inventory or shipping.
💄 Essential reading: How to Find and Work With Reliable Dropshipping Suppliers and Wholesalers
Building your makeup brand
In any image-based industry, brand is especially important. It’s different from “branding,” which is the outward visual reflection of “brand” through your logo and design guidelines. Consider how your packaging, branding, voice, and website design can help reflect brand values, tell a story, and create an experience for your customers. Your brand is the feeling you want customers to have when they engage with you and use your products.
As discussed above in our white label section, your brand may be even more important than the actual product. Are you selling a concept or a lifestyle? Are you an influencer looking to monetize your personal brand? Don’t rush this step.
Think carefully about what sets you apart in a crowded space and tell that story on social, on your website, on packaging—everywhere. Your photography can also tell a story—be sure that the aesthetic and models look like your ideal customers and represent their lifestyle and values.
💄 Essential reading:
- Selling Through Storytelling: How to Craft a Compelling Brand Story
- How to Start Your Own Brand From Scratch in 7 Steps
Ingredients, packaging, and labelling
Because cosmetics are applied on the body, there are many risks to mitigate and regulations to follow. Each region will have its own laws around how cosmetics must be manufactured, tested, labelled, and marketed. Refer to your local legislation—and that of regions where you plan to ship—to ensure that your practices are legal and safe.
Choosing cosmetic ingredients and building formulations
To be sure that what you’re claiming on your packaging is what’s actually in the product, research ingredients and suppliers thoroughly. You may choose to employ a third-party firm to perform an audit on any manufacturers or vendors before you do business with them.
Here’s what to consider when sourcing ingredients:
- Are the ingredients skincare grade and/or approved for use in skincare in your country? For example, coconut oil may be sold in both food-grade or skincare-grade versions.
- Do you care about natural ingredients? How will you ensure that the suppliers’ claims are legitimate?
- What preservatives will you use, if any? How will this affect shelf life?
- Will your products make organic claims? Be sure that the supplier possesses the appropriate certifications. These will differ from country to country.
- Trace the supply chain. Is the supplier reputable? Can they provide references?
- What are the labelling laws in your country and the countries where you ship?
- Are any ingredients known as common allergens?
If you’re working with an experienced manufacturer, you can avoid some of the early pitfalls of DIY formulations, such as incompatible ingredients. White label manufacturers will also likely have proven results and testing from products that have already hit the market.
If you’re developing your own formulations, it’s a bigger learning curve, but it ultimately gives you more freedom to experiment and develop something truly unique.
Sourcing and developing packaging
Packaging is extremely important for makeup products because it serves several purposes. For simple items like lip balm or gloss, you can easily source empty pre-made pots and print your own labels when you’re just starting out. But you may need to work with a supplier or manufacturer to create custom packaging in order to fully represent your brand aesthetic and differentiate it from that of your competitors.
Remember that packaging does a lot of heavy lifting. It:
- Represents your brand—this is another opportunity to inject your brand’s personality, as packaging that is integrated in the product (like a lipstick tube) will be seen and used by the customer even after the outer box is recycled
- Protects fragile products like eyeshadows and pressed powders from breakage during shipping or dropping
- Doubles as an applicators, as in the case of mascaras and liquid lipsticks
- Communicates important information to customers, such as ingredients, expiry date, and usage instructions
- Contributes to the customer experience through the unboxing process or via unique features (say a mirror built into the lipstick tube)
Be sure to rigorously stress test not only your products but the packaging, too. And, as Megan learned when she built Amalie Beauty, test the two together, especially if you’re producing your formula and the packaging in different facilities.
Packaging was a really big issue for me. I lost a lot of my customers because it was unreliable.
Megan Cox, Founder, Amalie, Genie Labs
What she discovered too late was that the glue in the brush applicator wasn’t compatible with the formulation of her brand’s eyelash serum—and the brustles began to fall out. “Packaging was a really big issue for me, she says. ”I lost a lot of my customers because it was unreliable.” After the experience, Megan conducted her own quality control, flying frequently to her manufacturing partners’ facilities and maintaining a close relationship.
💄 Essential reading:
- Product Packaging: How Top Brands Delight Customers With Memorable Unboxing Experiences
- 5 Ways to Use Packaging Inserts to Increase Customer Loyalty and Revenue
Each country has its own rules governing packaging requirements for beauty products. Within your country, there may be state- or region-specific rules as well. These regulations, in place to protect consumers, cover everything from packaging language, weight/volume labelling, ingredient listings, and safety/allergy warnings.
Consult your local government for more information:
General manufacturing resources:
- FDA Authority Over Cosmetics: How Cosmetics Are Not FDA-Approved, but Are FDA-Regulated (US)
- Good Manufacturing Practices for Cosmetic Products (Canada)
- Guide to Cosmetic Products Safety Regulations (UK)
Managing beauty inventory can be a little more finicky than with other products, as India discovered. Based on her experience stocking a large number of SKUs and managing inventory between India Rose’s online and physical stores, she has some advice for new entrepreneurs:
- Keep an eye on shelf life. Natural products and ingredients generally have a shorter shelf life. Before you have any sales history to help with forecasting, order smaller quantities to avoid waste. This is especially important with natural or organic products that have fewer or no preservatives. “I would rather buy more frequently and have newer product than buy too much at a time and have it sit there,” she says.
- Watch temperature and humidity. Be sure that your products are stored away for heat, sunlight, and moisture, which can melt or damage them. In India’s brick-and-mortar location, air conditioning was essential. “It felt like such a luxury at first,” she says. “But I realized how truly necessary it was when a customer was trying on a lipstick and it snapped in half from the heat.”
- Stay organized. This is important if you’re not using a fulfillment house and are warehousing the product yourself. Cosmetics products are small, and sometimes labelling between colors isn’t easy to identify. Create a system that allows products to be easily accessed and identified. “We keep everything in big drawers throughout the store. We use desk dividers or make our own out of small shipping boxes,” says India.
- Rotate stock. As with edibles and any other product with a shelf life, be sure that anyone handling your stock understands the importance of rotation.
Setting up your online store
First, let’s set you up on Shopify. It only takes a few minutes to get started, and we’ll give you two weeks to play around before committing.
Start a makeup business on Shopify—and try us free for 14 days
Product descriptions, as in any industry, are extremely important. Seriously! They not only help with SEO but also provide valuable information to help customers make informed purchases and reduce returns. For makeup, use this space to describe the texture, finish, application, and use of the product. If you are selling makeup online, customers don’t have access to trying your product on their own skin, so be as detailed as possible.
You can use an app like EasyTabs to create tabs on your product page to keep it less cluttered while adding full ingredient listings, warnings, allergy notices, and beauty tips. You can also help visualize color variations through swatches using Bold Product Options.
Here’s how 100% Pure handles product descriptions on each product page, using swatches to illustrate color options and tabs to organize information into categories:
Enhance product pages with large, clear images of the product on a white or clean background, as well as with lifestyle/beauty images that capture the product used on a model (ideally on several models of varying skin tones). Color has always been an issue for Kate, and she’s continually working on new photos and videos for Redhead Revolution to help customers make informed picks. “Sometimes I’ll send them a photo of a swatch that I put on my own skin,” she says. “There’s a little bit more hands-on interaction with customers.”
Consider additional media, too, like video lookbooks and makeup tutorials that can live on product pages or in a blog or gallery on the website. Embedding photo reviews or user-generated content on pages using an app like Foursixty can also provide more context.
Shopify apps for makeup stores
Apps can add more functionality to your store to help you sell cosmetics online. They can replicate the experience of trying on shades in-store, assist with informed purchases, and add customizable options to your product pages. Here are some Shopify App Store suggestions for makeup brands:
- Prominently feature large lifestyle photos with Lookbook app.
- Recommend products or upsell within the same collection using LimeSpot Personalizer.
- Embed video content into product pages with Easy Video.
- Allow customers to virtually apply cosmetics before buying using Decorative cosmetics try‑on.
- Turn variants into color swatches with the Swatches app.
Choosing a theme for your makeup store
Themes are the foundation of your website design. Many are fully customizable and can accommodate your brand’s logo, fonts, colors, and design. In the Shopify Theme Store, filter themes by desired features and price or use one of these, recommended as ideal for beauty businesses:
Marketing your makeup line
Competing for attention in the beauty space is challenging for emerging brands, while the industry is saturated with large brands that have even larger ad spends. If you took my advice from the beginning of this guide, you’ve likely nestled into a particular segment of beauty with less competition.
Your niche audience may be smaller, but maybe you’ve identified them as underrepresented and looking for your product. Find out where they “hang out,” speak their language, and be strategic with your partnerships.
We’ve told you before about the power of reviews and social proof: over 70% of Americans say they look at product reviews before making a purchase. There are few industries that exemplify the impact better than the beauty industry.
Word of mouth from your average customer can be powerful, and it can take the form of traditional reviews (try an app like Yotpo) or customer-generated social buzz. Incentivize referrals and reviews by offering discounts on future purchases, or send product samples to encourage sharing.
Brand partnerships and beauty influencers
Thousands of independent creators boast millions of views and many make their living promoting other brands or launching their own. This James Charles upload alone has been viewed 43 million times. Another YouTuber, Eshani Patel launched Rani Cosmetics after her success with beauty unboxings on her popular channel.
Because of the nature of the product, beauty customers are turning to their favourite online creators on TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram before purchasing. By demoing products on real people in myriad skins tones, honest influencer reviews cut through the promises and claims made by the beauty industry.
If you choose to partner with an influencer, there are many lesser-known creators with smaller but engaged audiences who may be more affordable to work with if you’re just starting out.
Kate partnered with a complementary blog and beauty box business with a massive audience of her own target customers. “My sales doubled when I worked with the company How To Be a Redhead,” she says. “I just gave them mascara to include in their box and had free advertising for that whole month.”
Content and UGC
It’s difficult to tell if I’m going to like a lipstick if I can only judge by a written description and a photo of the product itself. Invest in creating your own content like lifestyle photos or videos featuring a variety of models to add to product pages or feature in social posts and marketing campaigns. You may actually help reduce returns, too.
Megan of Amalie Beauty took this idea one step further, cashing in on the appeal of beauty reviews and unboxings by doing them herself. The traffic she drove to her blog helped drive sales for her store.
Instagram showcases the experience of shopping at my store from the POV of the customer.
India Daykin, India Rose Cosmeticary
For India, UGC (user-generated content) has proved to be an effective tool to help find new customers. “Instagram showcases the experience of shopping at my store from the POV of the customer,” she says of the photos shared by people who tag her brand—something she actively encourages customers to do. “The marketing campaigns that have proven to be the most successful are ones centered around engagement and connection.”
💄 Tip: try an app like UGC Social Proof Gallery to aggregate user-generated Instagram photos using a hashtag, and import them into a mini-gallery on your product pages.
Shipping and customer service
Shipping cosmetics can be a tricky endeavor, especially with products like pressed powders. Kate experienced issues with broken product before beefing up her packaging with bubble wrap on fragile products. Remember: consider shipping and handling at the product and packaging design stage!
As cosmetic preferences are very personal and color on screen can look very different in person, expect that you’ll inevitably deal with some refunds and exchanges. Have a solid returns policy in place and a convenient process to ensure that returns are seamless for customers and painless for you.
An app like Return Magic can help you initiate and track returns, generate return labels, and notify customers throughout the process.
💄 Essential reading:
- The Beginner’s Guide to Ecommerce Shipping and Fulfillment
- Customer Service 101: A Guide to Providing Stand-Out Support Experiences
Pop-ups and in-person selling for online makeup brands
If we were in any other period of time, I’d tell you to take your brand to the streets. In 2020, IRL experiences are harder to navigate. Though many retailers have weathered the storm and found clever ways to adapt the shopping experience for the safety of their customers, the pandemic has made it especially challenging for online brands to adopt a multichannel strategy.
Regardless of industry, there’s incredible value in IRL brand experiences. You can reward your loyal customers, allow them to interact with the product in person, and access new customers (as in the case of a market).
When it is safe to do so again, makeup brands can benefit from these in-person ideas:
- Run a pop-up shop, complete with a tester bar or free mini-makeovers.
- Sponsor a fashion show or event using your products on models and/or contributing to swag bags.
- Rent temporary space within a retailer who sells complementary products to your ideal audience.
In the meantime, you may be able to wholesale or consign your products to existing retailers who have remained open. While you’re still in the design phase of your product, think about how the product and package might be displayed in a physical setting. Should you make any tweaks to the design at this stage to account for any possible future IRL applications? Yes!
How much does it cost to start a makeup line?
The cost of starting any business depends on several factors. In the cosmetics industry, the barrier to entry is very low if you opt to start from home, create your own formulations, and bootstrap your growth, but you could require significant upfront capital if you plan to manufacture commercially.
Product development is expensive. We had to start small, with one lipstick formula and only five shades.
Leslie Valdivia, Vive Cosmetics
Leslie and Joanna started Vive with a $10,000 small business loan that they secured with a solid business plan. The two were still working full time when they launched, and their salaries also helped fund the business. “Product development is expensive,” says Leslie. “We had to start small, with one lipstick formula and only five shades.”
For Melissa, her forecasting fell short and she ran out of money quickly. “I had saved what I thought was a year’s worth of expenses,” she says. “It lasted six and a half months.” But her drive to build The Lip Bar encouraged her to find creative ways to keep the lights on: she and her roommate shared a bedroom, renting the second room out on Airbnb.
To cut costs in other ways, look for manufacturers or white label companies that can accommodate lower minimums, start with a limited number of products, and find opportunities to barter and team up with other brands to share costs on things like photo shoots and marketing campaigns.
If bootstrapping isn’t helping you see enough growth, check your eligibility for Shopify Capital, a simple funding solution that you access directly from your store’s dashboard and pay off as a percentage of your sales.
From lip service to lipstick sales—launching your makeup line
Ready to unleash your beauty brand on the world but can’t get over that mental block? That’s normal. It’s a big scary thing that you built with your own blood, sweat, and mascara-streaked tears.
I thought, if I don’t do it now, then I’m going to regret it.
Melissa Butler, The Lip Bar
Removing the password from your online store is just a jumping off point, though—it doesn’t have to be perfect yet. In fact, it won’t be. As you learn about your customers’ habits, you’ll evolve. When Melissa upgraded from a side gig to running The Lip Bar full time, it was a leap of faith. “I thought, if I don’t do it now,” she says, “then I’m going to regret it.”
But remember: you don’t have to quit your day job until you’re ready. Many successful brands were born from kitchens and late nights. “Juggling a full-time job and running a growing brand is not easy,” says Leslie. “It can take a toll, but when your company has a purpose, it makes it easier to stay dedicated.”
For her, the sacrifice was worth it. Just this week, she quit working for other people and is now running Vive full-time. 🎉
Feature illustration by Pete Ryan