Brands are Using Drug Culture to Sell Beauty Heres The Problem with That

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the naturally occurring compounds found in the resinous flower of cannabis. It’s gained a lot of publicity for its natural benefits, specifically in cosmetics. When added to products in oil form (cannabinoids), it can bind to skin receptors and help with inflammation, oxidization, and pain, as well as provide soothing sensations.

With the growing presence of cannabis culture and CBD in the beauty industry, we’ve seen everything from lotions and facial serums to soaps and hair products. Hell, there was even a CBD shampoo announced recently that claims to help those with dry scalps.

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Analytics firm New Frontier Data predicts CBD sales to quadruple over the next four years, from $535 million in 2018 to more than $1.9 billion by 2022.

Cannabis culture is also having a moment in the beauty industry

Beyond the plant being included as a rising star ingredient in skin care and makeup products, the language and symbolism typically found in cannabis culture have also been taking center stage.

KUSH is already a controversial line for its misleading packaging, which claimed to be the first CBD makeup product despite only having hempseed oil, not CBD. (Hempseed oil doesn’t provide the same benefits as CBD, THC, or other cannabinoids. Brands that falsely advertise cannabis often get called out for #WeedWashing online.)

It’s further problematic for Milk to use this type of imagery and to hype up their KUSH product as numerous people, specifically indigenous, black, or other racialized folks, have been incarcerated for those exact baggies.

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But they aren’t the only ones who are profiting. (More on that later.)

Estée Laundry explains to ishonest via email that many more beauty brands have started to use drug culture, specifically cannabis, to push their products. They point to Milk Makeup and Melt Cosmetics as being the worst offenders, with Herbivore Botanicals as another brand that comes to mind.

They also just recently called out Lash Cocaine by Svenja Walberg. “We would like to see brands be more ethical and honest and for them to stop glamorizing drug culture to sell their products. If they have a quality product, they would not have to resort to these types of measures,” they told ishonest.

The hype around CBD came too early — and too fast

Adam Friedman, MD, FAAD, a professor and interim chair of dermatology at the George Washington University School of Medicine, believes that although there’s been several medical studies touting the benefits of hemp-derived CBD, research is still in its infancy. There won’t be concrete information hitting the mainstream for another five years.

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Friedman believes that brands should be honest about their product’s benefits. “It’s not to say that I don’t believe CBD will play a massive role in our management of skin aging and skin issues,” he says. “But right now, I think people are just jumping on the hype.”

And brands are definitely benefitting from this hype by cashing in on social media presence and influencer marketing.

Advertising laws vary by state, restricting targeting and portrayal of individuals under the age of 18 to 21. According to a piece in Racked, cannabis businesses can’t advertise in publications in Colorado unless the publications can prove that 70 percent of their readership is over the age of 21.

For some companies, the way around this has been rebranding by using an elevated aesthetic that doesn’t actually use the plant in its imagery and appeals to the mass market. By turning to social media as a way to promote products, cannabis companies can navigate guidelines, and, in some cases, age restrictions, reports Fortune.

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Rebranded imagery shows cannabis as being another cool, stylish, and aspirational product that one can acquire as a trend. It misses an entire conversation or, rather, nuance on who’s part of this industry and perhaps who this industry can affect. Because of this, we find youth in the middle of this beauty industry gray area.

Many teens have massive buying power, spending $44 billion annually. Gen Z spends an estimated 4.5 to 6.5 hours on screens each day. Almost half of them also use social media as a tool for connecting with others online.

Estée Laundry believes that connection also works with brands. When a brand like Milk posts a photo of a plastic baggie with “4/20” printed on it, it piques teens’ interest, says Estée Laundry. “When their favorite influencers post about the same product, they automatically think it’s cool and want to emulate them,” they explain.

The impact of drug culture marketing is arguably reminiscent of the “heroin chic” look popularized by Calvin Klein in the mid-1990s, when models were cast into campaigns with pale skin, dark circles underneath their eyes, skinny bodies, dark red lipstick, and angular bone structure. Not only did it glorify drug use through the pages of Vogue, it gave teens an image of what their ideal body type should be.

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And not all teens may realize this impact.

Homayoun also says that many students she’s worked with will follow brands, influencers, and celebrities because they feel like they need to.

“The key idea is empowering kids to understand that they are consumers within a platform and that they can choose how they want to spend their time,” Homayoun says.

Karlisha Hurley, 19, based out of Los Angeles, follows Milk Makeup, e.l.f. Cosmetics, and Estée Lauder (as in the brand, not to be confused with the collective) online. She says that for her, “I really use social media and see how they brand themselves. I think social media definitely gives you a better understanding into the company as a whole.”

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While this campaign doesn’t prove causation, research has shown that 37.3 percent of 12th-grade students (typically 17 to 18 years old) have reported “vaping” in the last 12 months, an increase of nearly 10 percent from the year before.

“Because you can comment and like and engage with these platforms, it creates a sense of intimacy that makes you feel like you’re closer to the brand or the celebrity or whatever’s being promoted in real life,” says Homayoun.

Case in point: Cannabis- and CBD-infused beauty products have become such a trending topic around the world, fueled by celebrities and influencers who use and readily promote the products on every platform.

Hurley has also noticed an uptick of brands, celebrities, and influencers talking about CBD-infused beauty products as well. “I’m not sure how I feel about it. I feel like they’re just saying what we want to hear because of how big the trend is,” she admits.

Not every group can safely participate in drug culture

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This trend highlights a very real issue: the lack of consideration or thought of the indigenous, black, or other racialized people who have become incarcerated due to cannabis-related crimes.

“When we look at the campaign that Milk released, it’s really leaning into an American tradition of drugs that are culturally, politically, and legally safe for privileged people,” says David Herzberg, PhD, associate professor of history at the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences.

Cannabis use is roughly equal among people of color and whites, yet people of color are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, reports the ACLU.

Herzberg shares another example to ishonest: White people can make jokes about smoking weed and still be hired for a job, but for people of color, it’s a strike against them.

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“When brands make campaigns like these, they are saying the quiet parts out loud. In our culture of drugs and drug use, this is a joke we’re all in on, and we are all unlikely to suffer consequences,” he says.

So, when we think about beauty brands posting cannabis leaves and dime baggies online, who does it benefit?

Furthermore, how does this affect teens who are using?

As the market — one that’s expected to reach $40 billion by 2021 — grows rapidly, brands that are rising to the top should also do the work to dispel the racial disparity that exists within. As these companies advertise on social media, they also have an opportunity to help teach teens who may not know otherwise.

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An example of this is Humble Bloom, an online community that also hosts events that aim to provide a positive, inclusive space to learn about cannabis and the industry. The site also sells a select number of beauty brands built by women and people of color.

And while it’s true that drug culture did indeed exist before social media, many young folks are now able to access so much information through their phones. It’s our duty, from brands to the media and even parents, to educate them. But it appears to be a nuanced conversation that brands only want to profit from and not to engage in.

Brands could be using their platform to educate youth or to use their profit and privilege to help battle our country’s mass incarceration epidemic. Donating funds to places like The Bail Project, a nonprofit organization designed to combat mass incarceration and provide bail to those in need, could also accomplish a lot.

Any brand involved in cannabis culture has the ability to spark conversation about the stigma and racial disparities that still exist and lie within the industry. And if we’re engaging the next generation of cannabis consumers, we might as well make them informed ones.

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