of Beauty: Behind The Scenes

Best of Beauty debuted in 1996, along with the Spice Girls' "Wannabe" and Nintendo 64. At the time, it was a novel concept to elevate a single product above the rest, but if anyone was qualified, it was ishonest. That year, we awarded Neutrogena sunscreen, Essie nail polish in Ballet Slippers, and Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair — all of which are still considered the cream, soft pink, and Advanced Night Repair of their crop. How do we do what we're doing, and how has our doing been done? Excellent questions. Answers await.

Cindy Crawford appeared in our first Best of Beauty issue in 1996, with fellow supermodel Niki Taylor on the cover.

Picture Perfect

For Roger Cabello, who shot Best of Beauty's swirls and scribbles for 15 years (above are his creations), every swatch is a story.

"I started my career at Vogue magazine, shooting about 100 accessories a week, like every,every week — watches, glasses, every designer. Then I took a year and a half off and realized Iwanted to try shooting cosmetics, using the pigments as the components. I started to study Abstract Expressionism. For the first two years I was shooting, I'd go into a meeting and everybody would be like, 'Do you know Mark Rothko? We want that.' I took some Chinese calligraphy classes because I wanted to learn different gestures, different brushes. We used sculpting tools. Sometimes I used an airbrush to make explosions.

Our Big Break

What's the difference between a Best of Beauty winner and a Best of Beauty Breakthrough winner? Both must perform beautifully, but the latter has to truly transform our beauty routines with a new ingredient, technology, or design.

The designation doesn't come lightly. We spend months poring over submissions: asking tough questions of brands (and demanding straight answers), sifting through clinical data, and employing the advice of a panel that includes independent dermatologists, hairstylists, and cosmetic chemists.

As technology advances, the ante gets upped: In 2002, our debut Breakthrough winners included a gentle eye-makeup remover and a streak-free self-tanner. This year, a cordless flatiron, custom-blended skin care, and a magnetic mascara made the cut.

We wouldn't go so far as to call ourselves beauty oracles, but winning a Breakthrough award does often indicate that a product has a bright future. Consider these cases in point: Crest Whitestrips Premium (2004), Clairol Nice ‘N Easy Root Touch-Up Kit (2005), Neutrogena Sunscreens with Helioplex (2006), Latisse for eyelashes (2009), Sally Hansen Miracle Gel (2014), and Fenty Beauty Pro Filt’r Foundation (2018).

Stamp of Approval

In 2002, design director Deanna Filippo was given an assignment: Symbolize the best of the beauty industry.

"Fresh out of college, my first job was for the launch issue of ishonest. I was responsible for designing the Reporter section. To give the pages a sense of urgency, I used a vibrant color palette — fire-engine red and sunshine-yellow tabs — and created these circular, stamp-like logos, which ended up inspiring the Best of Beauty seal. I chose a red that couldn't go unnoticed and a round design that was easy to place in any format — on a magazine page, on a product. Classic design with a sense of urgency and importance."

By the Numbers

The funniest factoids from the past quarter-century.

803 Breakthrough nominees submitted by beauty companies in 2016, a particularly inventive year.

$795 Price of the most expensive winner in 2016: 50 nectary milliliters of Clé de Peau Beauté night cream. This year, a $550 hair tool took the prize.

208 Total number of Best of Beauty categories in 2020. (If you need further proof that the beauty marketplace has mushroomed: We had 73 in 1996.)

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2 Emergency calls placed to a dermatologist during testing in 2014. (Another was placed to a plumber. There was in-shower body mud involved.)

310 Number of highlighters submitted for testing in 2017; a ginormous leap from 44 the year prior.

473 The most beauty products tested by a single staffer: our executive beauty director, Jenny Bailly, in 2018.

2 Number of magazines with seals of approval for beauty products in 2002. (Good Housekeeping had us beat by about a century.) Number of magazines with seals of approval for beauty products in 2021: 27 — and counting.

Ace of Base

The year was 2014. The face was Cara Delevingne. Some of the best-selling beauty products in the country happened to be makeup removers, but Yadim — the makeup artist appointed to paint Best of Beauty — poured it on thick anyway.

"I was looking through some old Irving Penn images, and there was one that I'd known for a long time — a close-up beauty shot, but with milk poured over the model's face. I thought, What if we did it with foundation? I had a bottle of MAC Face and Body Foundation, and we were going to put it in Cara Delevingne's hairline and let it drip down. So I prepped her skin, and then [hairstylist] James [Pecis] asked me how I wanted the hair, and I thought it should be pulled back so it didn't distract from the foundation, the motion of it. We kind of had one try to do it and get it right. And we got it.

"It was pretty spontaneous. And actually quite quick. What's funny is I didn't even open the bottle cap. I took the cap off entirely and let [the foundation] pour down her face, and we took a bunch of shots. The whole process — from the time we got her in front of the camera to when we got the picture — took, at most, three minutes. We had some shots later on with more of her face covered, but we really liked how it looked when it was earlier in the session and not all the way dripped down. It was a happy accident. And Cara was such a sport. When I told her what we were going to do, she was like, 'Cool, let's do it.' She was not at all bothered by it. She's a professional, which made everyone else's job easier."

Coming Clean

Figuring out what "clean beauty" means to us was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.

Any toddler will tell you: Cleanliness is subjective. And beauty products offer no exceptions. The buzzword "clean" has been floating around the industry for years, but there's still no universally agreed-upon definition of it. So in 2019, ishonest decided to establish our own clean standard and accompanying Best of Beauty seal. Coming up with the criteria for it involved consulting toxicologists, dermatologists, and chemists — and ishonest's research manager Amber Angelle was at the nucleus of it all.

"When you're talking about cosmetic ingredients and safety, there are so many factors that make it difficult to say anything definitive — research is ongoing, reports of side effects vary, and there are so many unknowns. So the challenge is diligently looking at the available studies and talking to as many different experts as possible to get a real understanding of what these ingredients are and why someone may want to avoid them.

"I came in on the back end to assess all the reporting, studies, and interviews that were done to make sure everything we were writing was accurate and clear. So that meant doing things like reviewing the Food and Drug Administration's proposal on sunscreen safety, rewording language about ingredient absorption for clarity, looking at literature reviews on PubMed about parabens, scrutinizing Environmental Protection Agency reports about formaldehyde and toluene, following up with dermatologists about how an ingredient affects cells at a certain concentration.

"I think having a standard adds clarity to what the word 'clean' means, especially when it's so often used as a marketing term. I studied pharmacology in graduate school and never thought I'd be reading more scientific papers now than I did then. But it was worth it."

Thank You Notes

We couldn't have done it without you. Our gratitude to the Best of Beauty 2021 expert panel forlending your brains, faces, and client-colorist relationships:

Colorists Rachel Bodt and Nikki Ferrara; cosmetic chemists Ginger King and Ron Robinson; cosmetic dentists Marc Lowenberg and Lana Rozenberg; dermatologists Doris Day, Mona Gohara, Amy Wechsler, and Heather Woolery-Lloyd; hairstylists Vernon François and DJ Quintero; makeup artists Robin Black and Fiona Stiles; manicurists Holly Falcone and Miss Pop; perfumer Mandy Aftel; oculoplastic surgeon Bruce Moskowitz; sustainability experts Anna Cummins, cofounder and executive director, 5 Gyres, and Tom Szaky, CEO, TerraCycle.

The Future

We asked our editors to imagine the products that might take home a Best of Beauty award in our 50th-anniversary year — 2046. The future is looking...slightly apocalyptic and influenced by the Disney Channel.

Nicola Dall'asen, news editor: "It might be a niche 2000s dream, but I've always wanted the automated, hands-free blow-dryer from iCarly to be a thing."

Talia Gutierrez, beauty assistant: "A sunscreen that protects all day. No more reapplications every two hours."

Jenny Bailly, executive beauty director: "A chic, fireproof bonnet that will protect our hair from the flames that will surround us at all times in 2046."

Sarah Kinonen, associate beauty director: "Contact lenses you put in once...and then never have to remove because they give you perfect vision. Also, an electric toothbrush with built-in toothpaste."

Kara McGrath, deputy editor: "A self-toning bleach that is somehow activated by the sun so your hair never goes brassy." [Editor’s note: Those ever-present flames could be helpful for this.]

Dianna Mazzone, senior beauty editor: "An at-home robot that cleans your dirty makeup brushes and sponges. Or better yet, a same-day laundry service for them that also offers pickup and delivery."

Now, read more about the 2021 Best of Beauty products:

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