Most people saw Al Gore’s Oscar-winning 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth as an informative primer on global warming. For Gregg Renfrew, though, it served as a life-altering manifesto.
“That movie hit me like a ton of bricks, and I immediately started making sweeping changes,” says the founder of Beautycounter, a thriving line of safe, healthy skin care and beauty products. “Simultaneously, during that period, a lot of friends were getting sick—so there were a lot of things happening around me that made me start to question what was going on.”
Renfrew realized that many skin care products were filled with potentially harmful ingredients or were “earthy, crunchy brands that didn’t work very well, didn’t look very good, and didn’t smell great,” she says. “I was trying to find skin care, cosmetics, and personal care products that met my new high standards, and I couldn’t really find anything.” She saw an opportunity not only to create significantly safer products, but to educate consumers on the harmful ingredients found in so many brands.
There was one problem: Renfrew knew nothing about the beauty industry. She did, however, know something about starting and running a business. Renfrew’s resume includes selling her bridal registry company, The Wedding List, to Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, and reinvigorating the century-old classic children’s clothing retailer Best & Co as its CEO. “It was really hard because I didn’t come from beauty. I’m not a chemist. I was calling everyone I knew. I’d be like, ‘Hey, don’t you have a friend who works at L’Oréal?’ I started learning how the beauty industry worked,” says Renfrew, 49, who attributes some of her tenacity to moving 11 times when she was growing up in the New York City area, and dealing with her father’s cancer diagnosis when she was 14. “I’m very scrappy, and I’m unapologetic when I want to get something done.” Since its launch in 2013 with nine skin care products—the range now offers more than 100—Beautycounter has sold over 9.6 million pieces via online sales, pop-up stores, limited retail partnerships, and its network of 20,000 independent consultants.
Sitting underneath a large black-and-white photograph of the youngest of her three children in her white, sun-dappled corner office at Beautycounter’s Santa Monica headquarters, Renfrew is the best possible advertisement for her products. Wearing only a hint of Beautycounter’s tinted moisturizer and mascara, she projects a healthy, radiant glow, her light brown hair tucked behind one ear and her button-up shirt casually but deliberately tucked in on one side of her cropped flare jeans.
The crux of Beautycounter’s mission boils down to its Never List: a tally of 1,500 potentially harmful chemicals that the company bans from its products. Roughly 1,400 of the ingredients have been prohibited throughout Europe; that number shrinks to 700 in Canada, and even lower in the U.S., with only 30—which is why advocacy is a big part of Beautycounter’s mandate. “There are circumstances where deregulation can be an impediment to growth, but we are absolutely living proof it is not for us,” she says, adding that Beautycounter is “pro-regulation and pro-commerce.”
Given Beautycounter’s tough standards, there are products for which Renfrew has been unable to crack the code—yet. “Deodorant has been a huge one. It’s our number one request. Haven’t figured out how to do it properly,” she says. Outside of the official lab testing, she, her staff, and her friends are “constantly using ourselves as the guinea pigs, because if we don’t want to rush back and try [a product] again, that’s telling me something.”
Beautycounter’s average customer is the 28-to 55-year-old female who buys her cosmetics in a department store, not a drug store. In Renfrew’s effort to make Beautycounter’s products available to everyone, she hopes to develop a simpler line for a younger demographic. It is “for someone who may not have the expectations of a high-performing anti-aging line, because they’re 21 years old and they don’t have to worry about it,” she says, adding with a laugh, “Lucky them.”