This Former Beauty Editor’s App Promotes Green and Clean Beauty
Disturbed by the toxic ingredients in cosmetics that were harming humans and the environment, Olivia Chan started an app to demystify labels and promote greener beauty
In 2018, Hawaii became the first place in the world to ban over-the-counter sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two chemicals proven to be harmful to marine life, particularly coral. Hong Kong is yet to follow suit, but one AI-driven startup is helping demystify products to help buyers make more informed choices.
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A former beauty editor, Olivia Chan has first-hand experience of how the cosmetics industry obfuscates ingredients which can be harmful or misleads consumers on the efficacy or potential dangers of the chemicals inside products. This led her to launch BeautyFact, an app that allows users to scan products or search for specific ingredients to check for any warnings, be they environmental or health-related, share reviews with others and learn more about greener brands, powered by machine-learning technology that links and suggests common ingredients.
“[As a beauty editor], I would receive tonnes of beauty and skincare products and try new things every day. My skin was already sensitive but it became a disaster during that time because even luxury products can use toxic ingredients. My skin got so bad that I had to visit the doctor,” Chan says. “You don’t have to have sensitive skin for those ingredients to be harming your health, but people don’t know about it.”
Chan was one of three Gen.T honourees to appear on the cover of Tatler’s October issue, which celebrated the Hong Kong entrepreneurs who are using technology for sustainable purposes.
Although outright poisonous substances, such as lead, are banned in beauty products, there is a host of sensitising, ambiguous or potentially harmful ingredients that are commonplace in cosmetics. Fragrance (also listed as perfume or parfum), for example, is a catch-all term for synthetic chemicals that do not need to be disclosed individually, and can trigger severe reactions in those with sensitive skin. Even skincare favourites, such as vitamins C or D, can cause issues in poorly formulated products.
As well as the coral-harming substances in chemical sunscreen, Chan wants consumers to watch out for other unsustainable components, such as microbeads, miniscule plastic spheres used in exfoliating products, which can accumulate in waterways and aquatic wildlife, and break down into toxic compounds. All this information is available at a BeautyFact user’s fingertips; eventually, the app will not only give information on a company’s impact, including packaging and carbon emissions, but evolve into an e-commerce platform to connect conscious brands with informed buyers.
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The platform, which celebrated its first anniversary last month, now has more than 8,000 registered users, most of whom are Gen Z consumers—those born between the late 1990s and early 2010s. “That surprised me,” Chan says. “When we started, I thought our users would be in their 30s, but it’s the younger generation who use us to find the right products for them. I’m glad the next generation is more aware of the environment and their health.”
Younger users, who have grown up with social media and the internet, are often cynical of the marketing tactics used by large brands, and perceive peer-to-peer recommendations as more honest. “They are very smart: they are wary of influencers and believe that companies which spend a lot on their advertisements are not spending a lot on their products,” Chan says.
Chan, 28, grew up in Tuen Mun: an area bordering the northwest coast of Hong Kong, which is particularly susceptible to marine pollution that flows from the Pearl River Delta. Her primary school would organise clean-ups to deal with the waste that washes up on beaches in the district. Having researched Hong Kong regulations while building BeautyFact, she realised that more could be done to safeguard the environment and people’s health. “There’s no separate [government] department just for cosmetics, [meaning] there is no comprehensive or integrated regulation for this industry,” she says. “It’s quite difficult to push the Hong Kong government to change. Our role is to raise awareness among ordinary people.”
Photography Affa Chan
Styling Cherry Mui
Hair Gloomy Kwok at Makeupbees
Stylist's Assistant Summer Li
Stylist's Assistant Nicholas Shu