The beauty industry is perhaps not your first thought if asked to name a disruptive, innovative line of business, but it has been doing both for millennia. The world of cosmetics and personal-care products is now a $532 billion worldwide industry. Just glance at all of the serums, mists, lotions, cleansers, and makeup in your medicine cabinet, gym bag, or shower — we all participate in some capacity almost every day.
But aside from our dedication to buying and trying grooming supplies, the business also thrives because innovation keeps changing the game. The following six items may seem fairly common now, but all were the result of brilliant, disruptive modernization of older techniques — both in formulation and in marketing. They had a massive impact on the beauty industry then and continue to affect the way we groom ourselves today.
1. Mascara Wand
The practice of darkening and defining our lashes dates back as far as ancient Egypt in 4000 B.C. It evolved over the centuries, and a version fairly close to what we use today (a mix of petroleum jelly and coal) was popularized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, first in London by Eugene Rimmel and then in the U.S. by Thomas Lyle Williams. This was the very beginning of cosmetic masterbrands Rimmel and Maybelline.
However, the popular packaging and design of this “cake” or “block” style mascara — a strip of solid mascara in a metal box that came with a small brush — wasn’t exactly user-friendly. The brush needed to be dampened, so women would often wet it with their tongue when they didn’t have access to water or a sink, which wasn’t very safe or hygienic. And the toothbrush-style applicator required a lot of practice and finesse. If you wanted a curled look, you’d need a separate lash curler.
This all changed in the 1960s, thanks to Maybelline. Introduced to the market as the “first automatic mascara,” their Ultra Lash Mascara came in a tube with a grooved brush inside. When you pulled the brush out of the tube, it was already coated with mascara. No cake, no wetting (or licking) the brush, and no mess. Additionally, it separated lashes, coated them more thoroughly and individually, and curled them slightly too. This simpler, more effective solution has been replicated and re-imagined tens of thousands of times since. In 2019, it was reported that 104.72 million women in the U.S. used mascara, and that number was projected to increase by about 4 million within five years.
2. Emery Board
King Louis Philippe of France and his nail groomer, Monsieur Sitts, popularized the basic manicure in the mid-1800s. Thanks to these two, nail parlors offering "buff-and-shine" services opened up throughout Paris, offering simple, hygienic nail care to the public. It is believed that Sitts was also responsible for creating a metal nail file similar to one used today — prior to this, nails were shaped with pumice stones.
In 1878, Mary E. Cobb, an American woman who had studied nail techniques in Paris, established her own manicure system and opened the very first nail salon in the United States, called Mrs. Pray’s Manicure in Manhattan. Cobb also created an at-home manual and a line of manicure products, and is often credited with inventing an essential nail-care tool that is still in widespread use: the emery board.
The emery board, a piece of thin cardboard coated in abrasive emery powder, was much more affordable than the metal files used in salons, making it far more accessible for those who couldn’t indulge in a professional manicure to be able to shape and groom their hands at home. From then on, nail shapes — like the short, round nails popular in the early 1900s, and the sharp, pointed, Joan Crawford-inspired nails that were in fashion in the 1920s and '30s — became buzzed-about beauty trends.
3. Micellar Water
For decades, the most talked-about makeup-removing face cleanser was Pond’s Cold Cream, a rich cream with a high concentration of cleansing mineral oils and soap. It first became available in the early 1900s and was famously used by movie stars and celebrities in the 1950s after long days of filming in heavy makeup. It was praised for sweeping away makeup and dirt, leaving skin silky soft, and for its complete ease of use — you could simply tissue the cleanser off, no need to rinse. There were few, if any, makeup-removing cleansers on the market that didn’t require some time at a sink.
Then, in 1991, a French skincare brand called Bioderma completely upended the market. Their micellar water, which was rumored to have been invented as an alternative to the harsh tap water in France, quickly rose to cult status. Makeup artists discovered it was a highly effective way to prep a model’s skin for photo shoots and runways, and began to hoard bottles of it on trips to France. And when other fashion and beauty insiders noticed how effectively it cleansed and pampered their skin, they also sought out bottles of the coveted Bioderma.
Eventually, Bioderma became available in the U.S., which resulted in an explosion of micellar water offerings from popular brands. A quick search for “micellar water” on a large retail store’s site, like target.com, brings up more than 50 products to choose from. Still, editors, aestheticians, and makeup pros swear by the original, and they’re not alone. Today, a bottle of Bioderma’s Sensibio H2O is sold every three seconds worldwide.
4. Gel Manicures
The most important nail color innovation happened in the 1920s, when French makeup artist Michelle Ménard reformulated the enamel used on automobiles to make it safe to use on nails. This resulted in the super glossy lacquer we use today, replacing the centuries-old practice of using natural dyes like henna to color nails. But even with the dramatically improved formula, polish still had one major downfall: It was fleeting. Even the most perfectly prepped and applied polish could chip away in just a few short days, and the high risk of smudging a freshly painted coat was ever-present.
The gel manicure changed everything, but it took decades of trial and error to really, well, nail it. The first UV gel system was brought to market in the early '80s by an inventive Hollywood makeup artist named James Giuliano. During WWII, Giuliano was asked by the Navy to pivot his artistry and develop artificial body parts for the wounded. When the war ended, he continued experimenting with beauty creation in unconventional ways, such as by working on a UV-cured coating to protect plastic eyes. A bit of that protective coating fell onto his fingernail one day. When it wouldn’t come off, he saw the potential. In 1982, Giuliano brought Lamp Light, the first UV gel system, to market. Other versions followed.
Unfortunately, the manufacturers of gel curing lights and the gel itself did not yet understand the importance of precisely matching the light to the photoinitiators in the gel. Pros and clients alike learned the hard way that using the wrong light or too much product could create a painful burning sensation, and since there was limited education about the new service and product, nail techs didn’t have all the info they needed to succeed. Near the end of the '80s, most brands and salons opted to nix gel from their menus.
Gel systems started popping back up in the '90s and 2000s, but they became a mainstream staple in 2010, thanks to CND’s Shellac System. CND flawlessly paired up just the right polish formula and UV light to create a three-step process that cures to a brilliant shine, lasts for 14 days, requires no drying time, and soaks off without harming the natural nail. Another reason for their success was the brand’s commitment to education amongst nail salons. With the proper training and tools, nail techs were able to offer an optimal service. Other brands quickly followed suit, creating similar versions of the system, which made it even more accessible across the world. By 2017, 86% of salons offered gel manicures, making smudged manis and chipped polish as passé as matching your fingers to your toes.
5. Argan Oil
Perhaps argan oil is more of an ingredient than an invention, but the use of argan oil in commercial beauty products — and the intentional way it was marketed to support environmental preservation — is an industry- and sustainability-focused innovation unto itself.
Argan oil, from Southern Morocco, comes from the fruit of the argan tree. As early as 600 B.C., ancient Phoenicians relied on argan oil for beauty and health. Over the centuries, people in the Mediterranean region remained deeply connected to these trees. Given how beneficial the argan tree and its fruit were, locals tried introducing argan oil to European markets in the 1500s, but the commodity never took off. Sadly, this led to more and more farmers clearing long-standing argan forests to plant oranges, tomatoes, and other crops that were seen as more valuable.
In the late 20th century, organizations stepped in to stop the destruction of this historic tree. UNESCO placed the tree and its biosphere under protection in 1998 and began to investigate its environmental benefits to stop desertification in the area. Morocco-based science professor and researcher Dr. Zoubida Charrouf argued that the argan tree was a “green curtain,” vital to keeping the Sahara desert at bay. Dr. Charrouf and her team at Mohammed V University studied the argan tree’s oil and confirmed that its antioxidant-rich properties could be marketed, providing the region with economic incentive to maintain healthy trees.
The benefits of argan oil (moisturizing, acne-reducing, psoriasis- and eczema-soothing, wrinkle prevention, and so much more), coupled with a dependable supply, finally caught the attention of the beauty industry. Today, argan oil is the most expensive edible oil in the world, selling at up to $300 per liter, and the coveted, versatile ingredient can be found in products across every beauty category — skincare, hair care, body, makeup, and more.
6. Dry Shampoo
Anyone with long or excessively time-consuming hair likely has a good relationship with dry shampoo. The quick-fix product instantly absorbs excess oil, giving hair a freshly washed look and feel. And while dry shampoo has become much more mainstream (and heavily marketed) in the past decade, it has actually been around for centuries.
In the 15th century, clay powder was known to achieve a refreshed result in Asia, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, powdered hair treatments were used to tint and deodorize wigs in Europe and America. In 1918, the American Journal of Pharmacy even included a dry shampoo formula containing rice flour, orris root, and coumarin (which can come from cinnamon). However, the earliest record of a commercial product being marketed as a “dry shampoo” is most likely Minipoo, which hit shelves in the 1940s. Minipoo came with a “mitten” for application and was advertised as needing “no soap, no water, no drying.” It was moderately popular for a couple of decades, and then had a brief moment again in the 1970s when time-saving products became trendy. But the dry shampoo formulas still weren’t great, so they never became routine in the way 2-in-1 shampoo/conditioners did in the '80s.
In the 2010s, hair experts began telling consumers that too-frequent shampooing was harmful to your hair and scalp because it stripped away necessary natural oils. It even prompted the “no 'poo” movement. Around the same time, haircare brands started offering new, improved dry shampoo formulas that didn’t leave a gray-ish cast, had better textures and scents, and were easier to use than in the past. The category has been a hit ever since, and brands continue to offer iterations of their best-selling dry shampoo sprays, including tinted versions, aromatic scents, volumizing formulas, dry conditioners, and more.