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Courtesy of EspressOh

Are universal make-up shades the future of inclusivity in beauty?

Italian brand EspressOh is leading the way, using pH reagent technology and vegetal extracts to create a clear blush that is ‘one size flushes all’

Historically, when the beauty industry uses words like ‘nude,’ ‘universal,’ and ‘one shade fits all’ it has been white-washed and exclusive. Afropunk’s ‘Not My Nude’ campaign captured this in 2015. So when brands like Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty released its Pro Filt’R Foundation in fall 2017 with 40 shades, many lagging beauty brands worked to keep up. It seemed the answer was to diversify and expand the range of shades available, which was essential. The question then became: should the concept of the universal shade be revisited and improved? 

Italian-based brand EspressOh – founded by Chiara Cascella – thinks so. Its range is minimal, with two products utilising new technologies to create personalised shades that are wearable on all skin tones. Its cult favourite blush, Glassy, is described as “one size flushes all,” with a formula that starts clear, reacting with the pH of your skin. The ABC Concealer has two universal shades, using vegetal extracts to create a thin and elastic film that adapts to your complexion and brighten under your eyes, rather than a heavy cover-up.

For Cascella, it was important for her line to be both minimal but inclusive. Launching EspressOh at the end of 2018 as an alternative to a “complicated” make-up market, she wanted to create a line with only essential products. “A basic user of make-up like me, an EspressOh user, isn’t interested in wearing layers upon layers of make-up every day and doing contouring,” Cascella tells Dazed Beauty. “So, the first thought (in creating the brand) was that we need to go back to basics, focusing on new technologies and innovations.” Her “second thought,” she explains, was that there are few independent brands based in Italy with global recognition, though the country produces over half of the world’s cosmetics.  

Creating more “universal shades” also makes it easier for customers to purchase products online, says Cascella. Meaning its most popular product, Glassy, is in high demand across Italy, the US, and Japan. She believes the product’s technology can be credited with its popularity, including the “dewy” effect the texture creates on skin. “People love that it’s really unique,” she says. “There’s no other product like that one on the market.” 

“It’s not that hard for brands everywhere to create a bunch of different products that cater to different skin colours” – Sophia Wilson

New York-based photographer Sophia Wilson agrees. She says EspressOh’s Glassy was her first introduction to a universal product. “I use it on my cheeks but also use it on my lips too because it changes colour really naturally,” she says. While Wilson says the concealer works best when used just under her eyes, she’s hoping to see more clear make-up products like Glassy in the future. “It’s not that hard for brands everywhere to create a bunch of different products that cater to different skin colours, so they may as well,” she says. 

This is something that Cascella is working on, in collaboration with the Italian-based lab that she created Glassy with. “It’s hard because there are only a limited amount of pH reactant colours to play with and the pigments are very limited.” Of course, as colour-changing make-up is popping up across product aisles, from Physicians Formula pH Matchmaker pH Powered Bronzer to Winky Lux’s Flower Balm, this technology is bound to become even more commonplace in the make-up market. 

When testing the products, EspressOh developed it with a small community and kept diversity at top of mind. “The difference between now and a few years ago is that now you can actually work with your community and try like let them try it on their skin before producing it,” Cascella says. “It's important to include your community in the product development process. So listen to them.”

Gabrielle Richardson, model and founder of the Brown Girl Butterfly Project has recently become one of the brand’s fans, listing Glassy as one of her favourite products. After being disappointed by universal or clear products in the past, Richardson says she often avoided products claiming to be “for all” out of distrust for the predominantly white industry. “I didn’t really have the capacity to expect any of those shades to understand the nuances of black skin,” she says. “With this shade (EspressOh’s ABC concealer in shade two), I didn’t even know it was universal when I first tried it because it just fit my skin.” 

As the beauty industry navigates two growing trends, hyper-personalised make-up in a variety of expanding shades such as Fenty Beauty and the call for minimalism that Pharrell’s Humanrace skincare line appeals to, it’s clear reinventing what constitutes as ‘nude’ or ‘universal’ is non-negotiable.

The key to achieving this through a limited selection of products, as EspressOh proves, is in experimentation with technologies and processes. By using pH reactant formulas and a low-pigment approach to concealer, the brand is creating products that are both minimal and personalised. This is a welcome alternative for many to a multiple-step make-up routine. After all, a universal product may be possible, but everyone’s make-up needs are boundless.