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Can Unsexy Beauty Be Sexy?

By Rachel Strugatz

Clockwise from top left: the Nue Co. gut health line; Jupiter hair-care products; Megababe Thigh Rescue Anti-Friction Stick; feminine products from the Honey Pot Company; and a Billie razor.

Two years ago, when Jules Miller, the co-founder and chief executive of the Nue Co., a line of vitamin supplements, tried to get her brand on shelves at Barneys New York, a buyer at the store was horrified that Ms. Miller wanted to sell products for bloating and constipation next to high-end skincare and makeup.

It was easy to get behind ingestible beauty: the idea that consuming capsules or powders could make skin radiant, nails stronger or hair lustrous. But Barneys, now closed, could not conceive of placing items promoting gut health, specifically one that claimed to relieve chronic bloating, on its beauty floor.

“It wasn’t always an understanding that retailers had,” Ms. Miller said.

Even so, the Nue Co.’s Prebiotic + Probiotic and Debloat Food + Prebiotic cocktail of digestive enzymes and prebiotics was not a taboo concept to consumers. Combined, the two products make up almost a third of the Nue Co.’s sales, according to Ms. Miller.

Barneys, she said, came back a year later and started stocking the line. “We get it now,” she said the store told her.

Katie Sturino, the founder of Megababe, has built an entire brand around products for thigh chafing, breast sweat and melasma moustaches (skin discolouration from sun exposure on the upper lip). In early days, Ms. Sturino said she was met with “giggling” and “snickers” when she came out with Thigh Rescue, an anti-chafe stick, but now Megababe is sold in Target and Ulta Beauty stores.

The Nue Co. and Megababe are part of a group of brands that address unsexy beauty and grooming concerns using slick packaging and candid, unconventional messaging. These companies are encouraging consumers to discard the embarrassment or shame we typically feel about butt acne, dandruff or toe hair.

The key, Ms. Miller and Ms. Sturino believe, is using traditional beauty brands as a blueprint, at least when it comes to their aesthetic and the kinds of stores to sell their products. The Nue Co.’s gut health supplements and Megababe powders that absorb breast sweat (Bust Dust) give off cool Gen Z vibes. They are not products that remind you of a doctor’s office or GNC.

What sets Ms. Sturino, who is also a plus-size influencer with more than half a million Instagram followers, apart from some of the biggest names in beauty is the way she talks about her brand. She approaches Megababe the same way she does her body: with unabashed positivity, acceptance and no filter. Ms. Sturino reminds customers that thighs rubbing together, a breakout on your behind and a post-summer moustache are normal.

“We had an example of a beauty editor who used our product but wouldn’t write about it because she didn’t want to be associated with chafe,” she said.

Jupiter, a new hair-care line started by Robbie Salter and Ross Goodhart, who call themselves “lifelong flake fighters,” is trying to do something similar. The two are gunning for Head & Shoulders’ younger customers, armed with the tagline “Zero Flakes Given” and what they describe as a youthful alternative to a decades-old drugstore aisle product.

Jupiter’s Balancing Shampoo contains zinc pyrithione, the active ingredient in Head & Shoulders that treats dandruff, and also looks good in the shower.

“Existing brands have intentionally stigmatised the category,” Mr. Goodhart said. “From our angle, a significant percent of the population has it, and we say, ‘Just use our products and don’t worry about it.’”

What’s going on in these markets is not much different from what happened with soaps and household cleaning products: taking something inherently unsexy — hand soap or all-surface cleaner — and repackaging it to appeal to millennials. That is what put Method soaps on the map. In 2017, Method was acquired by SC Johnson, the owner of Windex, Scrubbing Bubbles and Shout.

Soap may be an easier sell for the TikTok generation (and their parents) than dandruff shampoo, but Kevin Spight, a brand consultant, believes you can create a multimillion-dollar company around a taboo concept. ­­­

“You need that niche or hero product to carve your space,” Mr. Spight said. “From there, you create your following and your advocates. People want brands that represent their personal ethos. It’s a badge of honour now.”

Billie, a women’s razor line that came out in 2017, has worked to reduce the stigma associated with women’s body hair, including with ad campaigns with toe hair and a close-up of a bikini bottom with pubic hair peeking out. In 2018, its Project Body Hair video amassed millions of views over several months on YouTube and other platforms.

It took months for Georgina Gooley, a founder of Billie, to figure out how a razor brand should talk about (and celebrate) body hair. Billie not only acknowledges that body hair exists, she explained, but also endorses the belief that shaving is a choice, not an expectation. For decades, ads for women’s razors showed only legs that were a mile long and completely hairless.

“You couldn’t even get a good visual of a product demonstration,” Ms. Gooley said. Body hair was so taboo, she said, that commercials didn’t even acknowledge that women had hair.

Decades ago, she said, women sneaked out of bed to put makeup on while their partners were asleep, pretending that’s how they woke up. (Cue Midge Maisel of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” who waits for her husband to fall asleep so she can take off her makeup — only to wake up before he does so she can apply a fresh face of it.)

“You’re going to see that very direct advertising a lot more often because women have become a lot less embarrassed,” said Monique Woodard, the managing director of Cake Ventures, a venture capital firm.

That may be true, but only recently have brands like Billie started to challenge industry norms. In 2004, Dove’s Real Beauty campaign showcased “real” women’s bodies, and 13 years later Glossier did the same with Body Hero, but these are exceptions. Much of the beauty industry is still fueled by marketing that conveys unrealistic physical ideals.

Margaret Hiestand, 33, who works in community relations for the Chicago White Sox, said that Ms. Sturino is one of a few influencer accounts she follows on social media because she is plain-spoken about things like “sweating in weird places.”

“A lot of brands are like: ‘Here is this beautiful model with this flawless skin. Please use this product,’” Ms. Hiestand said. “She does it differently.”

Ms. Hiestand was referring to videos on Instagram where Ms. Sturino is, she said, “borderline naked” in her bathroom applying Le Tush clarifying butt mask or “throwing up a leg” to apply chafe stick to her inner thighs.

“There is nothing taboo when it comes to the human body,” said Dr. Shereene Idriss, a dermatologist in New York. Melasma and dandruff are among the most common skin conditions she treats, along with acne. “I hope these brands make it mainstream to be human,” Dr. Idriss said.

Beatrice Dixon, the founder and chief executive of the Honey Pot Company, has no qualms talking about human issues. Her line makes nothing but what she calls “vagina products.”

“What people don’t want to do or talk about are the things that you should absolutely be selling,” said Ms. Dixon, whose brand is sold at Walmart, Target, CVS and Walgreens. A Sensitive collection of feminine wash and wipes that “kiss feeling dry goodbye” are among the line’s best sellers.

“Infections and odour and all of the things people deem to be these terrible things, I go out of my way to discuss those things,” she said. “Because they’re absolutely normal.”