Best of Beauty debuted in 1996, along with the Spice Girls' "Wannabe" and Nintendo 64. At the time, it was a novel concept to elevate a single product above the rest, but if anyone was qualified, it was Allure. That year, we awarded Neutrogena sunscreen, Essie nail polish in Ballet Slippers, and Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair — all of which are still considered the cream, soft pink, and Advanced Night Repair of their crop. How do we do what we're doing, and how has our doing been done? Excellent questions. Answers await.
Cindy Crawford appeared in our first Best of Beauty issue in 1996, with fellow supermodel Niki Taylor on the cover.
For Roger Cabello, who shot Best of Beauty's swirls and scribbles for 15 years (above are his creations), every swatch is a story.
"I started my career at Vogue magazine, shooting about 100 accessories a week, like every,
every week — watches, glasses, every designer. Then I took a year and a half off and realized I
wanted to try shooting cosmetics, using the pigments as the components. I started to study Abstract Expressionism. For the first two years I was shooting, I'd go into a meeting and everybody would be like, 'Do you know Mark Rothko? We want that.' I took some Chinese calligraphy classes because I wanted to learn different gestures, different brushes. We used sculpting tools. Sometimes I used an airbrush to make explosions.
"Best of Beauty was a marathon. It would be about 11 days of shooting. The assistants would set everything up, the products and the lighting and the tools. And then, most of the time, I shot by myself at night. In the morning, the assistants would send the pictures to the art department and [design director] Deanna Fillipo and I would go over the results. And after the second shoot, she would send the images to [editor in chief] Linda Wells to review. Usually, the last shoot was nail polish because of the smell. But did you know if you blast a glob of nail polish with air it makes the perfect splash?"
Our Big Break
What's the difference between a Best of Beauty winner and a Best of Beauty Breakthrough winner? Both must perform beautifully, but the latter has to truly transform our beauty routines with a new ingredient, technology, or design.
The designation doesn't come lightly. We spend months poring over submissions: asking tough questions of brands (and demanding straight answers), sifting through clinical data, and employing the advice of a panel that includes independent dermatologists, hairstylists, and cosmetic chemists.
As technology advances, the ante gets upped: In 2002, our debut Breakthrough winners included a gentle eye-makeup remover and a streak-free self-tanner. This year, a cordless flatiron, custom-blended skin care, and a magnetic mascara made the cut.
We wouldn't go so far as to call ourselves beauty oracles, but winning a Breakthrough award does often indicate that a product has a bright future. Consider these cases in point: Crest Whitestrips Premium (2004), Clairol Nice ‘N Easy Root Touch-Up Kit (2005), Neutrogena Sunscreens with Helioplex (2006), Latisse for eyelashes (2009), Sally Hansen Miracle Gel (2014), and Fenty Beauty Pro Filt’r Foundation (2018).
Stamp of Approval
In 2002, design director Deanna Filippo was given an assignment: Symbolize the best of the beauty industry.
"Fresh out of college, my first job was for the launch issue of Allure. I was responsible for designing the Reporter section. To give the pages a sense of urgency, I used a vibrant color palette — fire-engine red and sunshine-yellow tabs — and created these circular, stamp-like logos, which ended up inspiring the Best of Beauty seal. I chose a red that couldn't go unnoticed and a round design that was easy to place in any format — on a magazine page, on a product. Classic design with a sense of urgency and importance."
By the Numbers
The funniest factoids from the past quarter-century.
803 Breakthrough nominees submitted by beauty companies in 2016, a particularly inventive year.
$795 Price of the most expensive winner in 2016: 50 nectary milliliters of Clé de Peau Beauté night cream. This year, a $550 hair tool took the prize.
208 Total number of Best of Beauty categories in 2020. (If you need further proof that the beauty marketplace has mushroomed: We had 73 in 1996.)
2 Emergency calls placed to a dermatologist during testing in 2014. (Another was placed to a plumber. There was in-shower body mud involved.)
310 Number of highlighters submitted for testing in 2017; a ginormous leap from 44 the year prior.
473 The most beauty products tested by a single staffer: our executive beauty director, Jenny Bailly, in 2018.
2 Number of magazines with seals of approval for beauty products in 2002. (Good Housekeeping had us beat by about a century.) Number of magazines with seals of approval for beauty products in 2021: 27 — and counting.
Ace of Base
The year was 2014. The face was Cara Delevingne. Some of the best-selling beauty products in the country happened to be makeup removers, but Yadim — the makeup artist appointed to paint Best of Beauty — poured it on thick anyway.
"I was looking through some old Irving Penn images, and there was one that I'd known for a long time — a close-up beauty shot, but with milk poured over the model's face. I thought, What if we did it with foundation? I had a bottle of MAC Face and Body Foundation, and we were going to put it in Cara Delevingne's hairline and let it drip down. So I prepped her skin, and then [hairstylist] James [Pecis] asked me how I wanted the hair, and I thought it should be pulled back so it didn't distract from the foundation, the motion of it. We kind of had one try to do it and get it right. And we got it.
"It was pretty spontaneous. And actually quite quick. What's funny is I didn't even open the bottle cap. I took the cap off entirely and let [the foundation] pour down her face, and we took a bunch of shots. The whole process — from the time we got her in front of the camera to when we got the picture — took, at most, three minutes. We had some shots later on with more of her face covered, but we really liked how it looked when it was earlier in the session and not all the way dripped down. It was a happy accident. And Cara was such a sport. When I told her what we were going to do, she was like, 'Cool, let's do it.' She was not at all bothered by it. She's a professional, which made everyone else's job easier."
Figuring out what "clean beauty" means to us was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.
Any toddler will tell you: Cleanliness is subjective. And beauty products offer no exceptions. The buzzword "clean" has been floating around the industry for years, but there's still no universally agreed-upon definition of it. So in 2019, Allure decided to establish our own clean standard and accompanying Best of Beauty seal. Coming up with the criteria for it involved consulting toxicologists, dermatologists, and chemists — and Allure's research manager Amber Angelle was at the nucleus of it all.
"When you're talking about cosmetic ingredients and safety, there are so many factors that make it difficult to say anything definitive — research is ongoing, reports of side effects vary, and there are so many unknowns. So the challenge is diligently looking at the available studies and talking to as many different experts as possible to get a real understanding of what these ingredients are and why someone may want to avoid them.
"I came in on the back end to assess all the reporting, studies, and interviews that were done to make sure everything we were writing was accurate and clear. So that meant doing things like reviewing the Food and Drug Administration's proposal on sunscreen safety, rewording language about ingredient absorption for clarity, looking at literature reviews on PubMed about parabens, scrutinizing Environmental Protection Agency reports about formaldehyde and toluene, following up with dermatologists about how an ingredient affects cells at a certain concentration.
"I think having a standard adds clarity to what the word 'clean' means, especially when it's so often used as a marketing term. I studied pharmacology in graduate school and never thought I'd be reading more scientific papers now than I did then. But it was worth it."
Senior beauty editor Dianna Mazzone’s dog, Sushi, assesses a handful of makeup brushes.
News editor Nicola Dall’Asen’s arm was regularly covered with swatches of lipstick throughout the testing process.
In March of 2020, Best of Beauty season had commenced on schedule. Then some other things happened. Since then, product testing has occurred remotely and relied on the domestic networks of Allure editors. The most discerning critics of all: total strangers.
"Do you want to try one of these?" the stranger said, gesturing to the 140 fragrances on his kitchen table. The glass menagerie stood still, like puppies on adoption day. A few bottles winked in the afternoon sun.
The stranger was me and my audience was any person who entered my apartment during the three months in 2020 when I was testing personal fragrances. Do you know how many different perfumes you can spray in your home before you pass out? Neither do I, thank God! And thank Michael, who helped install my A/C unit and gave a blistering review of an entire capsule collection of [redacted] samples. (Mike actually called them "losers," but I'd never say that.)
Dall’Asen arm was also host to its fair share of eye shadow swatches, too.
Associate beauty director Sarah Kinonen did her best to go full spa experience — at home — for her skin-care testing.
Under bygone circumstances, my coworkers and I would gather together in a huge room with excellent ventilation to spray perfumes on Post-its and hold them to our noses. We'd laugh and sometimes choke. Last year, we discovered that it was not totally impossible to assemble comprehensive beauty awards without ever gathering in one room. Via Zoom, we were not at a loss for insights, which were even sharper now, thanks to our newly clay-mask-appropriate work settings and significant others who were curious about volumizing shampoo.
But something was missing. I felt relief anytime somebody showed up at my door to drop off a package or deliver mapo tofu. "Do you want to try one of these?" I would say, and they'd always say "yes," and they'd always be honest.
This isn’t even a third of what beauty assistant Talia Gutierrez received in Best of Beauty packages.
Deputy editor Kara McGrath looking more comfortable lying on a pile of Best of Beauty packages than it actually was.
Thank You Notes
We couldn't have done it without you. Our gratitude to the Best of Beauty 2021 expert panel for
lending your brains, faces, and client-colorist relationships:
Colorists Rachel Bodt and Nikki Ferrara; cosmetic chemists Ginger King and Ron Robinson; cosmetic dentists Marc Lowenberg and Lana Rozenberg; dermatologists Doris Day, Mona Gohara, Amy Wechsler, and Heather Woolery-Lloyd; hairstylists Vernon François and DJ Quintero; makeup artists Robin Black and Fiona Stiles; manicurists Holly Falcone and Miss Pop; perfumer Mandy Aftel; oculoplastic surgeon Bruce Moskowitz; sustainability experts Anna Cummins, cofounder and executive director, 5 Gyres, and Tom Szaky, CEO, TerraCycle.
We asked our editors to imagine the products that might take home a Best of Beauty award in our 50th-anniversary year — 2046. The future is looking…slightly apocalyptic and influenced by the Disney Channel.
Jennifer Hussein, commerce writer: "I've always wanted the hair wand in Phil of the Future. His sister waves it over her hair and it straightens it in seconds."
Nicola Dall'asen, news editor: "It might be a niche 2000s dream, but I've always wanted the automated, hands-free blow-dryer from iCarly to be a thing."
Talia Gutierrez, beauty assistant: "A sunscreen that protects all day. No more reapplications every two hours."
Jenny Bailly, executive beauty director: "A chic, fireproof bonnet that will protect our hair from the flames that will surround us at all times in 2046."
Sarah Kinonen, associate beauty director: "Contact lenses you put in once…and then never have to remove because they give you perfect vision. Also, an electric toothbrush with built-in toothpaste."
Kara McGrath, deputy editor: "A self-toning bleach that is somehow activated by the sun so your hair never goes brassy." [Editor’s note: Those ever-present flames could be helpful for this.]
Brennan Kilbane, senior writer: "I'm sure whatever Blue Ivy Carter’s future daughter's lifestyle brand is selling will be fabulous. And I can’t wait to write some captions about it."
Dianna Mazzone, senior beauty editor: "An at-home robot that cleans your dirty makeup brushes and sponges. Or better yet, a same-day laundry service for them that also offers pickup and delivery."
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