Bluemercury CEO’s Clear-Skin Secrets: Clean Beauty and a Plant-Based Diet

|Updated Jan 21, 2021
Tony Powell

When Marla Beck, CEO, and co-founder of Bluemercury, started the beauty company more than twenty years ago, vegan and gluten-free beauty and skincare products were not exactly flying off the shelves. The mother of three built her empire with a very specific mission in mind: To sell luxury beauty products through smaller retailers because, at the time, high-end beauty was only sold in department stores. She wanted to create something more curated.

"I've always been a beauty junkie," said Beck, who grew the company until she sold it five years ago, to perhaps ironically, the biggest department store in the world: Macy's, for more than $200 million. Beck remained on as Bluemercury's CEO and continues to supply customers with high-quality products, curated carefully to fill her vision of what beauty should be: An outpost where wellness meets gorgeousness, and "skin-care meets self-care." Beck says in the beginning, clients would walk in the store and ask for dermatologist-tested products formulated without toxic ingredients. There were few brands that fit this bill at that time, so she set out to fill the white space. In 2012 she launched M-61, a vegan, gluten-free skincare line, and Lune+Aster, a vegan, gluten-free makeup line launched three years later.

Beck was one of the first innovators in the beauty and skincare industry to deliver clean, organic, all-natural, toxin-free, vegan, gluten-free products, and was no stranger to the vegan lifestyle. The CEO became vegetarian alongside her sister in college, and years later gave up dairy because she loved the way she felt without it. Asked if Beck thought that a plant-based diet helps clear skin she says: "Yes, I do, and I'm living with an example, as well, because I have one teenager who eats vegan and my other teenager eats dairy, and you can see a difference in their skin."

As a longtime plant-based eater, Beck utilized her expertise to combine the worlds of veganism and beauty, delivering the sort of clean products clients asked for. Her gluten-free, vegan collections are formulated with high-quality organic ingredients, free from parabens, sulfates, phthalates, synthetic fragrances, and dyes. They include cleansers, lotions, and moisturizers, as well as mascara, eye shadow, blush, and more. Two years ago, M-61 became the best-selling brand at Bluemercury, with a PowerGlow Peel, the 1-minute, 1-step exfoliating facial peel pack, selling every 8 seconds, according to Allure.

In an exclusive interview with The Beet, Beck shares what you need to know about clean, vegan beauty products, as well as helpful tips and the key ingredients to look for when choosing products. She also shares what she eats in a day for a healthy mind and body, as well as the inspiring mantras that motivate her to work hard. Beck also wants to ensure you don't miss Blue Mercury's upcoming virtual event this coming Friday, January 22nd at 2 p.m. for a chance to hear from some of the biggest names in the industry, including Dr. Barbra Strum, Elle Macpherson, Dana Jackson, Francisco Costa, and Scott Campbell. Check the website for details on how to attend.

The Beet: What does clean, cruelty-free beauty mean to you?

Marla Beck: That’s a great question. I would start with my first definition, which happened years ago, and then we can jump forward to how I define it today. We launched M61 in 2012. I worked on it for years, and when it launched, it was the first clean, clinical brand we carried. Initially, I came up with the idea for M61 because I had been a vegetarian for many years and evolved into becoming a vegan. Clients would come into the store, looking for natural brands that were still as effective as the technical brands they had been using, just without all the chemicals. That started an extended research project about what we can take out of beauty products.

As I was developing M61, the first definition for me was what’s not in the product and asking what we could take out while also making a vegan and cruelty-free product. I wanted to take out as many chemicals as possible, given the existing technology. Back then, it was hard for me because the natural preservatives were unproven, and they caused more irritation than the chemically oriented preservatives. Many of the chemists I was working with told me that it was impossible to make beauty that clean.

Today, we’ve been able to become much more refined with our definitions. We’ve now divided clean beauty and conscious beauty into categories. Of course, vegan beauty is a category that can easily be defined. Naturally derived is another excellent category, which means that the product is non-toxic, and 70% of the ingredients are organic, or food-grade, quality, which is the most restrictive no-list of what’s in a product. We think of wellness as more of a halo to think through how a product can support mind and body wellness by avoiding harmful ingredients.

For me, clean beauty means not having as many chemicals as possible while still getting the efficacy, which is why I have a bias towards clean-clinical beauty, and at minimum, making sure it’s vegan and gluten-free. It’s still a foggy definition for many people, which is why I equivocate it to dieting. There are so many different diets–paleo, keto, vegan, clean-vegan, etc.–people find their own diet that works for them by picking and choosing from different categories. I think that’s where “clean beauty” is right now, there’s no one definition, but people make the definitions that work for them. At Blue Mercury, we have our own definition that we talk about for clarity and honesty so that our consumers know what clean beauty means to us.

The Beet: What are some of the ingredients we should look for if we want a clean, effective product?

MB: I’m always a fan of pure, organic ingredients from brands that say they are vegan and gluten-free. I love natural, pure-form ingredients. For example, with M61, we try to use a lot of natural ingredients that have research behind them. We use ingredients like Bilberry, which has been proven to reduce inflammation and redness, or tamarin because there are dermatological studies that show it helps wounds heal significantly. We look for naturals with proven science behind them and formulate around those ingredients. It’s one thing to say that a natural ingredient does something, but it’s another thing to find natural ingredients with research that proves the claim. I’m a scientist at heart, so I like natural ingredients with research.

TB: What were the inspirations behind your skincare line, M61, and your makeup line, Lune+Aster?

MB: I had spent so much time with my clients, and back when we were formulating M-61, which was almost ten years ago now, it was just about listening to what people wanted. There weren’t many clean or natural products in the store back then, and if we did carry them, customers would tell me they didn’t love the way they smelled or might not have smelled very good, or couldn’t see the impact on their skin. We had clients that loved the more intense doctor’s brands that had all these great ingredients but were chock full of chemicals.

M-61 was my vision of putting the two together by creating the cleanest clinical brand on the market. Each has a core clinical ingredient married with a natural ingredient and stipped down hundreds of chemicals if you look at the lines. That was the vision for the line so long ago.

From the beginning, we wanted to have every product stamped vegan and gluten-free while still increasing each product’s efficacy by using researched, clinical, natural ingredients. When we launched Lune+Aster, we had no vegan makeup in the store and certainly didn’t have a paraben-free mascara when I started formulating the brand in 2013. It was driving me crazy that makeup wasn’t tracking with M-61, so we decided to create it ourselves. Lune+Aster launched as a vegan color line with good for you ingredients but made for the woman on the go.

At the time, makeup lines were starting to get so complicated with so many steps, and people were looking for easy, ready to use products that they could quickly apply while in the car or running out the door. We launched with a vegan paraben-free mascara, a CC cream with SPF 50. When Lune+Aster launched the original line in 2015, it was one of the cleanest vegan makeup lines out there. I formulated it with my close friends in mind: women at the top of their industry who had stopped wearing makeup to work because they didn’t have the time for a complicated makeup routine and wanted clean, vegan make-up.

The Beet: What does your daily beauty routine look like?

MB: First of all, I’m all about inside-out beauty. I love Elle Macpherson’s Welleco Shake in the morning, and the chocolate flavor is really great for the skin. My morning routine is straightforward. I use a quick cleanser and moisturizer–I’m partial to our water cream. For makeup, if I need a full-face for Zoom, I’ll use Lune+Aster: our RealGlo primer, CC cream; I’ll alternate between our mascaras; lately, I’ve been using Eclipse, and our new eyeshadow pallets because I wouldn’t use anything non-clean, so close to my eyes, and our under-eye brightener.

If I’m not doing a full-face makeup look for Zoom, I’ll just do the Dawn to Dusk eyeliner and mascara, but with a clean face. It’s kind of a unique opportunity: I love having the chance to race into the bathroom in between calls and throwing a face mask on. to leave my face clean; I love having the opportunity to run into the bathroom and throwing a facemask on.

For the evening, I’ve been addicted to our Powerglow exfoliant. I use Powerglow, some our vitamin c serum, and a moisturizer, usually our Hydraboost cream. I use our wipes to take off makeup, which I love to get a deep clean. We launched our Powerglow toner in the fall for when you go out and about, and if you notice mascne (acne from wearing a mask) around your cheeks, it’s great for a quick clean when you take your mask off at home.

I’ve found I’m using more skincare products than ever now that I have more time because I’m not traveling to the office or on the plane. It’s allowed me to experiment with my daily routine. I started using our PowerGlow Peel– you can see the impact on the skin in just one minute, with only one swipe.

The Beet:  When did you start eating a plant-based diet?

MB: I went to Berkley for undergrad, and I grew up in California. I remember my sisters and I, who also went to Berkeley, came home and told our parents that we would not eat meat anymore. Just like the “clean” category, I continued cutting animal products out of my diet until I eventually became vegan. I’ve been vegetarian for years and vegan for a very long time. During the winter, I eat a lot of soups, and during the summer, I drink a lot of smoothies. There are so many great cookbooks out today that it’s not hard to do.

The Beet: Do you see any impact on your skin from eating a plant-based diet?

MB: Definitely, I have teenagers, and one teenager eats a plant-based diet, and the other does not, and you can see a difference in their skin. It’s kind of like I have my own little experiment at home! My child who doesn’t eat a plant-based diet has begun to cut out dairy, and as they’ve been slowly converting their diet, their skin looks spectacular. I do believe it makes a difference.

The Beet: How does Bluemercury emphasize wellness right now?

MB: We’ve leaned into conscious beauty as a category, with wellness as the overarching halo. For so long, beauty was about confidence-building, but now it’s more centered around your entire life: mind and body wellness. We’re addressing this shift at Blue Mercury by launching so many brands in this category over the last year, which has created the opportunity to start conversations with brand founders. We’ve always been about founders and have always believed that founders bring the best perspective in building brands. The founders have the strongest point of view.

At Bluemercury, we bring their perspective to life by sharing it through events like the one coming up with founders like Dr. Barbra Sturm, Elle Macpherson, Dana Jackson, Francisco Cosa of Costa Brazil, and Scott Campbell, the creator of Beboe Therapies. We’re super excited for the event to let them bring their brands to life. It feels like when I started Blue Mercury, at the beginning of the “Indie Beauty” phase, with founders like Bobbie Brown, Marcia Kilgore, the founder of Bliss, and Janet Gurwitch of Laura Mercier. We’re back in a moment of “founder as the hero,” where founders talk about their perspective on new categories. I think there’s an appetite from people wanting to understand and learn more about the category of wellness and what it means. We have a ton of launches planned in the category for over the year to continue to redefine the wellness category. We’ve always loved innovation, and wellness and beauty are the most innovative categories out there right now.

The Beet: Do you have a manta–or words you live by?

MB: We have two in our family. Our first mantra is that if you find something both terrifying and invigorating, you should pursue it. Our second is that we’re straightforwardly “work hard, play hard.” We’ve always believed that you should get to relax and enjoy time with your friends and family if you focus and do your work.

The Beet: What are some exciting product launches we should look out for?

MB: As we’ve reflected on how our daily lives have changed, we’ve looked at our launches to think about what people want right now: self-care, wellness at-home beauty, and do-it-yourself products. That’s why we launched our extra-strength, PowerGlo Peel, and have a lot of clean self-tanning products coming out. Demand for clean versions of self-tanning products really exploded last spring while people were stuck at home and still wanted to feel like could still feel like they had been on a tropical vacation. We’re mindful about bringing out the right products at the right time, like our extra-strength PowerGlow Peel–one sells every five seconds. It’s formulated with Bilberry and Vitamin K, so it’s a great way to add clean beauty into your routine. I wanted one product that, even if you did nothing else, you could just use one thing that did everything you needed for your skin and gave you a real glow.

I still test every batch and sometimes adjust batches because it does have a natural component, which means each batch won’t always come out the same. It’s kind of like baking chocolate chip cookies; every batch can’t taste the same–especially the vegan ones! This product really has been my labor of love: I made it for clients with sensitive skin who want an exfoliating peel without the redness. I added in natural bitters so that you could soothe and peel your skin at the same time. It’s a product for all skin types, ages, and even genders! I know men who will use it before going on TV because the glycolic and salicylic acid helps to get rid of bumps from shaving. Teenagers can use it for acne, but it’s also anti-aging and helps with fine-lines. I would say it’s my greatest contribution to the beauty industry.