Where do you go for truly unbiased beauty advice these days? You could go to a store like Space NK or Boots, where the staff aren’t tied to one particular brand and don't operate on commission. But they’re still hoping you’ll buy something. If you’re lucky enough to have a makeup-savvy friend, you could quiz them. Or you could scan the Instagram page of your favourite influencer – but amid all the #ad and #spon, can you really sift the products from the placements? " I find it hard to relate to beauty bloggers these days. When it was all filmed on a grainy camera in messy bedrooms it felt more real," my friend Mia confided in me. "Now everything looks so polished and inaccessible – those girls never have a hair out of place, or any sign of spots."
It’s a sentiment echoed by another friend, Lauren: "The content is so glossy and glamorised that when you actually go and look at the product they’ve been waxing lyrical about in-store, it doesn't always look like what you saw in their video, or match up to the claims." The answer? Beauty is going guerilla. Harking back to the days when "Avon calling!" was a primary source of beauty news, secret circles are forming in hidden Facebook groups and online forums, where peer-to-peer recommendations can be passed without exploitation from big brands and their advertising bucks. Another friend, Danielle, added, "It’s no secret that influential beauty bloggers are given free products in exchange for reviews and promotions, and while I understand they need to make a living, I don’t always feel like the reviews are truly honest."
Two of the biggest secret groups I found, Dolly&Co and UKMakeupAddicts, boast almost 80,000 members between them. These groups are "hidden", which means you won’t be able to find them by searching on Facebook – you’ll need a friend who’s already a member to invite you. Think of it as Beauty Fight Club: once you’re in, you’re in, but rules exist. Firstly, both groups are strict on solicitation. Anyone found to be trying to sell products or services, or pass around iffy discount codes is unceremoniously booted. I’ve seen a few members in each group complain about being harassed by other members who are also sales reps for brands, but these individuals are usually weeded out. Also banned: trolling. Negative comments are duly deleted, and repeat offenders are quickly shown the door. What’s left is a friendly, responsive and ultimately unbiased melting pot of women of all backgrounds, races and socioeconomic statuses – unlike some influencers. As Mia noted, "I don’t think it’s a secret that naturally wealthy people are more likely to do well with beauty blogs, because you have to start somewhere! For me, I might be spending a huge amount of my weekly wage on an eye palette, but for them it feels like they’ve just gone out and bought it on a whim."
The women I’ve observed in both groups are primarily under the age of 35 and in full-time employment, many with children. They post photos of a makeup look they like and invite people's opinions on whether it would suit them, crowdsource beauty inspiration for upcoming events and discuss the relative merits of different products. Besides beauty, posts span style advice for nights out and outfit ideas for interviews; I’ve seen threads about preferred contraceptive pills and followed women through surgery. It’s personal and intimate, despite the tens of thousands of members. Another friend, Jem, who’s a member of both groups, told me: "I joined the first Facebook group just before Christmas 2016. At the time it had around 10,000 members. I had just had an operation that left me bed-bound for three weeks and housebound for a further month, so my confidence was low and my boredom was high. The ladies in the group were so positive and supportive of one another – it made me want to join in, post, answer questions and become part of a very genuine and uplifting community."
Jem’s right, the community is genuine. Unlike Instagram influencers or the most-viewed YouTube tutorials, all the selfies posted are free from retouching and artfully constructed backdrops featuring candles and chenille throws. You can see piles of kids' toys, laundry and dirty dishes. Skin is unfiltered, raw and beautiful, hair is unbrushed and most of the women are in their pyjamas. In contrast to the beauty hauls you see elsewhere, the emphasis is often on finding the most cost-efficient product, rather than the flashiest. During the live streams, which anyone can post, the women chat to people in the comments about how a certain powder stops them getting shiny during a shift at McDonald’s, or stop filling in their brows to discuss with their partner what to take out of the freezer for dinner. Keeping the group closed prevents spam and the kind of unbridled trolling for which comment sections are notorious – everything I’ve read has been supportive and uplifting.
Both of these groups owe a debt to old-school forums. While chat boards are largely a relic of a bygone era, a time before push notifications and seamless platform integration, two beauty boards remain behemoths. Reddit’s /r/MakeUpAddiction boasts 359,499 active users, while MakeUpAlley had over 700,000 visitors in a month according to ComScore. In fact, even if you’ve not posted on MakeUpAlley before, you’ve probably read one of their product reviews – their SEO is so good that they often outrank top beauty bloggers. Given that the group has actually been around for six years longer than YouTube (and 10 years more than Reddit), it's a well-deserved reputation. And although you might come for the detailed, in-depth product reviews by real women who are obsessed with beauty, you stay for the community. The "Cafe" Board, one of 12 non-beauty boards (there are now only nine beauty boards), racked up around 12,000 posts in 24 hours while I was observing; the "Make Up" board had just over 1,000. The former is home to discussions on everything from feeling stagnant in your love life ("I’m 27 and have no guy prospects and my sister is married – when’s it my time?") to the sort of things you’d call your mum for ("Are these eggs still good?"). The community is close-knit and supportive, if somewhat impenetrable to outsiders. Threads are littered with acronyms and jargon (MLBB is My Lips But Better; TF$ is Tom Ford, whereas TF is Too Faced – it’s like the original WLTM dating sites for a new generation), and confusing for anyone whose introduction to online conversation was internet 2.0. /r/MakeupAddiction is probably one of the friendlier Reddit threads but still essentially runs on its own language, and anyone who posts a selfie has to accept that they’ll receive "CC" (Constructive Criticism). Reddit styles itself as the front page of the internet but when I checked, MakeUpAlley had over twice the number of users.
To access either of these forums you have to create an account and follow threads compulsively. Most of us would balk at having yet another login and password – especially when on Facebook, you can toggle seamlessly between a group and your newsfeed. There’s also a hierarchical feel: older, more established members who "get" the lingo dominate, whereas the Facebook groups seem more democratic. As Jem explained: "Facebook is accessible. The posts are short, accompanied with eye-catching pictures, the language is down to earth and if you don't understand something, you can ask for clarification and receive it instantly. Everything loads quickly and doesn’t require an external link." There’s also the sheer functionality of Facebook – adding videos is easy, you can livestream and tag people in the group.
Of course, there’s always a risk attached to asking a bunch of strangers for advice. Especially in the Facebook groups, I’ve seen a lot of discussions around where to buy waist trainers (which are definitely useless and dangerous) and questionable dieting advice. Asking a friend for a mascara recommendation is one thing; having them reevaluate what you eat is another. Hearteningly, there are posts from men transitioning to women who want makeup advice – and they’re received with love and respect.
The late, great Estée Lauder's marketing philosophy was "Telegraph, telegram, tell a friend" and the guerilla ethos of the woman who purposely spilled a bottle of her bath oil in a department store so the scent would circulate and drum up interest lives on, as more and more women return to word-of-mouth recommendations. Free from ads, sponsored content and product placements, these threads are bathroom talk with a megaphone, group chats x 100, nosing around your friend’s makeup bag on steroids. FWIW (For What It’s Worth), I think this revolution could be here to stay.