The link between CBD and cannabis is no secret (CBD is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant) — though it’s one that many CBD beauty brands have sought to minimize in an attempt to make their products more palatable to mainstream consumers. However, not all brands are steering away from the CBD-cannabis connection; in fact, some are not only leaning into that link but exaggerating it through over-the-top marketing strategies that some say glamorize drug culture.
Because the beauty industry has been so heavily saturated for decades, brands have always had to use inventive and socially relevant campaigns to find a way of differentiating themselves from their competitors. In some cases, these have been hailed as a sign of social progress. In 1973, L’Oréal evoked feminist values in when it brought its tagline, “Because You’re Worth It” to the world’s beauty stage. In 2004, Dove challenged the beauty industry with its groundbreaking “Campaign for Real Beauty,” featuring the most diverse range of body shapes and sizes the industry had ever seen. And, when Proctor & Gamble launched its Emmy-winning “My Black Is Beautiful” campaign in 2007, it was praised for celebrating women of color on a scale not seen before (though they were not the first, Clairol — and others — had launched “Black Is Beautiful” ads in the 70s, and were criticized at the time for appropriating a slogan made popular by Black Liberation movements to further their companies’ bottom lines).
Now, beauty brands that sell CBD-infused products are trying to come up with similarly innovative solutions: How to rise above the rabble and grab the attention of engaged potential customers? While most have gone down the “clean” path by touting their products’ vegan or cruelty-free credentials with carefully chosen holistic wellness lingo, others have opted for an edgier approach.
By decorating their packaging with cannabis-leaf images, using language traditionally associated with potheads and smoking marijuana, and even setting up product shoots to imitate stereotypical “stoner” scenes, some brands are cashing in on the cannabis revolution — and they’re not afraid to show it.
However, some believe that they’re taking things too far and may be misrepresenting non-intoxicating CBD — and feeding into negative stereotypes in the process.
Estée Laundry, an anonymous beauty collective that uses its rapidly growing social media platform to call out beauty brands for unethical practices, believes that the highly lucrative CBD market has lured many brands into chasing dollars by unscrupulous means. “We would like to see brands be more ethical and honest and for them to stop glamorizing drug culture to sell their products. If they have a quality product, they would not have to resort to these types of measures,” the collective told Healthline.
Estée Laundry uses its Instagram account, which has nearly 83,000 followers, to highlight cultural appropriation, environmentally unfriendly practices, misleading or downright false advertising, and a lack of diversity among major brands. Much like their fashion counterpart Diet Prada, the collective has become an unofficial but much-respected watchdog in the beauty world. And when it comes to CBD brands, they don’t pull any punches.
When Milk Makeup, a brand whose CBD lash and brow serum and lip balms have become cult products for CBD beauty lovers far and wide — and who previously drew severe criticism for claiming their popular KUSH makeup products contained CBD, when in reality they were made with hemp seed oil — posted an image to their Instagram account that featured dime baggies (commonly used to store drugs) with their branding printed on them, Estée Laundry responded with a post of their own. They reposted the image and captioned it, “You know what needs to drop? Using drugs to glamorize beauty products,” including the term “weedwashing” in their hashtags.
The callout was long overdue in the eyes of many — Milk Makeup might be the biggest offender when it comes to capitalizing on drug symbolism in their marketing campaigns. On the brand’s social media accounts you’ll find multiple images of thin, white, cylindrical products being held like joints and even one in which smoke appears to be billowing from the end of a conspicuously held lip balm.
In some senses, this is nothing new — back in the 1990s, Calvin Klein helped popularize the “heroin chic” aesthetic, featuring rail-thin models with messy hair and dark circles under their eyes in their popular advertising campaigns. The trend lasted over a decade, with some remnants of it still being seen today.
However, in the age of social media and callout culture, it’s harder for CBD beauty brands to get away with as much as their predecessors did. Is there really no such thing as bad press? It’s hard to say, but brands like Milk Makeup seem to be doing their best to find out.