Why Beauty Needs More Universal Design For People With Disabilities

Because accessible products benefit everyone.

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What's the first thing you notice when shopping for a new beauty product? Maybe it's the graphics on the label or the color of the packaging. Aesthetics aside, you might not think about whether you could distinguish between a shampoo and conditioner bottle if you had limited vision, or if an eyeliner cap is difficult to open if you have upper limb mobility issues. But for one in four Americans and 1.3 billion people globally living with a disability, buying a new product can be a disheartening process that many beauty fans likely take for granted (or don't consider in the first place).

However, consumers are becoming increasingly vocal about their expectations that beauty brands cater to diverse groups and abide by inclusive practices at every business level. This has led to more emerging brands that adopt universal design principles (meaning that a product can be used by anyone, regardless of physical ability) from their inception, as well as new inclusive collections from beauty industry heavyweights.

Keep reading for details on the state of accessible beauty and the brands leading universal design innovation to ensure people with disabilities can easily use their products.

Most Beauty Products Aren't Designed With People With Disabilities In Mind

Although the Americans with Disabilities Act protects the civil rights of people with disabilities in many aspects of public life, like sidewalks and building codes, there is no guarantee that consumer goods deliver a similar degree of accessibility. "Most beauty companies are not thinking about us, and the products are still unwieldy," says Xian Horn, founder of Give Beauty Wings, a non-profit that promotes positive representation of people with disabilities.

As someone with cerebral palsy, Horn understands how frustrating it can be to watch the beauty industry embrace other sectors of inclusivity (like skin tone, hair type, and body size) while disabilities are continually underrepresented.

For people with disabilities that affect their arms, hands, fingers, and even their head and neck, something as seemingly simple as opening a jar of face cream or applying a coat of mascara can be challenging. It's why Degree kicked off their inclusivity project in 2021 after hearing first-hand from people with upper limb disabilities about feelings of exclusion and loss of dignity when trying to use personal care products.

This inspired the design process for an accessories collection that can be attached to the tops and bases of deodorant sticks, including "a variety of lids with different hooks and grips and bases designed to help users more easily turn the dispensing wheel mechanism," says Kathryn Swallow, global brand vice president of Degree. "This will offer a more personalized approach to addressing varying mobility needs."

Often, it helps when the founder herself can relate to the needs of customers with disabilities. "Ten years ago, I began to experience a disconnect between my ability and the brushes, lipsticks, and liners in my hand," says makeup artist and Guide Beauty founder Terri Bryant, who was ultimately diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. "Makeup techniques I could once execute with little effort felt foreign and strained." 

When developing her initial plan for Guide, a brand that caters to users with all levels of makeup abilities, Bryant saw her diagnosis as an opportunity to understand the perspective of people who struggle to use cosmetics and beauty tools. "Through this new lens, I began to rethink makeup and how we apply it," she says, adding that while there is no single product that can address the needs of all people, Guide's offerings solve for exclusion so all makeup fans can benefit.

Case in point: the brand's Guide Eyeliner has an easy-to-hold handle to help steady your hand, making your application seamless. While this is crucial for people with impaired motor function or limb differences, it's also a design feature that makes it easier for everyone to use the product. And really, who doesn't want a little extra help getting a super snatched cat eye?

Accessibility Shouldn't Equate to a Lack of Aesthetic Design

The principles that fuel product development for people with disabilities are rooted in universal design, meaning the item should be as democratic as possible for all users and visually appealing, explains Stuart Lee Harvey, founder of Prime Studio, a product and brand design firm based in New York City.

Consider the fact that most consumer products are designed so that left and right-handed people can use them. Harvey cites this as one of the most basic examples of universal design, elaborating that a product "shouldn't look like it was adapted for someone with physical impairments."

Even the shape or color of a bottle can ensure a product abides by universal design standards. Just think about the number of times you've been in the shower, and soap gets in your eyes. If your shampoo and conditioner have different silhouettes, it's much easier to distinguish between them when you can't see. Or, as in the case of Herbal Essences, tactile symbols can be used to differentiate between similar bottles for people with vision impairments. 

Some brands have gone one step further and added braille to product packaging, like Pharrell's skincare line Humanrace. "The shape and design of the primary packaging is distinct and recognizable, so if you are visually impaired, you can associate the shape of the bottle with the product inside," says Rachel Muscat, co-founder and president of Humanrace. "Braille is also written on the primary packaging and the secondary cartons."

Beauty tech is also entering the push for more accessible products, with Pantene's UK line adapting a code called NaviLens to help blind, low vision, and people with literacy or cognitive challenges operate its hair products. Sumaira Latif, accessibility leader at Procter & Gamble, explains that once users download an app, they can scan the product's code to obtain information about the packaging and product via audio or large clear text. "You can scan the NaviLens codes more than 12 times further away than dense QR or barcodes," she adds.

The Future of Accessible Beauty 

While it's a positive step forward to see heritage brands adapt existing products to make them more accessible to a broader audience, the hope is that emerging beauty brands will consider universal design principles from inception. "I think the trick is to come up with an embodiment of a physical design language which can be applied to new products," says Harvey, pointing to brands like Drunk Elephant, known for its signature design, namely square bottles (which are easier to hold and open) and color-coded caps (which help to differentiate them for people with limited vision). 

"Changes to make products more accessible don't have to be as drastic as you think," adds Horn. "Many adaptations are usually simple, not expensive, and make it easier for all people to use, including elderly people and children."

As the beauty industry strides toward increased ingredient safety, transparent sourcing, reduced carbon emissions, and other user-and-planet-friendly practices, creators should consider accessibility equally important in product development. "Just as we'd always want to consider sustainable materials or good manufacturing practices, we'd also want to consider good design practices, too," says Harvey. After all, innovative, easy-to-use, and good-looking beauty products are a win for us all, except, of course, for your credit card bill. 

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