Why do beauty brands resist diversifying their shade ranges? (Updated 1/18)

Tarte Shape Tape Foundation
Image Credit: PopSugar

For those who do not deep dive into the beauty community across platforms and channels, Tarte’s upcoming Shape Tape Foundation may not have hit your airwaves yet, so let me fill you in:  Shape Tape foundation is coming and will be available in two versions–Matte and Hydrating–with a 15-shade range accompanying each formula.  PopSugar had the exclusive and revealed swatches yesterday (shown above are swatches of the Hydrating range; the Matte range is almost as dismal), which only reinforced the absurdity of their ranges.

Based on the actual shades available, the swatches look like they’re veering lighter than they actually will be (on the whole), either because they need to dry down (more opaque foundations really do tend to darken as they dry down, especially more matte finishes) or that the lighting itself is washing everything out a bit.  It doesn’t actually matter since the difference between oh, I don’t know, 12-13 of the shades is minor and then boom! here are two dark shades for everyone not fair to medium.  The Shape Tape Concealer has 15 shades, and it’s common for concealer ranges to have less shades than foundation, so it really did come as a shock that Tarte didn’t have at least 20 shades, if not 25 to 30 shades.  Their own Amazonian Clay 12-Hour Full Coverage has 23 shades and their Rainforest of the Sea has 21 shades (and I know this had recent shade additions–it didn’t start that way).


I think this is an important topic, and I think the response by the community (both from influencers as well as consumers/customers) has been incredible to see, so I wanted to provide a few updates that have occurred since last weekend.

First, PopSugar posted an updated article with a response from Tarte, which was that they already had “10” shades in the works to be added.  I’ll argue that the article was no more than PR fluff and worse, PopSugar had this gem in their write-up (which has since been removed):

A rep from Tarte explained to POPSUGAR that even when Shape Tape Foundation was revealed, the new colors were already in the works. Additional shades are usually added seasonally, which makes sense because your complexion tends to be paler in the Winter and darker in the Summer months (but please wear sunscreen, kids!).

No, additional shades being added seasonally does not make sense because people of color in shades beyond medium exist throughout the year.  I don’t know where that interpretation came from, but it should never have made it into print; it is the height of ignorance and blindness with no understanding about what people were frustrated with to begin with.

On the topic of shade extensions, it’s truly unclear what that means, because PopSugar tried to imply that the 10 new shades would join the “30 hues that already exist,” except it’s not 30 hues at all (and originally, compared to Kylie’s Concealer range, which actually has 30 unique shades!).  There are two formulas and each has 15 shades.  I went through, and the total number of unique shades is actually 20 between the two formulas, though I’m still struck by what a poorly done launch this was from start to finish (I’m still confused why the shades even differ between the two formulas as they do).

So when Tarte said “10,” I really don’t know if that means five new shades for each formula or a full 10 new shades for each formula.  There was also no confirmation that the 10 new shades would address the lack of medium-tan and deeper shades.  For reference, when Tarte expanded Shape Tape in December 2016, they added four shades: Fair Beige, Light Sand, Light-Medium Honey, Rich–that’s three more light shades and one deeper shade.  I recommend checking out Alissa Ashley’s and Jackie Aina’s videos where they both make it obvious why only two to three tan/dark shades fall so short.

Yesterday (1/17), Tarte issued an apology via Instagram stories, which is a short-lived media format (24 hours), and the apology is as follows:

We want to let you know, we hear you… You all know by now that we revealed our much anticipated shape tape foundation… & the final shade range that we launched was definitely not a full representation of all of you[.] It may be too little too late, but we can assure you this was not meant in any kind of malicious way.  We all just got so caught up in #shapetapenation and seeing your tweets asking for it… We wanted to get the product out as fast as possible, & we made the decision to move forward before all the shades were ready to go. We know there is no excuse, & we take full responsibility for launching this way.  We lost sight of what’s really important in this industry, & for those who feel alienated in our community, we want to personally apologize. We’re doing everything in our power to bring those unfinished shades to market as fast as we can, at any cost.  We CAN and WILL DO BETTER.

Prior to the apology, the brand turned off comments on their announcement post on Instagram. There are a lot of reports of comments being deleted and people saying they were blocked after commenting about the shade range of the new foundation.  Tarte cannot go back in time and release a full shade range, so we’ll have to just wait and see what exactly they release in terms of shade extensions and if, next time they launch a new complexion product, they actually do better than they did here.  I’m sure I’m not alone, though, in expressing that the apology was weak, shifts blame for releasing the shades they did due to customer excitement, and then putting that apology on a format that doesn’t even preserve it.

But 2018 has just started, and collectively, we made enough noise to at least get some acknowledgement of the issue, and that has to mean that their launch really did not go as well as they had anticipated.  Maybe Tarte will learn, but more importantly, maybe competing brands will take note and do better with their own future launches.  When we come together, we can truly be a loud, powerful voice for good.


Just perusing Sephora’s foundations sorted by bestselling (the default sort, actually), one might argue there is a trend of better, stronger, more extended and inclusive shade ranges.  Only one in the top 10 bestselling foundations on Sephora has less than 24 shades.  Of course, the number of shades is one way to see how inclusive a foundation shade range is but too often the jumps between medium, medium-dark, dark, deep, and deepest can be startling whereas the jumps in fair to light to light-medium are smoother.

  1. Fenty Pro Filt’r (40 shades)
  2. Make Up For Ever Ultra HD (40 shades)
  3. NARS Natural Radiant Longwear (33 shades)
  4. IT Cosmetics Your Skin But Butter CC+ Cream (7 shades)
  5. Giorgio Armani Luminous Silk (24 shades)
  6. Kat Von D Lock-It (30 shades)
  7. Estee Lauder Double Wear (36 shades)
  8. bareMinerals Original (30 shades)
  9. Too Faced Born This Way (24 shades)
  10. Lancome Teint Idole (40 shades)

Fenty was by no means the first brand to roll out a shade- and undertone-rich line of base product, but they’re the brand that made it a focal point, a selling point, and they’re the brand that set fire to a conversation about diversity in beauty–from things like foundation and concealer to marketing campaigns to actual color offerings.  People of color do not come in just one or two shades; they come in a full spectrum of shades and undertones from light and olive to deep and cool.  Fenty didn’t just offer 40 shades but 40 shades that tried to hit on the full spectrum of our community and paid attention to undertones in a way that many brands have not.

Here’s an example of a brand listening to customers, listening to the community, and taking care to respond:  NARS just launched their Natural Radiant Longwear Foundation, which includes 33 shades with several shades on the medium-dark to deep range so the jumps are smoother throughout.  Not only that, but they further extended their Radiant Creamy Concealer range simultaneously, which is up to 22 shades.

THAT’s what Tarte could have done.  They could have offered a solid 25-30 shade range with five shades on the very fair to fair end, five to 10 on the light to medium end, five to 10 on the medium to tan range, and five on the deeper side of the spectrum. This would at least provide some semblance of balance in their offerings without it being glaringly obvious who they are selling to.  Tarte could have then extended their concealer range with new shades, maybe five or so, and really soared on the popularity of their concealer into record-breaking foundation sales. Why would the sales not follow?  Shape Tape is one of the most popular concealers, and the upcoming Shape Tape foundation is no doubt a highly anticipated offering, so the absolutely dismal shade offering when more and more brands have been ramping up their shade offerings and dropping fuller, more fleshed out shade ranges from the get-go, why doesn’t Tarte follow suit?

Some of the questions that floated around my mind last night as I thought about the state of the community and the need for greater and continued diversity in it were:

  1. Do we just call out brands when their shade ranges are disappointing? How can we actually effect real change and not just give lip service to diversity?  Is there a better way to educate brands so that they’ll actually listen?  But maybe we want to know what brands really don’t care and don’t want to listen because after so many launches and so many of the same comments, they have to be actively ignoring the feedback, right?
  2. Do we stop buying from brands that aren’t diverse or don’t seem to care or listen? But then if a brand releases a dismal range and we stop buying, will we buy when they listen? Will it be too late?  Is there a clock of how long a brand has to respond?
  3. Should we let brands get away with rhetoric of “but we’ll be adding more shades in the future”? Is it not reasonable to expect a solid shade range to begin with and then even more shades in the future?  What does “future” mean?  It seems like the go-to answer for brands but does it really mean something? Is it a real promise?
  4. Why is there an argument that brands that don’t make inclusive shade ranges don’t do it because it’s expensive and not profitable?  Why does this argument persist? What is the basis for it?  How many mainstream, popular brands have 20+ shades in their foundations? How many years did brands like MAC, who has long been a leader in celebrating diversity, dominate the market?  How many examples of success do we have to see?  Isn’t it a chicken and an egg problem — nobody’s buying deep shade X because brand A doesn’t have it? I can’t be your customer if you don’t have the shade I need!

Here’s some more food for thought.. here are some of the newest foundation releases and how numerous their shade ranges are (but note, the composition and quality of development in the shades may not be equal).

  1. Bobbi Brown Skin Long-Wear Weightless (30 shades)
  2. NARS Natural Radiant Longwear (33 shades)
  3. Dior Diorskin Forever Undercover (24 shades)
  4. Hourglass Vanish Seamless Finish (shade extensions, now up to 32 shades)
  5. Huda #FauxFilter (30 shades)

But Tarte’s really not the only brand to launch a base product in the last year with a dismal shade range–brands like Physicians Formula and Almay continue to cater toward lighter audiences, and the new Maybelline Super Stay only has 16 shades (whereas Fit Me now comes in at 32 shades). And sometimes, I wonder, if retailers couldn’t help make diversity a priority.  For example, Milani’s Conceal + Perfect Foundation has 19 shades on their website but Ulta only carries 9 of them.

There are certain brands that seem dedicated to staying under the bar, but I feel like more brands are offering more shades more often.  I’ve seen brands like Chanel and Dior, which were often painfully limited in shades, have significantly improved their offerings in the last few years (and not just because we’re in a post-Fenty world).  I say that noting improvement but not that there isn’t still room for improvement, of course.

I’ve seen too many examples of thriving brands who have worked toward being more inclusive and embracing the richness of the beauty community that I now struggle to understand how brands can release something like this, where when swatched together, it’s just so obvious to so many of us that something is amiss.  I’d like to see more brands make an open and honest commitment to doing better in the future, not just with foundation or concealer, but with their campaigns, social media marketing, shade names, and product offerings as a whole.

I have hope that the progress we’ve seen will only continue, and I know that it is through the power of our words–influencers and customers alike, as social media enables us to be vocal and makes it impossible for brands to bury their heads in the sand–that we can celebrate the brands that get it and try to educate the brands that don’t.  It’s the community coming together that will effect change; it’s that community not being afraid to criticize and openly question brands that will make beauty brands accountable for their actions.