I waited two weeks for the package to arrive. When it did, I tore through the customs paperwork, ripped open the box, and found two unassuming teal blue tubes inside. I sighed in relief. My Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence sunscreen had made it to me safely from Japan.
This is not any normal sunscreen. It is my holy grail sunscreen. Sure, there are dozens of sunscreens available in the US. I’m pretty sure I’ve tried them all, and they’re terrible. They’re either too heavy and greasy or leave a ghostly white cast on my skin. Sunscreen technology here is woefully behind other countries, and strict FDA rules and the prohibitive cost of testing new ingredients have prevented any real innovation.
The Biore sunscreen is a revelation. The formula is thin and absorbs instantly. Makeup can be applied seamlessly over it. It doesn’t make me break out. I discovered it a few years ago, after it had been enthusiastically recommended on the r/AsianBeauty subreddit, a favorite niche corner of mine on the skin care internet that focuses primarily on Korean and Japanese brands.
But due to strict import rules for sunscreen ingredients that aren’t FDA-approved, getting it is a true quest. My travails to snag it — risking it being seized by customs, overpaying sellers, weathering formula changes — surely rival those of the Arthurian knights who searched for their own Holy Grail in medieval lore.
I’m not the only beauty lover to seek a holy grail. It’s an apt metaphor and the community’s preferred term for an end-all, be-all product. Makeup and skin care have never been more popular. New beauty products and indie brands are entering the market at a rate we’ve never seen before, resulting in a glut of things to choose from. Finding just the right product takes real work — and it’s a huge letdown if you do all that work and end up with a dud. Potential “holy fails” are everywhere.
But because of the nature of the internet, no one is alone in the quest, whether it’s a cystic acne product or a non-greasy sunscreen you seek. There are threads with hundreds of “HG” recommendations for every category imaginable in the popular subreddit r/SkincareAddiction, which has more than 700,000 followers, and r/MakeupAddiction, with almost 800,000 followers. YouTube videos abound. Instagram and Twitter threads are full of lively discussions.
There are communities for beauty enthusiasts everywhere online these days, and chances are high that someone is looking for the same thing you are. The search for a beauty holy grail is a group effort, and that’s part of the joy.
Holy grail culture
The Holy Grail, popular lore tells us, was the vessel that Christ drank from at the Last Supper. It was subsequently used to catch his blood at his crucifixion. Centuries later, acting on rumors that it was able to heal wounds and grant eternal life, King Arthur and his friends went on all sorts of adventures to try to find the thing.
The modern concept of an unattainable object of desire and mystery has been around in collector communities long before the internet existed. There’s a holy grail Beanie Baby (the Princess Diana one, but only certain versions). And bird (Imperial Woodpecker). And stamp (British Guiana magenta 1-cent). Sneakerheads have grails.
But in the beauty world, the concept is particularly resonant — a Google search for “beauty holy grail” gets you more than 23 million hits.
Beauty holy grails are a distinctly modern incarnation of the internet age. Christine Mielke, the founder of the popular 12-year-old makeup review blog Temptalia, says she remembers seeing the term back in the early ’00s when she used to go on LiveJournal forums to talk about MAC cosmetics with other fans. LiveJournal launched in 1999, as did MakeupAlley, one of the first online message boards dedicated to makeup reviews. Reddit, now arguably ground zero for any serious beauty holy grail researcher, came on the scene in 2005.
That’s also about the time that beauty retail started to change drastically. Ulta, which sells low- and high-end beauty products right next to each other, launched in 1990. Sephora came to the US from France in 1998 and is largely credited with putting the nail in the coffin of the traditional department store beauty counter.
With these two retailers, not to mention the rise of Amazon, beauty became a lot more accessible and democratic. The ’90s also saw a boom in indie beauty brands like Urban Decay, Bobbi Brown, and Hard Candy. The convergence of these factors led to a robust and sophisticated online beauty community, all looking for the best products.
There is no one universal beauty holy grail
Here’s how to know if you’ve found your grail, according to Alexia Inge, the founder of the online retailer Cult Beauty which, instead of selling entire brand ranges, stocks only buzzy products: “It exceeds expectations and creates new ones. It spoils all other products in the category for you once you’ve tried that one.”
In beauty, the terms “holy grail” and “cult product” sometimes get conflated. “Cult” used to mean a product that was secret or under the radar, like French drugstore products that models would bring back from Paris. But the term now refers to products that aren’t just best-sellers but actually are evangelized by those who use them, as Zan Romanoff wrote in a piece for Racked.
So a majority of the cult products out there are also considered holy grails for many (like my Biore sunscreen), but not all holy grails are cult products. It’s a personal best product. For example, Mielke swears by an Esteé Lauder lipstick that doesn’t get much popular adulation.
To an outsider, the quest for a beauty holy grail probably seems like it should be as easy as heading to your nearest Sephora. But all that choice is what makes that one thing you’re searching for so hard to find. There are simply too many products. False grails abound. Some things, in any collector community, become grails because they’re rare. Unlike a stamp or coin, though, the beauty holy grail is born out of the curse of abundance, not rarity.
The global cosmetics market was worth more than $530 billion in 2017. In 1991, it was a mere $4 billion. It’s impossible to quantify how many individual products compose that market now, but it’s a lot.
Mascara is a good example of the overabundance. There are more than 150 listed on Sephora.com alone. It’s a frequent request thread on Makeup Addiction. “I’ve tried so many and still haven’t found one that I NEED to buy again,” wrote one mascara holy grail hunter on r/MakeupAddiction.
On another thread asking redditors to detail the grails it took them longest to find, one wrote, “I tried every drugstore brand and a lot of mid range mascaras. I think I must have gone through 50 mascaras to find one that holds a curl on my lashes.”
The grail hunt is very personal. It’s not hard to find a retinol cream. There are dozens, maybe even hundreds, at all price points. But to find the retinol cream? You have to slog through a lot of rat-filled sewers, to use a metaphor from my favorite movie about searching for the original, eternal-life-granting Holy Grail, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Except instead of rats, imagine unpleasant face creams with terrible textures.
There are different formulations, different types of retinol and retinol derivatives, different concentrations, different fragrances. Maybe you hate the feeling of silicones in your skin care. Maybe essential oils make you break out. Maybe you have sensitive skin and need a low concentration of retinol. Maybe you found what you thought you wanted but saw no visible results.
Certain categories prompt a lot of grail hunting. Temptalia’s Mielke says her readers most often hunt for foundation and concealer grails. Michelle Wong, a science educator, the founder of the Lab Muffin Beauty Science blog, and a former moderator on r/SkincareAddiction, says sunscreen is the most common holy grail sought by that subreddit’s users. For a friend from my college days and pretty much anyone I meet who finds out I report on the beauty industry, it’s under-eye cream: “My kingdom for anything, anything, anything to actually get rid of dark under-eye circles.”
The hunt for holy grails is all about community
If you are lucky enough to find your grail, you don’t hide it in your medicine cabinet. “With a holy grail product, the minute you try it, you have this visceral need to run to your best girlfriend and tell her all about it,” Cult Beauty’s Inge says. “You want her to have some of this joy.”
When an HG is found, it’s often talked about as a conquest. “For four years I’ve been lurking in this community, and after trial and error, triumphs and failures, can finally share my HG skin routine,” writes one Reddit commenter. Imagine someone triumphantly holding up a jar of moisturizer for all the world to see and admire.
This sharing of joy is key in the beauty community. Sometimes, actually finding the one true thing that will make your makeup stay on better or will fade your dark spots is actually beside the point.
“This is an online fandom,” says Tracy E. Robey, a historian, journalist, and beauty blogger. “It’s coming out of a culture of collectors, and these people are nerdy obsessives who are hunting for something for the pleasure of the hunt. If you’re a beauty fan, the joy and thrill of the quest is just as important as the things you put on your face.”
That means that talking about products, making lists, and strategizing how to get the cheapest samples to try are all part of the fun. It creates a natural opportunity to communicate with others who share your interests online, which explains the combined 1.5 million people on Reddit’s MakeupAddiction and SkincareAddiction subreddits and Temptalia’s loyal and engaged community, who look forward to her honest and sometimes brutal reviews of new makeup products.
Holy grail culture is perfectly suited to thrive on the internet, where sharing is a way to both build community and project a certain identity. There’s a difference between a person who uses makeup casually and a true beauty fan. Being an enthusiast who knows the difference between Benefit’s They’re Real and Too Faced’s Better Than Sex mascara means you’re part of a tribe.
It’s the same as being a sports fan, only you’re on team Sunday Riley Good Genes. You wear your allegiance on your face, and those who truly understand can ID your lipstick as Kat Von D’s Lolita at a glance while a mere casual user will just say, “Uh, pink?”
What happens when your grail isn’t holy anymore?
A holy grail isn’t always permanent. Even with the abundance of products, there is sometimes rarity in the form of limited editions and discontinuations. More and more for beauty lovers, finding one holy grail just means it’s time to seek out the next one.
In the past — as recently as five years ago — the big makeup brands used to release a few collections a year, and skin care brands stuck to just a few key launches. But now that the beauty market is booming, indie brands are out there competing with the stalwarts like L’Oreal. There is a constant stream of newness. As a result, products get discontinued frequently.
“Because the life span of a product now is much shorter, the attention span of a lot of consumers is much shorter as well. It’s really difficult not to have an eye open always looking for the next best thing,” says Mielke. “I just think that when people talk about holy grail now, it has lost some of its meaning in terms of [a product] being the best of the best.”
Then there are the false starts. Bad-faith reviews, including some planted by beauty brands and paid influencers, can act like the obstacles that tried to thwart King Arthur and his crew. Influencers still don’t disclose as frequently as they should when a brand is paying them for a review, so a gushing endorsement can sometimes mislead someone on the hunt for a grail product. And on-site retailer reviews have a whole host of problems.
Wong, the former r/SkincareAddiction moderator, says people sometimes fall for false grails. “I think that they tend to be a bit fast at declaring their holy grails,” she says. “And there’s also the recency effect. I’m a bit biased toward the products I’ve recently tried because they’re a bit fresher in my memory. It’s human nature.”
Robey, the blogger and historian, says she doesn’t really seek holy grails as a quest per se, but she often stumbles upon products she loves. She recognizes this can be dangerous. “If you get too emotionally attached to something, it’s going to get discontinued. It’s like fate. You have to keep moving or else you’re going to get your heart broken.”
As long as the US customs department doesn’t scrutinize the foreign packages coming to my apartment too closely, I’m hoping to not have my heart broken by a product anytime soon.
Want more stories from The Goods by Vox? Sign up for our newsletter here.