How Beautyblender Founder Rea Ann Silva Reinvented A Sponge And Created A New Category

The 50 Over 50 honoree spoke to Forbes about how not getting a patent for her now-iconic makeup sponge didn’t stop her from disrupting the multi-billion beauty industry.

When Rea Ann Silva used to do makeup for magazine cover stars in the late 1990s and early 2000s, editors would call her, begging for the list of products she used. Invariably, after she divulged her secrets, those same editors would call back, frustrated with their inability to replicate Silva’s artistry.

Silva couldn’t clone her hands, but she began to see mass-market potential in one of her favorite tools: a sponge she jerry-rigged to give her clients a perfect complexion. As actors and actresses swiped her homemade creation from her makeup bench for themselves, Silva had a category-creating beauty-startup on her hands. She named the company Beautyblender, after the little egg-shaped tool itself, and in 2003, she formed an LLC.

It wasn’t until 2013—a year after the company went nationwide in Sephora—that sales took off enough for Silva, then 52, to step back from her day job of makeup artistry and focus on Beautyblender full-time. Now 59, and a member of the inaugural 50 Over 50 list, Silva says she views her age as an advantage, despite the ageism and “beautyism” she encountered as a makeup artist.


“That’s the beauty of Beautyblender, because you can take a mass makeup product, or you can take the highest-end product, and you’ll still get this amazing application.”

Rea Ann Silva

“When I was in my thirties looking at 50, I thought I would be one foot in the grave. I made a promise to myself by the time I was 50 years old,” she told Forbes in an hour-long phone interview, “[that I would] create products and bring simplicity to women and make them feel good about their age.”

If her company’s revenue is any indication, Silva is delivering on that promise: Beautyblender sales reached $175 million in 2019.

“The U.S. patent office was shocked that I didn’t have a patent for Beautyblender,” she recalls. “I have many patents—they interviewed me as a standout patent creator—but in the process [for the sponge] there was always a conflict.”

That conflict was a Q-tip-like medical device that, like Beautyblender, was made of an egg-shaped foam. Silva, a veteran TV and film makeup artist with nearly three decades in the business, argued that hers was a cosmetic applicator and therefore markedly different from the medical ear cleaner. She believed in this so strongly that she re-filed for the patent on four separate occasions, despite ever-increasing processing fees for each attempt.

Soon, however, Silva saw that she had something better than a patent. “I was a voracious reader at the time, trying to absorb everything about patents. It’s great to have one. But if you don’t, brand recognition is the most powerful,” she says. Her patent gamble paid off: More than 50 million units have been sold to date, with one of the fuchsia sponges selling every 17 minutes in big U.S. retailers like Sephora and Ulta.

It’s been a long journey from the inception of Beautyblender to its sales success. The Beautyblender sponge was a simple solution to a professional hurdle Silva faced in 2002 on the set of TV’s Girlfriends, the first show to be shot and broadcast in high-definition. Silva knew she needed to ensure the show’s four Black women leads had flawless complexions, despite HD’s ability to highlight every imperfection. 

At the time, airbrush makeup was the preferred method. But the apparatus was clunky and required electricity. Which meant in order to do touch ups, Silva would need to take the actors away from the cameras. “If you want to make enemies on set, start removing actors,” Silva says, laughing. She decided to start experimenting with the humble triangular makeup sponge, and discovered that by cutting off its corners, it became a rounded applicator. Wetting the rounded sponge before applying foundation—or “bouncing” it on the complexion, as Silva coined it–created the perfect, HD-friendly finish she was looking for.


The following year, Silva started selling the sponge in pro makeup stores. “I had a great relationship with [store owners] all around the world, and they understood the future of filmmaking, and I was an authority and expert,” she says. Regular consumers would trickle in, she says, and the bright pink Beautyblender would catch their eye. Those customers began purchasing the sponge, and word of mouth spread from them and within the professional industry.

Other stores soon wanted to carry Beautyblender. “I don’t have a business background but I had the common sense to think if these retailers wanted to carry my product, what would be the harm?” Silva said. The sponges landed in independent stores, she said, then graduated to small chains like Planet Beauty. Social media also played a big role in spreading the word, in a period where beauty influencers didn’t yet exist.  

The simplicity of the sponge, Silva says, democratized makeup application. “That’s the beauty of Beautyblender, because you can take a mass makeup product, or you can take the highest-end product, and you’ll still get this amazing application.”

Other stores soon wanted to carry Beautyblender. “I don’t have a business background but I had the common sense to think if these retailers wanted to carry my product, what would be the harm?” Silva said. The sponges landed in independent stores, she said, then graduated to small chains like Planet Beauty. Social media also played a big role in spreading the word, in a period where beauty influencers didn’t yet exist.  

The simplicity of the sponge, Silva says, democratized makeup application. “That’s the beauty of Beautyblender, because you can take a mass makeup product, or you can take the highest-end product, and you’ll still get this amazing application.”

Despite the small-business-shuttering coronavirus pandemic, Silva says Beautyblender sponge sales continue to be strong. “Because of Zoom, people wanted to look somewhat decent!” (She did confirm that Beautyblender received a Paycheck Protection Program loan of approximately $2 million.) In April 2020, right around the time the world was shutting down, Silva was one of eight women featured in a new Smithsonian exhibit celebrating female gamechangers in different industries. “When I look at this brand and think of it as the original and category creator, which it is, it wasn’t until the Smithsonian said that I can say confidently we have accomplished that.”

And moving forward? “I’m playing the long game,” Silva says. “Life can be a very long journey for us. And that is a blessing and a gift. And you know not to feel pressured to make decisions or, you know, define yourself by success in three or four or five years. Take your time. Why do people want to make it so short?”

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