Are Beauty Products Worth Their Price Tags?

May 5, 2013

I’ve been mulling over this topic for a very long time now.  As I grow older, I find my skin’s needs changing, and thankfully my purchasing power has improved alongside my appetite for higher-end beauty products.  Am I just a sucker for marketing gimmicks or do these stuff really work??  I had the “pleasure” of dealing with some self-declared experts on Reddit earlier this week, that crystallized my thoughts in this matter.

Are beauty products worth their price tags

$78 for a mud mask??  What rubbish?!!!

Let me first address the issue of pricing.  It is what it is.  Why is a Lambourgini so much more expansive than a Toyota?  A car is a car right?!  In Henry Ford’s own words, “You can have any car, as long as it’s black.”  Ultimately, the consumer has to decide whether he/she values the money or the product more.

Yes, I know we’ve been in a recession for a long time now, and unemployment has not come down despite the best efforts of the Obama administration.  So it is going to sound rather callous of me to say this, the recession is only a phenomenon in the Western world.  Sorry, but in most parts of Asia, things have been booming.  Brands aren’t interested in trying to sway the last cynical, struggling American anymore.  Instead they are churning out entire product lines to cater to the thousands of newly minted millionaires in China.  Make no mistake, we’re going to see more brands launching uber prestige ranges that make Creme de La Mer look ridiculously cheap.

Are companies simply fleecing consumers blind??

In a perfect world, the market should self-regulate – consumers get to vote with their money which products stay, and which ones (in Heidi Klum’s famous words) are out.  However, we live in an imperfect world.  Sometimes companies try to get away with poor quality products or unethical practices.  Other times, consumers are willing to pay for spurious factors like packaging, branding, etc.  I’d like to think it is this asymmetry in knowledge that creates a niche for beauty bloggers and reviewers. At the end of the day, the consumer has assess the information available and make an informed decision, and stop playing the blame game.

Back to my car analogy above, any car enthusiast will tell you that a lamboughini is not just any car once you look under the hood.  Likewise, sometimes, you get what you pay for.

Where’s the science??

Here is where a little knowledge can be a tricky thing.  Take 1 of the most advocated advice on Reddit for example – home-made colloidal oatmeal mask for treating any sort of skin inflammations ranging from allergies to eczema.  I have spent a good part of my teenage years using Aveeno religiously and bemoaning my poor lot in life to be born with eczema.  It never occurred to me that Aveeno just wasn’t doing anything for me despite all its “natural active ingredients” and “oatmeal” claims.

If you look into the science behind it, yes colloidal oatmeal does contain avenanthramide which has been proven in invitro tests (not actual clinical trials) to inhibit histamine activity.  However, for this to work, it has to travel beyond the surface of the skin, down to the peritoneal mast cells.  Just sitting in an oatmeal bath or applying it as a mask on your face isn’t going to help it absorb into your skin.  The skin’s barrier function naturally keeps out huge particles like oatmeal.

What you’ll need, is some sort of transdermal delivery system like arbutin.  A nice companion to arbutin, and frequently seen in high-end skincare products, is adenosine, which is a cell-communicating agent with known anti-inflammatory properties.  These are not everyday kitchen ingredients, and formulating a well balanced stable product using these ingredients costs money.  

Let me side-track here for a bit, and address a common myth:

Vaseline is the best solution for dehydrated, sensitized skin.

Vaseline, a.k.a. petroleum jelly, is a by-product (read: waste) of the petroleum refining process.  Remember those horrible images of sea creatures dying from the oil slicks from the Gulf of Mexico deepwater horizon rig explosion??  That’s exactly how it is when you apply vaseline on your skin!!  While it does keep out the drying wintry winds or whatever external aggressors are plague-ing your skin, it also keeps your skin from breathing, and locks whatever toxins there are inside.  Furthermore, vaseline on its own doesn’t do anything to hydrate nor soothe dehydrated and sensitized skin.  What you really need, is a good soothing moisturizer with the capability to deliver moisture deep inside your dermis, and keep it in there with some sort of time-release mechanism to ensure continual hydration.  Sounds techy?  You bet!  That’s what product R&D is all about!

There’s nothing on the ingredient list that warrants that price tag!

It is easy to read ingredient labels…well, if you’re an actual chemist.  However, ingredient lists only tell a portion of the story.

One of my favorite restaurants in the world is Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, which is famed for it’s Zuni’s roast chicken (go ahead, google it!).  What gives Zuni Cafe the right to charge $48 for a roast chicken (yeah you heard me right) when Costco sells a perfectly tasty roast chicken for $5?  The arrogance of it all, is that Zuni’s recipe is published for everybody to replicate at home!  I’ve tried it many times, and let me tell you, it just doesn’t taste the same.  Don’t get me wrong, it is a great recipe, one which I highly recommend for any adventurous chefs.  However, the key behind Zuni’s success is its wood-fired brick oven.  Now unless you have access to one at  home, your roast chicken will never ever taste the same.  Likewise with beauty products, the formulation process matters greatly, and you will not find that on an ingredient list.

Some years back, I read a flaming critique of La Mer.  The reporter looked into the ingredient list for Creme de La Mer and found nothing exquisite nor expensive.  She therefore decided the product did not warrant its hefty price tag.  To give her credit, she did attempt to visit La Mer’s uber secretive lab off the coast of California, but was denied admission.  This inflamed her to such an extent that she declared the entire franchise hocus pocus.  Personally, I believe companies have a right to defend their intellectual property, particularly if it’s the very process that creates value in the product.  When you distill a product down to its chemical components, you often miss the point.  

So are high-end products really better?

I don’t believe ALL high-end products are superior to their drugstore or home-DIY counterparts.  Based on personal experience, there are many drugstore products that work really well for me, and many high-end products that suck.  What’s most important to bear in mind is that what works for one person may not work for another.

One final note on “cheap” drugstore dupes…

Drugstore products are often attractive because of their low price points.  But in my experience, they don’t always offer the best value.

Recently, I became obsessed with YSL’s touche eclat (seriously lagging, i know!) and its many dupes.  So, when I came across L’oreal’s Touche Magique Illuminator, I absolutely had to buy it.  After all, L’oreal’s version only cost SGD17.90 versus YSL’s SGD55 (ouch!).  However, if you examine the contents, you will find L’oreal only provided 0.6ml of product in the pen, versus YSL’s 2.5ml!  So on a per unit basis, YSL was waaay cheaper than L’oreal!  And of course, let’s not forget efficacy of the product, i.e. it’s not cheaper if you need 2-3 applications to achieve what you can with 1.

Thank you for bearing with me through such a long read!  I hope it has been useful for you, if not thought-provoking.  Which side of the fence do you sway – luxe or drugstore??