Two lipsticks—the same size, same shape, and same color. You might be hard-pressed to tell the difference between them, except for the packaging. Yet one lipstick costs $5 and the other costs $32. What makes one product a bargain and one a budget-buster? As my grandmother would say, for an extra $27, that lipstick had better do the dishes and rub your feet, too. But are department store makeup products better than their bargain counterparts?
Beauty’s Bottom Line
The answer to that question is yes, sometimes … but not always. It depends. Like many things, price is not always the ultimate arbiter of quality, but department store cosmetics do differ from drugstore brands in very real ways.
Better Raw Ingredients
Cosmetic products consist of base ingredients—fillers, fragrances, emollients, moisturizers, minerals, binders, preservatives, sunscreens, and other compounds—in addition to the pigments that actually impart color. In general, department store–quality cosmetics use better-quality base ingredients, which cause the products to glide on more smoothly, last longer, crease or crack less often, and be gentler on skin. They may also include special proprietary compounds that treat acne, increase firmness, or camouflage wrinkles—ingredients that may have undergone research and testing, increasing their price. They usually also have a lower water content.
Department store products also tend to have a higher ratio of pigments to fillers, and the pigments tend to be more finely ground, so the color looks truer and more intense. Also, designer product lines tend to have more extensive color options, especially for products like foundations and concealers. They usually have the best likelihood of perfectly matching your skin.
At a department store, customers can sample and try on any product they wish, take home samples, and get opinions and help from salespeople or professional makeup artists. The drugstore environment rarely offers customers the chance to sample products or test for a good color match, often leaving their decision to trial and error. A better level of service is built into the price of department store products.
Beyond the simple cost of their ingredients, department store cosmetics’ high price is simply a part of the cachet of owning designer makeup. The products feature sleek, attractive packaging (with a telltale recognizable logo, of course) and are priced so that the customers believe they are luxurious and special. The price subtly leads the consumer to believe that if a cream costs $100, it must be ten times more effective than the cream that only costs $10. High-priced lines like Chanel, Givenchy, or Dior are selling a lifestyle choice as much as they’re selling cosmetics.
Good Buy, Bad Buy
Although it ultimately boils down to personal preference, makeup artists (as well as beauty junkies) agree that there are some products that are usually worth paying extra for, and there are plenty of products for which a high price doesn’t necessarily guarantee high quality.
Foundation and concealer: Department store lines offer a superior selection of colors to match any skin tone, and the higher-quality base ingredients ensure that the products apply easily and last all day long.
Face powder: High-end powders are milled more finely, assuring a flawless finish, and they’re less likely to contain irritating talc.
Cosmetic brushes: Designer brushes are usually handmade with natural fibers, ensuring that they’ll work well and last a long time, as opposed to cheap, mass-market synthetic brushes.
Lip gloss and nail polish: Formulations are virtually the same at any price point.
Mascara: Cheap products are the best value, since mascara should be replaced every three months.
Trendy products: Don’t invest serious money in any product that’s sure to be out of style by next season.
When it comes to lipsticks, liners, eye shadow, blush, and other products, it’s a toss-up; some lines offer great products and some offer not-so-great ones. There are good values to be had at every price point, and just as some drugstore lines feature products that are equally effective as department store brands’, some department store products do not perform any better or contain better ingredients than their inexpensive counterparts. Some lines produce fantastic concealers but so-so blush, while other lines manufacture outstanding lipsticks but lackluster liners.
And remember that while the number of prices charged may seem unlimited, there’s definitely a ceiling on quality. There may be a big difference between a lipstick that costs $5 and a lipstick that costs $15, but there’s not much to differentiate a lipstick that costs $15 from one that costs $30. In other words, that Chanel lipstick might be twice as good as the Maybelline version, but it’s probably not six times as good.
Consumer advocates are quick to claim that drugstore cosmetics and department store brands are always identical; conversely, the makers of those expensive products are just as quick to profess that their products are always superior, thus justifying the inflated price. The real truth, however, is somewhere in the middle: designer cosmetics are usually made from better raw ingredients and are better quality, but not always, and drugstore makeup has greatly increased in quality over the past decade. The only way to tell what’s worth it and what isn’t is to try a variety of products for yourself. The product you like best is the one that’s most valuable—no matter what it costs.