Being a discussion of how you do not have to spend a fortune, but sometimes you get what you pay for.
“A lot of people have said I’d have probably done better in my career if I hadn’t looked so cheap and gaudy. But I dress to be comfortable for me, and you shouldn’t be blamed because you want to look pretty.”— Dolly Parton
Hello and welcome to The Feminist Lipstique. I’m your hostess; today you can call me Venom Parton. I’m a feminist in my early 30s who recently became obsessed with makeup, and is trying to figure out the relationship between “cost” and “value.”
When we’re talking about makeup, people usually slot brands into three different categories. There is high end/luxury, mid-end/midrange, and low end/drugstore makeup. (I hate the term “mid-end” because being a “mid” implies it is not an “end.”) The implication is that luxury products are much better than their drugstore counterparts. So are the super expensive products really so much better than the really cheap products? That… is a surprisingly difficult question to answer.
Okay everyone, pop quiz time! These four shadows hit four different price points: $10, $29, $65, and $88. Which is which?
So we have a $10.00 e.l.f. palette (top left,) $29.00 Urban Decay palette (bottom right), $65 Pat McGrath palette (bottom left), and $88 Tom Ford palette (top right). That’s right, an eighty-eight dollar, four-pan palette. An eighty-eight dollar, four-pan palette that has its own little brush set like you just bought this shit from the dollar store.
And now it’s time for the bonus round! These four brushes also hit four different price points: $0.86, $10, $23, and $40. Which is which?
Let’s go in reverse price order this time, shall we? We have the $40 YSL blending brush (top left), the $23 Anastasia Beverly Hills blending brush (top right), the $10 Morphe blending brush (bottom left), and the $0.86 Ali Express blending brush (bottom right).
I gave this quiz to a few of my friends and they did…mostly not well. Which I don’t blame them for; actually, that was kind of the point. For all of the beauty industry’s insistence on these stratified genres of makeup, when you get right down to it, a lot of things are the same and price and product do not always have a sensible relationship. There is absolutely no logical reason that four eyeshadows “need” to cost $88. But there’s also no sound economic reasoning behind an object made out of at least three different component parts costing less than $1. They’re both emblematic of different economic forces. (Namely, the unnecessary markup of average products when they are deemed “luxury,” and the insanely low prices that are possible as a result of mass production and near slave labor wages.)
To better understand how and why makeup ends up at the price it does, it’s important to understand how makeup gets made in the first place.
Makeup starts as two main parts: a component and a formula.
The component is the term for the casing or tools that are part of a product–the palette of an eyeshadow, the wand in a mascara, the tube for a lipstick, etc. A brand will have the desired components made in an in-house factory or contract out to a manufacturer.
A formula is the name for the chemical recipe of the makeup itself. It is the chemicals and materials that give the makeup its color, consistency, etc. Brands will either develop their own formula, use an existing formula, or contract to a lab to create a formula. Then they will put the formula into production, creating the makeup itself either in an in-house lab or contracting to an outside lab (usually in China). At some point in this hypothetical “How it Works” video, the components and the makeup are combined, packaged, and shipped.
The biggest difference between brands of makeup come down to the quality of their components and the quality of their formula. Components that are likely to be more expensive are the ones that are unique and require specialized molds for creation and thus are less likely to be able to be mass produced and used for other brands/customers (like the Nikita Dragun product that was an uncanny valley reproduction of her face), the ones that are made of superior materials (like higher quality magnets for palette closures or real hair as opposed to synthetic hair for brushes), and the ones that are better constructed (less molded plastic, more hands-on creation, etc.)
In general, superior formulas are less chalky (made with smaller percentages of filler product like talc), smoother/creamier, longer-lasting, and with stronger, better pigments in the coloring. I’m not enough of a chemist to give you a full explanation of superior/inferior formula ingredients, but I strongly suggest checking out the YouTuber Jen Luvs Reviews if you want to learn more, as she always takes a look at and talks about the ingredients in a product.
We would expect that luxury brands, with bigger budgets and better reputations, would have superior components and formulas to mid-range or drugstore brands. The dirty “secret” of the makeup world is that this is not always the case. Sometimes, the lower end brands have equal or even superior components and formulas. Sometimes, they are even the same components and formulas.
One thing to look out for when you are starting your makeup journey and are interested in luxury or mid-range brands but are quailing at the price is a discussion of “dupes.” Dupes are drugstore or mid-range products that are comparable to their luxury makeup counterparts. Some brands, like Makeup Revolution and Shop Hush specialize in doing makeup launches that are intentional dupes of luxury products. (This falls into some moral grey areas that I’ll talk about in a future post.) A lot of dupes are just products that people knowledgeable about makeup suggest as a relatively comparable replacement for an expensive product. In general, anyone who is suggesting a dupe tries to find a product that is similar in color and consistency, and to the best of their ability, similar in how long they last. The conspiracy theorist in me says that a lot of these dupes are possible because the luxury brand and the drugstore brand use the same factories and the same formulas (which is sometimes the case) but often it is because there are simply only so many ingredients to use. So if there is a luxury makeup that you like but you are uncertain if you can commit to the price (or you object to the price on principle) then you can often find someone who has looked into getting a dupe for it.
Then you have private labeling. Private labeling is when something is mass produced by one company and then sold by another company under the second company’s branding. In cosmetics, that means that one company creates the formula and components to the specifications of a second company, and the product is sold under the second company’s branding and price point. The first company can also sell the same formula and components to multiple other companies, under other brands. In an ideal world, this wholesale approach would keep costs down. In our current capitalist hellscape, it means that you could be paying five times what a product is worth just because someone’s name is stamped on it. Morphe is particularly guilty of using private labeling, and even its landmark James Charles palette has been accused of being a private label of this Alibaba palette. (Though of course at this stage it is impossible to know which came first, so it is entirely possible that the Alibaba palette is a knockoff/dupe that was created to capitalize on the success of the James Charles palette.)
Some stores don’t even go to the bother of putting their own name on a mass produced product, they just resell it at whatever price they choose without making any alterations. I have seen this same set of “Crystal Unicorn” makeup brushes go for everything from $7-ish per set on Wish and Ali Express to $12 per set on Amazon to $25 per set on Shopthemagicalunicorn.com, a random online store that started advertising to me on Facebook because the Internet is Always Watching Me.
Now, none of this is to say that there is absolutely no relationship between cost and value. I have found that cost can be related to value, especially when it comes to eyeshadow products. To be fair I’m currently really only playing in the waters between drugstore and mid-range. I need to be a LOT better at makeup before I even attempt to tell myself that a luxury makeup product is worth it. But I’ve found that making the leap from drugstore eyeshadow to mid-range eyeshadow (or at least drugstore eyeshadow-to-drugstore-priced-but-mid-range-reputation eyeshadow, like Colour Pop) has actually made a difference in the color brightness, consistency, and wear length of my makeup. I bought a “bite size” blue shades quad from e.l.f. for $3 and a 9-pan Colour Pop blue palette (normally $12 but on sale for $9) and it’s wild how much creamier and better pigmented the Colour Pop palette is despite being almost the same cost per shade as the e.l.f. palette.
And there are definitely ranges of makeup at the very low end that barely deserve the title of “makeup.” I tried a glitter eyeshadow I bought at a Halloween store last year, and it was literally a pan of petroleum jelly with some glitter on top. Do not buy your makeup from Halloween stores.
Makeup that is sold on Wish has not necessarily undergone any safety or product contents testing. Do not buy your makeup from Wish. (Buy your brushes from Wish, like a normal person.)
Makeup that you buy at Claire’s can be legally classified as being intended for children and play, which for some bizarre reason means they are less likely to undergo rigorous product testing. (Some makeup sold at Claire’s and Justice has tested positive in the last few years for asbestos, because they were sourcing their talc from places where the talc mines were contaminated with asbestos. ISN’T THE WORLD GREAT?) DO NOT buy your makeup from Claire’s. (Also don’t get your ears pierced at Claire’s. That’s a whole different story/the reason my earring holes don’t line up in one of my ears.)
In general, my best advice is to do a lot of research when you are purchasing something. Check out reviews, swatch or sample it at a store if you’re able to, and decide what products are worth splurging on and what products are worth saving money on, and in general try to look beyond the prestige of brand names in order to determine how good the makeup really is.
Join me next time, when I talk about how absolutely overwhelmed I am by the variety of makeup brushes in the world.