Why is expensive makeup so expensive?

How do we justify paying $40 for lipstick, which is mostly wax, oil and pigment?

How do we justify paying $40 for lipstick, which is mostly wax, oil and pigment?

At some point, we've all been cajoled into purchasing an outrageously expensive beauty product. If ever you've sat down in the hot seat to receive a 'free' makeover by one of those over-eager artistes that lord over the bottom floor of department stores, you'd be familiar with the dear, dear cost of cosmetics.

In fact, research has shown that on average most women will spend a staggering $216 a year on beauty products. And that's going by a conservative estimate. Looking at the demand for 'premium' products, such as $40 Nars lipsticks, $99 Chantecaille mascaras and $51 Benefit highlighters, it's easy to see how things can add up.  We think back with sadness and longing to a time when ten bucks felt like a lot to pay for a foundation, when 'cosmeceuticals' was not yet a term, and when the product you bought actually came with the applicator brush, without the need to purchase it separately.

When it comes down to it, how many of these luxe items are truly worth their weight in rubies? Is YSL's Touché ´Eclat pen actually superior to the click 'n' go concealer you picked up from Priceline? Does one do a better job at banishing those bastardly under-eye shadows than the other, when they look and feel virtually the same?

Here's the kicker when it comes to high-end cosmetics: Only 15% of the money you pay goes toward the ingredients. The rest of it is spent on glossy appeal. So, if buying that Chanel illuminator just feels like you're forking out for a pot of expensive glitter, it's because you are.


As ingredients equate to such a tiny share of the overall cost, "price does not really correlate to quality when it comes to cosmetic products," says Randy Schueller, cosmetic chemist and co-founder of The Beauty Brains. Expensive beauty products are expensive because they need to be marked up for things like pretty packaging, marketing and brand prestige. "That's why lipstick, which is mostly wax, oil and pigments, routinely costs more than $20 at a department store makeup counter."

Where the makeup is sold also costs money and the exorbitant rent is factored into the final price tag. The display areas in Sephora, Mecca and higher end department stores, with their incredibly bright lights, omnipresent mirrors and over-friendly shop assistants, don't come cheap. Here you "pay for the display areas and the people who are helping to sell the product, whereas in a mass environment it can be sealed up behind a package and sit on a shelf," says Karen Grant, the global beauty industry analyst at research firm NPD. 

Though budget-friendly products can be just as high performing as their premium-price counterparts – as proven by this research – we're still buying into the prestige. According to Euromonitor, global cosmetics brands raked in $56.9 billion last year alone, with more growth expected to come. The prices of ingredients haven't changed – it's just that people are more willing to buy expensive brand-name products. 

Now, don't get us wrong. Quality in the cosmetics business can vary greatly. With powdered cosmetics such as pressed eye shadow and blush, for example, some manufacturers will use cheaper manufacturing methods to ground down pigment particles, resulting in a clumpier product. But it's impossible to tell which process was used just by looking at the label.

Being a woman is already expensive as heck by virtue of our sex, so let's not get caught up in anymore BS. First, understand what you're buying. Look at the ingredient list on the back of products. Avoid makeup that's filled with talc and other fillers. They do absolutely nothing for your skin. Fragrance is another thing that can jack up the cost of a product. Do you really need your lotions and potions to smell sweet for them to work?

With moisturisers, you want to see ingredients that hydrate with emollients like shea butter and olive seed oil and protect with antioxidants like sea buckthorn, vitamin E and green tea. Anti-ageing ranges should have ingredients like retinol, niacinamide or peptides, appearing near the top of the list in quantities potent enough to have an effect.  

And don't think you need to buy the entire range from one brand. This is how those tricky marketing gurus get you. You can mix it up, as long as the products work well on your skin. If you are trying to treat a particular skin concern, best look at ingredients over brand and this usually means using products from different ranges.

You can't assume something is better just because of how much it costs. Think about it: Will one brand really have that revolutionary, skin healing, Holy Grail ingredient that the rest of the industry is not yet privy to? Not likely. The biggest difference between high-end and high-street is more often than not the price you're willing to pay for it.