The facts: What goes into the price of skincare
From ingredients and formulations to sustainable packaging and marketing, there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes when it comes to understanding skincare prices.
Too many beauty products
Shopping for skincare can feel overwhelming; it seems like a new beauty brand pops up every other day. With so many choices, it’s challenging to understand the difference between products, prices and whether they’ll work for you. Everyone should be empowered to make their own decisions, so we’ve put together some notes to uncover the mystery behind prices.
What goes into the price of skincare?
What drives the price difference between products and brands? Does a higher price = a more effective product? Or is it all just marketing hype? As is the norm in the world of skincare, the answer is more nuanced than beauty magazines or brands have you think.
Brands can vary considerably in price, from low-cost brands on supermarket shelves to luxury ones in department stores. This vast range of prices is driven by ingredients, formulation, packaging, and marketing. Let's get down to some facts.
Fact: Ingredients and formulations influence skincare prices
The price of a product depends on its formulation and ingredients, where the costs boil down to 5 things:
- Availability: Some ingredients are rarer or harder to source, making them costly. A good example is rose essential oil, which not only calms inflammation and redness, but also smells great (if you’re into that)! This essential oil is created by carefully steam distilling rose petals. However, it takes 10,000 pounds of rose petals to produce 1 pound of essential oil! This makes it difficult and expensive to source large amounts.
- Quality and purity: The difficulty in processing some ingredients also means that a high-quality production process is required to create a stable ingredient without impurities. Consider hyaluronic acid (HA), a powerful skin hydrator. HA is difficult to preserve and can also deactivate the effects of other ingredients. Therefore, seeing HA on the ingredient label is not enough to know that a product will be effective – it’s important to know the quality of the HA and if it is formulated in a way that doesn’t render other ingredients in the product useless. The same rule goes for natural ingredients, where sustainably sourced plant extracts with high purity are more expensive to procure.
- Concentration: Active ingredients are the “stars” of a product as they target specific skin concerns. Generally speaking, the higher the concentration of actives in a product, the more effective and expensive the product will be (although this is not always true). This is also why you may find serums, which are concentrated formulas, tend to carry a higher price tag than other product types. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know the concentration of actives in a product just by looking at the label, as the formulation is like the brand’s secret sauce! One rule of thumb is to look at the order of ingredients – those at the beginning of the label make up a larger portion of the product than those at the end.
- Formulation synergy: A product’s efficacy is also impacted by how actives are blended with other ingredients. If not formulated correctly, actives can be rendered useless or in some cases, be harmful to your skin (also why DIY skincare with ingredients in your kitchen is NOT recommended). Additionally, certain active ingredients are more potent together than individually. For example, vitamin C is a strong antioxidant that can repair UV damaged skin, but is difficult to stabilise in skincare. However, when paired with ferulic acid and vitamin E, vitamin C becomes more stable AND more powerful. This kind of formulation knowledge requires expertise and research that adds to the price. As a result, high quality products, especially those with proprietary blends, can come with a higher price tag.
- Texture: Products may also contain “filler” ingredients to improve texture and help deliver actives into the skin. For instance, silicones are a synthetic ingredient used to give products a smooth, silky feel while sealing actives into your skin. Because silicones are cheap to source, both low-cost and high-end brands frequently use them in products. However, some people may prefer a more luxurious texture or plant-based alternatives, which are more expensive to source. As a result, brands that use pricier fillers will therefore cost more.
Sustainable beauty packaging is usually more expensive
Beauty packaging needs to contain and preserve a product from contaminants and the elements. Most beauty products are packaged in plastic, which is cheap, lightweight, protective, and resilient. However, it has come under scrutiny due to the increased amount of plastic waste in oceans.
As an alternative, some brands are beginning to package their products in heavier materials like metal or glass. However, these materials cost more to source and ship. For instance, although glass is infinitely recyclable, it costs about 10x more than plastic. Glass is also heavy, making it more expensive to ship and prone to breaking, which adds further waste and cost to the supplier.
Other brands have Research & Development (R&D) teams that are rethinking product design completely. For instance, what were once liquid based products can be reformulated to a solid bar or powder form, which can be easier to preserve. Both the type and development of packaging can add to the price tag; sustainable materials come with additional costs, while an R&D team is generally something only larger brands can afford.
Expensive vs. Affordable: The price of marketing & branding
Marketing can heavily impact how a customer perceives and uses a product, which is why beauty companies invest in building their brands. Brands that spend more on marketing costs will therefore build these costs into product prices and be more expensive as a result.
There are many different types of skincare brands, but the 5 big segments are:
- Budget / Mass
- Korean Beauty (or K-beauty)
Budget brands: Are they ok to use?
Budget brands create affordable products that appeal to the mass market. You might find these brands in pharmacies or supermarkets. To achieve a lower price point, these brands may use fewer ingredients, cheaper filler ingredients, or large-scale production. For example, large beauty corporations like L’Oreal or Johnson & Johnson have economies of scale in their manufacturing processes, which allow them to make more affordable products. While smaller, indie budget brands like The Ordinary focus on one or two key active ingredients per product. The simplicity of their formulations may mean a less sumptuous texture or less potency without broader formulation synergies. But these brands will give you the bang for your buck if you’re on a lower budget, the key is to pick wisely and incorporate them meaningfully into your routine.
Luxury brands: Is expensive skincare worth it?
Luxury skincare brands like La Mer or Sisley are on the other end of the spectrum – they offer a high-end “experience” through high-quality ingredients, luxurious textures, and lots of marketing. These brands are often found in department stores.
As an aspirational category, luxury skincare invests much more into branding via advertising and celebrity endorsements, ultimately contributing to a higher price tag. Not to mention, some also source ingredients and proprietary blends through exclusive relationships with specialised labs. These labs place a strong emphasis on skincare research, investigating new active ingredients and innovative formulation techniques that deliver serious results. However, not all proprietary formulations are necessarily more effective – some products may contain more filler ingredients than actives. It’s therefore important to scrutinise each brand to understand their sourcing and production methods.
Clinical brands: What is clinical-grade skincare?
Clinical skincare or cosmeceutical brands are formulated with specific dermatologic issues in mind and may therefore contain a high concentration of active ingredients. In fact, many clinical brands are formulated by dermatologists. Their products may also include complementary ingredients like antioxidants, vitamins, and proteins to enhance overall skin health. The higher concentration of actives along with complementary ingredients make these products stronger and more able to penetrate the skin, but also places them on the pricier end of the spectrum.
Something to note is that strength is not always necessary – if your skin is generally in good shape, and you aren’t targeting any specific issues like wrinkles or hyperpigmentation, then there isn’t really a need for highly concentrated products. Additionally, the potency and quality of clinical products can vary, so it’s important to understand which ones will be effective for you and your particular concerns.
Natural brands: What makes skincare green or organic?
Natural skincare sources ingredients from nature rather than synthetic ingredients produced in a lab. Most of these products use plant-derived ingredients and essential oils, but some may also contain animal-derived materials like beeswax. There is no legal definition for “natural” or “organic”, so not all brands that classify themselves as natural are 100% natural; some brands may blend natural ingredients with synthetic ones. And actually, for some synthetic compounds, there are no good natural alternatives.
While there is strong indication that many natural ingredients have a positive impact on overall skin health, there is still limited evidence on how effective natural ingredients are at correcting dermatological issues. Moreover, some natural ingredients can actually harm skin (e.g. poison ivy is a plant, but causes serious rashes). In particular, sensitive skin types who are prone to allergic reactions should use natural skincare with caution as some elements can cause flare ups.
Korean brands: What is K-beauty?
K-beauty (or Korean beauty) is a blanket term referring to skincare brands from South Korea. K-beauty is based on an East Asian philosophy of skincare. While Western consumers look for hero products and overnight results, K-beauty is centred on daily maintenance through a carefully curated regime that nurtures skin over time. In particular, K-beauty focuses on hydration and protection against sun damage.
The emphasis on gentle formulations and long-term results means K-beauty products often do not contain highly concentrated actives. Instead, they use gentle actives from natural sources like aloe, green tea and soy, to more exotic ingredients like snail mucin and bee venom. These gentle actives are then packaged in well-researched, standard formulations. This style of formulation brings production costs down, meaning that many K-beauty products fall within an affordable price range.
Although individual products are not particularly expensive, the price racks up when you consider that a full K-beauty regimen may comprise 10-12 steps, each involving a different product. Each step has a different purpose, and each product is meant to be absorbed one thin layer at a time. This gentle layering method is thought to keep skin plump and hydrated while correcting any issues over time.
So what type of skincare works for me?
One size does not fit all when it comes to skincare. Good skincare is not only about finding safe, effective products, but also about crafting a routine that works for your time, budget and preferences.
skoosh skin helps you build a routine by highlighting the most relevant products for your skin type, while also providing options across the brand and price spectrum. For skincare newbies, we recommend a core routine, and for those who want more, we provide optional steps for bonus glow points! We’ll even include a card in your box with how to use your products in a personalised routine.
- Lentz, Cheyenne. “7 Ingredients in Your Skin-Care Products That Are Making Them so Expensive.” Insider, Insider, 5 Sept. 2018, www.insider.com/expensive-skin-care-ingredients-2018-8.
- Lin, Fu-Hsiung, et al. “Ferulic Acid Stabilizes a Solution of Vitamins C and E and Doubles Its Photoprotection of Skin.” The Journal of Investigative Dermatology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Oct. 2005, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16185284.
- Van Reeth I: Silicones - a key ingredient in cosmetic and toiletry formulations; in Barel AO, Paye M, Maibach HI (eds): Handbook of Cosmetic Science and Technology, ed 3. London, Informa Healthcare, 2009, pp 371-380.
- Hale, Rebecca, and Mark Thiessen. “The Beauty Industry Generates a Lot of Plastic Waste. Can It Change?” The Beauty Industry Relies on Plastic. Can It Change?, 18 Apr. 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/04/beauty-personal-care-industry-plastic/.
- K. Lodén, M. Buraczewska, I. Halvarsson. “Facial Anti-Wrinkle Cream: Influence of Product Presentation on Effectiveness: A Randomized and Controlled Study.” Skin Research and Technology : Official Journal of International Society for Bioengineering and the Skin (ISBS) [and] International Society for Digital Imaging of Skin (ISDIS) [and] International Society for Skin Imaging (ISSI), U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17374061/.
- Migala, ByJessica, et al. “What Are 'Natural' Skin-Care Products, and Are They Better for You?: Everyday Health.” EverydayHealth.com, www.everydayhealth.com/skin-beauty/what-are-natural-skin-care-products-are-they-better-you/.
- Yoon, Alicia. “K-Beauty: Everything You Wanted To Know About Korean Beauty, Explained.” Mindbodygreen, 6 Nov. 2019, www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/what-is-korean-beauty-k-beauty.
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