Wednesday, September 21, 2011

High-end Versus Other-end Makeup

I'm sure most of us know that beautiful makeup need not be expensive. A friend recently summed it up perfectly when she gave me the inspiration for this post: "If you are willing to forgo that feeling of being pampered by lovely packaging and the flattering light at makeup counters, sales associates fawning over you, and that "I am so worth it" sensibility, you don't ever have to shop department store counters again."

I occasionally contemplate how I feel about the high-end/low-end question. I find the almost undefinable "I'm worth it/I earned it," ideal alluring, but I'm not a snob and I love the best value for my money. I want a high-end look, not necessarily high-end prices.

In many cases, the primary difference is packaging. High end packaging is nice. I feel a little lift when I open the drawer to my dressing table in the dim morning light and seeing an ivory-gold halo from a Tom Ford lipstick tube shining in the shadows, like a lighthouse beckoning through the fog.

Ultimately, it's what's inside that counts. If any product doesn't deliver, I have no patience for it. I want good value, whatever the cost, and I am not convinced that a lipstick, which is so heavy it could be used as a paperweight, is worth an extra $30. I remember when I swore I would never spend more than $25 on a single lipstick.

Drugstore products have made leaps and bounds the last decade. In fact there are several that I prefer over their costlier countarparts. As my friend says, she could "walk into a metro drugstore anywhere ... and buy a whole 'face', including cleanser/moisturizer, and feel well turned out."

I know what she means. A few months ago, I watched an online video that used Rimmel Glam'Eyes Mono Eye Shadow in Spicy Bronze ($3.22), so I decided to try it, and I was completely unprepared for the outstanding quality. The buttery, silken texture rivaled old-school Stila (before the reformulation) and Dior singles. At just over $3, even the and packaging was unobjectionable.

Greatly encouraged, I next experimented with the similarly-priced Wet n Wild Color Icon Eye Shadow Trio in Silent Treatment ($2.99). The base shade was chalky, but the lid and crease colors were excellent, and the interesting mauve-tinted shimmering taupe was unlike anything I had seen, even from my higher-end brands.

The next item I tried was L'Oreal Infallible Le Rouge lipstick in Eternal Rose ($8.99). The color in the tube looked flat and extremely matte, but one swipe and I could not believe it. Silky, soft, and non-drying, and a little less than half the price of a MAC lipstick. Is the packaging pretty? Not really, but it's no worse than Shu Uemura packaging, whose lipsticks cost nearly three times as much.

One product I rarely spend more than $10 on (and often much less than that) is mascara. I was lured in by the excellent Lancome Defincils, but I had been perfectly happy with Maybelline Great Lash mascara for years/decades. And since I go through a tube in three months, I don't see the point of spending $25+. Enter CoverGirl LashBlast Length Mascara ($7.79). This is a fantastic mascara for coating lashes and adding length. If you like volume, move along. If you aren't looking for length, move along.

Despite finding such excellent bargains, I still get sucked in to the packaging, which probably says more about my own misguided sense of worth than a true position on the quality of the product. If I truly examined my motives, I'd likely realize that the worth in not frittering away my income on something that delivers nothing but artifice and trickery! All things being equal on the inside, of course.

Perhaps most telling of all is I depot almost everything I can. So inside my Unii palette, you'll find Equal Opportunity Makeup. No one knows where those pans used to live. To be fair, some of us could tell by pan shape and any embossing, but really.

I have read that almost all cosmetics brands are owned by a single giant (Estee Lauder, L'Oreal, Proctor Gamble, etc.) who manufactures both high and lower ends, and that these monoliths use the same patent across all of their lines. MAC = Tom Ford? Maybe. Why not? I like the Tom Ford lipstick I bought recently, but I didn't find its performance or texture better than anything else I own—in fact, it felt rather drying. The color Red Smoke (reviewed here) is lovely against my skin tone, but I would be lying if I said it wasn't the packaging that initially attracted me.

I do like pretty packaging, but when it comes down to it, no one sees this stuff but me. With the exception of the rare and furtive dash of lipstick, I don't apply my makeup in public, and the only person who sits at my dressing table, or even enters my inner sanctum, is yours truly. So why is the package so important to me—especially if I gut the thing? I want to say it's because it's, well, just nicer, that I have a reasonable disposable income and that I have earned the right for nice things. And I could have far, far costlier hobbies.

I cannot come down decidedly in favor of either of the high-end/low-end side, but one thing I know is that when I am retired, I'd rather be sitting on my front porch looking at the ocean waves breaking on the shore instead of looking at a drawer full of makeup I never wear.

In the meantime, wouldn't it be nice if, when shopping for drugstore makeup, we could bypass the overhead fluorescent lights and be transported back to a 1915-style chemist. Talk about a pampered experience. I should also remember that Revlon, Coty, and Max Factor were once sold in department stores before young upstart Estée Lauder entered the market. And how did she do it? She made her brand seem exclusive with limited distribution and higher price points! It's human nature to covet.


My product reviews do tend to highlight department store brands. However here's a list of pharmacy beauty I have repurchased many times:
  • St. Ives Apricot Scrub
  • Badger Cuticle Care and (lip) Balm
  • Buff Puff Gentle
  • Revlon Super Lustrous and Matte lipsticks
  • NYX Cosmetics Rouge Cream Blush
  • Maybelline Full 'N Soft Washable Mascara 
  • CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser and Moisturizing Lotion
  • Simple Micellar Cleansing Water
  • Dr. Bronner's Pure-Castile Soap, Baby-Mild
  • Eucerin Smoothing Repair Dry Skin Lotion    
  • Dove Beauty Bar, Sensitive Skin
  • Johnson's Baby Powder, Original
  • Maybelline Color Sensational Creamy Matte Lipstick
  • Neutrogena Norwegian Formula Hand cream
  • Trader Joe's Nourish All-In-One Facial Cleanser
Where do you stand on the high-end versus low-end issue? Do you shop only in department stores or do you love a good bargain? Do you think you can get good value from CVS, Walgreens, Target, and the like?

All photos from stock or Google images
Special thanks to Ten Bells and Pansy.


  1. I am mixed. Almay as well as Chantecaille have been good to me. Neutrogena and Kiehls have been quite cruel to my unsuspecting flesh. I do not de-pot, and I adore pretty packaging. Not expensive, pretty. Pixi's fairies are just as cute as Chante's turtles to me.

    One thing that has recently sent me currying back to HE is the amount of sampling/replacing I see lately in drugstores. Opened, swiped with dirty fingers, pens, heaven knows what... then placed back for someone to buy as if it were clean and new. If I knowlingly buy a sample, that's one thing, but the filth some people are getting as "new" creeps me out. Mascara' only good for a couple months, right? Suppose someone was drawing on the display or their eyes three months ago with your "new" item? Sorry for the rant, it happened several times recently and its bothering me.

  2. Anon, that's disgusting! Aren't most drugstore items sealed? The mascara I buy comes in a plastic front that is glued to cardboard backing, and lipsticks have a plastic wrapper completely surrounding them.

    I did notice yesterday, however, that anyone can open (and stick a dirty finger in) most foundation bottles, and a great majority of lip and eye pencils could also be swatched. Yuck.

    As for the higher end, my all-time favorites are not necessarily the most expensive. Laura Mercier and Chantecaille have given excellent value. I buy much less of Dior and Chanel because, overall, the colors are too warm and shimmery for my tastes. And I am just not that interested in Sisley, Cle de Peau, and other more $$ lines.

    Several years ago, I shopped almost exclusively at the mid-priced Prescriptives counter, and since I used just a handful of colors that were repeat buys over the years (e.g., 2 eyeshadows, 1 custom-blended powder, and fewer than 5 lipsticks), I had no problem with either the amount of makeup in my vanity or what I spent on it. It was also super easy and fast to get ready in the morning!

    Until recently, when formulations changed, it was the horrible smell/taste of drugstore lipstick (Revlon/L'Oreal) that stopped me in my tracks. I've always bought drugstore mascara, though.

  3. I, too, have been unable to find a drugstore lipstick I can tolerate (mostly the colors and textures, sometimes the scent), but always buy drugstore mascaras.

    I can easily forgo (and do, since I mostly shop online) the flattering lighting, fawing SAs, etc. And the packaging-- as long as it doesn't fall apart, I don't care, and the plainer the better. However, since makeup is something I wear every day and it's right on my skin, I want something that really works for me. It's too intimate to wear something poor quality. So I'm buying less and less, and experimenting less and less. But the next time I do feel like experimenting with a new lipstick color, I might just try something from the drugstore-- maybe the formulas have improved!

  4. Veuve, I think the formulas have improved! Eternal Rose is so silky, but it doesn't last long if that's a consideration.

  5. I stick to mid or high end makeup because my few forays into drugstore makeup have been flops. Unless you're an avid internet researcher, it's so easy to buy a few mediocre products that you don't love. For that money, I can get something that I really do love and will use every day. If I don't really love something (whether it's packaging, color, etc) I'll feel the urge to buy more, which doesn't save me money in the end.

    I think gel and pencil eyeliner are something that certain higher end brands do so much better than any drugstore brand. They're more pigmented and last longer (NARS, MUFE, Bobbi Brown, Chanel).

    However in defense of your article, I bet if you put every color in the same pan and same packaging, many people wouldn't be able to pick out the Chanels from the L'Oreals. I think companies like Chanel and NARS pay attention to minutia that make a color perfect, however this difference cannot be appreciated by every beauty enthusiast. I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's easy for people to flatter themselves as having good taste by buying and praising Chanel, but few people actually have the true taste to appreciate what actually makes HE brands like Chanel special sans packaging. I think a true measure of taste is how well one can find diamonds in the drugstore rough. And, I have to say that I'm not good enough yet! This reminds me of a "color quiz" that is available online that determines how good your color vision is. Apparently different people have different levels of prowess to tell apart small differences in colors. Perhaps more color sensitive people are more selective when it comes to color.

    Thanks for another well written article! I hope my comment wasn't all over the place =P

  6. No, your comments were perfect. The helped solidify in my mind some of the reasons I prefer mid to high-end products and might even explain why I have umteen million eyeshadows in varying degrees of taupe.

    I have a high attuned eye for color (would love to see that online quiz if you have a link handy) and am able to discern the tiny gradations in, say, a collection of seemingly-identical grey eyeshadows. It's the primary reason I have too much stuff. I can justify having it because it's different enough from something I already had on hand, whereas the drugstore products don't have nearly as large a selection.

    I recently started to categorize my products by color and one that seemed silly was at least three shimmering lilac eyeshadows. I promised myself I would keep just one, and yet Chanel Lavande, Chantecaille Freesia, and Laura Mercier Dusk--while looking nearly identical in the pan--were all quite different, and the all certainly looked different on my eyes.

    I absolutely agree that you can have so many drugstore misfires that the sum total ends up costing more than one or two loved items from a department store. I have done it myself. And especially now that drugstore products are not quite the bargain the used to be. If I am going to spend $10 on a lipstick and not be able to test it (or at least look at it), then I would be more likely to spend a few bucks more at a department store.

    You also hit the nail on the head about feeling unsatisfied and how mediocre drugstore products leave you wanting more. It's kind of like eating a diet meal that is supposed to be good for you but doesn't look very appealing, eating it anyway and feeling stuffed from it, but then finding yourself face first in a pint of Ben & Jerry's an hour later and wondering what happened!

    Speaking of color, I thought you might find this link amusing.

  7. I wouldn't say I'm strictly for either though I have tried a lot of lower-end & mid-end. I've never tried any Chanel, Dior, Chantecaille etc so I don't know if any of the makeup I own would fall into the high end category. (Mainly Korres, Urban Decay, Stila etc)

    I will say that mid-end has a whole lot of crap products as well as drugstore, and often times the ingredients are worse. I just found that surprising, but then again I'm just somewhat nerdy about ingredients, and I know this post has nothing to do with ingredients I just rant anyway. :-p

    If you're looking for a good lipstick try the 100% Pure Lip Glazes, they're $14 each (I think) so not bad. I do agree that a lot of drugstore lipsticks taste or smell weird, but I have I've had some really terrible ones from Smashbox before.

  8. Hi Zuzu! I think if you can tell the difference between colors and you love them, it's worth it! I'm definitely a color person too. I will definitely try to find that color quiz link when I have some time and post it. It's in my inbox somewhere.

    Speaking of which, the color link was awesome! HAHA. What a perfect color summary. I did enjoy your Ben and Jerry's analogy too. So fitting. I could use a tub of Cherry Garcia right about now.

  9. I'm a New York Super Fudge Chunk kind of girl. ;D

  10. The colors of high and other end eyeshadows frequently look the same in the pan, but just as frequently, the other end shadows look ashy when applied. That's what led me to higher end in the first place. Only in the last couple of years have the drug store brands begun to catch up in terms of color pay off. On the other hand, in terms of quantity of products, I'd better watch out or I'll be spending my retirement years with a lot of makeup instead of at a nice retirement site as you suggest. I've been thinking a lot about that lately...:)

  11. You are so insightful, Zuzu, it's incredible. I often have this debate in my head when I buy my uber high end stuff but you managed to put my thoughts into words. Really, the main thing holding me back from going whole hog with drugstore cosmetics, or at least with face products, is the difficulty I have finding a good match.

    For instance, I recently bought a tub of Coty Airspun loose powder in translucent. Fantastic quality, it didn't break me out or anything. But I kept having this niggling doubt that it was too light for my NC42+ skin and then discovered that "translucent" is actually for light skin tones. I'll gladly pay extra for help in picking out a foundation or powder - even if the SA is way off, it's easier to say no to the ridiculous match they pick out than to feel self-conscious and unsure about the match I pick for myself, if that makes sense.

  12. I almost always buy high end products for certain things- eye shadows (cream and powder), blusher, foundation and powder compact, primarily Nars, Stila, Clinique and Chanel. I choose these products according to the depth of colour, durability and if they irritate my face as the skin is quite sensitive.

    However the only mascara I use is Rimmel, my winter moisturiser is Nivea Soft and my summer moisturiser Nivea Visage.

    If I were to experiment with shades then it would be using high street brans because why pay £15-£20 for an eyeshadow you may wear once?

  13. Vintage, I agree that there is plenty of low quality in some of the mid- and high-end brands. I don't know what the did to Stila eyeshadow, but it used to be silky and buttery, and now the texture (especially the mattes) is so stiff I feel like I need to scrape my fingernail across the surface. Some of the NARS duos are terrible, especially the shimmery sides, and Bobbi Brown eyeshadow oxidizes on me.

    Thank you for the tip bout 100% Pure. I haven't seen that brand in person, but it rings a bell, so I must have seen it reviewed, maybe it was on your blog.

  14. AVa, I hadn't thought about ashiness. I am extremely fair and cool so ashy is actually good for me, which is why BB creams, which initially go on as grey (!) are OK, the settle down into the skim milk color that my skin is naturally, hee.

    I do think that if your skin is over NC35, the drugstore options are much more limiting.

    As for the whole makeup-collecting thing, I don't know what happened but just a couple short years ago, I suddenly decided I needed more, when previously just a few items made me happy (and look good). I guess it's a midlife makeup crisis!

  15. Elizabeth, thank you! As for the cerebral debate, I previously would not consider most drugstore makeup at all. I could almost visualize myself turning away at the thought of it, and I didn't read or participate in posts on forums and blogs about it until recently. This post was my working it out in my head, and my amusement at myself for my snobbery.

    That said, there are some things I just won't buy in a drugstore, such as foundation because, as you said, finding a good match is hard, and 99.9% of the lightest colors in the line are still too dark or too yellow for me.

    It never occurred to me that translucent was for fair skin, but that makes complete sense. I have a translucent powder by Laura Mercier, and it is literally white. I used to think my paleness represented a neglected group, but now I wonder if women over NC40 are also extremely neglected, even in the higher-end brands. That's one reason I liked Prescriptives (even though they matched me to a color that looked like calamine lotion. REVOLT!). There are some lines that have an amazing selection of colors for all skin tones (Becca and Alima), but Becca is hard to find at a counter, and Alima is sold online only. One great thing about Alima is you can buy a generously-sized sample of every item they sell for just $1.50 and pricing leans more toward the drugstore end. As for the high ends, Chanel has a terrible selection of skin colors.

    As for having a SA help picking out a color, I think that makes good sense. We are not often the best judges, and one thing many of us don't notice is that Our skin color changes as we get older. Fair skins, especially, take on a permanent pinkness (rosacea) or become more beige over time from sun damage. Plus darker skin just ages more beautifully.

    I recently read a book which posits that most of us are trying to wear a foundation that is too light. If I told the author I wear level 1.0 in a brand, she would immediately apply a 2.0, probably a 2.5. She also believes that everyone should wear yellow-based foundation and I flat-out disagree with that.

    I wish high and low ends alike would get this into their heads:


    And please keep NON medium-toned women in mind when designing your lines!

    Carry on.

  16. I am 99% high-end when it comes to makeup. Why? because I don't live in the US so I don't have access to real drugstore brands & pricing; the "drugstore" brands on offer here costs as much as mid-end to lower high-end makeup in the states. Example; L'oreal lipsticks are $18. That's silly! I'd rather add a few bucks and get the real deal! I do most of my makeup/beauty shopping online where I can get decent pricing, or I'll get a friend or relative to pick stuff up when traveling.
    Currently I'm in the process of reducing my makeup collection because after a recent move where I had to take 4 giant boxes for beauty products alone I feel like I cannot justify the sheer volume of it all. I will try to limit my cream-based products as these *will* go bad.
    Thanks for a relatable post!

  17. Oooh, so I'm so mixed on this issue! I do love the luxurious packaging and the fancy press releases and all of the bells and whistles associated with high-end brands, but then...I do like the idea of sticking to a budget. It's a hard line to draw!

  18. I like you depot almost everything. I am a chronic depotter and have been since the 80's. And yes, I have successfully depotted Chanel. Pretty cool too but didn't have a place to put the stuff back then.

    I shopped dept store stuff and what you are paying for is training for the line. Of course the packaging at times can be exquisite but if you wait a couple of years it all trickles down to the drugstore stuff. The thought of owning something from an expensive line also makes one feel good for that short moment until the next one comes in.

    Personally, I have learned that every line has their strong points whether it be high end or low end. Some lines I could care less about no matter how fancy their stuff can get. Drugstore stuff is getting good although I have found a majority of the stuff a miss which makes the amount spent equal to probably a good high end product.

    Right now, I think the indie lines are interesting too. Although, they don't have the PR push, there are some products that blow high end stuff out of the water!

  19. I keep oscillating between the two, never really reaching the super expensive end of the spectrum, but I imagine the battle will continue to wage until either I become unemployed or win the lottery. :)

    I grew up with struggling parents who would faint at the idea of spending a lot of money on beauty products, but perhaps because of it I appreciate the sense of being pampered so much more now. It's difficult trying to find and maintain a balance that is comfortable, and everyone has a different idea of what that is. If I wore makeup only for the end result, it wouldn't matter which brand I buy or what product I put on as long as it looks good. But when I purchase nicer things, it's for the sensory experience. There's something about seeing a luxe compact sitting on your vanity, the weightiness and sheen of it, the satisfying click you hear as it closes... I fear it's a lifelong romance!

  20. I've been having an internal war with myself lately over this and a lot of the points made here rings true for me as well.

    I didn't discover makeup until I was around 15 or 16 and drugstore makeup was all I could afford. But once I started working a bit on the side, I couldn't help but upgrade my products. I feel like Clinique is usually the gradual choice for teenagers after drugstore. Once you step into a department store, you can't help but notice all the choices available to you: Chanel, Dior, YSL, etc. It then became my goal to afford those one day, when Clinique no longer satisfies me.

    I'm a college student and once in a while I do splurge. I always feel guilty about it though, considering how Dior Amber Diamond = a week's groceries. (I bought it anyway). That's another thing, hype is a HUGE enabler. I think I've seen at least 10 bloggers rave about the highlighter so of course my heart couldn't take being without it. I think I'm rambling now, sorry!

    In conclusion, I love high end makeup because of the superior quality, design, SAs assisting me with color matching (foundations are my weakness) and just the gratifying feeling I get from simply owning such a luxurious product. I've made it my mission to own at least one item from each high-end range. I doubt it'll be enough though haha

  21. heh i just somehow googled your blog and now i'm a fan xD i just had to leave a comment cuz this is an issue that i think about more now that i've tried a few higher end makeup (no la metier but dior & chanel).

    i actually kind of started off with mid end makeup (mostly mac) and then got curious about drugstore makeup later. drugstore makeup when i first experimented with it and now has come a LONG way. but also with higher prices :( i think it comes to a personal preference for sure. do i really need a $60 eyeshadow? of course not but it's a luxury i spend my money on rather than other things. i think every woman deserves to splurge but ultimately for me it comes down to quality. if a drugstore item gives me similar quality as a high end product than i would buy the cheaper item but it's harder to identify the quality drugstore items because there are no testers.

    i read this article recently abt wat makeup products to splurge on and which ones to save on and i ended up agreeing with a lot of them so i think there are general products that should be bought at drugstores over department stores but some items have such a quality difference that it's better to shell out the money for it :D

  22. and oops i wanted to add my two cents with the foundation comment about how having a SA help picking out a color. although i kinda agree that most people are wearing a foundation that's too light for their face i think that statement is subjective because i would think it's impossible to get a perfect match since most people's skintone isn't uniformly one color. there are areas on your face that is lighter/darker than other areas and your whole face could be a different color than your neck which could be slightly different from your body so how does one find the right foundation color? i find many SA are terrible at matching in general because the lighting in each store is so different and for me personally they tend to match me to the side of my face which is darker than the center (i have no idea why) and when i use that shade it makes me look dirty like I got a bad spray tan. then i know girls who like matching their foundation to their neck color even though it takes them 2 or 3 shades darker than their face color. so wat exactly is the correct method to foundation matching? but i do agree that not everyone should wear a yellow-based foundation and drugstore is definitely NOT the place to start buying foundation because there are no testers and most of the foundations are pink based and do not have enough yellow in them for a lot of people. i find most all drugstore foundations are too pink for me :( which is why i think it's necessary to splurge on foundation xD

  23. Hi Isabella. Excellent point about not being able to discern d/s quality because of a lack of testers. Where was the article you read about which products to buy in d/s versus department stores? If online, can you please post a link? I'd love to read it.

    As for foundation, I have heard it's best to match to the skin on your neck and chest because that's your true body coloring. Pink overtones on the face, such as those caused by irritation, acne, rosacea, and the like, can mask someone's true colors. I also read that most of us are walking around wearing foundation at least one shade too light, but I do NOT agree with the everyone-needs-yellow philosophy. I would not attempt to find a foundation in a drugstore. Neutrogena makes an excellent tinted moisturizer, but the lightest color was too dark and yellow for me so it was a waste of $12. My holy grail foundation for the last 12 years has been Jane Iredale PurePressed powder, which I wear in the center of my face only, to counter redness--and the nice thing is I can apply it very sheer. NOT a drugstore brand, though.

  24. I think another good point to bring up is usually the return policy for department stores are much better than d/s which can definitely play a factor especially on things like foundation where you may not be able to find a good match and you don't have the option of returning it :/

  25. Honestly I have never spent more than 20 dollars on any makeup product. I am sure that higher end brands are way better in quality but seriously, an eyeshadow for even more than $30 is too much. Maybe a palette I would understand but for one or two eye shadows that's a lot to me. Well if you have a really great job that pays extremely well, or if you are still being supported by your parents and they don't mind buying you expensive cosmetics I might go for it too, but I can honestly say I am happy with my drugstore brand makeup. To me packaging is whatever. As long as I am happy with the product itself I am extremely good. I even went back to ELF or eyeslipsface cosmetics. I had started off using them when I was a teen and now that I am in college I actually went back to that brand and started getting some of their studio line makeup. Not only because it is so inexpensive but its honestly not so bad. I mean be reasonable and you will come to realize its NOT so bad. I know most ladies who are obsessed with higher end brands look at elf with disgust or laugh at it but I have tried some higher end makeup brands like mac, nars, and urban decay and yes its a tad bit better but not good enought for the expensive prices they are ridiculously high and you are throwing away a lot of money.


I love reading your comments. If you have a specific question or request, please feel free to e-mail me directly. Comments that contain advertising links or shameless plugs will not be published.