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Is High-End Designer Makeup Worth It? – 7 Things to Consider


According to Statista, the cosmetics industry in the United States is expected to have close to a whopping $59 billion in revenue in 2014. From mascara to nail polish, lip gloss to eyeshadow, there’s no shortage of products to spend your hard-earned money on. And temptation is everywhere. Whether you’re buying a pair of shoes at the department store or picking up a prescription at the drugstore, you’re bound to be faced with racks and racks of cosmetics offerings.

At the department or beauty specialty store, you can find exclusive brands and high-end service for a high price, while drugstore offerings tend to be more mainstream and priced more modestly. How do the two types of makeup really compare? Is it worth forking over the extra cash to nab makeup with Christian Dior, MAC, or Stila printed on the tube?

Why Designer Makeup Costs More

The question of whether designer makeup is worth double or triple the cost of its drugstore counterpart – products sometimes called “dupes” in the industry – comes down to a few different factors.

What You’re Paying For

When it comes to designer makeup, you usually pay extra for several reasons:

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  • Brand Name. As in fashion, simply purchasing a designer makeup brand is going to cost you. It’s a status symbol, so it takes some extra money if you want to have Chanel in your cosmetics bag.
  • Fragrance. Here’s one of the areas designer brands outshine their cheaper dupes: Luxe fragrances added to the formula to enhance the user experience. Or, in the case of brands like Clinique, a lack of fragrance advertised as being better for your skin.
  • Better Applicators. Designer makeup is more likely to offer better application devices, such as eyeshadow brushes, foundation sponges, and mascara and powder applicators. These can make a big difference in how makeup looks on your skin, so they could bring added value – especially if you purchase applicators separately for your drugstore makeup anyway.
  • Packaging. You definitely notice a difference in packaging with designer makeup versus drugstore cosmetics. Flashy tubes and pretty packaging make up much of the extra cost, which also speaks to the idea of status in the makeup world. If you feel more “special” using a tube of designer lipstick, perhaps you’re more willing to pay for it.
  • Increased Pigmentation. Better makeup brands often have better pigmentation, which means improved color payoff. Better color payoff means you need to use less product overall – you won’t need to use as much blush if it’s more highly pigmented.

Notice that ingredients aren’t actually a factor in the increased pricing. That’s because the vast majority of designer makeup has the same ingredients as its drugstore equivalent. While designer makeup might have features like added pigments or fragrance, their components are often fundamentally the same. It’s up to you to decide whether the extra cost justifies the benefits you get.

Of course, not everyone has the same priorities. While your best friend may be happy to splurge on her signature designer lipstick, you might go bargain basement on lips and prefer to spend more on a great concealer. Your makeup budget should address whatever makes you feel best.

Designer vs. Drugstore Makeup

Sometimes, you can justify the extra cost of designer makeup based on the added benefits of pricier brands, such as increased pigmentation, better fragrance, or a better applicator. However, this is not always the case.

Knowing when to splurge on designer cosmetics or save with drugstore products can help you better allocate your beauty budget and get the most out of every dollar. Here are some general guidelines for the most common products.

1. Blush

  • Designer or Drugstore: Drugstore

Blush has one of the longest shelf lives of any makeup – up to about a year. And, since many powder-based blushes have the same ingredients, you really don’t need to splurge on pricey designer brands. Even if the pigment isn’t as strong in a drugstore brand, blush is buildable, which means you can layer it to get the right amount of color.

The only time you’d need to splurge on blush is if you prefer a stain formula. If you like cheek stain instead of blush, you may need to purchase a designer brand simply because it’s a specialty product.

Expect to spend around $5 to $7 on a mid-range drugstore blush. I love Cover Girl Classic Color ($6) and e.l.f. Studio Blush ($3).

2. Mascara

  • Designer or Drugstore: Either

Mascara is another product that has similar formulations from brand to brand. However, because mascara depends on both brush type and pigment, you may prefer to pay more for a designer brand that prioritizes both.

Personally, mascara is one of my favorite products. Therefore, I’m willing to pay more for a designer brand that I know and love – the cost per wear is fairly low, even with the added premium of a designer name tag.

Keep in mind that different mascaras have different benefits. Some promise to give you fatter lashes, others tout lengthening benefits, and some help define even the smallest lashes. The trick is to find the best mascara that gives you what you need.

Mascara is also one of the most common makeup products at the drugstore, so there are plenty to try on the cheap. In my experience, designer brands with larger, softer applicators tend to have better results for volumizing, while drugstore brands (which often have thinner brushes) work well for lengthening.

You can spend anywhere from $7 to $30 on a mascara. Two of my favorites are L’Oreal Telescopic Shocking Extensions ($10) and Diorshow Iconic Overcurl ($30).

3. Lipstick

  • Designer or Drugstore: Designer

A good lipstick relies on excellent pigmentation and good wear throughout the day. Buying a more expensive lipstick can get you ideal color payoff again and again, so it’s often worth splurging for a designer brand if that means nabbing your signature color. Better brands also tend to add more moisturizing ingredients to their lip colors, so you get the benefits of add-ins such as shea butter to keep your pout from drying out, a common complaint among drugstore lipstick users. Then, you can nab cheaper shades for trendy colors you want to try, but aren’t yet willing to commit to.

Expect to fork over anywhere from $16 to $30 for a high-end lipstick. I love the color and hydration of Lancome’s Color Design Lip ($23), as well as NARS Semi-Matte Lipstick ($26) for the perfect daily-wear finish.

4. Lip Gloss

  • Designer or Drugstore: Drugstore

You don’t need to be nearly as finicky with lip gloss as you do with lipstick, so feel free to bargain hunt and buy a bunch. You don’t need the pigment you do from lipstick, and almost all lip glosses have the same formulas and contain some combination of lanolin oil, polybutene, and microcrystalline wax. Go cheap and buy a few different colors.

You can spend from $1 to $7 on lip gloss and get a huge range of colors and brands. Some of my favorites are e.l.f. Studio Glossy Gloss ($3), Rimmel Stay Glossy ($4), and Maybelline Baby Lips ($4). I can also say that I own Dior Addict Gloss, which set me back about $30, and it doesn’t perform any better than any of my drugstore faves.

5. Concealer and Foundation

  • Designer or Drugstore: Either

Because concealer and foundation are such personal products (you might need full coverage, while other ladies are more interested in color correction), it’s hard to say definitively whether designer or drugstore brands reign supreme. Skin-colored makeup relies on too many factors to declare a winner, especially since you could potentially find your perfect match and coverage level just about anywhere.

You may need to experiment with different products, remembering that the department store isn’t the only place to find a good selection. If you’re shopping designer, always ask for samples so you can try a product out in natural light before splurging.

Keep in mind that designer brands often have more pigments, along with add-ins such as serums, light-reflectors, and sunscreen, which cheaper brands might not include. It all depends on the benefits you’re looking for in your foundation and concealer, and how much help your skin needs.

You can pay anywhere from about $3 to more than $50 for a range of foundations. A few I’ve tried and loved include e.l.f. HD Lifting Concealer ($3), NYC Smooth Skin Liquid Makeup ($3), Cover Girl Advanced Radiant Age-Defying Liquid Makeup ($11), BareMinerals Mineral Foundation ($27), and Urban Decay Naked Skin Weightless Ultra Definition Liquid Makeup ($39).

6. Nail Polish

  • Designer or Drugstore: Drugstore

Nail polish is definitely the same across the board, especially when comparing better drugstore brands – Sally Hansen and OPI – to department store brands such as Chanel. However, the difference might not be in your nail polish, but the quality of your top coat, since a good one can seal your manicure and make just about any nail polish last longer. I always splurge on top coat, which in turn makes all of my cheaper nail polishes last longer and appear shinier.

My all-time favorite top coat is Seche Vite, which is about $8 at my local beauty supply store. It dries fast and rock-hard, making all my nail polishes – both designer and drugstore – look amazing, and it protects them from chips and peeling too.

7. Eyeshadow and Eyeliners

  • Designer or Drugstore: Either

Eyeshadow, like blush, has similar ingredients across the board, but designer brands might have premium versions of those ingredients. Drugstore eyeshadow can sometimes feel chalky and have less pigmentation, while designer brands might have better color payoff and smoother application, meaning you don’t have to use as much product per wear. In the end, I think a combination of designer neutral shades and drugstore trendy colors is best – you get great coverage for everyday looks, but can still spice things up without committing to a pricey palette.

As for eyeliners, I’ve had designer and drugstore brands, and as long as they have a soft kohl tip they perform basically the same. You might pay for a better applicator on a designer pencil, or a built-in pencil sharpener, so it’s up to you to decide if those benefits are worth the cost.

However, I have noticed a difference in liquid liners. Since I like a smooth line and marker-like applicator, I splurge more for designer brands that tend to offer better applicators so I don’t have to fuss with creating the perfect line.

Eyeshadow palettes can cost you from $3 to $50. My favorite palettes include Maybelline Eye Studio Color Tattoo Cream Gel Shadow ($7), Physician’s Formula Baked Collection Wet/Dry Shadow ($8), and Urban Decay’s Naked Palettes ($54). I use the Naked for day-to-day neutrals, but go for cheaper brands when purchasing colored shadows.

For eyeliner pencils, you can spend between $1 to $30, depending on the brand. I’ve had excellent luck with the $1 Wet n Wild Kohl Color Icon Eyeliner Pencil, as well as Starlooks Eye Pencil ($12). I splurge on my liquid liner, opting for LORAC’s Front of the Line Liquid Pro ($24).

The True Cost and Value of Makeup

A good way to decide the true value of makeup is to calculate its cost per ounce. For example, I was planning to purchase an eyebrow pencil for $21 – a good price. However, when I read the packaging, I realized the product only weighed 0.003 ounces, bringing it to a cost of $7,000 per ounce. According to current prices, this would make the materials used in the eyebrow pencil about seven times more valuable than an ounce of gold. Furthermore, unless you consider your eyebrow pencil to literally be worth its weight in gold, that’s a bit steep. That little $21 pencil isn’t such a great deal after all.

Another factor that should go into deciding the true value of designer cosmetics is the cost per use. If you use a good concealer once in the morning and once again as a touch-up in the late afternoon, that’s twice a day, every day. Assuming there are about 100 applications in each $30 tube, it costs you about $0.30 per use. If this is a cost you can live with, you might be more likely to splurge on a pricier product.

In contrast, say you get talked into an expensive blue eyeshadow by a department store makeup artist. You buy it for $25, but only use it four times before it ends up in the bottom of your makeup bag. That puts the cost per wear at $6.25, which is pretty hefty. Calculating this cost can give you a better idea of the value of a product and whether or not the added expense is worth the money.

Take it from someone who loves buying makeup – it’s hard not to get swept up by new products, pretty packaging, and brand appeal. However, taking a few minutes to run some calculations and estimate how much something is really worth can save you from making an expensive and unnecessary purchase.

Final Word

If you’re a diehard fan of your favorite designer blush, that increases the product’s worth to you. Still, just because you purchased something at a department store counter doesn’t automatically make it superior to something you could purchase at a drugstore. You might just be paying for the pretty packaging when a drugstore dupe would work just as well. Ultimately, comparing ingredients and doing a bit of research into the true cost per ounce could help you save major beauty budget bucks.

Do you use department store makeup, or are you a drugstore beauty queen?

Jacqueline Curtis writes about edtech, finance, marketing, and small business strategy. With over 14 years of copywriting experience, she's created content and scripting for organizations such as GE, Walgreens, Overstock, and MasterCard. She lives in Utah with her husband, three kids, and an overzealous springer spaniel named Penelope.