The Big Skin Cream Con

Persuading consumers to part with hundreds of dollars a year for small pots of promise has turned into big business — a nearly $265 billion dollar industry, to be exact. [1]

With beauty industry revenues rising, we decided to ask: Do budget-blowing expensive skin creams make us more beautiful than their cheaper counterparts? To become smarter shoppers,  we take a close look at the promises made by spendy skin creams, starting with how their popularity began.

The Rise of the Beauty Brand Junkie

The desire to be beautiful is as old as civilization. However, your grandmother might remind you of a time when homemade recipes, instead of department store cosmetics counters, were what women trusted to get their skin cream fix.

A shift in perceived value started in the 20th century when mass production coincided with mass exposure to idealized standards of beauty. Piggybacking on the rising phenomenon of movie stars and magazine models, the beauty industry — and with it, skin creams — began to take off.

More Than Skin Deep – The Skin Cream Promise 

Since then, skin cream has done some wonderful things for us. It can help relieve dryness, keeps our faces looking fresh, and can even aid in color correction or sun protection. 

However, even the best-intentioned companies can exaggerate from time to time, and less honest ones even more so! 

Additionally, clever skin cream companies are acutely aware of the anxieties consumers have about their appearance. Driven by a wealthy generation of baby-boomers and a cultural shift in perception that treats aging like the plague, brands have shifted focus to promising bigger and better innovations with each new skin cream.

Stressing scientific advancements and unique formulas, many skin cream claims now blur the line between cosmetic and prescription promises — a trend not lost on the FDA, who are faced with increasing complaints regarding “cosmaceutical” claims. [2]

Read more about what cosmetic companies can really claim: A Comprehensive Guide to Buying Anti-Aging Products

According to the FDA, skin creams have a cap on what they can deliver without being considered a “drug.”

Recognize When Claims Cross the Line

Understanding when a skin cream company crosses that line and exaggerates their claims is the first step in taking a smarter approach to shopping for skin cream.

Keep an eye out for qualifying terms, such as “helps” and “reduces the appearance of.” These vague advertising terms mean just what they say—that the product will temporarily reduce the appearance of something without treating the underlying condition, because changing the physical structure of the skin would make the product a drug.

Coined “weasel words,” these phrases allow skin cream companies to make big promises that elicit feelings of hope without getting into any regulatory trouble, and are a clear indication of overblown beauty claims.

So, what do more expensive skin creams really have to offer? Is it that some skin cream ingredients so rare, precious and labor-intensively processed as to merit these prices?

Hope in a Jar - Are Diamonds Your Skin’s Best Friend?

It turns out pricing has a lot more to do with perceived value than actual benefits. Meaning that premium skin creams demand premium prices not to maintain your image, but to maintain the image of their luxury brand. [3]

Paula Begoun, the best-selling author of "Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me," states:

“While some prestige brands have hefty price tags to cover their high-quality ingredients, a good chunk of their production costs goes to their fancy-looking packaging. In fact, many brands spend more resources designing the package than creating the formula itself.” [4]

Still, Paula’s statement implying that higher-quality ingredients do matter leaves some ambiguity when attempting to determine what quality is worth. What about the implied benefit of super-expensive ingredients?

Veer Away From Aspirational Ingredients

Pricey skin creams have long used exotic-sounding ingredients to claim unique or enhanced beauty benefits. Recent examples include L’Reve24k, which boasts that it contains gold flakes and Lumera Eye Serum, which claims that it uses finely powdered diamonds.

While powdered diamonds do indeed help exfoliate the skin of dead cells, an article in NY Magazine about diamond powder in expensive skin creams concluded it was no better at its job than over-the-counter creams that use cheaper ingredients. [6]

Gold is another precious ingredient that has made its way onto several premium skin cream ingredients lists. Despite sounding luxe, there’s little proof of gold’s effectiveness aside from raising the price tag.

According to the New York Times, dermatologists agree that low levels of gold are fine against the skin (and may even give it a little shine), but nanoparticles that are said to be in some gold-enhanced creams can be toxic. In fact, gold was chosen as Allergen of the Year by the American Contact Dermatitis Society in 2001. [7]

Remember, no matter how valuable an ingredient, the effects are temporary. As previously mentioned, any formula capable of changing the skin’s structure would be classified as a drug. 

But that’s not all! When paying for the privilege of luxury ingredients, the folks at Beauty Brains explained to NY Magazine, you might as well be throwing your money down the drain.

“Unlike an active ingredient like, say, retinol, they’re not providing any sort of long-term benefit for your skin. When you wash your face, you’re washing off the diamonds, since they don’t penetrate skin and pores.” [6]

Perry Romanowski, a contributor to Beauty Brains and author of “Beginning Cosmetic Chemistry,” digs even deeper:

“Some skin-care products you can buy in Sephora cost about $2 to make, but then are on sale for $300. Other skin-care products can be made for 50 cents and are sold for $2. And although the actual percentages of the markups is a trade secret that companies don't reveal, these products are not using ingredients so expensive that they would warrant the cost.” [5]

Want to learn which ingredients do deliver? Check out: Learning To Read Your Cosmetics Label Can Save You Cash

What Happens When You Indulge Only Half Your Face 

Some intrepid beauty investigators have stepped up and put their own faces literally on the line. UK’s Daily Mail columnist Claire Cisotti used $.1.50 Nivea Cream on one side of her face and on the other $130 Crème de Mere on the other for 30 days.  

The results? You can judge for yourself!

UK’s Daily Mail columnist Claire CisottiImage: Daily Mail

But skin creams claim to do more than affect your immediate appearance. To ensure her half-face test went the distance, Claire had her facial tissue scanned with the same technology NASA uses to monitor UV and radiation effects on their astronaut's skin.

The Winner? The Nivea Side Retained Moisture Better!

According to Claire’s dermatologist, the Nivea side retained more hydration while reducing redness and fine lines better than Crème De La Mer. 

Claire, herself, contends that both creams made her skin look great. However, if shoppers can get better results for a fraction of the price of Crème de la Mer, then the winner is obvious.

Bottom Line? There Are Good and Bad Products at Every Price 

We’re all a little superstitious when it comes to beauty products, hoping to stave off another wrinkle or minute sag before it appears. The strong desire to avoid signs of a less-than-perfect appearance drives the fear that, while it’s perfectly acceptable not to buy the best, it’s your face and your fault, should you be less than pleased with your skin over time.

But the truth is that the amount of money you spend on skincare products has nothing to do with the quality or uniqueness of the formula. An expensive soap by L'Occitane is no better for your skin than an inexpensive bar soap such as Dove (though both are potentially too irritating and drying for all skin types). 

Understand that it’s all about the formula.

The truth is that there are plenty of truly good and bad skin creams available for any budget—you just have to know where to look! The first place to start is by paying attention to product ingredients and to learn what is proven to benefit your unique skin.

Say you really enjoy a particular skin cream, but can’t stand the fragrance, can’t afford it, or it’s been discontinued?

Comparing ingredients is a great way to find less expensive or slightly different versions of a product you love.

Doing so isn’t difficult, but there are a few important tips. For a better explanation, we’ll use the ingredients from that previously mentioned Nivea Cream that’s probably already made it on your next shopping list:

Water, Mineral Oil, Petrolatum, Glycerin, Microcrystalline Wax, Lanolin Alcohol, Paraffin, Panthenol, Alcohol, Magnesium Sulfate, Decyl Oleate, Octyldodecanol, Aluminum Stearate, Fragrance, Citric Acid, Magnesium Stearate, Methylchloroisothiazolinone, Methylisothiazolinone

When comparing this product to another skin cream, follow these steps:

  1. Make sure the comparable skin cream is also water based by checking that water (or aqua) is the first ingredient.
  2. Try to find a comparable skin cream with the same first five ingredients, though they needn’t be in the exact same order.
  3. Before buying your replacement product, give it a sniff! Added scents often irritate sensitive skin, but are difficult to locate on the label.

While this isn’t a foolproof method of finding duplicate products, taking an active approach to reading (and noting!) which ingredients do your skin good is the most dependable way to narrow down your choices and find a skin cream you really love. 

Additionally, as an informed skin cream consumer, you’ll have an easy time avoiding the lure of expensive ingredients, overblown cosmetics claims and aspirational marketing—helping you save face in more ways than one!

Want to learn more about ingredients? Check out: Is This Stuff Working? A Look at Anti-Aging Creams


  2. Is It a Cosmetic, a Drug, or Both?
  5. The Cosmetics Racket
  6. Do Diamonds in Beauty Products Actually Offer Any Benefits?
  7. Gold Face Cream: A Costly Leap of Faith

  • August 4, 2015

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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