Within the skincare community, one question reigns eternal: Does paying more for a product ensure more benefits from its use?
There are compelling arguments to be made for both sides of this debate, but the answer isn’t black and white. Ultimately it boils down to a few factors: the purpose of the product, the nature of its active or featured ingredients, and, well, your own preferences. So let’s take a look at when to splurge on skincare and when to put the pricey potions down in favor of a more budget-friendly option. We’ll focus on three key factors.
In an ideal world, the price of a skincare product would directly reflect the quality and potency of its ingredients.
We don’t live in an ideal world. In the world we do live in, ingredients are just one of the variables that affects a skincare product’s price, and not always in the way we’d expect.
We don’t live in an ideal world. In the world we do live in, ingredients are just one of the variables that affects a product’s price, and not always in the way we’d expect.
Take actives, for example. Actives are the category of skincare ingredients that have been extensively researched and shown to produce substantial effects to the structure or function of skin. The main actives you’ll encounter are:
- Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid, whose key benefit is their ability to unglue dead skin cells from the surface of skin, allowing it to slough off at an accelerated rate in order to reveal fresher, smoother, brighter skin;
- Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid, whose key benefit is their ability to cut through sebum to unglue dead skin cells and dislodge debris from within open pores, resulting in clearer skin and the appearance of smaller or fewer visible pores overall;
- Vitamin C, whose key benefits are reduced hyperpigmentation and increased collagen production, for brighter, firmer, and more youthful-looking skin; and
- Retinoids like tretinoin, retinol, and retinyl acetate, which also increase collagen production and fade hyperpigmentation, through different mechanisms than vitamin C.
Although actives are in many ways the gold standard of skincare ingredients—lots of evidence that they work, and lots of knowledge about the optimal ways to formulate them—the basic actives in the list above are, in fact, not particularly pricey as raw ingredients. Nor does formulating them for effectiveness demand a ton of R&D. The parameters for effectiveness are widely known and comparatively easily achieved. That’s why brands like The Ordinary can offer potent exfoliators, peels, and anti-aging vitamin C and retinoid products for under $20.
Not only are they not expensive as raw ingredients, but actives like the ones mentioned above are the same regardless of their manufacturer and supplier. The molecular composition is always the same. These ingredients are pure chemicals, not compounds, so there should be no variance. For example, glycolic acid is glycolic acid, whether it comes in a big bottle for less than $9 from The Ordinary or a much smaller bottle for $80 from Sunday Riley.
So if you’re looking for a product with a clear, specific, simple functionality that can be addressed by one of the well-researched actives, and the functionality is all you want, go for the inexpensive option. I also recommend basic, inexpensive actives when you prefer a more extensive, multilayered routine that includes additional hydrating or antioxidant products. As counterintuitive as it sounds, save your budget for the supporting products.
If you’re looking for a product with a clear, specific functionality that can be addressed by one of the well-researched actives, go for the inexpensive option.
Extracts and General Formulation
If all I wanted out of skincare were the basic, well-researched actives in bare-bones formulations, I wouldn’t be here right now.
You can certainly make a decent routine out of nothing but a mild cleanser, an active or two, and a Cetaphil or other drugstore dermatologist-recommended bland moisturizer and sunscreen. Depending on your starting point, that may be enough to deliver the kind of improvements you’re looking for. Personally, I haven’t found that to be enough since the very beginning of my skincare journey. The basic actives are just the foundation of my routine; thanks to my perfectionist tendencies and deep craving for a routine that sparks joy, I need more.
It’s in the “more” where differences begin to show.
Going back to my Sunday Riley example, at first glance the $85 price tag on the Good Genes AHA serums can look ridiculous (and the emphasis on “clean, purified” glycolic acid is ridiculous), but it becomes more understandable if you look beyond the main active ingredient. Products like Good Genes supplement their active ingredients with supporting players ostensibly included to optimize the product’s effects, often by balancing out the active ingredients’ side effects.
Among these supporting ingredients, you’ll often find plant extracts and oils. These can vary widely from supplier to supplier.
Extracts aren’t pure chemicals in the way that ingredients like glycolic acid are. Instead, plant extracts are compounds. At the very least, they contain the biological matter extracted from the source plant and the solvent into which the biological matter is extracted. They generally also contain some kind of preservative to make the extract shelf-stable until it becomes an ingredient in a cosmetic product.
The proportions of these components are not standardized across the industry. One supplier may be cranking out a weak, diluted extract in a bottom-of-the-barrel solvent like alcohol. Another supplier may be providing a far more concentrated extract in a little bit of water. You’d never be able to tell just from the ingredients list on the label, because both will be listed with the exact same name.
The price of the skincare product is not an infallible indicator of extract quality, but I have found that in many cases, it is a decent starting point. I’ve tried ginseng product after ginseng product and unfortunately never found any budget-friendly ones that produce results comparable to Sulwhasoo’s high-end ginseng line, for example. In Sulwhasoo’s case, the price point also reflects the skincare brand’s large and well-established internal R&D departments and in-house ginseng cultivation and extraction. Having total control over the ingredient means much more insight into quality.
Ingredient cultivation matters because in all cases, the amount of beneficial compounds in a plant extract or oil will also depend on how the plant was cultivated, harvested, and processed. The differences may be subtle but will exist.
As an illustration of the extreme end of this principle, Sulwhasoo sister brand Amorepacific grows their own Camellia sinensis, the tea plant from which they derive their signature green tea ingredients. They use their green tea in a variety of ways, from extracts to fermented extracts to potent antioxidant derivatives, like EGCG, of the extracts. According to the brand, their control over their green tea cultivation even extends to the manner in which it’s harvested. They employ the gentlest possible harvesting techniques to prevent damage to the leaves.
If you have the budget, therefore, exploring higher-end skincare with a focus on specific plant extracts is not a bad way to go. To maximize your chances of finding something truly worth the money, take some time to learn which ingredients a brand emphasizes, and choose products that feature that ingredient high in their ingredients lists. La Mer, for example, built their brand on the strength of the fermented sea kelp extracts they use. If seaweed ingredients appeal to you, therefore, I’d put La Mer on the splurge list.
The Final Piece of the Puzzle
At the end of our discussion, I want to make note of one final factor that can influence our perception of a product’s value: enjoyment.
I’ve said it before and will say it again: No skincare product will do a thing for your skin unless you use it consistently. It could be the most perfectly formulated product in the world, but if you don’t like using it enough to use it regularly, it simply won’t work. So if you are a person who, like me, needs to really enjoy your products and routine in order to stay consistent with it, don’t feel ashamed of taking factors like packaging, scent, and texture into consideration.
Brands like Sulwhasoo expend a great deal of effort and expense to present their products in packaging that’s beautiful to the eye, satisfying to the touch, and consistent with their carefully constructed brand story. This results in products that appeal to their target consumer on many levels. If you prioritize thrift, this won’t be a selling point to you. But if you’re looking for joy as well as effectiveness, it matters.
As you can see, budget versus luxury isn’t as simple a question as it may appear. For many of us, there’s more to skincare than just a checklist of basic actives, and when we want to move beyond the fundamentals, a lot more to consider. I hope my primer helps you make your decisions, and above all else, I hope your shopping leads you to some gems, whether they’re under $20 or several times that much!