I got the following email from a reader named Patty.
Hi Jen, Can you tell me what I need to be looking at on the label when it comes to expensive skin care products verses the drugstore products? (Even the more expensive ones in the drugstore verses the lesser priced drugstore options.) If I need to spend the money on the more expensive products, I will, but I guess I don't know what makes them worth the extra money? I'd hate to spend more just for the packaging.
Great question, Patty, and one that many people have. Why do we splurge on one product over another and how often are we getting duped in paying more than what it's worth. The answer to the second question is often.
Skin care products have a big range of ingredients starting simply with water and moving on to ingredients with certain roles such as moisturizing, cleansing, suspending oil and water, and many, many other ingredients. The first ingredients you want to look at when evaluating a product is the active ingredients.
Active ingredients are usually listed at the top of the ingredient list about the full ingredient list. Sometimes, depending on the ingredient, it will list a percentage. This is an important place to start. Let's take acne products for example. One of the most effective acne fighting ingredients in Salicylic Acid. If you look at a low-priced drugstore product, in this case Clean and Clear Advantage Acne Control Moisturizer you'll find Salicylic Acid at 0.5% strength. A higher end product, Clinique Acne Solutions Clarifying Lotion has 1.5% Salicylic Acid.
But looking for percentages doesn't always work. Some ingredients, such as anti-aging superstar Retinol, many times is listed without the percentage on the back. (Your best bet is to go to a Dermatologist for retinol. You'll get a much higher percentage in a prescription.) Yes, frustrating, but the "The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act" still helps us make our way through the list.
By law, the ingredients must be listed in order of concentration. So when you look at your moisturizer and see the first ingredient as Aqua (water), that is the ingredient that your product has the most of. And moving down as you go down the list.
Two things to note, however, is if the company has put a patent on the product's ingredient list, they do not have to follow the concentration rule. Also, any ingredient that is less than 1% of the formula can go in any order at the end. The company will of course put the more desirable ingredients in the top of the less-than-1% list leaving the least desirable ingredient as the last.
Are Natural Ingredients Always Better?
Another reason why some products cost more than their drugstore counterparts is because they have more natural ingredients in their product. Some people are devoted to a more green lifestyle and find that using products with natural ingredients fit with their lifestyle, but natural ingredients aren't always a better option.
If you're looking for your products to give you specific solutions to your problems, such as reversing the signs of aging, you are going to want to do some research on the ingredients that have been proven to do so. Just because they were made in a lab does not automatically make them bad for your skin.
Take Skin Authority's Wrinkle Reversing Serum for example. (read review) The second ingredient in concentration, second only after water, is Human Fibroblast Conditioned Media, which of course comes from a lab, not a plant, seed or nut, but is an amazing anti-aging breakthrough. Science has given us the ability to make great strides in skin care and if you are looking for specific results, do some research on the ingredient you're curious about before you decide to ban the product because it isn't all natural.
Packaging and Reputation
And yes, sometimes you are paying extra simply for packaging. As well as a name. Take La Mer for example. If you have an extra $1650, you could pick up a 16 ounce tub. (Not kidding.) My friend Michelle is a high-end kind of girl. She splurges on shoes and clothes and of course, skin care. She used La Mer exclusively for years until one day she tried Clarins. She told me she was going to write a breakup letter officially dumping La Mer for Clarins, saving hundreds of dollars. (Last year a scientist claimed the ingredients in the jar were worth a fraction of the price.) Just because an ingredient has a high price tag does not mean it is worth it.
So What Does This Mean?
The real answer to your question, what makes expensive products worth it, is sometimes nothing. But it is sometimes something, so my advice to you is to look at the ingredient list. Many times you can find the list online if you do a little digging. Look up the ingredients that you don't know and see what they are. A good site to do this is the Cosmetic Cop.
Really research the reviews. Here at About.com Skin Care, we always write our skin care reviews ourselves and never copy/paste from the PR rep who contacted us, but you'd be surprised at how many PR reps assume we will. Do your research. One positive review is not enough. And if you find a product that works wonders, leave your review for someone else.