Why is makeup so expensive?

You’d think some lipsticks were made of gold.
You’d think some lipsticks were made of gold.
Image: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images
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Financially speaking, makeup can be a burden. One item might not break the bank, but the combined cost of everything you might find in a woman’s makeup bag—foundation, blush, mascara, eye liner, eye shadow, and so on—quickly adds up. By one estimate, a woman in the US will spend an average of $15,000 on makeup in her lifetime.

The kicker is, the ingredients in these products often account for no more than 15% of the cost, according to Randy Schueller, a cosmetic chemist who has been in the beauty business for more than 30 years and is co-founder of TheBeautyBrains, a website devoted to debunking cosmetic myths through science.

Mainly what people are paying for is marketing, packaging, and brand prestige. That’s why lipstick, for example, which is mostly wax, oil, and pigments, routinely costs more than $20 a tube at a department store makeup counter.

Schueller says that, because ingredients are such a small share of the cost, “price does not really correlate to quality when it comes to cosmetic products.”

In fact, packaging has become such a focus in the industry that there are actually awards given out for it. (Marc Jacobs’ makeup line won one recently.)

Where the makeup is sold matters, too. It’s a form of marketing in itself, which is evident when you consider the difference between upscale brands carried at retailers such as Sephora and Ulta and mass-market brands sold at drugstores.

Karen Grant, the global beauty industry analyst at research firm NPD, says they’re two different models, and consumers pay for that difference. At higher-end stores, you “pay for the display areas and the people who are helping to sell the product, whereas in a mass environment it can be sealed up behind a package and sit on a shelf,” she says. High-end shops also often make tester items available, and may accept returns even on used items. It simply costs a retailer more to be profitable in that environment, and those costs are factored into the price tags on the products.

There’s evidence that consumers are buying into prestige brands at increasing rates. Sales in the global cosmetics market are rising—to $56.9 billion last year, according to Euromonitor—and are expected to keep growing. But it’s not because the price of makeup is getting more expensive. In fact, it hasn’t.

“What has happened,” Grant explains, “is there’s stronger growth for the prestige items, more so than the mass items.” Essentially, there are more customers buying more expensive products.

Quality in the cosmetics business can vary greatly, depending on the ingredients used and the way the makeup is manufactured. Schueller offers the example of powdered cosmetics, such as pressed eye shadow and blush. The cheaper manufacturing method uses a hammer mill, which breaks the makeup into small particles but can leave clumps. Another method uses a jet mill, which Schueller says breaks the makeup into finer particles, creating a smoother, more even finish.

The trouble is that a consumer can’t know which process was used just from looking at a product label. The largest brands tend to be the ones that invest more in equipment and spend money on R&D. The small brands, whether at the very high and low ends, Schueller says, often contract the work out to manufacturers rather than buy all the equipment themselves.

What should a consumer do? Know what you’re looking for. If you want a lipstick that will last, then go with one designed for that, such as Covergirl’s Outlast lipstick. If you’re in need of a mascara that doesn’t smudge, consider Blinc mascara, because that’s specifically what it’s made for.

But don’t assume that more expensive means better. More than anything else, what the price of makeup simply reflects is the price that you’re willing to pay for it.