Here's the Real Difference Between an Expensive Skincare Product and an Affordable One

woman with face mask

Stocksy

If you follow beauty bloggers or YouTubers, then you’ve probably consumed enough skincare content to last a lifetime. You’ve probably also heard a lot about expensive products and inexpensive dupes for those products. Some beauty lovers say the pricey options are expensive for a reason, and others swear by affordable, drugstore favorites. It can be confusing to navigate, especially if you’re trying to balance product efficacy with a tight budget. Take moisturizers, for example—they’re one of the most commonly used skincare products, but they can range in price from less than $20 to well into the triple digits (and even beyond that, if you want to get really wild).

Curious about what exactly the difference is between expensive and inexpensive moisturizers, I spoke to experts about what separates them into different categories. If you’ve ever paced the aisles at Sephora trying to figure out whether investing in a pricey face lotion is actually worth it—here’s your answer.

Marketing and Packaging

As Dr. Charlotte Birnbaum of Spring Street Dermatology in New York City explains, though, it’s not always the most expensive products that are the most scientifically proven to be effective—even if they contain “rarer” ingredients.

“The difference between an affordable moisturizer versus an expensive moisturizer can be a few things: marketing, packaging, and possibly proprietary ingredients,” Dr. Birnbaum says. “In general, expensive does not always mean better. These proprietary ingredients can be pricier as they are rare, but that does not mean they are more effective. Often, we are not given the scientific evidence that these ingredients are in fact, worth it.”

Celebrity aesthetician Joshua Ross of SkinLab agrees that marketing often increases the price of a product before anything else does. Luckily, though, Ross also shared that some brands are cutting through the marketing BS to offer direct-to-consumer products with high levels of active ingredients. 

“For example, the new clean skincare brand Ghost Democracy offers a lightweight silicone-free daily moisturizer packed with 12% probiotics, with 1% niacinamide and oat seed extract for just $28,” Ross suggests.

Concentration

According to Dr. Debra Jaliman, board-certified NYC dermatologist, the main thing that contributes to how a moisturizer is priced is the concentration of certain ingredients in the formula. “An expensive moisturizer will usually have a higher concentration of the ‘good’ ingredients,” Dr. Jaliman says. “They are usually safer for all skin types. Many times they won’t contain added fragrances that can cause allergic reactions for some.”

To illustrate the difference active ingredients make, Licensed Aesthetician and Aesthetics Manager for SkinSpirit Karen Fernandez used the analogy of steeping a tea bag. “Think of a steeping a tea bag where the first cup is the strongest, but if you keep using that same tea bag it will lose its potency with every cup,” Fernanez explains. “Less expensive moisturizers have less potent ingredients that can be by-products or left-overs.”

Potency

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that there are many affordable moisturizers that will have the same effective active ingredients as expensive—they just won’t contain nearly as much of those effective ingredients. 

“Make sure the best ingredients are at the top of a products ingredients label list,” Dr. Jaliman says, listing things like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, retinol, niacinamide, and glycerin as good ingredients. “I usually find that patients who come in with acne breakouts have at least one product in their regimen that is very inexpensive. This does not mean that all inexpensive products are bad.”

The Bottom Line

All of this said, there are a ton of great, inexpensive products as well as not-so-great pricey ones. You just have to do your research. Look at the ingredients list, check it with Byrdie's Clean Beauty Pledge, and patch test to make sure your skin doesn't have a bad reaction. Additionally, it may make more sense for you to splurge on serums (which penetrate deeper and offer more potency) than a moisturizer. Whether you decide to go for a drugstore option or the ultimate luxury face cream, Dr. Birnbaum says what’s most important at the end of the day is that you actually use it regularly.

“Ultimately, the best moisturizer is the one you will use,” Dr. Birnbaum says. “If a fancier, ‘more elegant’ moisturizer feels better on your skin and this means you’ll use it—by all means. But realize—moisturizers don’t need to break the bank. A dermatologist won’t be able to tell if you’re using the pricey moisturizer over the affordable one, but they might be able to tell if you’re using a moisturizer... at all.”

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