The Difference Between A $12 Moisturizer And A $325 Moisturizer

We spoke to dermatologists to get some answers about what makes for an effective moisturizer.
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Have you ever wondered why some skin care brands can get away with selling facial moisturizers for upwards of $300, while others sell them for under $20?

Us too.

But somehow, we seem to have convinced ourselves that high-priced skin care products are better than their lower-priced counterparts. For example, look at La Mer’s signature Creme de la Mer, which costs $325 for a 2-ounce jar. Celebrities like Charlize Theron and Britney Spears love it, and others have touted its supposed transformative abilities. But then there are drugstore brands like CeraVe, which is often recommended by dermatologists (we know from experience).

Is there really that much of a difference between luxury creams and basic moisturizers? And if so, does the difference warrant such a huge price jump?

We spoke to dermatologists to get some answers.

What makes expensive creams more expensive?

There are a few factors to consider when looking at the price of your facial moisturizers.

For instance, as board-certified dermatologist Dr. Craig Kraffert told HuffPost, expensive creams might use unique technological advancements to create their products. He also said things like fragrance considerations, the physical packaging ― “airless pumps are particularly expensive” ― branding, formulation and processing and ingredient quality, can affect the price.

There are also a few specific ingredients that could affect the price, according to Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist and the founder of The Beauty Brains blog. Those ingredients would be the “the ‘so-called’ active ingredients like niacinamide, ceramides and hyaluronic acid,” he said. Dr. Rachel Nazarian, of Schweiger Dermatology in New York City, also noted that heparan sulfate is another potentially price-raising ingredient.

From a functional standpoint, however, both expensive and affordable moisturizers use the same class of ingredients, Romanowski said: moisturizers, humectants and emollients.

A popular humectant found in facial moisturizers is the aforementioned hyaluronic acid, which Nazarian said is actually something you don’t necessarily need to pay more for.

“Hyaluronic acid is hyaluronic acid,” she said. “A brand like Neutrogena will make a phenomenal one that, to me, is just as good as these fancy ones that you’ll pay $100, $200 for.”

She offered another example: “If you look at La Mer with their kelp and their ingredients from the sea, they use a lot of that proprietary stuff. I don’t think the science necessarily backs that more than anything else that you can get at the drugstore.”

Then there’s the marketing ...

Kraffert said marketing is the “far and away the biggest expense overall” for a company. Marketing campaigns can affect how consumers perceive a skin care product, Kraffert noted, adding that “well-marketed products can do well for a prolonged time even if they are not objectively of great efficacy or elegance.”

Just like luxury fashion brands, luxury beauty and skin care brands are selling a lifestyle along with their products, Nazarian said. And people buy into that luxury, as evidenced by at least one study from Sweden. In the study, women were instructed to use different creams: one was a luxury cream in its original packaging, one was the luxury cream in neutral packaging, and the other was a lower-cost cream in the luxury packaging. In the end, those who believed they were using the fancy cream used it more regularly than those who believed they were using the more affordable product.

But Romanowski put it bluntly: “Product cost has little to do with the effectiveness of the product.”

This is really just a marketing game in my opinion. But the thing is, it works,” he added. “There are consumers who want to buy expensive products. They don’t want to think of themselves as the type of people who would buy inexpensive products. And people who can’t afford them want to aspire to someday being able to buy these expensive products. Except for parting with their money, this is a win-win for both the consumer and the maker of the expensive product.”

On top of that, it’s important to note that both luxury and affordable brands can co-exist under larger brand umbrellas. For example, L’Oreal is the parent company of both Skinceuticals and CeraVe. As Romanowski once outlined in a blog post on his website, there’s a chance companies like L’Oreal could share formulations and ingredients across its brands. That means you could see both high- and low-priced products with similar formulas.

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So is it really worth it to splurge on a face cream?

The short answer is no, not necessarily.

“In my opinion, you really don’t need to spend a lot of money on fancy moisturizers,” Dr. Samer Jaber, of Washington Square Dermatology in New York City, told HuffPost.

But as is the case with many skin-care-related topics, the answer to this question is a little more nuanced than that.

“When you’re getting a fancy, expensive moisturizer, you’re really paying for a couple things,” he explained. “You’re paying for the packaging, you’re paying for marketing, and then sometimes [expensive creams] have some proprietary ingredients or chemicals that are more rare and a little more expensive.”

But, Jaber said, “Just because it’s more expensive, doesn’t mean it’s better.”

As Nazarian put it, the question you’re really asking is, “What is something worth to the person putting it on?”

“It depends on what you want to get out of it,” Nazarian added. “If you’re just talking pure science and you’re comparing basic moisturizers ― a fancy brand to something like CeraVe ― then really for most people, Cetaphil and CeraVe are appropriate.”

Sometimes, however, “it comes down to what’s cosmetically elegant,” Nazarian added.

She outlined it like this: “If you’re not going to use Cetaphil or CeraVe because you don’t like the way it feels when it goes on, and a $100 moisturizer is going to motivate you to put it on, then that’s what you’re paying for.”

“You’re not necessarily paying for the improvement in your skin, but you’re paying for something that makes it easier or nicer for you to use the product, so you’ll be more diligent about using it, which is kind of half the battle when it comes to skin care,” Nazarian added.

The key is finding a product you’ll actually use.

There’s nothing wrong with using an expensive facial moisturizer, especially if you like the way it feels on your skin. As Jaber said, “You just want to find one that you like.”

He continued, “If you like one that’s really fancy, go for it, but at the same time, you can probably go ahead and buy a Cetaphil, CeraVe or Eucerin, and oftentimes it’s going to be just as effective.”

Put simply, Nazarian said, “There is no direct relationship between how much something costs and how good it is for you.”

When in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Nazarian said she gets asked whether expensive products are really worth it all the time. She recommended bringing your products to a dermatologist who can help you determine what’s worth spending your money on.

“Generally, I don’t recommend a lot of my patients use [the expensive creams], but every now and then I will have someone who swears by La Mer, and I can’t take it away,” Nazarian said. “They just love it and it makes them feel like they are taking care of their skin, and that, to me, is priceless.”

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