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The Price of Beauty

Nancy Trejos

I’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with Bulgari beauty products.

It started when I stayed at a Ritz Carlton with a friend. No, I didn’t pay for my stay there. The Ritz is not in my budget. But my friend could afford it. I happily discovered that the Ritz stocks its guest rooms with Bulgari shampoo. I had never smelled anything like it.

Unfortunately, Bulgari shampoo is not cheap, as I learned later when the sample bottle I had taken home with me was empty and I went to Bloomingdale’s to buy some of my own. A 6.7-oz bottle cost nearly $50 with tax. This was before the recession was declared, and I bought it. Now that I’ve become more frugal, I wonder: Is it wise to spend so much on beauty products?

I’m sure many of you have your own beauty product addictions. The pressure to look good is so much greater for us than it was for our parents’ generation. You turn on the TV or go to the movies and all the actors have great skin and hair, unless they are playing characters with bad skin and hair, in which case they go on to win Emmys or Oscars.

The cosmetics industry has fed off -- and fed-- this obsession with beauty. More than 11 billion personal care products are sold each year, according to the Personal Care Products Council, which represents the cosmetics, toiletries and fragrance industry. We live in a society where La Mer can charge $2,100 for 1.5 ounces of skin cream.
It turns out that often when we buy those expensive creams, lotions and toners, we are paying for packaging, marketing and celebrity endorsements. Cosmetics companies have also gotten more creative with their concoctions, using ingredients such as sea kelp, fish roe extracts and gold particles. They say they have special patent formulas and tout their own research.

But there’s no scientific evidence that high-end beauty products work better than what you get at your local drugstore for much less.

“You can get the smelly good stuff. You can go out and get all the fancy Cliniques and the lip balm and lip enhancers, but there’s no study showing they are better,” said Dr. Craig A. Vander Kolk, professor of plastic surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and associate director of the Plastic Surgery Medical Center.

I thought back to my beloved Bulgari shampoo. It certainly makes my hair smell good. But has it done anything to the quality of my hair that Herbal Essences has not? I can’t say it has. So I asked a few beauty experts for tips on looking good on a budget:

Do your research. Learn about ingredients. It could keep you from buying products with ingredients that won’t do you any good.

Find dual uses for items. Take cleanser. You can find some that also serve as make-up removers and toners. Neutrogena One Step Cleanser, for instance, will run you only $6.20 for a 5.2-ounce bottle.

Don’t be afraid to ask for freebies. Go to any makeup counter and ask for samples. Risi-Leanne Baranja, editor-in-chief of Palacinka Beauty Blog, also points out that Web sites such as and offer samples with purchases. Call the consumer hotlines of a number of larger cosmetic companies and request any samples they have available.

Try baby skin care lines. They are usually cheaper and just as good as the adult lines. Check out Johnson and Johnson, Mustella and Aveeno products.

Shop online. Sometimes you can find unopened high-end cosmetics on eBay or Amazon.

Scale back. Take manicures and pedicures. Pedicures last a long time so there’s no need for one every week. Instead of a full-on manicure each week, opt for a cheaper polish change.

Befriend the people behind the counter. If you have a favorite makeup store, keep going back to the same salesperson. She might be willing to do a free makeover.

By Nancy Trejos  |  April 7, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nancy Trejos  
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Next: Part 2: The Price -- and Profit -- of Beauty


"Now that I’ve become more frugal, I wonder: Is it wise to spend so much on beauty products?"

Well, in a word, no. And it wasn't exactly "wise" beforehand, either. Just maybe seemed more affordable.

Real question is whether you're getting the value for the money that you think you're getting. Buying expensive stuff because it works better? Nope, nada, rien -- no evidence at all that it's a whit better than some much cheaper options. Buying it as a treat, because it makes you feel good, because you like a certain smell or feel, because it feels like an indulgence and every time you use it you feel for a moment like you're in a spa? Sure -- as long as you have all your financial ducks in a row. Just recognize it for what it is.

Of course, I'm not exactly the poster child here. "Weekly" pedicures? Try annual. :-) Love 'em, just never been able to rationalize/justify the $$ -- I mean, they're toes.

Posted by: laura33 | April 7, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Try Envia shampoo - great stuff, costs a lot less.

Posted by: cmecyclist | April 7, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

It's a good time to think about going to micro- and small businesses. This company,, doesn't use fillers or fancy packaging. The C-Serum is amazing and so is the Bio-
Scrub. PureDeming is woman-owned and all of their products deliver.

Also, there are a lot of micro-producers at who are very affordable.

Posted by: crosbykh | April 7, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

Most of the fashion mags are out with issues listing the "best bets" in 'beauty categories,' including steals vs deals, lust vs must. At least they've tested the products. And don't discount Consumers Resport for analyses of what works and doesn't.

Posted by: ntilzha | April 8, 2009 7:48 AM | Report abuse

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