Photography by Joshua Navalkar. Product styling by Swati Sinha
Some time at the beginning of 2013, I was taken to India’s first K-beauty Innisfree store in Khan Market, New Delhi by a friend who was much better versed in beauty and skincare than I had ever been. Mesmerised by the lines of elegant, monochromatic bottles, I purchased my first green tea serum and haven’t looked back since.
It’s been a journey of over seven years and counting, wherein I have graduated from being the reluctant funeral director for a couple of bottles of lotions to an avid customer of beauty and wellness websites that sell an array of products meant for all skin types. In my case, since Innisfree had worked surprisingly well so far, I decided to put my faith solely in South Korean beauty products. But with my move to Canada in 2018 for my doctoral studies, I was catapulted into the world of Western beauty products.
Skincare sensibilities evolve and change over time. When I was younger, I used to enjoy exciting products that were accompanied by a lot of fanfare. Now, effective and safe skincare for my face is more of a priority than beautiful packaging or elegant marketing. What has remained the same since 2013, however, is my status as a student. It goes without saying that I have to be smart about the limited disposable income that my scholarship leaves me with.
I often find myself eyeing that cult Crème de la Mer cream or SK-II Facial Treatment Essence Pitera, and my wallet regularly protests against the thrill of indulging in something expensive yet truly life changing. But the real questions that I repeatedly ask myself are: Is it really life changing? And even if it is, is the cost fair? How does one decode the price points of luxury products? The last one is loaded and demands a multi-pronged answer. Here, I will attempt to facilitate the information osmosis needed for the average consumer to make more discerning skincare choices.
Ingredients and Marketing:
This is the first thing that I try to demystify when deciding what to purchase. Most luxury brands have inherent hype because our brains automatically assign greater value to the more expensive products in the market. Now, while that extra zero could be due to better product R & D or higher quality ingredients, it’s just as likely to be there because of marketing costs. The said product is presented in a way that “looks” luxurious and speaks of a life that should be aspired to – or several other things that do not directly relate to the efficacy of the products.
I was absolutely taken by the gorgeous black-magic box of Armani Beauty’s Crema Nera Supreme Reviving Cream. Ensconced in an elegant black drum, the translucent, opalescent cream gleamed like melted mother-of-pearl when I saw it in Sephora. But when I checked the price, my heart just dropped by the weight of the Rs 29,000 price tag. Sometimes, we come by such products that thrust us headlong into the socio-economic climate where skincare promotes extortionate materialism.
Upon examining the ingredients, I found shea butter, adenosine, trehalose and sodium hyaluronate, among other less notable names; none of them warrant such an inflated price tag. My MO is to find different shopping assistants on each visit and ask for multiple samples of the same product to run trials at home. Unfortunately, this cream didn’t do any wonders for my skin, and I couldn’t justify purchasing a full jar.
If we buy something expensive that isn’t working for us, we try to give it as much time as possible while constantly justifying to ourselves that we weren’t the ideal consumer guinea pigs. Usually, whatever fortunes we pay go into the extra digital marketing and PR that the big brands focus on (which is the case with any luxury product and not just skincare). Hiring a well-known actor or actress to endorse the product compared to a relatively unknown model also decides the final price of the product.
But, it’s also important to understand and accept that using high-quality ingredients doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more effective than others. This is contestable only to an extent, though. Active ingredients should never cost extra because they’re ubiquitous, and a heavy price tag can be justified only when the extraction method is costly.
The industry is currently reaching “bubble” territory with the proliferation of a few hundred new brands being added to the roster every year. The market is growing increasingly confusing and overwhelming at this rate, and the unfettered explosion has resulted in the space becoming crowded and fragmented. So, what does one look for after escaping the lure of marketing?
I asked my long-time friend Sahrish Rahman, an independent artist and designer in her twenties, for her views on luxury skincare. I’d expected her to have a diverse assortment of products but she uses products mostly from the Indian brand Enn’s Closet: “I’m willing to shell out a little too moderately. I like taking care of my skin, but I’m not obsessed with skincare products. However, I am willing to splurge in the future as my skin changes and requires more up-keep. I also feel that keeping mental health in check is just as important for the skin. I research and read reviews as much as possible on every single virtual platform,” she says.
In a similar vein, South Indian singer and entrepreneur Chinmayi Sripada, who owns Isle of Skin, has her own pearls of wisdom: “Always check the ingredients. Sometimes, you have to change your skincare routine based on weather or water quality – or both – strange as it may sound. Sunscreen is indispensable, and the one that works for me is what I reach out for. I prioritise cleansing, hydration and sun protection. The thing about K-beauty is that there is always something in the moderate range – it would be less expensive if the customs duties weren’t a bomb in India.”
Sripada’s comment on customs duties is usually the only reason why skincare products from overseas are so marked up. It would be convenient if India, too, had a booming market of skincare products, but so far the FDA rules are not stringent enough to ensure transparency and quality checks and control. Fair enough. Research and cost-effectiveness are definitely what I’ve prioritised all my life as a student and skincare aficionado, and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. However, research is a veritable rabbit hole.
A critical element in constituting the price tag is how the product’s ingredients are sourced. If I were to buy a collagen powder, I could either pay Rs 2,000 for brand A or Rs 3,500 for brand B; the pricing would be affected by their methods of sourcing collagen (which is derived from the connective tissue of bovine animals or fish). The collagen will be the same in essence, but brand A is cheaper because it farms the fish (here, some of the things you may have to delve into are whether the process is ethical and the product is free of pesticides, or if the waters were tampered with by adding hormonal chemicals). Brand B is expensive because it claims to source its collagen from ethical, wild-caught salmon from the Pacific Ocean and ensures it doesn’t contribute to overfishing.
It wouldn’t take a genius to realise that the two collagen powders are worlds apart in terms of nutritional value, ethical and environmental impact, taste and, of course, price. And then some ingredients, like gold, are just too rare and expensive to source, not to mention completely useless when it comes to topical application.
My mother would rather buy gold bonds than use it in her skincare products. She is a paradox. On the one hand, she’s discerning, highly adaptable and thrifty, making concoctions out of hibiscus flowers, aloe and other assorted plant-life sourced from her garden; however, on the other, she periodically nudges me to help her choose synthetic products that will keep her looking fresh and radiant. Since she has normal skin and excellent genetics and is a housewife based in India, I recommend E’clat Superior and Forest Essentials; I also bring her plenty of South Korean and NIOD (Non-Invasive Options in Dermal Science – a label under Deciem) products whenever I am back home during my semester breaks.
She breaks into a smile and says, “I don’t need to source my ingredients from anywhere, and I don’t need any staff or machines to manufacture my grandmother’s recipes. I am enough.”
Creating a formula is labour-intensive, and it’s also significantly more expensive for a brand to come up with an exclusive, proprietary formula in-house. Things like ensuring the stability of the ingredients, preserving the efficacy for a longer shelf-life, efficient delivery systems, innovative formats, time dedicated to research and testing are all a part of the process. And, let’s not forget the specialised equipment, staff training and cost of running a manufacturing space or farm. You can see how the coins add up.
I like to think of it as creating a super fancy vaccine of sorts, except governments don’t fund such endeavours. Hence, the more innovation a product undergoes, the higher the price tag soars. Instead of the government, it’s you or me who funds everything – if we buy their products. We are then no longer mere customers; we step into a new world where we are the patrons.
Unfortunately, patents don’t usually work for formulations by skincare brands because it would mean divulging the entire process and list of ingredients in order to acquire the patent, which takes a lot of time and money. And once the patent period is over, other brands would be able to use the formulation.
Consequently, money is spent on maintaining trade secrets. Unlike patents, trade secrets can go well beyond the patent period – ideally infinitely. Of course, there are downsides to this, such as other brands stumbling upon the same formulation perchance and using it amongst other things without the original brand exerting their rights for exclusivity. This is also a reason why products undergo reformulations every few years.
On the other hand, using generic, ready-made formulae from a third-party manufacturer, which is called “white-labelling” (and is pretty prevalent within the beauty industry), would be significantly cheaper. This is the reason why The Ordinary products are so affordable whereas NIOD is so expensive.
Both The Ordinary and NIOD are brands under one parent company, Deciem, of which Estée Lauder now has 76 per cent ownership, but cater to two very different segments of society in terms of financial wealth. The Ordinary is reasonably priced with simpler formulations, thus making itself accessible to students and others who don’t want to spend too much on skincare, whereas NIOD is targeted for a consumer base that has extra cash to burn and loves exploring experimental skincare.
Packaging can impact whether you pay Rs 600 or Rs 6,000. I still love elegantly presented products that exude a sense of luxury, but it is something that I am now willing to forego. Patenting is excellent when it comes to package and product design and prevents competitors from stealing. There’s a reason Armani Beauty, Drunk Elephant and Herbivore Botanicals are so appealing. They have attractive packaging with invisible nozzles, millennial pastel shades and recognisable logos. Anything visually appealing usually has a higher chance of being bought and used since we associate beauty with efficacy and desire. In contrast, the packaging of Pyunkang Yul, COSRX, The Ordinary and the like are minimal with little to no embellishments and yet they offer simple yet effective skincare without the frills, making them popular with those who are strapped for cash. This kind of unassuming packaging is reminiscent of the medications that my school pharmacist makes when I submit a doctor’s prescription.
Type of product:
Regardless of the brand, not all types of skincare products should cost a fortune. Serums and intense night creams that are meant to be leave-on or used overnight are likely to contain expensive ingredients, but wash-off cleansers should always be in the affordable range since the “active” ingredients are washed away sometimes within seconds.
This one is slightly tricky. “Clinically proven” doesn’t mean “scientifically proven” or that a product has undergone heavy research and studies. “Clinically proven”, however, means that the product was given to a small group of consumers (as trials and testing are expensive and the government has other pressing places to fund) for a short period (usually one week to two months) to try and the results were analysed to determine its level of efficacy. So, if I see that the product label mentions that it is clinically proven, I check the duration and sample size of the testing before assessing the added costs. Usually, the longer the testing and the bigger the sample size, the more costs it would incur. The long duration and big sample size of the trial also assures me that the efficacy of the product is wide-ranging and stable.
About the brand:
A brand’s “about us” or “our story” page gives me a fair sense of what it stands for if I am interested in premium brands because I’d like to know where my money is being put into use. If I am simply looking for a product that will give me results, lower-priced options using simple formulae and commonplace ingredients can get the job done just as well. The success and overwhelmingly positive reviews of The Ordinary stand as a testament.
Does the premium brand own a private farm where it grows its ingredients? If I were to take examples of Armani Beauty and Sulwhasoo, Giorgio Armani is known to be one of the finest Italian brands but primarily in the realm of clothing. They do have a skincare or beauty line (like Chanel Beauty, Marc Jacobs Beauty, Dior Makeup, YSL Beauty, etc.), which is not as famous. Do they have private farms and labs? Probably not. Most of the money generated from the premium price tag goes back into marketing the product or future products.
Whereas in the case of Sulwhasoo, they not only have research labs but also an actual heritage site for farming their ginseng extract. It helps to know that Sulwhasoo, which is far younger than Armani, has focused the last 50 years on ginseng and tirelessly worked around this single, star ingredient even though they have other lines as well. Of course, some money will go back to marketing, but a significant chunk of it will go into the R & D in the case of Sulwhasoo. At this point, you’d also be paying quite a bit of money for their absolutely magnificent packaging that takes the luxury experience to another level. There is something decadent about the brushed brassy gold bottle, the heft of the item, the subtle glint of gold playing on the heavily lacquered tops of the caps, complete with intricate patterns ensconced under the glassy surface. These are solid products and “skintertainment”; they are effective and don’t make any wild claims about doing things that aren’t possible without a prescription. The fact that they don’t use a single active ingredient in their formulations and yet are successful in what they vouch for is an art in itself.
A sceptical consumer may wonder how buying from two different brands that are under the same corporation factors into their decision-making. Why pick The Ordinary over La Mer or vice versa if they’re both owned by Estée Lauder or why pick Sulwhasoo if Innisfree sources ginseng from the same AmorePacific farm?
While you might find products across price ranges that have shared formulas or facilities within a single parent company, many individual brands will retain proprietary ingredients even after an acquisition. The choice eventually boils down to quality and efficacy. In the case of AmorePacific, it is highly likely that more aged and better quality ginseng would be sent off to Sulwhasoo and the newer, perhaps comparatively lower grade ginseng would be packed off to Innisfree. And, with the exception of disrupters like The Ordinary, expensive products with active ingredients might have a higher concentration of them as compared to the cheaper options. However, higher concentration does not always entail better efficacy. Efficacy is dependent on the way the product has been formulated and one’s skin type. Many times, active ingredients in higher concentrations end up being detrimental to the skin while well-formulated products with lower concentrations of actives work more smoothly without any mishaps.
One also needs to keep in mind that a brand’s ethos can differ from the parent company’s general practices. A company is, after all, a heterogeneous conglomeration of brands. Sometimes, it might make sense to opt for a less expensive dupe; for instance, if it’s clear that the cost of the high-end product is mainly due to brand positioning and marketing or fancy packaging rather than potency. But the best way of making an informed decision is to be abreast of acquisition news and researching the brand as well as the parent company online and understanding the ingredients that work for you.
Nita Misra lives in a gorgeous apartment in a posh South Delhi residential area. Given her graceful ageing and expensive sartorial and home aesthetics, I expected her to have a skincare regimen that would “wow” me. It did, but not in the way I had expected at all.
Nita has been using just one product for decades: her trusty Olay Total Effects 7 in One Anti-Ageing Day Cream Gentle SPF 15. She speaks about it like a true Zen minimalist, “I have sensitive, allergy-prone skin. All I need is moisturisation and Olay Total Seven has really helped me through. I am aware that sunscreen is important, but I stay indoors mostly, so it isn’t something that I need. I don’t change brands and like being consistent.”
After all these years, I’ve realised that there is no need to be mystified or intimidated by an astronomical price tag. The scrim of luxury beauty and its cost can be dissected to reveal more fundamental and coherent anatomies such as brand philosophy, sourcing, manufacturing, packaging and the type of product.
I make it a point to look into the ingredients that yield the results I am looking for and find dupes for an expensive product I’ve been eyeing but can’t/don’t want to pay for. Sometimes, I also search for published research papers on the effectiveness of the product’s formulation. This usually leads me to some other products that have worked and are backed by science.
Cost is inversely proportional to the time consumed. I know that a super-expensive product that genuinely works can be easily replaced with two or three other products that are commonplace and affordable. The expensive product is expensive only because of a sophisticated formulation that stabilises many actives together. The same results can often be achieved by adding those actives separately in the regimen for a much lesser price.
When I catch up with the elegant and accomplished New Delhi-based businesswoman Fariha Ansari Javed, she goes on to tell me, “As a working mom, my skincare regimen is extremely time-sensitive. My products are few, and they are usually from Kiehl’s, La Mer, Vichy Laboratories, and Estée Lauder. As someone in finance, I think about the products I am buying as investments. I splurge on things that are important and am frugal on things that are not as important. I’d say don’t fall for advertising and influencers as they’re either getting paid or getting things for free. Trust your girl-gang for recommendations.”
I am pretty similar to Fariha when it comes to skincare in the sense that I, too, see good skincare products as an investment. But unlike her, because I am still a student, I swing between staying well within my budget to occasional splurges.
Though I may be very pro-East Asian skincare, my skincare cabinet has an eclectic mix of affordable and high-end Korean, Japanese, Western and very recently – Indian brands. These are all based on my preferences, geography and their current availability.
I don’t spend a lot of money on cleansers, and I don’t invest in toners and clay masks, but I spend moderately on sheet masks now and then, and splurge once in a while on serums and creams that have actives, as well as peptides, ceramides and intense overnight masks. I like to keep a variety of products on hand and tailor my regimen according to my needs.
Over the years, because I’ve been in the Asian skincare market for a while now, the novelty of trying out new, exciting things has worn off, and I’ve consequently become a bit of a loyalist. I like and want to know exactly what I am applying on my skin and stick to a few brands that I know in and out. I only add a new brand after profusely researching and inquiring on subreddits.
In the end, it’s helpful to take time out to figure out how to navigate the labyrinthine ways of the skincare industry while on a budget. Just like the high priestess in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi who served as its oracle and also was the earliest propagator of the philosophy of self-knowledge, skincare is essentially a perennially ongoing meditative practice of “know thyself”.