Hype in a jar

The mark-ups on cosmetics can be astounding, but it's getting a bit easier to learn what you're really paying for

By Kate Harding
Published January 18, 2010 4:19PM (EST)

"The Daily Mail actually does something useful for once" is how Anna North at Jezebel put it, and while investigating the true cost of an obscenely expensive moisturizer might not be a historic contribution to humanity, it's still pretty interesting. In the U.K., a 250 ml. pot of  Estee Lauder's  Crème de la Mer retails for £530, or almost $900. (In the U.S., options run from $130 for 1 oz. to $1390 for 16.5 oz.) Why does it cost so much? Well, sea kelp is a key ingredient, but not just any sea kelp. Says the Daily Mail, "La Mer uses a special form of Californian sea kelp that is harvested just twice a year when it is at its most nutrient-rich, then shipped on ice to the Estee Lauder labs on the other side of the U.S." Via winged unicorn, one assumes. Then there's the "four-month bio-fermentation method that transforms these unremarkable ingredients into the trademarked 'Miracle Broth,'" -- a process that "even apparently hard-nosed scientists, who should know better, seem to imbue... with magical properties." All that's gotta cost the company a lot of money! Cosmetic chemist Will Buchanan, "using the ingredients listed on a pot of Crème de la Mer, alongside his knowledge of product formulations," did the math. While he acknowledges that he doesn't know all the details of the brand's proprietary formula, Buchanan speculates that 100 ml. of the moisturizer, which retails for £160, contains ingredients that cost about £9.71 -- so that $900 jar is actually about 40 bucks' worth of product.

Of course there are plenty of other costs to take into consideration, and the company needs to turn a profit, but even after you factor all that in, it seems Crème de la Mer is still mind-bogglingly overpriced. Not that that matters much to its core market; if you're in a position to even think about paying $1400 for 16 oz. of face cream, you're probably not too concerned with getting the most bang for your buck. But still, even if I were rich enough to bathe in the stuff without noticing a dent in my personal finances, if I were going to pay that much for moisturizer -- let alone put "broth" on my face -- I'm thinking it would need to perform actual miracles. Forget younger looking skin -- can it cure leprosy? Turn water into wine? If not, Cetaphil will suffice. Especially since, according to "Cosmetics Cop" Paula Begoun, "it's just a really dated formula. Something straight out of the Seventies." (In case the phrase "miracle broth" didn't tip you off to how retro it is.) "Product formulations have become much more sophisticated since then. Estee Lauder itself has gone on to develop skincare that is far better than Crème de la Mer, and doesn't cost as much."

The true cost of Crème de la Mer probably isn't a big issue for most readers of the Daily Mail or Salon or anything other than, say, More Money Than Sense Weekly. But we little people can still take a lesson from this story, because it's only an extreme example of the sort of trickery the beauty industry pulls off every day, using clever marketing to create mystique around a pretty basic chemical formula, jacking up the perceived value of one little plastic pot over another. On the one hand, that's capitalism for you, and I'll even confess to a small, begrudging admiration for their ability to get away with it -- sort of like I admire the ingenuity of heist movie protagonists. But just as I hope actual con artists get locked up before they can hurt many people, I hope cosmetics companies are taken to task for at least the most egregious exploitations of vulnerable consumers. And yes, I said "vulnerable." Whenever you complain about the beauty industry, people inevitably argue that it's only the vanity, stupidity and frivolousness of consumers -- i.e., women -- that allows Big Make-up to operate this way, but actually, it's the insecurity. And it's an insecurity cultivated by the very people who then sell us the products that are supposed to make us feel better about ourselves. It was never a fair fight.

Fortunately, though, we now have people like Begoun in our corner, who -- although it should be noted that she trades on her credibility as a no-B.S. cosmetics analyst to hawk her own make-up line -- was among the first to encourage women to look at the chemistry of a product before the packaging, marketing or reports of miracles. Bloggers The Beauty Brains, "a team of scientists who have no sales pitch and nothing for you to buy," are also out there taking questions from readers about everything from specious marketing claims to widespread rumors (no, Pantene does not coat your hair with wax or plastic, and there is no chemical reason why it would make your hair fall out). When I asked whether Stila hair refresher is anything more than $30 talcum powder, for instance, the Brains set me straight: "It's a $28 bottle of CORNSTARCH powder."

But they also noted, as they do when discussing nearly any product, that some people rave about it, and if they're comfortable spending the money, "To each her own!" When asked about Crème de la Mer in 2006, they responded: "Is it a good moisturizer? Yes. Is it worth it? Well, if you LIKE the product and you can afford it, then it's worth it to you." (If you think the results will be proportionate to the premium, however, they suspect you'll be disappointed.) Ultimately, whether it's worth it to you is the question that really matters -- I'm occasionally willing to be a sucker when I know I'm being a sucker, and the cost won't interfere with my ability to make rent -- but we should all at least have some idea of what we're getting, other than false hope.

I confess I bought a bottle of that hair refresher to see what the fuss (at the time) was about anyway, and personally, I concluded not much -- I ended up using it to temporarily neutralize stinky boots, and never bothered with it again. But listening to unbiased chemists alongside friends, industry professionals and advertisers has made a real difference to my (still fairly ridiculous) beauty budget. Even though I always suspected that stylists who insisted Pantene would basically turn my hair to stone and render me completely bald before age 40 were full of it, for example, I still wasn't up to the awkward moment and inevitable admonishment every time one of them asked me what kind of shampoo I use -- the exploitation of insecurities doesn't stop at the advertising level -- which led to my spending hundreds over the years on recommended salon products I never liked as much. Since the Beauty Brains gave me the courage to keep a stiff upper lip during stylist scoldings and buy drugstore brands anyway, they've saved me a lot more than I've spent on various high-end cosmetics experiments over time.

I'm not proud that such obvious manipulation, especially when combined with a rumor that fairly reeks of bullshit, ever worked on me. And I don't particularly want to interfere with anyone's right to waste their own money. But when the same people who constantly tell women we're not pretty enough, which makes us not lovable enough, then tell us the solution is a product that's marked up a gazillion percent over the cost of ingredients -- or over the cost of a chemically identical drugstore product -- I'm glad that there are people out there cutting through the claims and holding them accountable. It would be even better if we lived in a society where women didn't feel the need to spend our hard-earned money on striving toward an impossible beauty standard at all (and more power to those who have already rejected the pressure entirely), but as long as we're stuck in this one, we should at least know what we're paying for.


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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