The truth about the cosmetics industry

How much do you really know about the products you buy? Are they really good quality? Is it worth paying more for a cosmetic product? In the advertising, what’s true and what’s not?

The world of cosmetics is very complex. It’s all about the law of supply and demand, the dream of perfect beauty, the fear of ageing: companies are in it to make money from consumers. How to sort it all out?

Of course I don’t know everything and I’m sure that for the rest of my career in cosmetics, I’ll always be learning, but I have decided today to tell you everything I know, so that you’ll be able to see more clearly and make better decisions as a beauty consumer.

The biggest cosmetic companies

As in all industries, cosmetic companies often merge. We’re talking here about the same financial group but not necessarily the same production. It’s possible that some formulas, ingredients, innovations are used by several companies belonging to the same group, but I can’t say for certain.

Here are some of the biggest corporations in the beauty world, and some (I said some because my lists are not exhaustive) of the cosmetic brands (yes, there are many other areas of consumer products) that they market.

L’Oréal (30% of which is owned by the giant Nestlé): L’Oréal Paris, Garnier, Maybelline NY**, Le Club des créateurs, Lancôme, Yves St-Laurent Beauté, Biotherm, Giorgio Armani Beauty, Helena Rubinstein, Shu Uemura, Vichy, La Roche-Posay, The Body Shop, Victor & Rolf, Skinceuticals, Kiehl’s, as well as hair product brands and fragrances like Cacharel, L’Oréal Professionnel, Kérastase, Matrix, Redken, Diesel, etc.

Estée Lauder Companies : Estée Lauder, Clinique, Prescriptives, Lab Series, Origins, M.A.C, La Mer, Bobbi Brown, Aveda, Darphin, Ojon, and fragrances like Tommy Hilfiger, Aramis, Donna Karan, Sean John, Tom Ford, Missoni, Michael Kors, Jo Malone, etc.

LVMH : Dior, Guerlain, Benefit Cosmetics, Make-Up Forever, Fresh, and fragrances like Givenchy, Kenzo, Aqua Di Parma, etc.

Procter & Gamble : Cover Girl, Olay, Max Factor, SK-II and hair products and fragrances like Burberry, Christina Aguilera, Dolce & Gabanna, Dunhill, Escada, Frederic Fekkai, Aussie, Gucci, Head & Shoulders, Herbal Essences and all products by Clairol, Hugo Boss, Lacoste, Naomi Campbell, Nioxin, Pantene, Puma, Sebastian Professionnal, Valentino, Vidal Sasoon, Wella, etc.

Elizabeth Arden : Elizabeth Arden, Britney Spears, Elizabeth Taylor, Juicy Couture, Giorgio Beverly Hills, Mariah Carey, Usher, Hilary Duff, Alfred Sung, Hummer, etc.

Coty : Lancaster, Calvin Klein, Chloé, Davidoff, Jennifer Lopez, Cerruti, Joop, Chopard, Phat Farm/Baby Phat, Faith Hill, Marc Jacobs, Jil Sanders, Vera Wang, Sarah Jessica Parker, Nautica, Kenneth Cole, Kate Moss, etc.

Revlon : Revlon, Almay, Charlie & Jean, Gatineau, Ultima_II, etc.

Clarins : Clarins, Azzaro, Thierry Mugler, and partners like Kibio, L’Occitane, Porche, etc.
And I could go on for a long time with others…

Concerning Maybelline : « Maybelline is affiliated with Gemey in France, Jade in Germany, Colorama in Brazil and Miss Ylang in Argentina, for better distribution outside the USA. » So they are distributors only, like Clarins Canada is the distributor of Pür minerals, or like Quadrant Cosmetics, located in Ontario, which distributes Smashbox, Freeze 24/7, Bourjois, and tons of other fragrances in Canada.

Product suppliers

Companies very rarely produce their own products from A to Z. Most of them use specialized sub-contractors. There are packaging, raw material, box, and padding suppliers but also semi-finished products.

The most surprising thing about all this is that for each category, very few suppliers are ultra-specialized in the production of a particular product, which means that lots of companies obtain supplies from the same places. That’s why many products resemble each other. You might think mistakenly that one company has copied another’s product. It could be the case sometimes but in the majority of cases, it simply means that both companies have bought the same half-finished product or the same packaging from the same supplier. Anyway, if two similar products from two separate companies come out at the same time, it’s highly unlikely that one of them is a copy. It takes a minimum of six months to launch a new makeup product and usually longer than that. In the case of skin care products, it can take years.

Did you know that there are only a handful of nail polish suppliers in the world? Obviously each company buys a different formula, which means there is a big choice on the market, but it’s the same suppliers who actually produce it. It’s also the case for many makeup suppliers. Let’s take pencils for example (eye and lip pencils); most of them come from the same 3-4 manufacturers and these companies supply several brands. There are also companies specializing in powder formulas (eye shadow, blush etc.), and others who make foundation, mascara, accessories etc.

So if you find that two eye pencils from two different brands are too similar for it to be a coincidence, they almost certainly come from the same supplier. In that case, test both of them, maybe the formula is different inside, but it’s probably exactly the same. If you can’t tell the difference and the ingredients are the same, choose the one you like best (brand, price or other personal criteria).

But don’t worry, these suppliers create so many formulations of the same product that brands will often buy their own formula and so the product will be unique.

One of the most popular pencil companies is Schwan-Stabilo Cosmetics, located in Germany (that’s why you often find « Made in Germany » on pencils from French or American companies because they buy the semi-finished product. It’s surprising how many well-known companies obtain supplies there for pencils. This is understandable because Schwan Cosmetics makes excellent quality products. Artists will also know this brand because they make art supplies too.
So compare products and try to make an informed decision.

Why pay more?

I can’t give you a cut-and-dried answer to this question. My answer would be; sometimes yes sometimes no.

Concerning makeup, you can sometimes pay for the name but also you can pay more for superior quality. It often depends where the product was made. If it says « Made in China », and you find the product expensive, forget it, it probably didn’t cost much to produce.

Let’s take my previous example of Schwan Cosmetics in Germany: companies who obtain supplies there have certainly paid more than if the pencil was made in China. In this case, it’s worth paying a little more because the product has been manufactured in a country where employees get a decent salary, but also because it’s a supplier that creates excellent quality products.

So if you see two very similar products, look at where they were made and if one of the two comes from China, you have your answer because now they can make almost anything in China, including copies.

You also pay for research and development. It costs nothing to make a copy but undertaking long and arduous research about the formula or its packaging can take a lot of time and costs companies a lot of money. That’s one of the factors that can explain the high price of a product, particularly if it’s an innovation. The company which launches the product first has to pay for the research and development.

In other cases, companies will pay for a patent so they can be the only one, for several years, to market the product or part of the product. A patent is very expensive to obtain, so that can also raise the price of the product.

The ingredients contained in the product can also have a significant effect on the price. It’s less the case for makeup than for skin care products. Certain ingredients cost more to produce than others. Peptides (an anti-wrinkle ingredient) are a good example because if a cream contains peptides, you can bet that it will be fairly expensive as the production price is quite high. Another example is rare plants. If you have to rent a helicopter to go and gather a specimen that only grows on an island in the middle of nowhere and whose transformation takes years, don’t be surprised if the cost is high!

To continue in the same vein, there’s also the percentage of active ingredients. Creating a moisturizer with two or three hydrating ingredients such as glycerine, an emulsifier, a stabilizer and a few preservatives, is not very expensive. But if you add retinol, peptides, hyaluronic acid, vitamins, essential oils, or other active ingredients (which have skin care properties) you add a considerable cost. And talking of percentages, it’s easy to say that a cream contains retinol or some other ingredient, but the question is: how much? Inexpensive creams often only contain a few drops of these ingredients, just so that they can say their product contains it, but the quantity is so small that that you’re probably not going to get great results. When you talk about a product that contains up to 40% of active ingredients, such as IDC, which I’ve already written about in a previous article, it’s normal to pay a little more, but in exchange, you will get better results. You should look at the list of ingredients on the product. If the active ingredients are at the top of the list, then the product contains a respectable amount; in the middle of the list, a moderate amount and at the end, very little.

As for makeup, it’s more difficult to evaluate. Is one mascara brush better than another; is one eye shadow superior to another? Often it’s a matter of taste. There is also the question of ingredients but there are fewer “active” ingredients than in skin care products. For example, some plumping lipsticks contain ingredients like hyaluronic acid, collagen etc. But hyaluronic acid is controlled; there cannot be more than 10%. So if a product contains 10%, you know that it’s the maximum quantity possible. In that case, you can make up your own mind about two brands that contain the same amount.

Mass Market VS Prestige

Mass market products include products sold in large stores that are often more affordable. Prestige products are more expensive.

Not long ago, mass market eye shadows were inevitably disappointing because they didn’t contain enough pigments and had a limited effect, being mostly powder. But now, mass market companies have improved a lot and you can get highly pigmented eye shadows. You have to try them out. The HIP range by L’Oréal, or EyeStudio by Maybelline are two mass market products that I tested and whose pigmentation I found excellent.

As for mascara, to be honest, it’s a question of taste. You can find great mascaras in both mass market or prestige brands. But you can also get nasty mascara (at all price ranges) that you throw in the trash the first time you use it. So then again, you must try it out.

When you choose a prestige brand, it’s not only a question of quality; it’s usually about preference for a certain brand. It’s so nice to take a Chanel lipstick or a Guerlain gloss out of your purse for touch-ups. It’s like those designer handbags, you pay for the name.

What’s more, prestige brands usually have nicer packaging than mass market products. A metal powder compact looks better than a plastic one and it’ll last longer. So obviously, it costs more too!

Regarding innovation, it’s very variable. Not so long ago, only prestige brands used innovative techniques or ingredients, and the mass market copied them. But those days are long gone, now mass market brands pioneer as much as the prestige brands. And as we saw earlier, when there’s a discovery, we’ll probably find it in both upscale and inexpensive products with maybe a short time interval. The same company will use it for several of its brands, gaining popularity with a prestige brand and a short time later, including it in a mass brand. Let’s take the example of Lancôme and Maybelline. Lancôme brought out the first vibrating mascara and a short time later, it was Maybelline. These mascaras were very different (I loved the Lancôme, the Maybelline somewhat less), but I’m only talking about the vibrating brush here.

Large or small?

As with all other industries, there are large and small companies. Obviously the larger ones have more buying power and thus can obtain better prices (the more you are prepared to buy, the better price you’ll get from the supplier). Small companies will often have to pay more for the same item as the large companies and this means the consumer price will be higher. There’s also the question of the minimum order which means that certain products can only be sold by large companies who have more money for innovation, launching and advertising. Take mascara for example, a very small company may find it difficult to pay for a minimum order of 50 000 units. This means that the small company may produce only one or two classic mascaras that they’ll stretch over several years while a large company like L’Oréal seems to bring out a new kind of mascara every two months.

So it’s a matter of personal choice whether you buy from a large or a small company. Personally, I like to encourage innovative or original new companies, even if they’re small.


As with other industries, the cosmetics industry’s aim is to sell and make a profit. With this goal in mind, they’ll do anything to create or stimulate demand.
Unfortunately, there are no laws which force companies to be realistic in their advertising. There are advertising standards but these are self-regulated by people in the advertising industry, at least here in Canada. So to be an informed consumer, you have to be able to judge the level of exaggeration to know if you’re being fooled.

The aim of advertising is to make us dream, like winning the lottery, and we often get taken in. We say to ourselves “Maybe this time, it’s the right one and this cream will be the one that removes all my wrinkles or cellulite, or this mascara will make me look as if I’m wearing false lashes………maybe I’ll win the jackpot.”
We all have a brain and we can usually tell what’s realistic and what isn’t. The trick is to use your head rather than your emotions when evaluating advertising.
The first thing you should know is that 100% of cosmetic advertising photos are touched-up using software like Photoshop. So it’s goodbye realism. Furthermore, they use every imaginable accessory such as hair extensions, wigs and false eyelashes: clothes are pinned back; stickers are attached to clips and glued in the hair to create a face-lift effect: and what about high heels, flattering lighting, and makeup, including body makeup (for a photo, I once had to create fake six-pack abs on a man who didn’t have any at all!), etc., etc., etc.?

Just look at the models. They’re often young, with a completely unrealistic height-weight ratio. The chosen ones are those with the best skin, the biggest eyes etc. And on top of all that, you have the work of the world’s best makeup artists, all captured on film by professional photographers and then adjusted with Photoshop! Do you know what you can do with Photoshop? Absolutely anything! You can completely recreate the face and the body…

So don’t believe everything you see. Read the small print and don’t expect miracles because miracles don’t exist!

As for the statistics printed on the product packaging, such as « *94% cellulite reduction », always check the little asterisk. Check how many women participated in the study, if it’s a reduction of the size or the number of fat cells or if it’s the number of women who agree with the claim. Have the results been measured with special appliances or have women tested the product themselves? That’s how we can tell if a product works or not.

All this doesn’t necessarily mean that all advertising is lies. There are excellent products that produce the desired results. You just have to be an informed consumer to find them.

So what about you? Are you an informed beauty consumer?

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