Experts explain the price difference between clean and conventional cosmetics, and whether they’re worth it.
No parabens, petrolatum or artificial fragrances. Only the best of nature’s ingredients. And hey, a recyclable bottle.
By now, you’ve heard of clean beauty and all its potential benefits. But if you’ve ever compared the price tags on your go-to foundation, moisturizer or conditioner, you may have noticed the clean version is a little pricier. Or, in some cases, much pricier than a not-clean but otherwise comparable product.
Browsing your favorite beauty retailer online can reveal some serious price disparities. Popular brands like Benefit sell highly rated foundations for $30, while a clean foundation from Tarte retails for $39.
Skin care product pricing is similar. Consider this argan oil for $6.80 per ounce, compared with a clean version for about $28.80 per ounce. And hair care products aren’t exempt. A reparative hair mask costs $25 from Kiehl’s, versus $36 from clean brand Briogeo.
So, why do these clean beauty products cost more than the traditional alternatives? We spoke to experts who explained.
The confusion around clean
For starters, there is no official or agreed upon definition of what clean beauty really is. Most clean beauty brands define their version of clean based on the ingredients they leave out of their products ― ones they say may be harmful for people or the environment. For example, Drunk Elephant keeps “the suspicious six” out of their skin care line, while hair care brand Briogeo rejects six other outlawed ingredients.
Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu, cosmetic chemists and co-founders of Chemist Confessions, noted that clean beauty is defined differently by each brand. Because brands can set their own bar for “clean,” that means they can set their own price, too.
“It’s about a lot of no-no lists of ingredients brands deem irritating or cancer-causing, and it has grown into a competition to see who has the longest no-no list,” Fu said. “For a lot of the ingredients flagged, there isn’t substantial evidence these ingredients are bad for you. That’s where we find a lot of confusion.”
“There is no clear definition of what it means,” Lu said. “The trend we’re seeing people lump in with clean beauty is sustainability. It’s becoming this movement of putting together what consumers care about, and putting it all under the ‘clean’ umbrella.”
What’s in a price?
Since every brand defines “clean” for themselves, Lu said, it’s hard to say precisely what goes into pricing their products.
Sourcing natural ingredients explains the majority of the difference in cost, according to Erica Douglas, founder of Sister Scientist and a cosmetic chemist with years of experience in developing clean beauty and textured hair care products.
“I like to compare it to the organic food movement. When you say, ‘Hey, we need to remove this ingredient or anything labeled a carcinogen,’ in most cases it’s more expensive to make the replacement ingredient or it’s not available in abundance,” Douglas said. “That adds cost to the formula that gets passed down to the consumer. Until conventional brands put their volume behind it, it will be hard to find clean alternatives to those ingredients.”
“A lot of things can contribute to the price,” Lu noted. “I can’t speak for all brands, but my educated guess is there are administrative costs. The reality is you want certain ingredients, and brands that do their due diligence want to find out about those ingredients’ processing, their residues, and making sure they align with their brand’s values. That contributes to cost.”
The trend of combining all of a consumer’s interests can also drive up prices. Bottle your clean beauty product in environmentally friendly packaging — another important factor for many clean beauty shoppers — and it starts to add up.
“Some brands lump in sustainability, and sustainable packaging is more expensive than traditional packaging,” Lu said.
Will it always cost more to choose clean?
Why can’t you walk into stores like Walmart and Target, or your neighborhood pharmacy, and see clean beauty products at drugstore prices? Lu explained that, kind of like the world of fashion, high-end and luxury brands (think: what you might see sold in Sephora) set the trends shoppers eventually will see at major retailers.
“Part of it is marketing,” Lu said. “They feel like their customer segment is going to pick up on a new label first, like ‘clean.’ Trends trickle down to more mass brands a little later.”
However, that trickle-down of the clean beauty trend means consumers will eventually have more affordable options to choose from.
“It all comes down to the power of supply and demand,” Douglas said. “When the clean beauty movement started, the price point was high because there wasn’t high demand for it. You aren’t making vast amounts of product to serve a small population of people. As clean beauty became popular, now you have more people who are ingredient-label readers and are more concerned. With the masses on board, you can put out more. Volume drives pricing. When you’re making smaller batches, ingredients and using fewer toxic substitutes are more expensive.”
How to spend wisely
The chemists said that, just like buying conventional products, starting with a sample size of a clean beauty product can help you determine if it’s right for your skin type or hair type (and worth the additional cost).
“You pay more to have a cleaner product, and they’re equating cleaner to safer, but we want to emphasize that’s not the case at all,” Fu said. “A lot of clean products use things that are more plant-based and that can be more problematic. Plants are complex and have allergens themselves, so if you’re not using a very refined version, this can invite in more potential for irritation.”
“Being informed is what’s most important,” Douglas said. “There’s a lot of confusion in the marketplace, and ingredients get a bad reputation even though it hasn’t been proven by science that they’re horrible. But just the possibility they’re bad is enough for some people to say they don’t want them in their products. Other brands say, ‘If science hasn’t proven this, why should we take it out?’ I support the clean beauty industry and rationale behind it, but I’m also someone who values data and facts. Let the consumer decide if they want to operate at this standard or that one.”
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