Today’s recap is of the BBC’s skincare documentary The Truth About Looking Good. Presented by journalist Cherry Healey, this show is part of The Truth About…franchise.
On this occasion they aimed to investigate the truth about cosmetics. Cherry and a team of scientists independently tested cosmetics to try and find out if there’s any evidence behind their claims, or whether we’re just pouring our pounds down the drain on retinol and retinol’s friends.
If you’ve been following the blog since launch, then this might seem like a detour from my recent posts. I’ve been writing a fair bit about food and health savings.
Before that I did a bunch of posts about how first time buyers can get on the property ladder by thinking outside the box.
I’ve also started recapping the consumer show Supershoppers in search of the best value for our spending, and will continue those tips on the upcoming podcast. For now though, it’s the turn of “beauty”.
Here’s what I’ve covered below:
- Is Moisturiser A Waste Of Money?
- Should We Pay To Wear Sunscreen All Year Round?
- Are Antiwrinkle Creams A Waste Of Money?
- When Is Designer Makeup Worth The Price Tag?
- Is Trying To Get Rid Of Cellulite A Waste Of Money?
- Which Skincare Claims Should We Pay More For?
- Why Do We Think Luxury Cleanser Is Better?
What are your spending priorities?
I’ve been addicted to buying clothes in the past, and I’ve also had moments where my makeup and potions and lotions collection seemed to breed like bunnies. Luckily I wasn’t buying designer brands, otherwise I don’t think I would have ended up with a house deposit at all.
Even buying budget brands though, I did get to a point where I seemed to have a different cream for 100 different uses…but I only have one face and one body, and the minimalist trapped inside of me said “Stop! Is any of this even working? Do you want another moisturiser or a house?”
So I chose my spending priorities and when it came to beauty, I had to be pretty ruthless. I either stopped buying certain items altogether if I wasn’t certain of a benefit, or look for the best value items for the things I wanted to continue using regularly.
Best value doesn’t always mean the cheapest. Obviously you want a certain standard of quality, but I’m a big believer that own brands and budget brands are often just as good if not better than some luxury logos. With the latter you’re quite often just paying for a pretty box and the name.
In this programme they asked whether we need certain products at all, and if so, whether a cheaper version will do the job, so this was right up my alley.
Whether you’re already a savings king/queen/non-binary royalty, or wondering how you can start spending better when it comes to beauty, I hope you find the following helpful. Look after the pennies and the pounds take care of themselves, right?
Is Moisturiser A Waste Of Money?
Cherry said in the programme that most of the research in clinical trials is on people with skin conditions instead of healthy skin and they aren’t usually testing high street products either. So is moisturiser pointless? (My question would be: is it always obvious to us whether our skin is healthy?)
To find out, they got volunteers to moisturise one side of their face twice a day for three weeks. The University of Sheffield tested their natural skin barrier before and after. This barrier protects against dryness and irritation.
The researchers were looking to measure any sign of improvement in the following:
- Skin hydration
- Skin health
No one knew what cream they had been given out of the following three:
Nivea Soft RRP £1.40 per 100ml
Clinique £24 per 100ml
Embryolisse Lait-creme Concentrate RRP £20 per 75ml
(They quoted a higher price on the programme for Embryolisse, but I think they made a booboo).
Hydration: The level of water in everyone’s skin increased in the Nivea and Clinique groups.
Skin health: None of the creams improved their skin health (their natural barrier) or appearance.
Anti-ageing: They didn’t find any anti-ageing benefits.
Researcher Simon said the increase in the skin’s water level in the Nivea and Clinique groups was because of high levels of humectants which hold water e.g. glycerin.
If we look at the ingredients of a moisturiser, the higher in the list glycerin appears, the more hydrating we should find the product than a product with glycerin low down in the ingredients.
While there were no anti-ageing benefits, I’d add that pumping the skin around the eye area full of water via a moisturiser does make for a less tired look, but this isn’t anti-ageing per se as the effects are temporary. The skin is still ageing merrily regardless.
Does this mean luxury moisturisers are a waste of money?
Not necessarily. Embryolisse felt they were treated unfairly by the programme and pointed out that three weeks with a small group was not representative and their cream behaved well in other independent tests.
When the programme first aired, I believe they overpriced Embryolisse. If the three products look a bit odd alongside each other, it’s because originally Nivea Soft was chosen as the budget brand, Clinique as the mid-range cosmetic, and Embryolisse was meant to be the luxury option.
While I personally think anything priced higher than Nivea Soft is luxury(!), they perhaps wouldn’t have compared these three creams otherwise.
Like a lot of small scale experiments for television, the length of the test wasn’t very scientific. As our skin goes through changes in the same way that our weight might fluctuate day to day. I’m not a doctor, but last time I checked hormones play a role in our skin, and a three week test among women is likely to miss out on some fairly big hormone shifts.
Pollution, our own skin type, what we eat, smoking etc all affect our skin also, but they didn’t mention these. Such is the nature of making one hour television. Programme makers need an efficient way to make a point, and so this is never going to have the same rigours as scientific trials.
The small group could have been more scientific in two ways. One would have been to increase the number of participants. Secondly, the group was mostly Caucasian and this wasn’t mentioned as a variable either.
I watch a lot of factual entertainment and it’s quite common for these formats to repeat tests with a smaller group of people and without allowing for all the variables. Sometimes it demonstrates a point quickly and cleanly regardless. I can see on this occasion why some found it too much of a shortcut.
How to choose a moisturiser
So…if we’re looking for value for money, a pot of Nivea Soft might hydrate our skin cheaper than other creams, but don’t necessarily expect more than that.
Otherwise if two creams look similar but are different prices, try choosing the cheapest one with glycerin or another humectant high in the list and see how you fare.
If we don’t notice a benefit even in the long term, this might be down to other factors. Cosmetics are not medicine at the end of the day.
Which moisturiser do you swear by? Is cost a factor in your decision? Let me know in the comments.
Should We Pay To Wear Sunscreen All Year Round?
Most of us only crack out sunscreen if going on holiday, or perhaps during a UK heatwave. However, the UVA that causes wrinkles can penetrate glass. This means if we drive a lot or sit by a window all day, the sun exposure will still be aging.
They demonstrated this at Salford Royal by putting bus driver Jill through a camera test that measures wrinkles. The right side of her face was “older” than her left because of the sun exposure through her driver’s side window.
Sun damages our fibrilin, a supporting fibre between the epidermis and dermis that props up the epidermis (the outer layer of our skin). Cherry compared damaging fibrilin to knocking out the pegs on a tent.
The solution to this is to wear sunscreen more often, and aim for at least a 4 star UVA rating. I think you’ll find Aldi has the cheapest sunscreen that satisfies this. If you find that the sunscreen expires before you can get through it, you might not be using enough, or consider sharing a bottle. (Are we allowed to share anything ever again after coronavirus? We’ll see).
So…It’s worth investing in sunscreen even if we don’t get out much. However, there’s no need to pay more so long as it has a 4 star UVA rating and the SPF you want.
Are Antiwrinkle Creams A Waste Of Money?
They spoke to Dr Anjali Mahto at the Cadogan Clinic in Chelsea to get the answer to this one. She normally recommends botox and only knows of a few products that clinically improve the signs we associate with ageing like wrinkles, pigmentation, and age spots.
The two ingredients she specified to improve the signs of ageing were:
- Tretonoin. This is prescription strength and can improve all the above. However, it’s side effects include redness, irritation, and burning, so it is only available on prescription from private providers.
- Retinol. This is a weaker version of tretonoin and is available over the counter.
Anjali suggested a product with a minimum of 0.1% retinol to get any benefit. If it doesn’t irritate after a few months, she bumps her patients up to 0.3 retinol, then 0.5, then 1%. There are still side effects and the products range from £6-£60.
So…Maybe just wear sunscreen, no? Prevention is the best cosmetic and all that…I’m curious to know the distinction between the £6 and £60 products.
When Is Designer Makeup Worth The Price Tag?
Cherry said she has a makeup collection worth £450. While small fry compared to what some people spend, Cherry didn’t realise until she totted up for the show how much she had spent over time. Let me know in the comments how much you think/know your collection is worth!
Beauty journalist and author Sali Hughes said Instagram has been driving people to spend more looking for products that give the effect of filters (if any of them do).
Sali set up a blind test for Cherry, a mum and her two daughters to see if they could tell the difference between cheap and designer makeup when the label is hidden.
Here’s what they tested:
- Rimmel Match Perfection (RRP £7.99) vs Mac Foundation (RRP £29.99)
- Illamasqua eyeshadow (RRP £17) vs MUA Makeup Academy Professional palette (RRP £4)
- Collection Lock N Hold LipGloss Rock Steady (RRP £2.99) vs Dior (RRP £24)
- Lancome Hypnose Mascara (RRP £24.50) vs L’oreal Voluminous x5 Mascara (RRP £9)
Test #1 Rimmel vs Mac Foundation
They couldn’t tell the difference between the two and all chose the Rimmel Match Perfection Foundation over Mac.
Cherry said the Rimmel felt less cakey, but one of the girls said the Mac felt thicker, so I wondered if this might be intended to have thicker coverage anyway.
From the way the packaging looked, I think they tested MAC Studio Fix. The name implies that it’s meant to stay put and a thicker consistency is an easy way to achieve this.
I noticed on Amazon that the darker shade for MAC Studio Fix is more expensive. I wonder if Amazon guesses from my past search behaviour that I’m white and is using dynamic pricing to make the foundation in my skin tone look more attractive? If so, this is known as anchoring: using a higher priced listing to shuffle you towards the product the brand thinks you are more likely to buy. See if you can spot this technique on a restaurant menu the next time you eat out.
Test #2 Eyeshadow
They pitted Illamasqua’s £17 eyeshadow vs MUA Makeup Academy Professional palette for £4.
They preferred the more expensive Illamasqua because it adhered better. Sali said expensive eyeshadows should be more pigmented and stay on the eyelid better.
Test #3 Collection LipGloss vs Dior
They thought these looked the same and they preferred the cheaper Collection Lock N Hold gloss.
The designer brand gloss looked like Dior Addict lip gloss to me. However, none of them usually wear lip gloss. Sali says in her experience, lip glosses don’t usually have any added benefit at higher prices.
Test #4 Lancome mascara vs L’Oreal
L’Oreal own Lancome anyway… They preferred the more expensive Lancome Hypnose mascara.
The L’Oreal Voluminous x5 mascara is usually more than half the price.
When is designer makeup worth the price?
Sali suggested if we are using something for a hint of colour e.g. blusher, bronzer, gloss, then cheap products are value for money. However, it’s worth investing in an eye product with more pigment if you are going for a dramatic look.
What they didn’t mention: Again, these product tests weren’t representative as Cherry and Co all have white skin. Sali said on Twitter after that they actually edited out her saying that luxury brands serve women of colour better than the high street. In this case, designer makeup is “worth it” to anyone ignored by high street brands. (Although it’s sad that there isn’t a genuine consumer choice happening).
Sali also said they cut another important point which is that other benefits like the staying power of a product and whether the colour remains true don’t become clear until later.
They rated the products based on their first response to the appearance of each item after application without taking into account any other features, except for saying the Illamasqua eyeshadow adhered better.
They also didn’t talk about whether any of these are cruelty-free. If you’ve a cruelty free version of any of the options above, please drop it in the comments. At the rate I buy makeup, it will be a while before I’ve built up some recommendations in that area!
Also if you’ve got go-to designer makeup items etc that won’t budge even in a nuclear apocalypse, shout it out.
How to spend less on makeup
So…As Sali said, it might be worth paying less for the items that you don’t expect to do any heavy lifting anyway. If I’m wearing something regularly and features like staying power are more important, then I’ll start off with the cheapest product I can find and if the quality’s not ideal, I’ll work my way up through the prices until I land on something that does the trick. If we’re used to paying top whack, we can try shifting to the price band below.
However, if only a more expensive product will do, this can obviously add up quickly if that product’s getting used daily. I’ll also play around with substitutes therefore like using a forgotten eyeshadow primer as a face primer, or combining that with a cheaper liquid foundation rather than forking out more for a matte foundation that doesn’t want primer. Only by imposing a temporary shopping ban did I discover the abilities of my existing makeup bag and find a use for neglected purchases.
Is Trying To Get Rid Of Cellulite A Waste Of Money?
At the University of Sunderland volunteers had their thighs and bum graded in before and after clinical photographs, and they also had their cellulite measured using ultrasound. They then split these souls into three groups to test different methods of attacking cellulite supposedly.
- One group were given dry brushes to use on their skin
- The second group were given toning exercises
- The third group were given a cream that claims to destroy fat cells
The second group had the least improvement at 11%, but they reported feeling better in themselves for having done the exercise.
The group using the cream had a slight improvement in appearance of 15%. The ultrasound showed no destruction of fat cells, so they thought hydration might have improved appearance and made cellulite less visible right under the skin.
The dry brushes improved appearance by 26%. The brushes supposedly improve circulation. The researchers suspected the brushing redistributes fat i.e. it pushes the cellulite back into its compartment. Nice.
So…Should we rush out and buy a dry brush? Well, consider this: they said nine out of ten women have cellulite, and one of the scientists pointed out that there’s no cure because it’s not a disease…
So perhaps we should stop worrying about something natural that the majority of us have? Various viewers objected to the show using the term “cellulite sufferers” which does imply it’s an affliction rather than a fairly standard part of life.
I’m also not comfortable with the grading of clinical photographs even if they are clinical. There’s just something odd to me about looking at a picture of cellulite and declaring it worse or better. Perhaps it just exists…
Still, this segment exists because of those of us who buy anti-cellulite products.
Which Skincare Claims Should We Pay More For?
Colin Sanders is a cosmetic chemist. He said that consumer protection regulations mean you can’t lie on a product. However this is not particularly enforced and only a certain level of proof is needed if someone complains and a company is investigated as a result…
So what do skincare claims really mean, and do they justify a higher price tag?
Colin assessed these claims:
- Clinically proven
- Active ingredients
- Dermatologically tested
- Rested and radiant
Colin said this means we won’t necessarily be able to see the results e.g. a 10% reduction in wrinkles might have been under a magnifying glass.
This means it’s been tested in vitro (i.e. not on any human), and there’s no regulation over this particular claim.
This means it’s been tested on skin, one person minimum. There is nothing to dictate how something should be dermatologically tested.
“Rested and radiant”
Colin said if you’re skin was radiant it would be emitting light…!
The powers that be say that 90% of products are compliant. They also cited repeat purchases as evidence that consumers are happy with products. (I was less convinced by the latter. Skincare is sometimes like politics. Or like Sali’s point above about BAME having a choice between designer makeup or no makeup…Sometimes the “choice” isn’t much of a choice).
So…If we’re buying a product because a claim on the label looks like the bees knees, it’s worth stopping to check what this really means in science land to see if the bees knees are really worth paying more for.
Why Do We Think Luxury Cleanser Is Better?
They suspected that packaging has too much influence over our expectations for a product and what we’re willing to pay. To test this, they first put cleanser in some bog standard packaging in a pop up shop.
After two hours and 18 walk-ins, they changed out the same cleanser for some fancy schmancy packaging. They also did the hair and makeup of the seller and gave her a lab coat to wear.
Only three people wanted still wanted to buy the first cleanser versus eight for the status packaging. The customers also completed a questionnaire which they thought was market research, but researcher Omar was measuring their self-esteem.
The respondents in the second test reported lower self-esteem. Omar’s theory was that we compensate by buying the ideal expensive product because we think it will remove insecurity, although it’s the aspirational appearance of the product that created the insecurity in the first place.
So…The next time you buy cleanser, take a closer look at the packaging and have some real talk with yourself about what you’re buying into I guess? What do you think? Do you know you like more aesthetic packaging? Or do you only care what’s inside? (That sounds like a metaphor, but I’m still talking about cleanser…)
What If It’s All A Waste Of Money???
This programme obviously assumes that we all want to look good in the first place, whatever that means to the individual. To get an idea of our perceptions of beauty, researcher Viren ran a lab experiment on body image. The volunteers had to rate their own attractiveness and the attractiveness of others.
They digitally manipulated the images of others with cultural markers of attractiveness. While attractiveness is subjective to an extent, Viren said certain traits tend to be valued highly e.g a tan is seen as a sign of health and wealth these days. Men would “normally” have a strong jaw, brow and longer nose. In the female’s image, they minimised her nose and brow and made the lips slightly fuller.
The volunteers chose enhanced images of other people as the most attractive more than 70% of the time. The volunteers were more likely to choose the less attractive image of themselves though. Viren said this was because we focus on our own flaws more than the flaws of others and give them too much weight.
Before choosing the images, the volunteers (who had never met before) spent some time mingling. The halo effect is when our impression in one place influences what we think otherwise about the same person/brand etc. So if someone has personality traits we like, we can perceive them as more physically attractive.
Viren thinks they rated their new friends as more attractive because they had had positive social interactions beforehand. He concluded their opinion of how attractive they were to look at was enhanced by their opinion of them as nice, funny, friendly etc.
So…the next time we see someone we think is a fitty, it might just be the halo effect, or we perhaps we’re more generous to others than we are to ourselves…?
The Truth About Looking Good
Here’s what I got from watching The Truth About Looking Good:
- A cheap moisturiser like Nivea Soft might work as well as a more expensive one with the right ingredients, but other factors affect skin
health and hydration levels too
- So long as it’s got a 4 star UVA rating, a cheap sunscreen will do to wear more often
- There are budget creams containing retinol for antiageing, but I should probably nail wearing sunscreen first…
- It’s not always easy to tell the difference between budget and designer makeup, so a budget brand will likely suffice for casual wear
- Only trial and error will find the products that do everything we expect
- We can make that trial and error as expensive as we like though…
- Trying to get rid of cellulite is probably a waste of money
- I haven’t found a skincare claim yet that I’m willing to pay more for
- If a more expensive product looks appealing, I’m going to stop and ask whether I’m just paying for a pretty packet
How to stop spending on cosmetics
Nothing saved me more money on makeup than having makeup free days, or changing my ideas about what wearing makeup entails. Who’da thunkit???
For the latter, this meant maybe putting on eye makeup and concealer but not foundation, or wearing primer and powder as a bare minimum if I wanted to look slightly less like death to pop to the shops.
It was immensely freeing to not put on a full face of makeup. I would have a good chat with someone out and about and maybe realise after the fact that they weren’t wearing makeup either. Funnily enough it didn’t stop us having a human interaction, and if I don’t care whether they dodged their mascara, why should it matter to me whether they notice I’ve skipped my mascara too?
Try a magazine detox if you regularly buy magazines and see what it does to your cosmetics spend. My spending on cosmetics seems to directly correlate with my exposure to magazines.
I had a magazine addiction too(!) as a teenager, although that was mainly music and film magazines. The only time after that I would read a magazine would be if a friend lent me one. While I don’t want to rain on the genuinely good journalism happening in women’s mags sometimes, I noticed that I would come away every time with a shopping list. Funny that.
The sheer amount of ads and the majority of the features all gear around solving problems (real or imagined) with products. Sometimes rather pricey products.
If I let it slide, I’d forget that I wanted to buy anything, which likely means I didn’t need in the first place. So if you can’t seem to stop topping up your toiletries and makeup when you already have plenty, see if avoiding magazines for a few months has any influence.
That’s a (seaweed) wrap…
The make up tests in this show weren’t too indepth and I am interested in trying out cruelty free brands going forward, so I might do some comparisons in future. The mailing list is your friend if you want to know when there’s new posts on the blog.
I might write about home IPL devices too as it took a long time to decide to buy one because it’s a big one-off cost. Sometimes it’s worth paying more in one hit though than forking out for hair removal year after year. I’m going to write about glasses and contact lenses next, so subscribe if you want to spend better in those areas too.