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A makeup artist reveals why pharmacy makeup is just as good as—if not better than—premium brands

By Bernadette Fisers 4 min read

It’s a well-kept secret that there is no miracle fountain of youth product out there.

Is expensive makeup worth it?

If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if their expensive moisturiser or recently-purchased eyeshadow palette was any good, or if their skincare products actually "worked", I would be a very wealthy woman. I’ve been working as an international hair-and-makeup artist in fashion for decades. I’ve been part of the crews who make ads and glamorous editorials for magazines and billboards. We promote the idea relentlessly that a cream or lipstick will have miraculous results and transform you from feeling kinda frumpy to kinda fab.

Of course, I knew I was part of the hype—everyone behind the scenes knows that. It’s a well-kept secret that there is no miracle fountain of youth product out there, otherwise everyone would know about it and every single person would be slathering it on religiously or bathing in it.

It’s all about the perception that a product is premium or somehow "worth" the $400 you’re going to pay, and there are many sneaky tricks to get you to part with your hard-earned dollars.

Usually it's psychological—shopping for beauty products is commonly emotionally driven. We all want to feel beautiful and special and somehow, That $95 lipstick is gonna make me feel a whole lot more special than the $5 equivalent. It doesn’t matter that the ingredients are nearly identical and that the packaging it comes in often costs more to produce than the product itself. It’s all smoke and mirrors and we’ve all bought into it.

We’re driven to buy a product by the advertising and that is primarily what we are paying for. During the research for my latest book, In Your Face, I travelled to a trade show in New York. While there, one senior cosmetics chemist who had made cosmetics and skincare for many big multinational beauty companies told me with a laugh that the difference between a $65 lipstick and a $15 lipstick is $50.

Finding the best foundation

At the same New York trade show, I also found that all of the super-smart female cosmetic chemists didn’t care about brand names at all—they just used what they liked and often, that was surprisingly basic. This non-brand loyalty was not new to me. It's prevalent all throughout Asia, especially in South Korea and Japan, where I’ve spent time working. After all, the ingredients in foundations were very similar.

The one beauty product that we all should leap onto and use religiously is sunscreen—the foundation of all makeup. The sun causes 90 per cent of the damage to your skin and sunscreen is your best defence against it. But remember, sunscreen or moisturiser commonly only lasts a couple of hours on your skin. The clever Japanese are well onto this—they use their sunscreens with diligence.

I decided to write In Your Face because of the lack of knowledge that many women had, particularly in relation to skincare. We often equate a higher price tag with something that must work. "It’s expensive, therefore it must be good" is just plain incorrect. There are only a few "actives" that work. And even then, these actives, such as vitamin C and vitamin B, often take between six and 12 weeks to work and even then, the results are reasonably modest.  

A skincare product doesn’t need to contain “diamond dust” or other useless ingredients which will do nothing to help your skin but will do everything to lighten your wallet.

There are many effective products that are available from the pharmacy that are as good as, and even better than, the higher-priced ones found in premium department stores. You just need to look at the ingredients and disregard the hype. Find out what ingredients actually work. You would be far more successful at choosing an effective winner for yourself. It’s about being smart and I’m all for that. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way in beauty and In Your Face will help you with that. Price is absolutely not an indication of effectiveness.

The key ingredients for eyeshadow 

The common ingredients in eyeshadows are talc, mica and silica. You’ll find these three ingredients in almost all eyeshadows, regardless of price. What you want to look for is pigment—the amount of colour in the eyeshadow.

You can find lots of pigment in cheap-as-chips eyeshadows that are sitting in the bargain bin at the pharmacy or you can find lots of pigment sitting alone in a glass case, under a bright spotlight at a premium department store for 10 times the price. I’ve bought $10 palettes that are great and $90 palettes that are rubbish. Price is not an indication of quality in cosmetics. You’re getting the idea by now I’m hoping. It’s all about the ingredients, not the packaging and not the hype.

Nine major global cosmetic companies own about 300 of the world’s cosmetic brands, premium and budget. Once you realise that these enormous companies own and manufacture all the many different brands, often in the same factories, and also share innovations across brands, you may come to the realisation that there is possibly no point in paying top dollar.  

Many woman in Paris believe that Bourjois and Chanel are made in the same factory. It’s a well-travelled rumour that a fellow Parisian makeup artist shared with me.

All about the dream 

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with buying a beautiful gold lipstick case. Often, my credit card is out of my wallet before I know it when I see one. But I know what I’m buying.

I’m buying the dream and I’m buying the glamour.

I’m paying for the advertising and sometimes, I’m OK with that. I also know that if I want, I can duck next door to the pharmacy and pick up the same thing in a slightly less sparkly case and it will do exactly the same job. But while I love to find a bargain, sometimes, nice packaging is . . . well, nice.

Want more beauty tips? Bernadette shares how you can look great in under five minutes.


In Your Face: The Insider’s Guide to Truly Transformative Makeup and Skincare (Penguin, RRP $45) is out now.

Bernadette Fisers has worked in hair and make up for fashion and advertising photo shoots for more than 20 years, and is now one of Australia’s foremost fashion make up artists and hairstylists. The Little Book of Big Beauty by Bernadette Fisers, publishe