Why expensive face creams work

Hi, my name is Tracy and I use expensive face creams.

There, I’ve said it. I feel better for the admission and know that none of you are judging me. Right?

Oh. Well, okay, perhaps you are looking at me a little askance with a skeptical glint in your eye. And I don’t blame you; after all, the price of a moisturizer bears no relation to its effectiveness. Pricey lotions and potions are over-perfumed, over-packaged, and often sold with a mouthful of lies and bogus science.

So why do I buy them?

It begins with a second admission: I have lousy skin. And a third: I’m lazy when it comes to skincare. Yes, there is a causal relationship between those two things, and now you’re looking at me with a glint more akin to disgust, I can tell. But I’m not alone in this. Plenty of women get to the end of a long and tiring day and don’t carry out a proper skincare routine. If it’s 4am on a weekend, sometimes we don’t do one at all, our tired, danced-out stupor telling us “I’ll wash my face twice in the morning”.

For my skin type, dermatologists recommend removing dirt and/or makeup twice a day with a cream cleanser (foaming washes are too drying), followed by a moisturiser, and thrice-weekly exfoliation, followed by more moisturiser. I’ve always bought cheap, supermarket-brand moisturiser (around £2, or $4 per 50ml) because I know that chemically they’re all the damn same. For me, a good moisturiser was one that didn’t give me spots. But I am really lousy at the actual routine, not bothering with half of it. And it shows, frankly.

Or rather, it used to. I now have glorious, silky skin that I’m proud of and that my friends comment on. How did this miracle occur?

A few months ago, I had a free facial at a makeup counter in a department store, and afterwards the assistant gave me some free samples of moisturiser and eye cream. They smelled really, really good, and had a nice consistency, so I found myself looking forward to using them every morning and night. After a week when the samples were gone, I went to the store and spent £30 ($60) on 50ml of moisturiser. That’s 15x more expensive than my old cream.

And this is where the psychology comes in: I spent a disproportionate amount of money on bottle of goo. Therefore, I’m going to use it. With my old cheap cream, I could take or leave it, because it wasn’t a luxury, so invariably I’d leave it. But now, I’ll be damned if I’m wasting £30 of moisturiser. And I need to put the pricey goo on a perfectly clean face, so I’ve stepped up my whole routine like the most dedicated supermodel. My skin has never been better. It’s not due to any special ingredient in the bottle, and it’s certainly not down to moisturiser alone. I’m cleansing, toning and exfoliating regularly, just to prep my face for the lovely goo. It’s simply down to value. I spent more, so I want to get the most out of my investment. I suspect this is the real reason expensive face products are popular, whether the users know it or not. If they didn’t work, they wouldn’t sell, so (as with homeopathy, for example), some sort of psych effect must be kicking in.

Whether I’m right or not, it doesn’t matter. I have amazing skin. I’m going back next month to buy the eye cream.

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  1. Damn, that's complicated. My dermatologist told me to wash my face with water. Much easier (and cheaper)! I have mild rosacea so I have a perscription skin cream and sunscreen, which makes the choices much easier.

  2. Water doesn't get enough crud off my face. Between makeup and the 30-minute-each-way-down-a-main-road walk to the office, my face needs an agent. Soap and foaming cleansers dry my skin out quicker than you can say 'flaky', unfortunately.

  3. Hello Tracy,

    First off, I'm not sure I follow your line of reasoning. Does moisturizer really 'go to waste'? Wouldn't it make more (or as much) sense if you used _less_ of the expensive moisturizer, so it lasts longer?

    Second, and more interesting, I just read an utterly fascinating article about how people respond differently both physically and mentally if they think a product is, say, more expensive (sort of a special case of the placebo effect). I know, that sounds like pseudoscience, but (as far as I can tell), it's actually legit (research at Caltech and Stanford). Here's the link:
    It could be that you're experiencing the same effect.

  4. You can't use less moisturiser, you need to use the same amount of a cheap one or an expensive one (if they're the same consistency). Moisturiser, cheap or expensive, does have an effect. Plus, once opened, they do have a shelf-life. I don't want to be using the same bottle of goo in a year's time.

    The wine thing is a well-known effect. Retail marketers have been exploiting it for years. However, it's not analoguous to the face cream situation because my skin actually has improved. Buying a cream I enjoy using has triggered a behavioural change. That's in no way similar to saying "I think this tastes nicer because I know it's more expensive". The expensive cream is no better than the cheap stuff, and I'm not claiming otherwise. What I'm saying is that I accept the hassle of the skincare routine in order to justify the cost of the cream. With a cheap cream, that motivation is absent.

  5. (Oh, I should say thanks for the link but explain that I run a marketing company so I know all the buyer behaviour psych stuff inside out!)

  6. Ugh. I've noticed ever since getting bashed in the face playing football, my skin has been out of control! It was either the injury, the stress, or some combination thereof. Screw moisturizers, I'd like to invest in a really nice paper bag with two holes for eyes.

  7. Jack, you have spectacularly missed my point :D

    And also the fact that I have already acknowledged that the expensive stuff is the same goop as the cheap stuff, but with perfume.

    I'm talking about value perception engendering behavioural change. My theory being that I will jump through a bunch of boring hoops in order to justify the cost of the cream that, with your cheap pharmacy concoction, I simply would not do.

  8. I agree with Teek. If I buy stuff at the pharmacy, I get bored after a week or two and quit with the routine. If I spend megabucks at the department store, I stay with the routine, and I look much better.

    I frequently have people guess my age about 10-15 years younger than I actually am, so I guess consistent skin care pays off. I have to justify what I spend, even if I can afford it!

  9. What interests me is that you are fully aware of the fact that the expensive cream makes you use the cream more regularly, but this awareness doesn't make you want to (or maybe still doesn't enable you) to 'cheat the system' by buying the cheap cream and disciplining yourself into using that regularly.

    What I'm trying to say is, why doesn't the subconscious effect of marketing dissipate when you become conscious of it?

  10. 'Ere, what happened to Teek's moustachio?

    Whilst I appreciate the aesthetics of her new cartoon self, was there any valid reaon to leave her poor moustachio behind?

  11. I don't know that it's so much the MARKETING that makes Teek more willing to use the moisturizer as it is the price. The cost-value break down, as well as the guilt of spending a large amount, are what caused the behavioral change. I know EXACTLY how she feels.

    Whenever I make any sort of extravagant or unneeded purchase, I go out of my way to use it EVERY TIME I have a chance. It has nothing to do with the marketing of whatever the thing is. It has ALL to do with money. And as silly as it is, cheating the system as cronopio suggests DOESN'T work. I don't know why, but I just know that (for me) it doesnt.

  12. I'm with Teek and Geek. (Oh!!!1 That's too fab!) I think the crazy logic works for me too. I know there are similarities between both actually active ingredients, but I stick to the routine if it's more dear too.

  13. I wonder if I should be spending more on my gym membership in hopes of fostering this psychological effect for myself.

    It'd be nice if I were capable of deceiving myself into thinking I was spending more on my gym membership while someone started depositing the extra money into a savings account on my behalf.

    Here's something to ponder– After successfully hard wiring the skin care routine into one's regular behavior, could one effectively transition back to reasonably priced moisturizer? That would be ideal, but I have a feeling that once the cheap stuff was reintroduced the old mindset would come with it.

  14. Most facial creams consist of salicylic acid, glycolic acid, alcohol, a gelling agent, a fragrance, and a bunch of almost completely useless for the purpose of skin care things.

    Salicyic acid and glycolic acid are the key ingredients. Salicyic acid opens pores and glycolic acid eats away at dead skin. Dermatologists use a high concentration of glycolic acid to perform a chemical peel.

    Knowing that you could just go to any pharmacy, buy a 2% salicylic acid solution and a 10% glycolic acid solution, and use them to get the same effect as your expensive cream for a fraction of the price.

  15. "If they didn’t work, they wouldn’t sell…"

    Au contraire – products that don't work sell quite well all the time. Airborne, HeadOn, hair growth products, magic weight loss products, etc. sell millions, although they do nothing that is claimed or implied in the ads.

    Partially due to the placebo effect, partially due to the subconscious unwillingness to admit we were taken, people will continue to spend millions on products that don't work.

  16. Ah, Ssteppe, but those products DO work, for certain values of 'work'. As you already mentioned, placebo is one of them, plus a dose of confirmation bias, coincidence, selective measurement, etc.

    Plus, and this is long-documented, people become brand loyal very quickly if something appears to work the first time, and it takes much longer to break that loyalty even if the product fails to work again, or ceases to work over time. These are optimistic consumers. Someone on JREF wrote an EXCELLENT post recently about why homeopathy continues to sell despite it not working, and it's largely down to the fact that *for the user*, it works. For an actual, factual, analysis of what happened, medically, it didn't work. The water nonsense didn't actually cure the ailment. But, to the customer, an effect coincided with a cure or reduced symptoms. Something worked. Unfortunately, medicine is important, where face cream isn't. No-one died because they didn't moisturise, so whilst I'm happy to say 'this is another angle on the word 'work'', it doesn't justify snake oil. This is particularly true because I'm aware of the psych effect with the face cream, where buyers of snake oil are not aware of the real reason behind its perceived efficacy.

    I will go and find that JREF post and paste it here.

    As for whether I can eventually 'harness' the effect for a cheaper face cream: I don't know. I've very quickly started to associate the smell and the packaging (very nice glass bottle compared to plastic tube) of the fancy stuff with my new skincare routine. That'll be a hard thing to break, I suspect. We'll see what happens when this bottle is empty. Like all consumers, I'll evaluate whether or not the money I spent was worth it, and rebuy (or not) based on that.

  17. You have essentially imposed a (voluntary) tax to encourage a desired behavior. Nothing anyone should be *skeptical* of , per se. Taxes and tariffs have been used this way for ages.

  18. Stress will most definitely make any kind of skin problem worse, stress is actually the opposite of the placebo effect. I talk about the placebo effect in my blog.

    Stress is when your physiology mobilizes resources and keeps them in reserve for immediate consumption for something such as "running from a bear". It does this by turning off things that are less important, things such as healing. Low NO is the mechanism by which physiology does this. The placebo effect is raising NO to switch physiology from the low NO "fight or flight" state to the high NO "rest and relaxation" state where resources are released for things such as healing.

    The nitric oxide bacteria that I am working with invoke the physiology of the placebo effect pharmacologically. When you sweat, these bacteria turn the ammonia in that sweat into NO and nitrite which is absorbed into the skin and has all these effects. This is the mechanism for the beneficial effects of sweating (provided you have these bacteria present). The bacteria are easy to lose because they are slow growing (optimum doubling time ~10 hours).

    I am working on making it into a cream, but figuring out what placebo ingredients to use (dye, perfume, etc) is the hard part for me because I don't think that way.

  19. This reasoning makes perfect sense to me. My wife and I pay $56/month for a gym membership when we could just as well walk or jog or ride our bikes around town for free. But we rarely do the latter, but we're damn well not gonna let that gym money go to waste. So we exercise, pretty regularly in fact.

  20. Guess I'm just lucky… I had a doctor once tell me that I had extremely healthy skin and ask what I did to keep it that way, and all I could do was look confused at her…

  21. I think what tkingdoll is actually trying to illustrate here is cognitive dissonance, as opposed to the logic or illogic of her purchases vs. the alternative…correct me if I'm wrong.

    This explanation does make sense within the framework of cognitive dissonance.

  22. Oh and to explain: cognitive dissonance is when you hold two or more conflicting beliefs at the same time. This often results in changing some behaviours or thoughts in order to reduce the discomfort for yourself.

    In this case, a person "knows" that the more expensive product isn't any different then the cheap product so to justify the expense, they change their routine to get the most out of it. This would produce a relatively positive situation for the person, by encouraging them to engage in a beneficial routine.

    Also, one can convince themselves "well I paid this much for it, it must be good." This would be a relatively negative situation for the person, because it might convince them that really terrible things are good simply because of the expense it has incurred.

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