My wife has always been serious about skincare, but when she started working for a premium cosmetics company, she became downright obsessive. She started poring over makeup reviews, lurking around Paula Begoun's website, and having heated arguments with herself about different ingredients, cleansers, and product lines. It was a little like watching Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining descending into madness, except that he sported a five-o'clock shadow, while Virginia's skin was radiant.
Although my wife's employer gave her a steep discount and provided a large amount of free samples, I started noticing that her medicine cabinet was filling up with skincare products from several different companies. When I asked her about it, she told me that many of her company's competitors sold what were essentially the same products for far less money. Even with her discount, it was often cheaper to buy comparable skincare from other product lines.
Part of the reason for this is that many of the different brands are owned by the same parent companies. For example, Estee Lauder owns both the upscale "La Mer" brand and the less expensive "Clinique" line. Similarly, Lancome sports both a pricey mall brand and the bargain-priced "L'Oreal" brand. Although the parent companies vary their product lines somewhat, many of the active ingredients that are sold at a premium in one line are available at a discount in the less expensive lines.
Another reason that skincare lines are so similar is the fact that most of them use the same compounds. For example, most skincare creams use one or two "secret" ingredients. The first is Dimethicone, a silicone derivative that sits on the skin and prevents light from hitting the bottom of a pore or wrinkle, giving the appearance of smoother skin. The second is Sodium Hyaluronate, which also sits on top of the skin and draws water. The water, in turn, penetrates the skin, giving it a plumper appearance. These ingredients are the same across the board, regardless of price.
Here are a few examples of skincare products that have remarkably similar formulas and effects:
Lancome's Absolue Ultimate BX Serum ($130 for 1 oz) and L'Oreal's Skin Genesis Daily Treatment Skin Concentrate ($18.74 for 1.7 oz) have many of the same ingredients and very similar effects. In fact, both brands claim the same secret: "Pro-Xylane complex." This, by the way, is pseudo-scientific gobbledygook. There is no such thing as "Pro-Xylane" in the chemistry literature. It sure sounds impressive, though!
After buying out La Mer, Estee Lauder co-opted its Creme de la Mer ($220 for 2 oz) product and remixed it as Estee Lauder's Re-Nutriv Ultimate Youth Creme. The funny thing is that Lauder's brand ($250 for 1.7 oz) is much more expensive than the original premium La Mer formulation!
Estee Lauder's Idealist ($46.50 for 1 oz) is remarkably similar to Clinique's Turnaround Concentrate Visible Skin Renewer ($36.50 for 1 oz), yet costs $10 more. Similarly, Clinique's Repairware Deep Wrinkle Concentrate ($55 for 1.4 oz) has a similar principal, formula, and effect as Estee Lauder's Perfectionist ($55 for 1 oz), yet gives you 40% more product for exactly the same price.
Finally, in terms of makeup removers, Lancome's Bi-Facil ($26), Clinique's Take the Day Off Makeup Remover ($16.50), and Neutrogena's Oil Free Eye Makeup Remover ($7.73) all have similar formulas, are oil-free, and have the exact same effect. The big difference is that Neutrogena is available at drugstores, while the other two are mall brands.
This is only scratching the surface. If you are interested in exploring this further, check out Paula's Choice; although she also offers her own skincare line, Paula's reviews of other product lines are often quite complimentary. At the very least, her cosmetic ingredient dictionary will give you a better idea about what you're putting on your skin!