The Truth About Expensive Skincare Vs Cheap Skincare

Illustration by Olivia Santner
Dear Daniela,

I’m really into skincare and usually buy from luxury high street brands, but I recently saw an interesting YouTube video that compared some expensive skincare with cheap skincare and said they give basically the same results. I thought I might save some money so I decided to buy some really inexpensive supermarket-brand skincare – but then my mum told me they were bulked out with cheap 'filler' ingredients. Is that true? Is cheap skincare full of filler? Is that bad?
Rhiannon, 30
'Filler' comes up time and time again in beauty. I first encountered the term as a shop girl, when trainers from various skincare lines would justify the premium price of their products by saying they had no filler. Working as a beauty journalist when the natural beauty boom hit, brands told me that their products were safer as they had no filler. As a skincare fanatic and /r/SkincareAddiction lurker on Reddit, I’ve seen filler referred to as something that pads out expensive skincare or dilutes cheap skincare. Essentially, filler is a blank Scrabble tile, a placeholder for the baddie du jour, a trick mirror that reflects back your own skincare confirmation bias.
I leant on cosmetic chemist (and boss-level meme artist) Stephen Alain Ko to see if he shared my viewpoint. "I think in the industry, filler is used as a marketing term and a way to explain to a consumer that their product is 'efficient'. There is no standard definition of a filler and it seems to change from brand to brand, and from formula to formula," confirmed Ko.
If you didn’t have any kind of filler in a product, you’d probably have something impossible to use, like a chalky powder or a lumpy cream. Water is a good example of this and is often one of the first, if not the first chemical on an ingredients list. "In some formulas, water can be very important in creating the texture, or enhancing skin penetration, or dissolving ingredients, or even making the product function properly," explained Ko.

There is a perception that expensive skincare is always better than cheap skincare – and that simply isn't true.

If you bought a vitamin C that was all vitamin C, a retinol that was just retinol or even a hyaluronic acid that was only HA, you’d probably have an unusable product. So-called fillers can improve the consistency, stabilise the potency and improve the lifespan of a product. The new Murad Vita-C Glycolic Serum (which I love) uses gold to stabilise the vitamin C and no one would dare call it a filler. Behenyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol and stearyl alcohol are also stabilisers – but they’re less glamorous, so maybe they’d get called filler. (FYI, these agents don’t dry out the skin, and can even be derived from coconut.)
As filler is an unregulated term, it’s hard to say what a brand means when they use it. I’ve heard its absence used to reassure people with sensitive skin that a product won’t aggravate them as many times as I’ve heard a brand be praised for their 'natural' (another completely unregulated term meaning nothing) formulas that work without 'needing' filler. It’s important to remember that no formulator would want to make an ingredients list longer just for the sake of it – every ingredient is there for a reason and that reason would never be to reduce effectiveness. In fact, some ingredients that tone down the potency of another ingredient are there to make a product less aggravating, such as a retinol serum which also includes glycerin (which locks in moisture) and vitamin B3 (anti-inflammatory) to make it more hydrating and soothing.
There is definitely a perception that expensive skincare is always better than cheap skincare – and that simply isn’t true. For example, a pricey brand might amp up the cost of a product, claiming it has some super rare ingredient, but that’s not actually what’s doing the heavy lifting. They might say it’s a certain botanical extract or groundbreaking complex that makes the product so hydrating but actually it’s something like glycerin or moisturising vitamin E helping out, and that 'secret ingredient' is just a trace amount.
When that happens, you’re paying for marketing fluff and maybe some fancy packaging – not potency. In those instances, filler is actually pulling more weight than the supposed star ingredient. Likewise, some eye creams have a slightly colour-correcting tone or light-reflecting particles to minimise dark circles – a filler benefit with short-term but nonetheless pleasant results. "As a consumer, I think it's important to recognise which ingredients you might be falling in love with in a formula," said Ko, "and that sometimes it may be a boring filler ingredient like glycerin," which traps moisture in skin.
The right product to buy is the one you like. An informed decision can be: I’m buying a cheap moisturiser because I find the most important thing for me is glycerin, which makes applying makeup easier. An informed decision can also be: I’m buying this luxury cream because it’s a treat for me, it makes my skin feel beautiful and I love the ritual of applying it.
Illustration by Olivia Santner
To answer your question: maybe worry less about filler, because it’s impossible to pin down. Focus on familiarising yourself a little bit with the ingredients in your favourite products so you can start to single out what works for you. Cosmetics Info and the Paula’s Choice Ingredient Directory are two really good resources for this.

Happy shopping!

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