5 Ways to Save on Essential Cosmetics

How much do you spend on cosmetics in a year -- $500, $1,000 or maybe even $2,000? When it comes to beauty, many of us are easily persuaded to pay the price, however exorbitant. But is it really worth paying $50 for an anti-aging skin cream or $35 for the latest moisturizing lipstick?

To get to the bottom of this beauty question, we talked to the "cosmetics cop," consumer advocate Paula Begoun, to find out how you can spend less on your beauty products. She says the smart consumer knows which products to buy, saving money and not sacrificing quality. "Expensive not only doesn't mean better -- there are also inexpensive products being made that are identical to the expensive ones," says Begoun, author of the book Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter without Me.

In fact, price often has more to do with the packaging than what's inside the box. Many big-name brands -- Revlon, Almay and Ultima II, for example -- are actually manufactured by the same company using the same underlying technology, says Begoun: "If Jane Doe is selling eyeshadow for $3 made by the Estee Lauder company, why are we buying Bobbi Brown eyeshadow for $18, also made by the Estee Lauder company?"

Sure, some products are better than others, but that's more to do with personal preference and individual skin types. When it comes right down to it, there's no cosmetic more than $30 that's worth it, Begoun says. And even that's a stretch.

The cosmetics industry is a $26 billion business, fueled by advertisements promising instant fixes and beauty enhancers. Many of the fashion and beauty magazines women consult for product recommendations and beauty advice are equally misleading, Begoun says.

"We don't have the big picture on the industry because we tend to read fashion magazines, and fashion magazines don't give us any information the industry doesn't want us to know," she says. What's more, since everyone's skin is different, "listening to what celebrities are doing is just a joke."

It's made even more complicated when cosmetics companies throw in science to back up their claims. Cosmetics companies conduct extensive research, but largely for their own use. When a company can say a cosmetic product is a health measure, not only a beauty aid, it can better market that product.

The Food and Drug Administration regulates cosmetic claims. But a product claiming to "erase wrinkles" would likely be classified a drug, not a cosmetic. As such it is evaluated on totally different terms and administered by prescription, not sold at Macy's.

While the FDA doesn't require cosmetics companies to prove their products' safety, product labels cannot be false or misleading -- hence the use of language such as "appears to" or "may visibly reduce" in advertising.

With this in mind, it's important to do your homework before you shop. As Begoun points out, "Wasting money really isn't beautiful. There's nothing sexy about being lied to."

Five tips before you buy:

1. Don't be fooled into believing expensive cosmetics are better than inexpensive ones. Most cosmetics contain virtually the same ingredients.

2. Don't believe in beauty miracles -- you cannot permanently erase wrinkles. If it costs $200, it probably is too good to be true.

3. If a product purports to be all natural, it doesn't necessarily mean it's good for you. Some so-called "all-natural" products can actually irritate your skin more than synthetic ingredients. Lavender, for example, actually enhances the sun's negative effects on skin, Begoun says, and rosemary and peppermint can be downright irritating.

4. Don't be duped by the language. Look for phrases such as "appears to" and "may visibly reduce." Remember, cosmetics companies aren't required by law to prove their products actually do what they claim.

5. Take advantage of your resources. Must-read sources for cosmetics consumers include the FDA online and Medscape, the medical research site. You may also consider investing in Paula Begoun's Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter without Me.

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