A pretty penny for prettier skin?

Skin creams and serums from luxury brands are finding buyers at prices of $125 and above. But are they effective?
(Lena Clara / Getty Images)
Special to the Los Angeles Times

Within three weeks of its launch at Barneys in New York and Los Angeles in October, more than 30 jars of 3LAB’s new Super Cream had sold — this despite its $875 price tag.

Elsewhere in the beauty market, demand is soaring for a $560 Bee Venom Mask newly introduced to the U.S. from British brand Heaven Skin Care. And Carita’s $600 Diamond Cream, the brand’s signature product, was reformulated and relaunched this year because of customer demand.

In what may be an indicator that consumer confidence is on the rebound, there is a resurgence in the market for high-end creams and serums — priced $125 and up — and, according to retailers, there’s no shortage of people to buy them.


Consumer research firm NPD Group says that the upper end of the market — prestigious skin-care products priced at $150 or more — generated $418 million in department store sales in the U.S. during the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2012. That represents an 18% increase over the preceding year. The average selling price was $236.54.

“We are seeing our greatest growth from high-end luxury skin care from all brands,” said Bettina O’Neill, vice president of cosmetics and fragrances at Barneys New York. “No price resistance.”

She attributes some of the recent trend to a desire by consumers to avoid invasive cosmetic surgery procedures.

“Women want to look younger, and they are willing to pay to do so,” she said. Still, she added, “the product has to work. It can’t just have a high price tag. In the end, any high ticket treatment product is cheaper than plastic surgery.”

Joining 3LAB’s Super Cream on Barneys’ shelves are Nano Gold Energizing Face Cream from Chantecaille for $420, Natura Bisse Diamond Life Infusion for $590 and a set of ampoules from ReVive Peau Magnifique that costs a whopping $1,500.

The category of high-priced skin care was pioneered by La Mer — now an Estee Lauder-owned company — which some 30 years ago released its Creme de la Mer. The formulation was created by aerospace physicist Max Huber after an accident in which he suffered severe facial burns. At the heart of the cream is its trademarked Miracle Broth, a potent combination of fermented kelp, vitamins and minerals that promises to smooth out creases and moisturize even the most damaged or driest skin. Today, an 8.5-ounce jar costs about $900 which, though pricey, is still less expensive ounce-for-ounce than some of the newcomers on the market.


But whether a price tag correlates with a product’s effectiveness remains something that consumers have to figure out. Ultimately, is a $200 cream going to do anything more for the skin than a cream that costs $29.99?

Dr. Timothy Jochen, associate clinical professor at USC and the founder of the Contour Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery Centers around Southern California, said the new round of pricey skin-care products often pitches an exotic ingredient that promises to work miracles on the complexion without necessarily offering any clinical evidence that it actually does so.

“There are platinum, silk, fish extracts, caviar, and some of these ingredients may have some benefits, but the price tag is really more about prestige and status,” he said.

Jochen added that certain ingredients have been proved effective in skin improvement, including retinoids and glycolic and alpha hydroxy acids.

“But you can find those in more inexpensive products,” he said. “I would recommend that instead of spending several hundred dollars on a cream, people put that towards a treatment like a chemical peel, where you can really see results. Mostly everything else is just very expensive moisturizing.”

Even those at the forefront of product development remain skeptical about the true virtue of a high-priced cream. Ron Robinson, a cosmetic chemist and research executive for some of the world’s best-known brands and founder of, said that dermatologist-approved and -recognized topical skin ingredients such as green tea extracts and peptides may have a proven track record and show up regularly in expensive creams, “but a lot of lower-priced skin-care creams provide a comparable result.”


“For some customers, it’s important to have a luxurious experience at the counter, the personalized consultation, to enjoy the whole mystique created around it. You go to a drugstore, and nobody is helping you there. But what it really should boil down to is, ‘What benefits is this providing my skin?’” Robinson says.

Still, sometimes it really is all about the ingredients. Lewis Hendler, chairman of Michael Todd True Organics, says the secret to the success of his new $150 Knu anti-aging cream lies in its key component, Helix Aspersa Muller — basically snail serum — which provides almost-instantaneous plumping and lifting.

“We don’t use any added water or petrochemicals, and the entire process is such that it’s very expensive to make,” said Hendler. The snail serum, touted to fortify and tighten the skin, is combined with alpha hydroxy acids and organic fruit stem cells, without any preservatives or fillers.

“At that price point, people want to see results right away, not months down the line,” he said.

But many customers don’t have to open their wallets that wide if other factors are in play. Sebastien Tardif, the former artistry director/Asia Pacific for Bobbi Brown Cosmetics, has worked on the faces of some 50,000 women in his career and recently launched his own line, Veil Cosmetics. He says he can’t count the number of times his clients attributed their glowing complexions to little more than soap, water and good genes.

“They tell me they use Vaseline or olive oil and eat right and exercise,” he said. Granted, for those who do have to work harder — and spend more — on their creams, Tardif advises following a rule of thumb.


“They should have a specific textural feel,” he said of expensive creams. “They really should feel almost weightless.”