Drugstore Hooker: Why Bargain Isn’t (Necessarily) Bad

Published on June 23, 2013 by   ·   2 Comments

DrugstoreWhen I first started painting my face, I did what a lot of beginning performers who don’t have drag mothers do: I went to Walmart and bought a bunch of cheap makeup and just went to work trying to create my new persona.  Things are easier now: the interweb provides a much larger trove of information, product reviews, and video tutorials to help a new queen get started than it did in my day.  But for many, the first place to start is at the local drug or discount store, buying a few cheap colors and trying to make a fabulous face.  And like me, a lot of these new performers run into problems and frustrations: chalky shadows, foundations that are too thin to cover up beard stubble, lipsticks that are goopy and end up on your teeth as much as on your lips no matter how much blotting you do.

Painting a face for drag asks a lot of the products you use, and because most makeup brands are geared toward women who live in the “real world,” oftentimes the products aren’t up to the challenge or, at the very least, need to be used in different ways.  As I learned more about cosmetics and drag makeup “secrets,” I moved away from drugstore brands and more toward theatrical makeup.  To this day, I still use theatrical foundations for my base, highlight, and contours as they provide the best coverage that I’ve found for crafting my face (you can read more about my foundations and my other makeup essentials HERE).  I also started buying a lot of MAC products because, at the time, they were still creating their products with makeup artists in mind and had some of the best levels of pigmentation on the market.  My look began to evolve and to improve (Thank heavens!  I have some pictures from my early days that are TRA-GIC!) and I always had a touch of sympathy for the new girls I saw coming on the scene who were clearly struggling to find their own way through the cosmetic jungle.

Drag 01As my own makeup journey has continued, I’ve come around to the idea that you don’t have to spend a ton of money to get results.  Sure, I love to head to Sephora and drop some serious cash on high-end makeup brands that deliver quality products with proven results, but I’ve had my share of failures with pricey brands as well and found that if you look hard enough, you can find some real gems in the drug and discount store lines.

One thing that has really helped me quiet my inner makeup snob is learning more about the cosmetics industry; most people don’t know (I know I didn’t until reading the fabulously entertaining Color Stories: Behind the Scenes of America’s Billion Dollar Beauty Industry by Mary Lisa Gavenas, available from Amazon HERE) that the majority of makeup lines are owned by just a small handful of cosmetics conglomerates.  For example, Estee Lauder Companies owns 27 brands that include Estee Lauder, Aveda, Bobbi Brown, Clinique, Coach, Donna Karan, Good Skin, Kitn, MAC Cosmetics, Marni, Origins, Prescriptives, Stila, and Smashbox Cosmetics.  L’Oreal is the world’s largest cosmetics and beauty company and owns a multitude of brands across all aspects of the beauty industry including L’Oreal Paris, Urban Decay, Maybelline, Viktor & Rolf, Shu Uemura, Garnier, Paloma Picasso, Stella McCartney, Lancôme, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren and many, many more.  Once you realize how much of the beauty industry is controlled by just a few companies, you can begin to see why so many product lines put out similar products around the same time.  Often, the premium or luxury brands in a company will have the most money devoted to R&D, and their prices reflect the larger operating budget of the company overall; as these premium brands develop new products, they slowly work their way down the company ladder to the drug and discount store lines with formulations that are similar if not exactly the same as their pricier counterparts.  Some of the cheaper brands do have less pigment (or less of other ingredients that are a little pricier), but often not that much different to really impact the product’s use.  Besides the level of pigment, what often separates these products from the high-end and low-end of one company’s offerings is the quality of packaging, placement and type of advertising, and just the general allure that our consumer culture has placed on acquiring expensive department store brands.

This is not to say that all drug and discount store makeup is on par with the pricey brands; rather, it’s important to be willing to do a little experimenting and see what works for you.  For this article, I decided to share some of my favorite drug and discount store brands and products.  If you have others to share, please do so in the comments section below!

Milani Baked BlushMilani Cosmetics

Surprise, surprise, this is a brand I first discovered while watching a Queen of Blending tutorial: after finishing up her outrageous eye look, Lauren followed up with a cheek color by Milani called Bellisimo Bronze.  I hadn’t noticed Milani products around while shopping, so I filed the name away in my mind until I happened across a large display in my local CVS while waiting to get silently judged as a meth addict by the old woman behind the counter when I requested my pseudoephedrine.  That’s one advantage of hitting up the drugstore from time to time: they devote quite a bit of space to their cosmetic lines and will have special displays showing off the latest collections and product launches, the majority of which discount stores just don’t have room for.  Many of these displays also have free booklets that show off the products and give you ideas for how to use them which can be very helpful to beginning performers.  From the Milani display, I decided to pick up a couple Color Statement lipsticks (Flamingo Rose and Red Label), a Shadow Eyez jumbo pencil in Aquatic Style, a Baked Eyeshow in I Heart You, two Runway Eyes shadows (Leaf Green and Lily White), and a Baked Blush in Red Vino (the Milani Website says I should have found Bellisimo Bronze with the Baked Blushes, but apparently CVS in Grand Forks doesn’t carry that color).  The lipsticks are both pretty good with nice strong colors, and the Baked Blush was too die; it is definitely going into regular usage in my kit as it gives a great gold-tinged red color that works really well for building a strong blush/contour, especially for a look that features a red lip.  The Runway Eyes shadows were only so-so.  They had a nice sparkle to them but not much pigment and would probably work better for adding a subtle shimmer on top of another color rather than on their own.  The pencil was another great standout – the blue had a richness and a heavy pigmentation that I often find lacking in jumbo pencils, and the density of the shimmer was gorgeous.  I have yet to try the Baked Eyeshadow in a look, but from the swatching I’ve done while playing around with it, I’m optimistic.

ELF COncealerE.L.F.

E.L.F. (which stands for Eyes Lips Face) is an amazing bargain brand, and if you haven’t discovered it yet, you NEED to.  I’ve found it at both Target and Walmart at the exact same price points, so you can shop at whichever location strikes your fancy.  I’ve bought brushes, concealer, a build-your-own eyeshadow quad, a face primer, makeup cleansing wipes, a 4-color correcting powder compact, and a small “smoky eye” collection and liked them all – and none of the products cost more than $6!  Their brushes cost either $1 or $3 each, and are actually really decent quality.  If you are looking to develop your skills with brushes to see what works for you, then you definitely need to run, not walk, to the E.L.F. display and pick up some to play around with.  The concealer works so well, melting right into my skin without looking heavy (plus it smells like candy!), that sometimes I wear it in my everyday life if my under-eye circles are reflecting a night of karaoke and long island teas!  The “expensive” product, their face primer which costs a whopping $6, is a light gel primer that smooths and creates a nice, soft canvas on which to paint your face.  It’s a great little primer that easily competes with other primers that cost $30 or more (keep an eye out for an upcoming Makeup Forum post where I’ll be comparing no less than 10 face primers, including E.L.F.).  In fact, I haven’t found any E.L.F. products that I don’t like; their eyeshadows aren’t spectacular, but for a dollar a color they can be a fun complement to other colors in your kit.  They don’t offer a wide range of shades, mostly neutral/pink-y/bronze-y colors, but they are some nice basics to have around.

Hard Candy GlossHard Candy

I remember when Hard Candy was a line of nail polishes that you found at high end stores like Nordstrom’s that came in a rainbow of colors and each bottle came with its own plastic toy ring.  It was a fun indulgence to pick up if you were in the mood for something for your nails, though the rings never fit on my monster hands.  Now, Hard Candy has expanded to a whole line of cosmetics (as well as other fun products available at the Hard Candy website) that is available at Walmart; though their nail polishes aren’t as good as they used to be (and the toy ring gimmick, though it has been retained, is much more cheaply designed and produced), the rest of their product line features some real gems at a real bargain.  Their vanilla-infused Glossaholic lip gloss in Chillout adds a great dimensional sparkle onto your lips.  I also enjoy the glitter mascaras and their liquid eyeliners.  This is one situation where taking a brand out of high end retail and making it more commercially available has improved the brand rather than detracting from it, though their nail polishes (once their signature offering) seem to have taken a real beating in the transition.

Whatever Happened To Max Factor?

Max Factor Vintage AdAs I started thinking about writing this post, shopping for bargain goodies and reflecting on my own past with drug and discount store cosmetics, I kept thinking back to one of my favorite lines that I haven’t seen around in a while: Max Factor.  I used to love, love, love their lipsticks: the formula was creamy and felt divine on the lips, but they weren’t too sheer.  They had one of the most amazing glittery rose pinks I’ve ever owned, second only to Urban Decay’s Burnout (which is also, sadly, no longer available).  Max Factor’s pigmentation was always strong, owing I think to the fact that Max Factor’s origins were in the film business.  Makeup artist Max Factor supplied theatrical cosmetics to studios during the silent film era and his company was responsible for one cosmetic innovation after another.  I remember in the late 90s when the company launched Lipfinity, a “demi-permanent” paint on liquid lipstick that would dry to a matte finish that would only remove with makeup remover (no more lipstick stains on coffee mugs…or other women’s husbands!).  The product alone was extremely drying to the lips, but came with a top coat to help maintain moisture and give your lips a glossy finish.  Now, almost every makeup line has some sort of product like this.

As I tried to figure out why Max Factor wasn’t among the lines offered at Walmart or CVS, I found that due to declining sales, the company had slowly withered.  They discontinued many of their products, planning a big re-launch in 2009 for the company’s 100th anniversary.  This celebration wasn’t able to turn the company around, at least not in the United States, and Max Factor is not available in stores only in Europe.  American customers are able to purchase Max Factor at Drugstore.com, but when I searched the website in mid-June, I found only 3 products available.  It’s a sad ending to the story of one of the true innovators in the cosmetics industry (for more info, the Wikipedia page on Max Factor is a good place to start).

So the moral of the story is that just because makeup is cheap, doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t going to give you the results you want – often, it’s more about technique and application than about the product itself.  I’ve already posted a Makeup Forum entry about the bargain brand SHANY and have given you 3 more of my favorite bargain brands above, but don’t be afraid to get out and experiment.  Read reviews and watch vlogs where people share what they like…and what they don’t!  And be sure to post in the comments your favorite drug and discount store treasures so that we can all play with them and see how they work!

Now Go Forth And Get Painted!

(As much as I love to hear about what people like, I also appreciate warnings about what people don’t like and why.  This article, My Top 10 Worst Drugstore Makeup, is just that: a countdown of 10 products that this blogger at Lofty Appetite just couldn’t stand.  Enjoy!)

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Readers Comments (2)
  1. janessajaye says:

    HARD CANDY update – After posting this blog, I was recently in Walmart and saw that Hard Candy has done a relaunch of their line and one of the improvements is that they have a whole new selection of nail polishes. They’ve done away with the plastic rings and have them in round glass bottles, but the colors are sparkly, metallic, and super cool. Well played, Hard Candy. Well played.

  2. […] when I can find one.  I’ve posted previously in the Makeup Forum about the virtues of Drugstore Makeup and about the fabulous bargain brand SHANY.  But as I was cruising through the aisles of my local […]





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