The recent “dupe” trend, in which TikTok users compare high-end products to similar drugstore products, has taken over the platform. Just about everything has been “duped” — basic white socks, perfumes and shoes. But by far, the most enduring product category that’s been “duped” is makeup. Influencers have “duped” every high-end cult classic, such as Clinique’s Black Honey Almost Lipstick, which was “duped” by the e.l.f. Hydrating Core Lip Shine in Ecstatic and Charlotte Tilbury’s Beauty Light Wand by the Revolution Pro Hydra Bright Cream Blush.
Buying “dupes” offers a low-cost way for makeup enthusiasts to build the ideal face without overspending. Even companies dedicated to informing consumers of makeup “dupes,” like Brandefy, have folded. But the “dupe” trend also offers two troubling conclusions — that makeup is largely the same across price points and that even cheap makeup contributes to global overconsumption.
Unlike designer bags or clothing, which may have idiosyncratic patterns — like Coach’s interlocking letter C’s — a brand of makeup is almost impossible to discern once the product is applied. This is part of the reason why “dupes” have become so popular — anecdotal side-by-side comparisons of cheap and expensive products yield few noticeable differences apart from application. Writer Kelly Dougher noted that her cheaper eyeshadow was less pigmented than her more expensive palette, requiring more layers to achieve the same effect. But products at every price point struggle with deficiencies, and, as Dougher concludes at the end of her makeup comparison, “In the end, it mostly comes down to personal preferences and priorities.”
The futility of buying a higher-end product when there are available “dupes” is even more obvious when considering base products, such as primer, foundation, concealer and setting powder. These products are intended to match a person’s skin tone, so makeup companies do not have much flexibility in introducing new shades, unlike the process of creating new blush or eyeshadow shades. However, for those who require darker foundation shades, splurging on products from high-end brands like Fenty Beauty might be necessary if the shade range at drugstores is not inclusive.
Moreover, makeup is not as durable as clothing or accessories. While luxury handbags can be expected to be made of better material than a cheaper handbag, both handbags will largely function the same way. With makeup, much of it depends on the formulation of the product and the user’s unique skin and aesthetic concerns. For an acne-prone user, a comedogenic high-end foundation will be difficult to use, while a non-comedogenic drugstore foundation will be more ideal. Measurements for makeup are also similar industry-wide, minimizing variations in a product’s lifespan. Foundations, for instance, are typically one fluid ounce — both the Maybelline drugstore foundation Fit Me Matte and Poreless and the higher-end Makeup By Mario SurrealSkin Liquid Foundation are one fluid ounce.
The “dupe” trend, along with questioning the efficacy of higher-end makeup products, has also underscored the markup of makeup products. According to Money Talks News, cosmetics are subject to an average markup of 78 percent — “… thanks to anti-aging claims and celebrity-endorsed marketing, shoppers have been breaking the bank to look younger and more beautiful for years.” Meg Pryde, founder of Brandefy, claims that when she was a graduate student, she discovered that “identical formulations would often be priced up under another brand name and updated packaging.” Likewise, the flood of articles and social media posts advertising makeup that is “worth the splurge” implies that luxury makeup is not worth the price in general, so consumers must be economical with their purchases.
Despite the economic benefits, the “dupe” trend does not exclude its benefactors from contributing to the overconsumption of makeup. Buying “dupes” may be beneficial on an individual level, but both “dupes” and higher-end products are involved in the beauty industry’s waste. Writer Hasina Khatib claims that “The accelerated consumption cycle can lead many to overlook the virtues and suitability of individual items in the race toward amassing a [sizable] volume of products … an exhaustive survey by beauty e-tailer SkinStore revealed that women use an average of 16 products simply before leaving the house in the morning …” The overconsumption of cosmetics is particularly evident when considering makeup users who have multiple tubes of foundation in the same color, or racks of blush in 30 different shades — impossible to use all at once. Arnaud Plas, CEO of the hair care company Prose, claims that 20 to 40 percent of beauty products are thrown away. Makeup hauls — whether cheap or luxury — substantially contribute to global waste. According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, much of the beauty industry’s waste feeds into the already egregious overproduction and under-recycling of plastic worldwide, producing more than 120 billion units of packaging globally each year.
The difficulty of recycling makeup packaging also contributes to the plastic problem. Stephen Clarke, the head of communications at the recycling company Terracycle, notes that “small containers are hard to clean, multi-compositional packages need separating at the material level, [colored] and opaque plastics have low demand in the recyclables market, and the small size of the caps, pots, wands and trays of makeup and skin care fall through the cracks at recycling facilities.”
Advocates Millie Kendall and Ashley Piper suggest two main ways to cut down on overconsumption. The first is that beauty brands should reconsider the rapid pace of their product releases, and the second is that consumers should just shop less. Brands that focus on “dupes,” such as e.l.f., released 128 new products in 2017, which is an increase of 40 percent from 2016. The new products were notably similar to the trendiest products at the time. A slower production cycle with less focus on releasing ephemerally popular products would decrease waste. From a buyer’s perspective, consumers should consciously consider their needs rather than joining the trend cycle. Just as fast fashion is unsustainable because consumers cannot wear all the clothing they own, “fast beauty” is unsustainable because consumers cannot wear all the makeup products they have. And while drugstore alternatives to more expensive makeup can seem like a panacea for overspending, they also act as a slippery slope into overconsumption. The solution to fast beauty must come from both the producers and the consumers.
Buying makeup shouldn’t feel like a splurge or a sink, nor should it feel like more is better. There is a way to more consciously consume makeup, and it starts with becoming invulnerable to the trend cycle — whether it’s an echo chamber promoting “dupes” or an influencer urging their audience to buy the trendiest high-end product. We should become more content with the most effective, simplest solutions.
Kathryn Lee is a sophomore double-majoring in English and economics.