Ritual or therapy: a primer on evaluating the price of skin care

In my previous post, I described general steps involved in practicing the basic Korean skin care ritual. The ritual generally consists of these 10 steps: 1) oil cleanse, 2) soap cleanse, 3) exfoliate, 4) balance with toner by gently patting toner onto the face each time toner is applied (preferably 7 times, see Korean 7-skin method YouTube link below), 5) apply essence, 6) spot treat skin problems with serum, ampoules or boosters, 7) mask (not with the ones you rinse off, those are part of exfoliation or pore cleansing in step 3 but sheet masks that are saturated with serums or essences), 8) pat eye cream under the eyes, 9) massage cream into the face (add a face oil if necessary), 10) apply sunscreen (day) or an acid peel (night). While I strongly believe in the practice and have been doing it for the past 25 years, I don’t actually believe that this is just a Korean “thing” rather, its a ritual that’s most popular in Korea. And because Koreans have been more consistent with practicing this ritual than those in other cultures, they’re able to cultivate an innovative environment to develop products that support this ritual. Furthermore, to support consumers in their ritualistic use of the products, Korean skin care brands price their products appropriately for consistent, long-term use.

While I don’t believe that there is anything special about K-beauty products when trying to achieve that sought after “gwang,” which is the Korean word for “glow,” they do make it more affordable to attain and maintain it by pricing their products appropriately to support the ritual. I’ve had glowy skin for over two decades and only got my hands on K-beauty products in the past year when they’ve become easily accessible through online K-beauty curators such as:

In practicing the ritual, I’ve used a variety of products from the U.S. Iceland, Israel, Japan and the list goes on, usually at exorbitantly high costs. Since gaining access to K-beauty brands in the past year, I’ve been able to maintain my skin at a fraction of the cost I was paying before. And because I’ve been able to cut down on the daily cost of the ritual, I’ve been able to afford therapeutic products, which are naturally sold at a higher cost (to account for patent applications, clinical trials, etc.).

This is not to say that K-beauty brands shouldn’t be appreciated for their ability to help users achieve the glowing, glasslike skin that Koreans are known for. What I mean is that all products, when appropriately selected to match a consumer’s skin care needs (depending on individual genetics, skin conditions, environment, etc.) and combined with a meaningful ritual that accomplishes the goal of cleansing, toning, treating and protecting the skin are effective regardless of the country of origin. In this regard, I believe that the value-add of K-beauty brands is not in that they help you achieve glowy skin (because any brand will do that) but that they price their products appropriately for incorporation into daily rituals and not as potential therapeutics.

Most K-beauty products range from $4-50 per product with most hovering around the $5 mark, especially cleansers that you use twice a day. Toners, while more expensive, hovering around $30, are usually sold in large bottles because they are meant to be applied to the skin in several layers on a daily basis. The low cost of these products make them easier to adopt in long-term, consistent daily rituals than their Western counterparts and hence, we can see more of an effect on ritualistic users.

On the other hand, popular Western skin care products are priced anywhere from $28-$300 but most of these prices are not related to efficacy and are yet overpriced for ritualistic use. From what I’ve observed over the years is that pricing often has little to do with consumer use expectations or efficacy. Instead, skin care product pricing appears to be largely dependent on brand value, packaging or exclusivity with a particular brand ambassador. Some of these brands even sell products that rival the cost of skin treatments that show actual clinical efficacy even though these branded products show no apparent therapeutic value. To illustrate my point, I’m going to compare two U.S. skin care brands, Tatcha and Skinceuticals. Both sell over the counter skin care products through beauty retailers such as, Sephora and Blue Mercury at price points between $40-300. However, one is ritual-based while the other is treatment-oriented with scientific backing.

Tatcha is a nine-year old Japanese-inspired luxury skin care company based in San Francisco and it develops products with time tested natural ingredients based off of Japanese beauty rituals. As they explain on their website, the CEO/founder (who appears to have grown up in the U.S., not Japan, and earned a MBA from Harvard) learned the Japanese beauty rituals from a geisha while visiting Japan in early 2000. Inspired by what she learned during this meeting, she launched a skin care company that incorporates natural Japanese ingredients into beautifully packaged jars (likely the primary driver of the price), which she claims are based off of the rituals of geishas. Now, I might be wrong, but my understanding is that geishas cover their faces with paint makeup and at some point used lead in their face paints until they developed serious skin problems and suffered from a variety of diseases. In addition, the estimated number of geishas in Japan today are estimated to be between 1000-2000, which suggests to me that this is really not a good sample population for widespread skin care product efficacy. I have actually used many of their products and absolutely love the packaging and texture of their formulations. And to be fair, I actually do notice the glow I get from using these products but it’s not any different than what I get when I use lower priced K-beauty products. This is clearly a ritual-based skin care line that entices consumers by offering their formulations in beautiful packaging and luxurious textures but at that price point, it should have a therapeutic benefit but it doesn’t. Yet, their prices are exorbitantly high, which makes it difficult for consumers to incorporate into daily, ritual use.

On the other hand, Skinceuticals is 21-year old Texas-based company that sells both clinical and over-the-counter grade skin care products. Most of their products have been clinically tested, with descriptions of the study conduct provided on their website (and even in some scientific papers on PubMed). They also incorporate natural products in their line at price points similar to Tatcha. However, unlike Tatcha, Skinceuticals has obtained numerous patents for their innovative formulations, treatments and treatment combinations. They also package their products in boring containers but the packaging is purposefully designed for each active ingredient in order to maximize the ingredient’s chemical stability for storage. For example, their leading product, CE Ferulic, which contains the most active form of ascorbic acid (or vitamin C) is sold in an amber jar to prevent light induced oxidation of the vitamin so that it maintains its chemical composition. Hence, while not pretty, you’re really paying for the patented formulation as well as the research and development of a clinically active compound. In other words, Skinceuticals products are priced as therapeutics and you’re paying a premium with the expectation that it will treat a condition within a specified period of time that’s in line with their clinical trial results.

While neither Tatcha nor Skinceuticals are part of K-beauty, they sell products that can also be incorporated into a Korean beauty routine. However, it’s important to note that brands like Tatcha can easily be substituted with lower-cost K-beauty brands because they don’t have any scientific benefits that are solely based on their formulations (only anecdotal evidence from ancient Japanese rituals)**. Brands like Skinceuticals, however, are not as easy to substitute with K-beauty products because they sell patented, therapeutic products.  While expensive (like Tatcha), these therapeutic products are solely available through Skinceuticals, which has actually time tested their formulations in larger populations. So, in essence, what you’re really paying for is a treatment that yields results and not a soap that feels luxurious.

* Explanation of Korean 7 Skin Method available at https://youtu.be/gw_8n6eSSg4

**Note, I have seen the clinical results pictures that Tatcha has posted on their website for certain products. However, they do not provide any study details (e.g. length of time between initial application and stated result, any concurrent treatment, etc.). For this reason, I still don’t believe that these are therapeutic products, rather ritual-based products priced as therapeutics.

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