Drugstore Cowboy


As a new beauty editor, I'm really curious about (blissfully ignorant of?) the difference between a $5 lipstick and one that costs $45. Are there 40 more dollars of pigment and oils? 40 more dollars of science? 40 more dollars of anti-aging, pore-perfecting, happiness-inducing, gluten-free "proprietary ingredients"? The truth is probably a little from column A, B, and C, but isn't it a great fantasy (especially for those with limited, or at least, not endless means) to believe you can get Clé de Peau quality—all the stuff you think you need to look your best—at your local CVS? The thrill of a deal, anyone? Anyway... Knowing of my good friend Irina's fondess for "cheapo" cosmetics from reading her ITG interview, I asked her to take a trip with me to Duane Reade, pick out a few new-to-her products, test them out, and report back after a few weeks. Her haul? L'Oréal Telescopic Explosion MascaraCoverGirl lipstick in Hot PassionYes to Carrots Daily Cream Facial Cleanser, Milani Neon Nail Lacquer in Fresh Teal, Not Your Mother's Clean Freak Dry Shampoo, and Pssssst! Instant Dry Shampoo (for comparison's sake). 

—Nick Axelrod

Here's our conversation:

Me: Why do you like buying products at the drugstore? Is it a financial thing? A pride thing? Is Duane Reade better than a department store?

Irina: I have this theory that the more money you spend on something, the more insecure you are about it. Whenever I've spent a lot of money on anything—a coat, a haircut, a chair, a vase—I end up always looking at it and thinking...but is it really better? And staring at something, particularly at yourself in the mirror, is like the definition of insecurity. So, I guess I believe that if I really invest in beauty products, it will become another Thing I worry about. That's not to say there aren't expensive products in my makeup bag—like Nars concealer and Bare Minerals moisturizer, for example. But generally speaking, the money and time spent searching for great products can be a bit discouraging, I think; a trip to the drugstore is less of an emotional (and financial) commitment.

There is the nostalgia element, too. My mom never wore makeup, so my early experimentation with it took place in aisle 8 of a Brooklyn Walgreens. I would meet my best friend there and we'd line our lips in thick brown lip liner. I think we were 11.

Me: So, Telescopic Explosion Mascara. Is it as terrifying as the name makes it sound? Was more or less enjoyable to use than you imagined, based on its appearance? Did you go blind?

Irina: Mascara is the one thing I wear every day. Part of this one's appeal was the packaging. The brush was displayed outside its tubular home and basically looked like a medieval torture device. And beauty is pain, right? But this mascara actually turned out to be less laborious than others I've used. The globular precision brush can literally reach every tiny little lash without ever accidentally grazing the skin around your eyes. (You could paint your cat's eyelashes while he sleeps and he wouldn't even notice.) You never even have to use a Q-Tip or an eyelash brush to correct. My only complaint is the consistency, which isn't quite inky enough. So unless they change the formula, I think I'll be using this one as a finishing brush on top of my MAC Plush Lash.

Me: What about the CoverGirl lipstick? Did it lead to any "hot passion," as its name implies? How was the consistency and staying power, compared to any fancier lipstick you've tried?

Irina: I'm a bit conflicted about this one. The color is super strong and saturated. It sort of feels like you're coloring in your lips with Microsoft's Paint application. It's almost digital. That's the good news. The bad news is that the color is so dense that it seeps into every tiny line and stays on your lips long after you want it to. It took me several applications of lip conditioner to rub it out. I'm guessing that if you actually make out with someone while wearing "hot passion," it will be a passion-killer as you stain their entire face with it. Or, is facial branding actually a byproduct of hot passion?

Me: Good question. Speaking of which: you never wash your face...which caused controversy on ITG. Was using the Yes to Carrots face wash a revelatory experience? Are you a face-washing convert?

Irina: I say Yes to Carrots! This was my favorite of all the products. First things first: I was a bit worried that, given the name, it would look, taste, and smell like carrot juice. I'm glad to report that it is neither orange nor vegetal-smelling. (A taste-test didn't seem necessary.) In fact, the smell is its best characteristic. I don't much like scented things, but if a carrot were a wild flower, this is what it would smell like, which is to say very subtle and refreshing. That being said, I'm still not a daily-face-washing convert. I started out using it every other day, and my skin, which hadn't seen soap in over a year, freaked out a little. I think it actually had less to do with this particular wash, and more with how clean and vulnerable my 'new' skin became to the cheapo makeup I use, like drugstore bronzer. The trick for me seems to be using the face wash once a week, which I hope is enough to quiet all the critics. Lastly, a brief disclaimer: the only face wash I have to compare this to—the only kind I've used—are the Neutrogena and Kiehl's cleansers I'd occasionally dip into in ex-boyfriends' medicine cabinets. So, if there are others I should try, by all means, suggestions are welcome.

Me: Moving on to the Milani nail polish you picked out. Neon nails don't seem very 'you.' Did you actually wear it?

Irina: I always keep my nails bare, so for me, nail color is like an accessory. I like it classic but loud. On the rare occasion I get a manicure, I usually go with Essie's Really Red. So, this shade, which was like a moody, sea-green teal, seemed like a cooler version of what I usually do. Sadly, even after I tried numerous coats, it just looked like a cheap, sickly blue.

Me: What were your preconceptions about dry shampoo? It seems like a fad to me, like dry ice cream or sun-dried tomatoes. Did the Not Your Mother's and Pssssst! versions help you achieve that mussed french-girl look you're so into?

Irina: The appeal of dry shampoos is related to my aversion to face-washing: I'm lazy, and I try to wash my hair no more than twice a week. It's naturally pretty frizzy and wavy, so this also keeps it from becoming too dry or brittle.

And while I enjoy the—what's the euphemism?—“texture" of day-old hair, I was curious about products that promise to take it a step further. With these two in particular, I was, again, sold on the marketing. I mean, one is basically cat-calling you. Psssssssst! The other I thought might be an off-shoot of the Not Your Daughter's Jeans franchise, whose tagline—“the original anti-aging jean"—I could never forget from those late-night infomercials. (Alas, they turned out to be unrelated.)

Me: Also, it's not like dry shampoos are a 'mom thing.' I don't think my mom would even know what I was talking about.

Irina: Not Your Mother's was the better one! I think I used half of the Pssssst! bottle and it didn't seem to accomplish very much. Not Your Mother's, on the other hand, gave me this crazy '80s hair volume with only a few sprays. It's even more effective if you wear your hair up, as the fuller texture transforms a scrawny topknot into a hefty J.Lo honey bun on top of your head. So, you know, awesome.

Irina Aleksander is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, the New York Observer, and Elle, among other publications.

Irina and Nick photographed by Emily Weiss. 

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  • http://twitter.com/YayaGagaFashion Messamet serdane
  • ClosetCravings

    I definitely think there are products where you get better quality for your dollar. At the same time, I'm not always convinced that expensive products are the best. Whenever possible, I like to splurge on the items I love where there is a a noticeable difference in quality, and then save on products where you can't even tell the difference. That's why I love samples so much; they really let you test drive products before making a purchase.
    Satisfy Your Cravings For Celebrity Style and All Things Stylish and Sweet

  • Laura

    I love Not Your Mother's dry shampoo! My own mother is even hooked on it. That L'Oreal Telescopic mascara though, was worthless for me.

  • Jennifer Monforton

    I always have a mixture of high-end and drugstore items on my makeup bag. I'm definitely a sucker for a luxe tube of $40 lipstick now and again, but the thrill of a frugal beauty find is also exciting!



  • http://Ellaprettyblog.blogspot.com/ Ellaprettyblog

    Thanks for the funniest blog post I've read in a while - loved it!

    "did it lead to any hot passion?"...facial branding ... Telescopic as a medieval torure device...Painting a cat's eyelashes...

    For soap I can only use the Cetaphil bar soap (not liquid gel). It's simple, non-irritating and lasts forever- plus it's a drugstore find :-)

    • http://adonisetandouille.wordpress.com/ Adonis/&/Andouille

      Did you go blind? Dry shampoo being akin to sun-dried tomatoes. Not Your Daughter's Jeans. Loved the dialogue, too. Funny read.

  • http://twitter.com/nondisclosure1 non disclosure

    LOVE the cover photograph and the title! Wish this could be a series name, maybe something about trying out crazy drugstore junk or such.

    The pic just makes a series feel necessary, and I like the tone of voice. It's so good. :)

    (But I've never seen the film. Ooops.)

  • Cay

    From my experience working in the beauty industry, oftentimes it's $40+ for the branding on the lipstick tube.

  • http://ibelieveinrosa.blogspot.mx/ larissa

    So interesting, I've heard so much about Telescopic mascara, I'll put it in my to try list!


  • Dinahcat2004

    I love this blog. If this idea continues, it would be fantastic to see shoppers try top-rated drugstore products (either by reader polls. editors opinions, etc.). I read a lot of magazines and beauty blogs and knew she'd be sort of ambivalent about what she bought before the end of the article.

  • mlle p

    I always have this same "is it worth that much more" thought about nail polish. I think the mid price ones are generally better than the supercheap 1.99 ones, but then you get into some Tom Ford or Chanel in the 30$ range, and I just can't go there. Drugstore Revlon polish is great in my view.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_DJQMGJU7MZMBVLSD4GUTPJEPD4 murt

      Ya I love revlon nail polish - it's really the best formula now (it used to suck 10 years ago though when I was a teenager - they must have changed it), and great colours.

      haha I love that they noticed a controversy on here about not washing her face! I still don't & I stopped my clarisonic too.

  • KAMO

    I will vouch for the Yes to Carrots cleanser, it is awesome - the exfoliating version too. It's one of the few facial cleansers I've repurchased more than once or twice, except for a Dior foaming thing that was $20 more.

  • Lola

    I really come and go on the drugstore products issue. I work in the industry so I'm well aware, as Cay says, that that extra $40 goes on paying for ad space, celebrity endorsements and fancy packaging which gets immediately binned. Companies also decide, right at the beginning of their product development how much they want a product to cost and work everything (including the actual formula) around that, so paying a premium for a luxury product really is just that. That being said, I'm well aware of what cheap ingredients go into some brands (at both ends of the price spectrum!) so I'm not really willing to use something awful on my face for the sake of saving a few pounds. Generally whatever I buy, ends up being a balance between looking at the ingredients and figuring out how much the product must have actually cost to make and deciding whether the price they ask for it is worth it.

    That being said, there are a few slightly less commercial and relatively inexpensive brands that I love for skincare. I really love the Yes to Carrots cleansing makeup remover (which I think is this one), it hits the median of thorough and gentle and has dead sea minerals in it, which my skin loves. When I need something a bit more cleansing I use this - it's super cheap, has great ingredients and helps with the odd breakout, though you definitely need a little moisturiser afterwards. I use both of these fairly regularly in between products from the brand I work for and I love both of them.

  • Fairytalesandcoffee

    I think there is a difference in quality...the question is how large is that difference and is that difference worth an extra 10, 20, 30, 40 dollars....a large portion of that difference is due to markerting/branding/profit. These are pure profit centers.

  • Stahlyo


  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_DJQMGJU7MZMBVLSD4GUTPJEPD4 murt

    Loved her reviews of these products!! Very funny, but also great, very helpful descriptions -- thanks for this amazing post! I'm going to try that Not Your Mother's dry shampoo - I also have thin, wavy, frizzy hair, so it will be nice if I want more volume some days.

  • Molly Young

    "I have this theory that the more money you spend on something, the more insecure you are about it."

    YES. Cosigned.