Cheap vs. Expensive Eyeshadow: what do you get for the money?

An Urban Decay single next to a Nyx single in a very similar shade

The common belief seems to be that cheap makeup is chalky, lacks pigmentation and gives you loads of fallout, and these things just don’t happen with higher end makeup. The truth is: it’s not nearly that simple.

In a Nutshell

Some cheap lines are surprisingly good, and some high end ones leave me puzzled as to why they sell so well. There are also better and worse shades in every line, and the stars like Mac are no exception. Then there’s the “you” factor: what works on oily eyelids may not work so well on normal/dry ones, and vice versa, and that will determine which lines in any price point work best for you. And finally, there are your skills to consider. Makeup artist Wayne Goss says: “You can do more with good brushes and bad makeup than you can with good makeup and bad brushes” and this is absolutely true. If you have decent brushes (many affordable drugstore brushes are quite good) and know what you’re doing, you can get excellent results with shadows that fail on most people.

What you are paying for with high end shadows is basically:

  • Better quality control. If you buy Mac’s Naked Lunch in two stores thousands of miles apart, the two singles will look identical. But when you get two identical Elf palettes a couple of months apart (yes, this happened to me), there may be subtle differences in the colors and textures. Is this a problem worth paying considerably more for? That’s up to you. There are high end brands I will happily pay for (Kat Von D reviews coming up soon!) and others that leave me feeling, meh, I can do better with drugstore brands, or Nyx or Elf.
  • Foolproof application. High end eyeshadows are designed to apply smoothly even when the person doing the application doesn’t really know how. Cheaper shadows sometimes apply that well, too, but in general they’re more likely to require tricks like patting them onto the lid rather than sweeping them across, or tapping the excess of the brush to avoid fallout, or applying in layers to get any pigment to show up. Then again, it must be said that high end colors with much glitter or sparkle (grrr, I’m looking at you, Urban Decay) also require these tricks, plus eyeshadow primer, to avoid loads of glitter jumping into my eyeballs and irritating my eyes half to death. Cheaper shadows often have glitter rather than shimmer, and that’s a big part of their bad reputation.
  • Pigmentation. Many drugstore and cheap eyeshadows have a lot of pigment: L’Oreal’s HiP line, NYX’s singles, most Wet ‘n’ Wild shadows and many Elf shadows, to name a few. But generally speaking, you can absolutely rely on a line like Mac to give you intense color, and it’s a little less certain that every single NYX shadow will do the same. And yet, sometimes the cheapies even beat the high-end…

Mac's Naked Lunch single next to Wet 'n' Wild's Walking on Eggshells paletteMac vs. Wet ‘n’ Wild

Let’s look Mac’s Naked Lunch ($15) and the “eyelid” color from Wet ‘n’ Wild’s Walking on Eggshells palette ($2.99). The WNW palette is said to be a perfect duplicate for three Mac colors: Shroom, Cork and Naked Lunch. Of those Mac colors, I only own Naked Lunch, so I’ll be comparing those two shades.

But first, let’s talk about claims that these are not perfect duplicates. On MakeupAlley, people claim the WNW brown shade is not that close to Cork, that the overall wear time with WNW is shorter than Mac, etc. But most agree that the WNW palette is shockingly awesome all the same, especially for the price – and that’s the most important consideration.

Arm swatch of Naked Lunch (left) and WNW (right)I compared the two colors with a swatch, and the results shocked me. In the pan, Naked Lunch looks a bit less pink than the WNW shade. But on skin, they were indistinguishable… except for one thing. To get the WNW swatch, I had to rub my finger across the pan and then onto my arm twice to get that swatch. Conversely, Naked Lunch took six dips into the pan to get that coverage. Now, Naked Lunch has never been one of the more impressive Mac shades, in my opinion. It goes on unevenly, and I never thought it had as much pigment as other shades. It’s definitely less pigmented than the Wet ‘n’ Wild shade. For $3, you get a better shade from WNW, plus a couple of lovely other ones. (I wore this palette today, after buying it for this experiment – it’s gorgeous for a subtle neutral look.) The WNW shade is also creamier – Naked Lunch is rather dry and harder to pack into your brush.

This is definitely one case where being a snob about makeup brands would definitely cost you – not only the extra $12 in price difference, but in missing out on a fantastic shade just because it’s a drugstore brand.

In conclusion

I definitely can’t say higher end brands are better than cheap ones. Nor can I say cheap ones are just as good as high end ones. That’s why I keep an open mind and experiment with as many brands as I can afford to get my hands on. You can definitely get fantastic looks with nothing but cheap shadows, and you can definitely spend more than you need to for great looks with expensive ones.

And then there’s color. While I think L’Oreal’s HiP duos are awesome in quality, I have only found two of them beautiful enough to want to buy. Most of their colors/color combinations don’t really do anything for me. Then again, I feel the same way about Urban Decay, a much-beloved brand that works wonderfully for many people, but just doesn’t work for me (there’s that “me” factor I mentioned earlier). Kat Von D’s eyeshadow palettes are my current favorite, because they’re creamy as anything, highly blendable, gorgeous and inspiring to the artist in me. But I also bought all four of the Elf Beauty Eye Manuals this year, and I’m stunned at how often I reach for them.

If you’re on a limited budget and trying to figure out when it’s better to save up for an expensive shadow than to grab several cheapies, the only solution is to do research. Look online for reviews of the specific products you’re considering (we’re adding new ones all the time). Makeupalley is an awesome resource for reviews, because you can even sort reviews by the reviewers’ skin types and so on (how oily your lids are makes a big difference in how intense and long-lasting eyeshadows will be), and many of those reviewers really know their stuff. There just isn’t an easy answer to “What’s the best eyeshadow line?” or “How much should a good eyeshadow cost?”


    • Jen says

      Hi Liz,

      None of their colors really “speak” to me – that’s just a matter of personal taste, I know lots of people love them. And some of their shimmery shades have a finish that somehow shows off every little tiny fold in my eyelids – a problem I don’t have with shimmers from other lines. Like I said, no way am I saying it’s a bad line! It just isn’t the line for me.

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