Are Drugstore + Department Store Makeup the Same Thing? We Tested E.L.F. vs. it’s Department Store Equivalents to Find Out

ELF translucent foundation powder

elf illuminating palette

NARs vs ELF blush and bronzer


As a beauty blogger, one of the questions that I get most often is:

“Isn’t drugstore makeup the same as high-end makeup, just with better packaging?”

For the longest time, I muttered out “Yeah, basically.”

The thing is, when you look at the labels, the ingredients all start to sound the same. There’s so many ingredients that ARE the same (and percentages aren’t marked, to protect trade secrets) that it’s tough to distinguish from an ingredient list what’s what. In fact, when looking at high-end and low-end products with similar brand values, it’s impossible for me to distinguish. Unless we’re talking about crunchy-granola eco-friendly 100% natural everything vs. a brand that doesn’t hold those same values.. wow I can’t tell the difference. Skincare is different, but

Maybe I’m just part of the system, I thought, buying high-end products for no reason. I enjoy the packaging, fragrance, feel of the products and the feeling that uses high-end brands evokes. Is it wrong to spend a little more? No, it’s just my choice as a consumer.

I’m supporting the arts! I said with a huff.

Yeah… right. The arts. The arts on my face.

I resolved myself to just telling people, “Yeah, they’re the same. I guess I’m just a makeup snob.”

One time I received a wide-eyed nod and a, “Oh.. okay. Well you should test that sometime. People would like to know.”

She was right.

To be honest, I haven’t used drugstore makeup since high school – oh and once last year to test out some Maybelline foundation. Which I threw to the side as soon as my next installment of Dior made it to me in the mail.

But today I decided to put my own personal beliefs to the test. I can’t call myself a good beauty blogger or pseudo-scientist if I don’t at least give it a shot. I’m tired of seeing dupe posts and thinking, “Is a $5 lippie really as good as a $40 one?” and NOT knowing my own stance.

Today I want to know: Is drugstore makeup as good as department store makeup?

To test this, I am comparing a very well-known brand–in fact the cheapest, but very highly regarded brand E.L.F.–to my current makeup routine. It’s not brand vs. brand per se, but it’s a drugstore brand vs. my department store routine that I’ve come to know and love.

So let’s find out: Is a $30 face the same as a $300 face?


Step 1: The Set-Up / Changing out E.L.F. for Chanel

I don’t literally use Chanel, but you get the point.

I went to my local Walmart and picked up E.L.F., a brand that I had heard many people rave about, saying it was on-par with NYX, as good as designer, etc.

The price tag was SHOCKING to me. $2 for a lash curler? $2 brow pencil?

How can they afford to make these items so cheaply? Further, how can they do business with Walmart, who is known as a bear to do wholesale business with?

I routinely help emerging beauty brands (some owned by newbies, some by industry vets) manufacture their packaging and products in China via my manufacturing agency Genie Supply. E.L.F. does all of their manufacturing in China; not just the packaging, but the entire product from start to finish. The relative costs STILL weren’t making sense to me. How do they earn ANY money?! We will circle back to this later.

The second thing I noticed beyond the price point was how few choices there were. A brow pencil might have three colors–blonde, brown, black. A foundation might come in 3 or 5 shades. Translucent powder (which wasn’t translucent at all, but more like a powder compact) had either 1 or 2 shades. Brow kit was light or dark.

I passed on items that didn’t fancy me or really fit into my daily fresh face, like eyeliner, eyeshadow palettes and liquid foundation. In retrospect, I wish I wouldn’t have. It would have been worth trying them all.

Here’s what I bought, reading off my receipt in order:

Total: $34 + tax

Department store equivalents: $321

I typically use every one of these products in a given day except the lash tint and lip primer (though I do use a plumper). I also use a mineral primer, eyeshadow palette, lash primer (on most days) and a brow pomade, which bring the total up another $102. We’ll just call it even as is: a $30 vs a $300 face.

Of course, that’s not true either, and it always irks me when people call something a $300 face or $400 face. My average product lasts about 2 months with daily use, so it’s really like a $5/day face. Kind of amazing, right? That’s just as expensive as my Starbucks habit!

On the other hand, that would make E.L.F. a $0.50/day face, which seems more reasonable. That actually seems like something I would WANT to ideally pay for my made up face every day–not 10x that.  I have to say that at first glance I was shocked at how closely E.L.F. could dupe their competitors’ best products at a fraction of the price.

E.L.F. was looking better and better to me already…


Step 2: The Test / E.L.F. Makeup vs. Department Store Brands

I will admit that it took me almost 3 months to do this test.

Within a week of buying all these E.L.F. products – and my mom saying, “Stop! Stop! You already have enough makeup! Are you crazy? You have that one! You have those things! Why are you buying another lash curler?” – I did try the lash tint, which I was instantly happy with.. for about 30 seconds.

It was working great! Then it was too sticky. Ok now my lashes are starting to stick together. I have 3 lashes on each eye. Great.

The lash tint continued to feel sticky and weird throughout the day, getting stickier even as the day went on. Not good for someone who habitually, compulsively touches their lashes.

I gave it another test with even worse results.

So I packed all the E.L.F. in my suitcase for China, but didn’t touch it until today.

Today I went all out.

So here’s the set up:

For each product I did it’s own mini-review, testing it against the competition–my go-to product in that category. None of the products you see should be all that new-to-you, because I’ve reviewed them again and again in my tutorials:

I mean, these are all pretty standard products that I know, love, use and RAVE about. You all know them by now. I’m putting E.L.F. to the test against these products.

When I look at a product, I think about the:

  • Hue – straight hue, any mica/shimmer or finish, complimentary undertones, oxidation, pay-off
  • Packaging – look, feel, use, labeling
  • Application – feel, wear, longevity
  • Formulation – quality of ingredients, long-term effects and safety

Today I am actually not going to go too in-depth with the formulation. We know that these are VERY cheap products, and bringing the formulation into play will probably not be very helpful in the discussion and may feel like beating a dead horse. We’ll take a purely aesthetic judgement of the makeup for how it performs as makeup.

I’ll go through my face step by step, comparing the products as I apply them.

Here we go!


Product #1: Concealer – E.L.F. ($3) vs Glossier ($18)

As you read earlier, E.L.F.’s Concealer is only $3. It’s insanely cheap. It also comes in about 2 or 3 colors if I remember correctly. I just… picked one.

It comes in a lipgloss container with very little writing — just the logo and net contents to be exact. It smells a little bit like oranges, so without the box, I thought maybe I had picked up a nude lippie?

On a typical day, I wear Glossier’s Stretch Concealer in Light, for the myriad of reasons laid forth in this post. In short, it’s a great color for me, it wears stretchy so as not to fall into the cracks of lines of the skin, and it doesn’t look flat like other concealers. Plus–it’s only $18.

Glossier, like E.L.F., just has a few shades. The formulations, however, are worlds apart, as are the colors. 

Here’s some photos I took, comparing the “Light” concealer shade from 4 brands: E.L.F., Glossier, Stila and Benefit, in that order:

concealer comparison

At first look, you can already tell that E.L.F.’s color is darker than the other “light” concealers.

And here’s the swatches on my skin – which is different than swatching on a piece of marble, because the formulation oxidizes on the skin:

concealer swatches

On the left is ELF, followed by Glossier, Stila and Benefit (it’s the same order). You can see that I applied a fresh second layer of ELF, but it’s still oxidizing rather quickly and turning into a much darker “light” shade than the other “light” concealers on the right, which change color much at all.

The 3 department store brands have thick consistencies–gelée-like formulas that sit on the skin. Benefit is the least gelée-like, but it is still highly concealing. Most of them are true to color and do not oxidize.

E.L.F.’s concealer, on the other hand, has a very watery consistency. The color was darker and pinker than the other brands, and even more so as it dried and oxidized. I wouldn’t call this color “Light” but rather “Medium,” as it’s closest to a true Beige.

When it came to applying it, it actually felt like I was rubbing peach water on my face. It did little to cover my blemishes, leaving them half-exposed.

Winner: Glossier

I wouldn’t even consider a repurchase.


Product #2: Foundation – E.L.F. ($3) vs Dior ($54)

This was a tough one to pick a product to compete against. The E.L.F. product is called “Translucent Mattifying Powder,” with the color “translucent,” but the outside of the package shows a fleshy-pink powder next to a sponge, sitting inside a compact.

When I opened it, I realized that’s exactly what it was.

So if this is a powder foundation–and it was–I’m putting it head-to-head with my daily foundation compact powder: Dior’s Diorskin Forever Compact in Color 022.

The price difference is a bit shocking (Dior is 18x the cost of E.L.F), but they’re real quite close matches–as close as drugstore and department makeup can be.

Here’s the close-up and swatches:

ELF translucent foundation powder


That’s ELF on the top (which looks lighter) and Dior on the bottom of my hand. This swatch is REALLY hard to see. I just couldn’t nail it.

I have to say that the powder looks great in it’s compact.

The first thing I always do before starting is feel the powder between my fingers. Scratch it a little and see the consistency. I already knew this one would be really dry before it ever touched my skin.

When I was applying swatches, the first thing I noticed was that while Diorskin’s Color 022 is described as “warm beige/ for light complexions with pink undertones,” E.L.F. was rocking the pink-beige harder than Dior ever could.  I mean this was a WARM color for a foundation, let alone a translucent powder.

The other big difference was the consistency; Diorskin is a creamy powder while E.L.F. was a dry powder. This came into play when applying them, because suddenly my face felt like the Nairobi Desert. Holy moley this powder was dry.

Dry powders tend to fall off the skin quicker, leave a patchy finish. They also enhance any dry flakes you have, giving your skin a less smooth finish.

My face was slightly pink (or orange?) and I already wanted to give up after step 2.

Lesson of this step? Swatches are not the same as your real skin.

Winner: Dior


Product #3: Brow Pencil – E.L.F. ($2) vs ABH Brow Wiz ($21)

After that translucent powder (translucent my ass!), I was ready to skip to something new.. just not my skin.

I opened the E.L.F. Brow Pencil and got ready to swatch it against the Anastasia Beverly Hills Brow Wiz.

This is one of those test where again one product is literally 10x the price of the other one. Brow Wiz is one of my holy grail brow products, but I was ready for E.L.F. to have a win (if for nothing else than the sake of my face).

To clarify here, I was using E.L.F.’s Brow Pencil in color “Taupe” and ABH’s Brow Pencil in “Medium Brown.”

Here are swatches below, on the table and on my skin (as the two can look a lot different):

elf vs abh brow wiz pencils

ELF vs ABH Brow Wiz brow swatch

That’s E.L.F.’s Brow Pencil in Taupe on the top (left) and Anastasia Beverly Hill’s Brow Wiz in Medium Brown on the bottom (right).

The colors were fairly similar, with E.L.F. leaning toward a reddish hue of brown (am I sensing a pattern here?) with ABH leaning toward a more grey-brown.

The E.L.F. pencil is also retractable and plastic, like the Brow Wiz, but the pencil itself is much thicker, lending it to less precision in drawing. The #1 reason I love the Brow Wiz is because of how thin the pencil lead is. The second reason is the color.

In the test, I thought E.L.F.’s pencil actually looked pretty good, though the reddish hue began to show itself more prominently in my brow’s inner corners, where they’re slightly thinner. I didn’t like the way the inner corner looked in the end.

The payoff was similar to the ABH pencil, though not exactly the same. Neither would be classified as “creamy.”

E.L.F. really failed to deliver on the two aspects that I love most about the Brow Wiz, but it didn’t totally fail the test.

For those who really can’t foot the bill on a $21 Brow Pencil, E.L.F. is a decent drugstore dupe. Just know that even the Taupe runs a bit red and it’s imprecise at best, with a lead diameter 5x that of the Brow Wiz.

Winner: Anastasia Beverly Hills


Product #4: Blush/Bronzer Duo – E.L.F. ($4) vs NARS ($24)

To be clear, we are comparing a duo of two FULL-sized products in the E.L.F.Blush/Bronzer Duo vs the NARS Orgasm/Laguna Duo of two mini products. The full-sized ones are about $40 each, so we’re really comparing $4 vs. $80 here.

I had heard that E.L.F.’s duo was really similar to the best-selling NARS duo, but I had to put it to the test myself. I’ve been a NARS fan for years, and I believe there’s a reason that NARS is THE go-to brand for blush.

Here’s the palettes and swatches:

NARs vs ELF blush and bronzer

nars vs elf swatches

The order from left to right is NARS Orgasm Bush – ELF Blush – ELF Bronzer – NARS Laguna Bronzer.

From the looks of it, you can already see that NARS’ Orgasm Blush is much pinker than the E.L.F. blush, which comes off as an orangey-peach. The E.L.F. blush also contains much more shimmer than Orgasm, making you wonder if it’s a mimic of Super Orgasm instead. After some research I’ve concluded that it’s most close to the Hot Sands/Laguna duo, which has a muted pink as opposed to Orgasm’s bright pink.

But why?!

Why copy a second-rate NARS color when Orgasm is the best selling blush of all time?


When I went to apply the blush and bronzer, some standard beauty advice came to mind: “Don’t use bronzer to contour.”

I never followed this advice; I thought it was stupid. The theory behind it is that bronzer is too warm, so you should stick to a cooler color that is 1-2 shades darker than your skin instead of using bronzer. That makes sense in theory, but in practice, Laguna isn’t that warm.

E.L.F.’s Laguna dupe IS that warm.

You can’t that from looking at the photo above, but..

It is HELLA warm.

It is sunburn turned into suntan warm.

And it’s more highly pigmented than Laguna – something I never expected. Now I had a patchy, dry face with a big splotch of red-hot-brown-bronzer under my cheekbones.


The blush didn’t show up, as it was too soft and light to complement the bronzer.

This was a disaster.

Winner: NARS


Product #5: Lip Plumper and Primer – E.L.F. ($3) vs Josie Maran ($23)

Here I am again, zig-zagging between areas of my face because I don’t want to deal with it.

I quickly swiped on the E.L.F. Lip Plumper and Primer (the plumper end, not the primer end) and felt the cinammon start to tingle. It was a nice fragrance with a nice little tingle, but not as lovely a scent or strong a sting as the Josie Maran Argan Lip Sting Plumping Butter (full review here).

Speaking of.. I’m going to go grab mine now. It’s so soothing and calming (seriously!) and will help me finish out writing this review.

Oh yeah and, I really didn’t notice any difference with the E.L.F. plumper. I didn’t try to primer end. I’ll give this another shot later.

Winner: Josie Maran


Product #6: Lash Curler – E.L.F. ($2) vs Bobbi Brown ($25)

Next up was lash-curling, which I was a little trepidatious about (a bad incident with a $1 Forever 21 lash curler comes to mind..) , but as long as it wasn’t color cosmetics, it couldn’t be too bad.

At first glance, the E.L.F. Lash Curler and the Bobbi Brown’s Gentle Lash Curler look the same, except for the finish on the metal. They really could be the same product.

But what I noticed when I used the E.L.F. lash curler is that the frame is actually a bit wider with less overall curvature. I’m not sure why this is, although I’ve had issues curling my Chinese girl friends’ lashes with my too-round Bobbi Brown Curler, so it does make one wonder who designed the E.L.F. lash curler and for what general population’s eye shape…

This was hard to photograph, but I tried:

two eyelash curlers

second view - two eyelash curlers

The E.L.F. curler was not as gentle on my lashes as the Bobbi Brown curler, so it might lead one to tugging (even tugging out lashes) if they’re not skilled with a lash curler.

Overall, the curl was good, and I can’t say in good faith that the Bobbi Brown curler is worth 12.5x the money. The difference to me between $2 and $25 for good lash health is negligible, but for most it’s not worth the extra expense. I won’t be switching out my curler anytime soon or changing up my holy grail list, but I think the winner this time was E.L.F.

Winner: E.L.F.


Product #7: Mascara – E.L.F. ($4) vs Benefit ($24)

For those of you that keep up regularly with the Amalie blog, you know that I recently traded in my “They’re Real!” habit for Too Faced’s Better Than Sex (full review here).

When I came across E.L.F.’s 3-in-1 Mascara, I was super excited. If you know what to look for when buying mascara, you’ll know that the brush is SUPER important. More important than the formulation most of the time.

Silicone brushes are fabulous for short and sparse lashes. So are those spiky balls at the end of silicone brushes, because they help you get between lashes and build volume and thickness from the base of the lashes.

This, I thought, could be a new holy grail mascara.. and it was only $4.

Here’s the comparison:

They're Real vs ELF mascara

You can see the similarities in the brushes, with the main difference being that the spiky ball on the end of E.L.F.’s mascara is WAY bigger than on the Benefit mascara. It puts it to shame!

..But that’s actually not a good thing.

The spiky ball was SO big that it overpowered the rest of the brush, making it almost impossible to apply the mascara in the first place.

The result was not massive volume starting at the root of the lashes, it was spider lashes.

Spider lashes, I tell you!

I thought Benefit’s sticky formula + my OCD/lash touching habit made for some spider lashes. I had it all wrong. This was way worse.

The E.L.F. 3-in-1 formulation is very similar to Benefit’s They’re Real, which is actually not a good thing in this case. The formulation is why I switched off of They’re Real. Additionally, the brush is just NOT usable! E.L.F. took it way too far with this one.

Winner: Benefit


Product #8: Highlighter – E.L.F. ($6) vs ABH Glow Kit ($45)

When I first saw the E.L.F. Illuminating Palette, I knew I had to have it.

It looked just like the Anastasia Beverly Hills Ultimate Glow Kit, except that it was a fraction of the price.

I still have yet to try to Ultimate Glow Kit (I ordered it for myself for Christmas muhaha!) but I do use the ABH Moonchild Glow Kit pretty regularly to add a little OOMPH to a fresh face (full review on the Moonchild Glow Kit here).

The Illuminating Palette looked like a much softer, more wearable highlighting palette. Up close it has some really soft shimmer.

Here’s the close-up and swatches:



elf illuminating palette

Except.. it’s not really a highlighting palette at all.

At least, it’s not for strobing.

Do you remember me ranting about how Jeffree Star and some other brands don’t really know how to make true highlighters? Yes, Anastasia Beverly Hills makes some BOMB highlighters. So far, she’s the only brand I know that knows how to make a true highlighter for a blinding strobe. Everyone else is just pretending.

This happened again.

I found that I was just applying really light color shades, not shimmer/highlighter/strobing shades, to my face. I was starting to look like a cartoon.

As well as this swatched, it was a total fail.

Winner: Anastasia Beverly Hills


Step 3: The Results / E.L.F. Makeup vs. Department Store Brands

I didn’t get around to testing the eye primer, lip primer, brow duo or lash tint today, but the final results seem pretty obvious: E.L.F. did not win.

E.L.F. won one category–the lash curler–because the $2 curler performed about 75% as well as the $25 curler. The difference to me in price is negligible, but the difference in experience was significant. Womp, womp..

Anyway, here’s the finished look (not that I wanted to take a pic):

ELF face only Megan Cox

ELF full face pic 2 Megan Cox


When I was done, I felt so itchy, dry and.. ORANGE.

I wouldn’t wear this out.

I just wanted to get it all off ASAP, so I did. I snapped a few selfies and then washed my face. My boyfriend said, “Why are you so grumpy today?”

I said, “It’s not me, it’s the makeup!!!”

He didn’t believe me.


Takeaways: Drugstore vs. Department Makeup

4,000 words later, all I want to say is this: Drugstore and Department Store Makeup are NOT the same the thing.

It’s not all in my head.

I may still be a makeup snob, but head-to-head the pigments didn’t perform well. They didn’t apply well, wear well, they oxidized like crazy. I felt really unhappy with the results and even with a lot of time put into my makeup artistry skills over the years, I still couldn’t get these products to work out for me.

Does this mean that all drugstore makeup isn’t worth trying? No.

Does it mean that all department store makeup is definitively better than drugstore makeup? No.

Does this mean all E.L.F. products are no good? No way. I just didn’t enjoy the dupes I picked out.

It just means that for me, a popular drugstore brand, E.L.F., didn’t work as well as the department store counterparts.

If something works for you, keep on using it. For me, it will take trying many more brands and products to find good dupes. With limited selections of shades and–most likely–cheaper ingredients, I might not be able to find equivalent products.

There are, after all, good reasons why brands like E.L.F. are so cheap:

  1. They choose THE cheapest packaging with barely any screen-printing and for sure the cheapest plastic available in the most basic SKUs they could imagine.
  2. They have very few colors to choose from, which consolidates it down to where they can make 1M+ of each shade in each product and hit certain benchmarks, allowing them to cheaply produce.
  3. The formulations have made trade-offs that save them enough $ to make cheap prices, but completely compromise the quality of the products.
  4. The don’t have to choose safe or high-quality ingredients, because no one is forcing them to. The FDA regulates pigments and very little else.

For E.L.F., their goal is to create affordable, quality makeup. They have obviously negotiated and worked very hard to hit the affordable mark. For me, the quality just wasn’t there.

Also, it should be noted that for more expensive brands, the money isn’t just going into advertising and packaging. That’s not why high-end brands cost more. Remember that 50%+ of each product’s price off-the-top goes to the distributor (one reason why you should use the brand’s site, not Sephora or Ulta’s). Then testing and advertising come, and employees wages and packaging and ingredients and the rest. It’s expensive to make good makeup.

I had previously heard good things about E.L.F., but now when I think back on what was said, it was always about how cheap E.L.F. was, that they made great dupes of expensive products (dupes=yes, great=no), and that they were cruelty-free. Fact checking shows that they don’t test on animals or use animal products/derivatives.

I love the concept of E.L.F. (and drugstore makeup, for that matter), but in reality I’m just not digging it. I prefer to continue my quest for trying, buying and eventually making the best in beauty!

What do you think? Are there any E.L.F. products you really love?


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Dr. Vanessa Rodriguez is a board-certified general practitioner with more than 15 years of patient care experience. She takes an integrative approach to patient care that considers the whole person – mind, body, and spirit – and is deeply committed to assisting her patients in achieving and sustaining optimal health. Dr. Vanessa is also a skilled writer and medical reviewer, specializing in preventive care and health promotion. Her articles are written in an approachable manner that is simple to comprehend and implement in one’s own life. Dr. Vanessa’s mission is to equip her patients and readers with the knowledge and resources necessary to live their greatest lives.

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