The Real Reason Eye Cream Is So Expensive

Does eye cream do anything special, or is it just facial moisturizer in a smaller tub?

A close-up of a person applying cream beneath their eye
Karma Press Photo / Camera Press / Redux
A close-up of a person applying cream beneath their eye

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Conspiracy theories are an understandably contentious topic these days, but if you’ll indulge me for just one moment, I’d like to introduce you to one of my own: I have long harbored a sincere personal belief that eye cream is fake.

Not fake in the sense that eye cream doesn’t exist. Tubs and tubes of the stuff line the shelves of drugstore skin-care aisles and brightly lit department-store beauty counters alike. Sephora’s website boasts 190 eye-cream or eye-treatment options; Ulta carries 192 creams alone. In that sense, eye cream is probably a little too real. The fakeness that I’m talking about is molecular. Eye creams make a lot of promises: They’ll tighten. They’ll brighten. They’ll de-puff and de-wrinkle and banish dark circles. They’ll accomplish this with science, or, more specifically, with the chemicals that many of them advertise in big print on their tiny packaging: retinol, vitamin C, caffeine, peptides, hyaluronic acid. They’ll also almost always be notably more expensive by volume than a regular facial moisturizer.

The problem is that no eye cream I’ve ever used has seemed to do anything more than whatever other cream I was already putting on the rest of my face. In my 20 years of adult life, I’ve never actually bought an eye cream, but I’ve tried out innumerable versions of the stuff: samples pitched into shopping bags and shipping boxes, free full-size products that sometimes seemed to arrive by the truckload at my door during my decade in fashion media, cast-offs swapped among friends and co-workers. I’ve used them all because, hey, I have them, and at worst, they’ll moisturize a part of my face that tends to get dry when left to its own devices. Maybe one of them will do something fantastic and I’ll have been wrong all along.

I haven’t been wrong yet. Instead, I’ve only grown more convinced that eye cream is just facial moisturizer in a smaller, more expensive tub. So, is it?

The short answer: “It depends,” says Perry Romanowski, a cosmetic chemist and a co-host of the podcast Beauty Brains, which delves into the science behind beauty products. That is, importantly, not a no. According to Romanowski, who spent 30 years in the beauty industry and now creates educational and training tools for other cosmetic chemists, all moisturizers—for the face, body, eyes, hands, wherever—have three main components that do the lion’s share of the work. The first is a substance called a humectant, such as glycerin or hyaluronic acid, which attracts moisture to the skin. The second is an occlusive, such as petrolatum or shea butter, which prevents that moisture from evaporating back into the air. The third is an emollient, which helps give skin a smooth, soft texture.

Within a particular line of products, Romanowski told me, formulations for different parts of the face or body do tend to be quite similar to one another, usually with little tweaks made for consumer preferences. Because faces produce more oil than the rest of the body, for instance, the line’s facial product might have its occlusive content reduced, or the formula might just be thinned out with water—super-thick face creams can make people unduly fearful of oiliness or breakouts. The same goes for turning a facial moisturizer into an eye cream: An existing formula could be changed to please buyers who prefer something more occlusive but less goopy. According to Romanowski, most companies will at least remove things such as fragrances, which can irritate the eye.

In some cases, however, my conspiracy theory appears to be fully justified. Romanowski said that in his experience, companies will release different products with the exact same formulations “as often as they can do it without anybody asking questions.” Formulating a totally new product from scratch requires expensive safety testing, Romanowski explained, and too much ingredient variation across a product line means companies have to buy more component chemicals in smaller, more expensive quantities. Keeping products as similar as possible saves money: Once a formula is established to be safe, companies can largely avoid additional testing, and they can buy its ingredients in large quantities. The more products that can be marketed out of those overhead costs, the better.

It’s hard to put concrete figures on just how much this kind of relabeling happens. Kelly Dobos, another independent cosmetic chemist, told me that in her experience, rebranding a face product as an eye cream without any changes is not that common, at least in part because many facial moisturizers currently on the market do contain eye irritants—not just fragrance but also sunscreen and exfoliating acids. The best eye creams, Dobos said, will not only be formulated specifically for use near the eye but are also likely to contain higher concentrations of the ingredients that help the ultrathin skin around your eyes attract and retain moisture. On a consumer level, distinguishing those kinds of concentrations is impossible, and higher concentrations don’t guarantee a better product. Facial moisturizers without irritants are perfectly safe for use around the eye, and they’ll likely yield indistinguishable results.

The upshot of all of this is that even when eye products are distinct from facial creams, they’re distinct mostly for what they don’t have in them, as opposed to what they do. That’s at odds with how eye creams tend to be presented to consumers, with branding that heavily emphasizes their special ingredients. Vitamins and acids lend these products an imprimatur of scientific progress, but one that’s rarely well supported by their chemical composition, according to Romanowski. “The stuff that you’re using today isn’t markedly different than something that was available 30 years ago,” he told me. “All the new things coming out are really just marketing stories about the technologies that have existed forever.”

The result, Romanowski said, is that most beauty products don’t vary all that much, and they’re mostly quite inexpensive to make. In fact, companies typically spend more money on a product’s packaging than on making the product itself, Romanowski told me. And the costs of packaging and manufacturing combined pale in comparison to what companies spend on branding and ads. Eye cream costs a lot in part because it’s very expensive to persuade a person to buy any particular beauty product. But pricing, too, is a marketing tactic. “The different price is something that convinces consumers that it’s a different product,” Romanowski said. After all, if an eye cream is supposed to be particularly cutting-edge or effective or ingredient rich, it should be more expensive.

People are sensitive about their eyes, which are the part of your body most likely to betray sadness or sleeplessness or, God forbid, age. Eyes are also particularly resistant to surface-level change. Dark circles and crow’s feet tend to be a result of your bone structure or genetics or the inexorable march of time instead of things that you can meaningfully control, with a cream or anything else. So much marketing goes into eye products precisely because there’s not much there there. They’ll keep your eye area moisturized, but they largely don’t (and can’t) work in the ways people hope they might.

That lack of control can be a profoundly unsettling prospect. Maybe the age you see in the mirror lies in stark contrast to the age in your head, or maybe you’d just rather not be prompted to contemplate your own mortality. And that, of course, is before you even get to the beauty standards of it all, which instruct us to take extraordinary measures to freeze ourselves in time or, if aging gracefully, to become something of a living semifreddo—frozen enough, but not uncannily so. Fears of fine lines seem only to be spreading: Teenagers are no longer too young to be marketed anti-aging skin-care products, and they’re buying them in droves.

No beauty products are bought or sold purely on effectiveness. Romanowski told me that he knows many cosmetic chemists who use eye cream, even though they know what the science behind it says. My conspiracy theory about eye cream is very arguably correct, but I had failed to consider a larger lesson of conspiracism: Truth isn’t the only thing that matters, and it might not even be that compelling.