The Difference Between This Popular $166 Serum And An $18 Dupe

Last year, prestige skincare sales in the United States reached a whopping $5.6 million — a 13% increase from the previous year. Not to get too technical, but that’s a hell of a lot of fancy skincare products. And yet, even though our social media feeds are flooded with new launches on a near-daily basis, there are still a select few products that make up what we think of as the best of their kind — cult favorites, holy grails, top shelf products. Many of these A-list products come with an A-list price tag (think: Crème de la Mer, La Prairie Skin Caviar Luxe Cream and the like).

Sitting comfortably in the top tier of this luxe list is SkinCeuticals’ C E Ferulic, the beloved serum that launched in 2005 after 40 years of academic research. Often regarded as the gold standard of vitamin C serums (a category that’s constantly expanding, thanks to research about the many skin benefits of the antioxidant), SkinCeuticals’ most beloved product will run you $166 and has become a point of near-obsession in the skincare dupes community, with legions of beauty fanatics searching for a less expensive version that provides the same results: firmer and smoother skin, reduced signs of aging and sun damage, and an overall brighter complexion.

We asked skincare pros if the dermatologist-tested, arguably hot dog-scented SkinCeuticals elixir is really worth its price tag, and compared it to one of its most popular dupes, Timeless’ $18 Vitamin C + E Ferulic Acid Serum.

What makes SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic so special?

According to Chloe Smith, who leads SkinCeuticals’ education and scientific communications team in Canada, “C E Ferulic is precisely formulated to neutralize damaging free-radicals caused by environmental factors.” It claims to improve everything from skin tone to brightness, and even reduce lines and dark spots.

The SkinCeuticals product on the left costs $166, where Timeless' serum on the right has been discounted to just $18.

The SkinCeuticals product on the left costs $166, where Timeless’ serum on the right has been discounted to just $18.

But the serum’s most impressive claim to fame? How thoroughly it’s been studied and tested. “C E Ferulic is backed by over 20 international dermatological publications that speak to its safety and efficacy,” Smith told HuffPost. “These publications are peer-reviewed, the highest level of scientific credibility a brand or researcher can achieve.”

That’s easy for the brand to say. But what about objective outsiders? Monica Li, a dermatologist and skin science instructor at the University of British Columbia, told HuffPost that this level of clinical scrutiny means SkinCeuticals’ claims are legitimate.

OK, but does that research make it worth $166?

Li told HuffPost that “the pricing of vitamin C serums can reflect years of research leading to the final formulation, and quality controls in place to ensure a formulation achieves its intended goals.” Research is key when developing any skincare product, but can be especially crucial in the development of vitamin C serums, due to the nutrient’s unstable nature.

Vitamin C “is a reactive ingredient,” Perry Romanowski, cosmetic chemist and co-creator of BeautyBrains.com, told HuffPost. “In the presence of oxygen, it will chemically react, which renders it no longer effective at providing skin benefits. In fact, most vitamin C beauty products on the market do not have any antioxidant activity because the vitamin C they put in the formula has oxidized.” But since 2007, SkinCeuticals has held a patent for stabilized ascorbic acid composition, suggesting that the brand has found a way to stabilize vitamin C (and no other brands use that specific method or formulation).

So are dupes effective at all?

One of the most popular “dupes” for SkinCeuticals’ C E Ferulic is Timeless’ Vitamin C + E Ferulic Acid Serum (usually $25 but currently on sale for $18). The brand states on its website that its “philosophy is under-sell and over-deliver.” And at first glance, the ingredient lists do look extremely similar.

“Both use the same type of solvents — water and ethoxydiglycol,” Romanowski told HuffPost. “They also have the same active ingredients (ascorbic acid, tocopherol, ferulic acid, panthenol and sodium hyaluronate).” There are only a few minor ingredient differences between the two and those are likely just to get around the SkinCeuticals patent. For example, “SkinCeuticals uses a glycerin/propylene glycol blend, whereas the Timeless product uses only propylene glycol,” explained Romanowski. This may make the SkinCeuticals formula feel a little more sticky.

Any differences in ingredients or percentages (SkinCeuticals uses 15% L-ascorbic acid, while Timeless uses 20%) “most likely won’t lead to any noticeable difference to the consumer,” Romanowski told us, so there’s no need to dwell on that 5% difference, especially considering the optimal percentage of L-ascorbic acid — another term for vitamin C — is actually a range (10-20%).

After all, there’s much more to a skincare product than its ingredient list. “The ingredient list can be misleading and confusing for many consumers,” Li said. “It’s required as part of government regulations, and to guide those who may have contact sensitivities and allergies. But there’s important information that an ingredient list alone does not state, such as percentage of the primary active component of a skincare product and pH, which will determine how the skin will interact with or absorb an active ingredient.”

There are also ingredients that may enhance or prevent delivery of L-ascorbic acid into the skin, and for the average consumer, glancing at an ingredient list won’t reveal those.

Smith offered an analogy to explain why ingredient lists aren’t the only thing that indicates product efficacy: “Compare product development to baking a cake. You could follow a recipe and ingredient list, resulting in a beautiful cake. You could also use the same ingredients in different quantities or in a different order, resulting in a terrible cake. You can’t just compare ingredient to ingredient. The general population is not well-equipped enough to make an informed decision when it comes to product formulation, so we rely on brands that can provide us with the right type of scientific information to provide proof of efficacy.”

So yes, Timeless’ $18 product may perform similarly to SkinCeuticals’ serum, but there’s the issue of safety and reliability…

“From the wealth of clinical studies performed over several decades, SkinCeuticals’ vitamin C formulation [is] shown by peer-reviewed research to be able to effectively deliver active vitamin C into skin cells to fight free radicals,” Li told HuffPost. “Dupes can’t undergo testing using these well-researched rules for effective absorption of topical vitamin C, as SkinCeuticals holds the patent that protects its vitamin C formulations.”

Those years of research, clinical studies and peer-reviewed publishings aren’t just for show. They exist to tell the consumer that the product can be trusted. Big, well-known brands spend a ton of money on testing the safety of their products, Romanowski said. “This is not to say that consumers will have a bad experience [with a product from a smaller, lesser-known brand], but there is a higher likelihood of a bad reaction.”

Given the volatile, reactive nature of vitamin C, the practical advice is that you shouldn’t have to spend a lot of money on these types of products, Romanowski said. So if you’re not worried about sensitive or reactive skin at all, “start with the less expensive product and see if it works for you,” he said. “If it doesn’t, go up to the next higher priced product and try it. Keep doing this until you find something that works best for you.”

The bottom line? You may be able to find a vitamin C serum that provides results that are similar to (but not better than) SkinCeuticals’ C E Ferulic at a fraction of the price but it’ll come with the risk of causing a reaction.

“When it comes to performance, no one can make products that work better than L’Oréal, P&G, Unilever, Estée Lauder or any of the other big beauty companies,” Romanowski said. “If safety is your highest concern, you should stick to [skincare] products produced by big corporations.”

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