Don’t be duped by drugstore doubles Episode 65

sLearn how to tell if a drugstore double is really the same as your favorite brand. 

Show notes

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Question of the week: Are drugstore doubles really the same?

Veronica asks…In the drug store there are the name brands and the drug store brand equivalents that say compare to Brand “x.” Most of the time the ingredients are the same so I’m tempted to buy the cheapest one. But am I sacrificing quality? How do I know the proportions and quality of the ingredients are the same and if the drug store brands test their products as well the name brands.

What is a drug store dupe?

These are products, as Veronica mentioned, that are usually store brand versions of more famous, more expensive products.

While they may be most commonly found in drugstores you’ll also see them in grocery stores and some chain department stores. They may be named based on the store or the parent company. For example there was a chain of grocery stores here in the Chicago area owned by the Safeway company and so you would see Safeway branded products.

Other examples include:

  • Walmarts brand is “Equate”
  • Target’s is “Up & Up”
  • Walgreens is “Studio 35”

You can tell these are dupes or doubles because the fine print on the back of the package says something like “made exclusively for…” Walgreens in this case. That phrase “made for” is a sure tip off that the product was made by not made by the major beauty companies themselves. Instead it was made by what we call a contract manufacturer. So let’s talk about the role of these contract manufacturers.

The role of contract manufacturers versus in-house manufacturing

Retail companies – the stores that sell you stuff – rarely, if ever, manufacture their own products. So even if product says it’s from CVS or target they are not actually making it. So who does make these products? Contract manufacturers which are sometimes called private label manufacturers. These are like the guns for hire in the personal care industry. These are typically relatively small companies that are engineered and designed to quickly and cheaply make a variety of different personal care products for a variety of customers. Many of them specialize in duplicating at least as close as possible the formulas of other companies. They basically play three rolls within the industry:

  1. Larger personal care manufacturers use them to supplement their own manufacturing organization. They’ll use them to when they’re short on their own manufacturing capacity or if they need specialized equipment that they may not have yet purchased.
  2. Smaller personal care companies who may not have their own manufacturing facilities at all will use contract manufacturers as their primary source of product production.
  3. Retailers who have no manufacturing facilities will use contract manufacturers to make their own in-house brands. Some of those may be unique products but others are knockoffs of something already on the market.

The secrets of knocking off a product

Copying a competitor’s product is not exactly easy but for a seasoned cosmetic chemist it’s not too hard. I once wrote a short ebook on the subject that people can get over at Chemists Corner, but here’s a quick summary of what you do.

First, you check the product to see if it is patented. If it is patented you can just look up the patent and find a formula. It won’t be the exact formula that is marketed but it will be pretty close.

But for products that aren’t patented you have to get the LOI (or list of ingredient) of the product you want to copy. Sites like or make this easy to do.

Next, you have to figure out where the 1% line is. The 1% line is the place on the LOI in which the ingredients can be put in any order that the cosmetic company wants. See the rules of cosmetic labeling in the US are that you have to list ingredients in order of concentration above the 1% line, but once an ingredient is at 1% or lower you can list in any order you want.

You just have to look for things like natural or feature ingredients and you can usually find the 1% line.

After finding that line you can pretty much ignore everything below it. While those ingredients are not always inconsequential they don’t need to be in your first prototype. Then you can make a guess as to the concentration of the ingredients used. You can figure out the amount of water by doing a moisture % determination & there are other tricks to figuring out the levels of other ingredients.

Mostly, as a cosmetic formulator you know the levels of ingredients that are typically used for certain formulas.

Once you make your guesses at the formula, you make your first prototype. Then you compare it to the original product and adjust the ingredients until you get a product that is close. You may have to add some of the ingredients you ignored if you can’t get the performance to be the way you want it.

Then you just do a whole bunch of comparison testing and optimizing of your formula until you get something that matches pretty close.

So now you have a good sense of where these drugstore doubles come from. But are they necessarily a good duplicate or not? As you may have guessed already from some of the things we’ve said already these products are not necessarily always a true duplicate. Why is that? If the ingredients are essentially the same shouldn’t the products be identical? Here are some reasons drugstore doubles are not really duplicates and some tips to keep you from being duped by the dupes.

Does it claim to be the same?

One thing to look for on these drug store double is what the product claims to do. There are two types of claims you’ll see most commonly associated with these duplicate products.

“Compare to (insert brand name) “

This is actually the weaker of the two claims because it only indirectly makes a connection to the “real” brand.

For example, Walgreen’s Studio 35 Regenerating Daily Micro-shaping Cream makes the following claim: “compare to Olay.”

What could that mean? There is certainly an implied claim of efficacy. The product doesn’t state it but it seems to be saying “compare to Olay because it works as well.” That’s a reasonable take away but it’s not the only take away and I don’t think that Walgreens would be required to support that claim. They are not making a direct claim of efficacy so they are not responsible to prove that their product works as well.

How DO you support “compare to” claims? Perhaps by proving that the product looks similar, maybe even smells similar, it contains many of the same ingredients, it’s intended for the same function, even the packaging looks the same. These are all ways to make be able to say “compare to.”

You’ve seen this exact same approach used in some fragrance dupes. The claim is always something like this: if you like Elizabeth White Diamonds then you’ll love our “Pale Zirconium.”

Do you see how this works? They’re not directly saying it’s the same. They’re just saying compare one to the other. That’s a very open ended claim but you can easily be sucked in by that. If you see this phrase you should at least be suspicious.

“works as well as (insert brand name)”
This is a more direct approach which is the “works as well as” claim. Let’s look at another example:

Suave Professionals Natural Infusion Light Leave-In Cream says “Salon proven to strengthen as well as Pureology®.”

Clearly this is a more direct claim that overtly makes a reference to some functional parameter. Note that Suave uses this approach but Suave is owned by Unilever that has a large research and development organization that can afford to design and execute tests of the sort. You’re less likely to see this with the storebrand dupes.

So I would expect in this case the product would do exactly as promised because Unilever has some test to show that their product strenghtens hair as well as Pureology. However, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be as good as Pureology for all the things that you like about that product. For example it may not smell as well or it may feel thinner or it may leave your hair feeling too sticky. All they’ve done in this case is find one single product parameter where they are as good as the “real” product. It’s a stronger position than the “compared to” claim but it still no guarantee of equivalency.

So you have to look carefully at the claims when you’re considering a dupe. But of course you also have to look at the ingredients….

Are the ingredients really the same?

Just because a company is trying to sell you a drugstore dupe, don’t assume that it REALLY is the same. For example, let’s take a closer look at that Walgreens Studio 35 product.

As you can see from the ingredient lists in the show notes, the first 10 ingredients are identical – with one very important exception. The third ingredient in the Olay product, Niacinamide, is completely missing from the Studio 35 Beauty product. And guess which one is the only proven anti-aging ingredient in the Olay formula. That’s right – niacinamide. Other than retinol, niacinimade is one of the best studied and most effective anti-aging ingredients. It’s capable of brightening the complexion, erasing fine wrinkles, reducing transepidermal water loss, improving elasticity, and fighting inflammation. Without that ingredient this product isn’t much more than a really good moisturizer.

The point is that just because the label says “compare to Olay” doesn’t mean they use all the same ingredients as Olay. That’s something to watch out for when shopping for dupes.

It’s also important to consider the AMOUNT of ingredients used. For example, there’s a skin cream by the brand “Gold Bond” that contains 5% dimethicone. Dimethicone is a great skin protectant and it’s found in a LOT of lotions but you don’t see too products many with such a high level. And you certainly don’t see brands TELLING you how much they used.

At least with ingredients, it’s relatively easy to figure them out because they’re disclosed on the package. Unfortunately, there other, more subtle, differences that you CAN’T easily spot yourself.

Is it made the same way?

For most products the method of manufacture doesn’t impact performance very much. That’s not to say that the method of manufacture isn’t important what I mean is a duplicate product can be made using a different manufacturing method and you can get to the same final result. For example if you’re mixing up a basic shampoo there’s probably no secret way to make it that makes it work better. But there are some cases where it’s difficult to make a good dupe of a product because there IS something special about the way its made. Let me give you two examples:

First, I used to make pressed powder products like eyeshadows and blushes. A critical step in the manufacture these products is the pressing step. That’s where a machine pushes a metal cylinder down on the loose powder to compress it into a cake.

If that step is not done just right let’s say you’re a company that’s trying to save a few dollars so you turn the speed of the machine up, well the same pressure is not achieved in there for the kick me crumble more easily. that’s just one example of manufacturing difference that consumers would be oblivious to but which could certainly affect the quality of a finish product from brand to brand.

Here’s another example: Dispersing silicone oils properly in a conditioner or lotion is critical to get the product to feel a certain way and to work properly. My first patent was awarded for finding a better way disperse silicone in a conditioner by premixing it with another ingredient. This formula went on to be used in the Tresemme line. If another company created a duplicate of that formula you couldn’t tell from looking at the ingredient list if they were using this trick or not. And that means that the dupe wouldn’t work the same way even if the ingredients were the same.

The point of this is to make you aware that there are these subtle differences that would be impossible for you to recognize just by reading the label. So you should always be skeptical when looking at drugstore doubles.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

So here are our four steps to help being avoid being duped by a duplicate.

  1. Look at the claims to see if the dupe really is indeed claiming to do the same thing as the original product. This step is especially important if there’s a key function that you’re interested in like anti-aging claims.
  2. Find out who makes the dupe. You can do this very easily by checking the manufacturer which is listed on the back of the package. Is it a copy cat from a major company? Like the example of Suave shampoo – I would expect those Suave professional products to perform pretty well. That’s because as we’ve said before the larger companies have bigger R&D budgets and do more testing. On the other hand if it’s a drugstore or grocery store knockoff brand which was made by a contract manufacturer then it’s less likely that extensive testing was done.
  3. Compare the ingredients between the real product and the duplicate. If there are differences then that’s a good indication it’s not a very good duplicate. However there could be subtle differences in ingredients or ingredient concentrations that would be very difficult for you to catch.
  4. Be aware that there may be other subtle differences that you’re not aware of – for example the way the product is manufactured. So be skeptical and if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably isn’t. Don’t be duped by drugstore doubles!
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