The Mascara Games: Fear and Loathing at the Drugstore

5 years ago

Not too long ago, as I was half-squatting, half-sprawling on the floor of my local drugstore, unsuccessfully searching the lowest possible shelf for a replacement mascara, a question popped into my head. Do all beauty products get discontinued within a year's time, or just the ones I like?

Apparently, the beauty industry must always be changing, reformulating, moving forward, like a shark that dies if it stops swimming. And OK, that metaphor may not quite work, and that bit about sharks might not even be true. But you know what I'm saying, right?

Writers and cultural commentators -- people far more clever than myself -- have long discussed the essential features of consumer culture. We all know the rules: Bigger! Better! Newer! More!  The beauty business is a tough, big-money business. Apparently, if it doesn't sell -- immediately -- it is gone.

Consequently, smart shoppers have learned to adapt. Their advice? If you find something you like, you'd better buy three of it. Because it won't be there the next time you look.

Like many women, I buy makeup from different sources. A couple of my essentials come from department stores, a few from specialty cosmetics stores, and some from the drugstore. (In my neighborhood, that means CVS or Target).

If I'm going to buy a drugstore product, I almost always vet it through Paula Begoun's website, Beautypedia, first.  Otherwise, without trying a product before buying, you're flying blind. Sure, the prices are lower. But over time, it adds up. You can waste a lot of money on invisible lipglosses, skin-tone clashing blushes, and cheap eyeshadows that look like dust (but are not quite as colorful).

Since using Beautypedia, I've done pretty well. That's where I found my favorite mascara. But when it came time to replace it, I began to sense that something was amiss. During my routine drugstore trips, I noticed that only a couple of these mascaras were left, not in my shade. So I waited for the stores to re-stock. And they didn't.

This is never a good sign. I should have been tipped off by the product's location: bottom shelf, directly at floor level, impossible to reach. My favorites always seem to wind up here.

As for the higher shelves, they were full of the bright, shiny, colorfully packaged, "new, new, new!" items. The not-yet-vetted-by-Paula items. Which put me in a bit of a bind.

Eventually, I checked Beautypedia and found that yes, sadly, my brand had been discontinued. So I searched for other mascara possibilities. And the next time I went to the store, guess what happened. Even these, newer product lines were nowhere to be found. Well, OK, one of them still existed, not in my shade, in the bottom shelf graveyard, naturally.

Meanwhile, those showy, impertinent, top-shelf mascaras were screaming: Longer, thicker lashes! Improved formula! Come on, try us! Who cares what Paula thinks? Don't you have a mind of your own?

So I bought one. I liked it for a few days, until I found the newly posted Beautypedia review. Paula was unequivocal in her scorn. Horrible! Flakes! Smudges! Even worse than the old formula, which was bad enough!

Hmmm, I thought. Could Paula be wrong? And then, by God, that mascara smudged and flaked the very next day. I am not kidding.

I've been back to the drugstore twice since then. On the first trip, I could not find a single top shelf brand that I remembered seeing on Beautypedia. Now, perhaps my approach is not as scientific as it could be. I don't have an iPhone to check reviews in-store, and I certainly don't have the patience to write down the names of all the brands. "I'll remember the names," I tell myself.

Ha! Have you seen the names of beauty products these days? I've read doctoral dissertations that felt shorter and less complicated. It can't just be Maybelline Volume Express Mascara. (Oops, I mean, Volum' Express). No, there is Volum' Express 3X, and Volum' Express Turbo Boost, and The Colossal Volum' Express, and One by One Volum' Express, and on and on and on. And no, Maybelline is not the only company that does this.

So I stood there, staring at dozens upon dozens of the wrong mascaras. And I thought: Do we need this many mascaras? I mean, really? How is it possible that, with enough mascaras to repopulate the Earth, not one of them is the right one? I went home empty-handed.

But from the darkness of despair, hope emerges. I made one last trip to Target and was shocked to find my old mascara brand, wasting away on the bottom shelf. How had I missed it before? There were exactly two tubes left. I was going to buy both, until I discovered that one of the packages had been opened. (This also seems to happen, often, to soon-to-be-discontinued products. Ask me about the time I bought my favorite conditioner -- even though it had been opened and, quite possibly, used -- because I thought it was the last one I would ever see).

So now I have my mascara. This buys me more time to find a new brand. I also still have my Beautypedia-approved drugstore blush, which will surely be gone when it's time to replace it. And I have a very nice drugstore lipgloss, which I found while looking for Paula's favorite ever, life-changing drugstore lipgloss, which had of course been discontinued.

What amazes me is that, in this environment of constant change, a few classics stick around forever. Look at Maybelline's Great Lash mascara, for example. (I am not a fan, by the way, and neither is Paula). It's existed for years, and it lands on the "best products lists" of many major magazines, year after year.

Even the packaging doesn't change. And this is no small feat. (It is bad enough when your favorite product is discontinued. It's even worse when the packaging changes for no logical reason at all, so that after years of being conditioned to buy the yellow jar, you buy the yellow jar and it's the wrong jar, because the former contents of the yellow jar are now in the pink jar, and vice versa. Just to mess with you! Just because they can! Just because change is good! And because, if you're too old to remember the 10-word name for your brand, you shouldn't be buying beauty products at all!)

So I have a theory about Maybelline's Great Lash mascara. The name is short and simple. The distinctive packaging -- pink tube, green top -- hasn't changed much. I think this product stays around because it's the only damn mascara that people can remember. Instant number one seller, right?

So why don't all the other product lines follow suit? They can start with my favorite mascara. It's made by Almay, and it's the one with the white tube and a silvery blue top.

Are you listening, beauty industry?

To my readers: You've been there, right? I'd love to hear your rants stories!

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