Are Cosmetic Subscription Services Worth It?

When I was 15, I stood on the tile in my mom’s bathroom and let her glue false eyelashes onto my eyelids. I was going to a middle school dance.

When I was younger than that, I have memories of watching my grandmother apply lipstick to her cheekbones and blend it with her fingers. Her glasses were tinted slightly pink, and she said the lipstick helped to match her complexion. I had a shred of knowledge at the time that this was a bizarre way to wear makeup.

But when my first Birchbox package arrived—a monthly parcel from a New York-based startup that encloses surprise samples of designer cosmetic products at the cost of $10 per month—I could make no discernable connection to cosmetics in my past.

Why is this? I wear makeup. I grew up in a suburb in Southern California, and I had a subscription to a modern young woman’s magazine. I just could not remember any real emotional attachment to anything that I could put on my face, hair or body. The products were cold to me—not literally, but figuratively empty. The memories I have of my mom and grandma are not connected to any particular product, but to their love for me. But then, should anyone have an emotional attachment to cosmetics?

A questionnaire that I filled out when I subscribed to Birchbox asked me to identify my proficiency-level with makeup. Am I low maintenance or trendy? My poor abilities with using makeup suggest that I am on the lower side of the maintenance scale, but am I not also, in paying $120 per year to have sample-size beauty products sent to me, saying that I want to be more trendy? I only very recently learned from my 16-year-old cousin how to apply eyeliner to my bottom lash line in a way that doesn’t make me look like I have wandered off the set of a Tim Burton film.

Birchbox, which was founded in 2010 by Harvard Business School classmates Katia Beauchamp and Hayley Barna, casts a net for engaged customers with their sample boxes. Today more than half of the company’s 400,000 subscribers shop on the website for full-size volumes of the products, according to a company spokesperson.

Customers are “engaged” when they are actively seeking out a type of product to fit a certain lifestyle. Figuring out how to use cosmetics in a way that is not cloying—my challenge—is a subset of the trendspotting lifestyle that keeps men and women relentlessly chasing after current looks.

In some ways. the search is endless. Brands with miracle products and do-it-yourself routines branch out into cyberspace. But there is also the idea that using a small portion of something—a sample—is like borrowing your roommate’s stuff. Interestingly, you never would have bought it yourself, but even more interesting is how crucial it becomes to your life.

A comment left by a subscriber on Birchbox’s website says that she doesn’t want nail polish in her box. She bites her nails, she says, and she doesn’t use it. A company representative responded to the comment by saying, “If you are a nail biter, don’t worry, you can use it on your toes!”

Paying for products that you do not want, but somehow you still need to possess, is a paradox that some simply do not understand.

“I did the homework and, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out who would pay $10 a month (for women) or $20 a month (for men) for a little box with a sampling of different toiletry products to arrive at your house,” the television personality and stock-picking guru Jim Cramer wrote on earlier this month.

In 2010, the start-up received $1.4 million in seed funding from venture capital firms First Round and Accel Partners.

The “Avon Lady” of the mid-last century is not an invalid comparison. The company told its saleswomen to enter homes and not only sell beauty products, but instruct women in their use. The goal was that the customer would be able to show her face in kitchens, preschools and butcher shops around the neighborhood and hold her head high. She was, as people say in the business today, on trend.

Birchbox emailed its customers a video for the February shipment of its box. In it, Beauchamp and Gwen Flamberg, an editor at US Weekly, talk about February’s theme, “Step, Pose, Repeat” — sponsored by US Weekly’s coverage of Oscar awards season.

Birchbox knows the secrets behind all the red carpet looks, Beauchamp says. Do you want hair that shines (Beauty Protector Protect & Oil, retails at $25.95) or nails that change color in sunlight (OPI Sheer Tints – Tinted Top Coat in hot pink, $9)? You’re in luck. This #partyinabox (please Instagram, Tweet and Facebook using this hashtag) is perfect for an Oscar-viewing party. “Just add cocktails!” says Flamberg.

The company will not say how many of its subscribers are under American drinking age, but something tells me it’s enough to think that an odd suggestion.

Women may not love being interrupted at home for a beauty lesson today, but the other part of the Avon lady, the educational part, is unchanged.

You can eliminate puffiness from your eyes by placing lemon slices under (not on top of!) your eyes in the morning, Flamberg says in the video. Don’t have any fruit laying around? She says. Cold spoons work as well.

These are the kinds of actionable tips that people need.

I might be inclined to obtain Keira Knightley’s brilliant navy blue smokey eyes for a night out with my boyfriend, but I am at a loss as to how I will one day end up on a red carpet. No matter though, they also included in my box a tea sachet (Harney & Sons, $9.60), for what I actually do at night. Dab on perfume from a 50 ml sample (Harvey Prince Hello, $55) and kick back with Joan Didion on the Kindle.

My favorite video on Birchbox’s “How-To” section of its website features Alina, who is identified as one of the company’s software engineers. Using one of the color palettes that Birchbox sells as full-size products, she demonstrates making a “gunmetal eye.” She is so natural, this software engineer, so calm in front of the camera; so patient as she instructs how to glide the eyeliner in between the top lash line and the eyeball, which is something I can say without hesitation that I have never done.

If Birchbox doesn’t work out (plenty of subscribers say in the comments that they are fed up with the quantity or variety of the samples), there are other subscriptions to shell out one’s discretionary budget for. Ipsy is a main competitor to Birchbox, then there is GlossyBox, NatureBox, Stitch Fix, Art in a Box, Amarya and Beauty Army. There are many more. Some, like Batch Nashville, offer localized selections of food and ephemera that appeal to a niche audience the way that brined cucumbers or coffee once did in Brooklyn.

Fancy Box offers celebrity subscriptions. For $39 per box, plus shipping, you can find a box deposited on your doorstep that contains $80 of products hand-picked by Jennifer Love Hewitt. Because, at this point, why the hell not? Liz Cadmen who subscribes to dozens of boxes and posts reviews of the contents on her site politely calls the Hewitt box a “mixed bag”—with a “cake candelabra,” “acrylic ‘diamond’ earrings,” and this shirt.

Even the Skin&Co Roma Truffle Therapy Boosting Anti-Aging Serum ($75) that came in my box—as sweet-smelling as it made my cheeks before I slipped into bed—was not enough to convince me that living a subscription cosmetic lifestyle is actually living. Beauty is skin-deep, but the reasons that I do or do not try on new products are more meaningful. My reasons, eventually, will wear thin. My subscription will lapse, and I will need to find somewhere to unload all these samples.


Heather Struck is a journalist living in New York City. Someone once told her that green eyeliner makes brown eyes pop.

Photo: Meghan Wilker


34 Comments / Post A Comment

BananaPeel (#1,555)

Such a good analysis — I don’t subscribe to Birchbox even though I love makeup, love getting packages, love shiny new things, because the best-case scenario is I fall in “love” with a product I was fine without before and then wanna spend even more money on the full size.

Heather F G (#6,074)

As a former subscriber who caved to Birchbox, a couple of years ago, and gradually fell off the wagon as the wrinkle cream samples started piling up and the fun actual makeup stuff got fewer and farther between, I would still argue that some of the things in the box are worth the $10 price tag. Occasionally, I would get a full-size nail polish or eye liner that I would enjoy and use. And if you’re a compulsive Sephora shopper, $10 a month for a sampling of products is arguably much cheaper than, say, the $26 I just wasted on impulsively purchasing a poorly-designed BareMinerals compact that doesn’t work, and waste in similar ways both there and on drugstore products of lower quality probably more than $120 worth a year.
The element of surprise, and of getting a “treat” every month, is what the appeal was for me. Even if it was just a bunch of crappy tubes of eye serum, the anticipation was always pretty thrilling, coming home from a long day at work to that shiny pink box. The good products which would occasionally come always made the $10 seem worth it. And when you put it in terms of $120 a year, $10 a month seems like a lot, but really, $10 a month is also what you would an unsatisfactory sandwich from that new place across the street, or a growler of beer that turns out to be disgusting, or a Kindle book that’s not quite as Didion-esque as you had hoped, all things reasonable people squander their disposable income on from time to time.
One time they accidentally sent out expired face creams, and I got 100 bonus points on the site for my “trouble”, equivalent to $20ish of free stuff. Interestingly, I could never find anything to spend it on (though that Lumier d’hiver–sp?–shampoo pictured with this article smells divine)

mysterygirl (#2,058)

@Heather Funk@facebook : This isn’t the point of your post, but if you bought that bad BareMinerals compact at Sephora, you probably already know that they will let you return it and you can reinvest that $26 on more treats. They accept pretty much everything as a return.

Heather F G (#6,074)

@mysterygirl HUHWHAAAA? That’s amazing. I actually did not know because I’m horribly lax at returning things. I think I will try my luck!

@mysterygirl My mother gave me a box of Bliss body lotion for Christmas which I returned to Sephora (without a receipt) and got about $35 in credit for. I found out later that she had bought the lotion at Nordstrom Rack for less than $20. So, yeah.

WineWillFixIt (#6,246)

I joined Birchbox over a year ago and after a few boxes got over the initial excitement of receiving a box in the mail and noticed how I didn’t use half of the products sent to me. My local public radio station had a pledge drive so I decided to cancel Birchbox and donate the money I would give them every month to the radio station.

erocha (#5,066)

@WineWillFixIt Brilliant idea, thank you. I cancelled my Birchbox a couple of months ago, and my local NPR station is actually having their pledge drive right now!

andnowlights (#2,902)

I have a lot of friends who LOVE Birchbox- absolutely could not live without it. They’re also all obsessed with makeup/products and finding their next favorite thing. I’m a 4 step makeup girl in the morning (foundation, 1 eyeshadow, eyeliner and mascara) so I’m not really the target audience. Also, a friend subscribes to a nail polish box and really loves it.

I DO really want the “made in the south” box but it’s pricey and I can’t justify it. It’s food, mostly, and that is totally up my alley.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

Nothing wrong with turning lipstick into rouge! Or using straight-up vanilla as perfume. Or putting a styrofoam cup under your hair to bouffant it up.

(Actually, seriously, I do the first two. Frugal beauty for life.)

Heather F G (#6,074)

@HelloTheFuture Lipstick makes a baller cream blush! Ooh, I just got an idea for what to do with that pretty peach “lip crayon” that, worn traditionally, causes me to resemble a mid-2000s adult film star…

@HelloTheFuture Vanilla *extract* or some kind of essential oil? You are wonderful.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@Heather Struck@facebook vanilla extract from the little brown bottle! Like, the same stuff you put in cakes.

DarlingMagpie (#1,695)

Maybe the product is not worth the cost to you because you’re simply not the core demographic. Also, a ‘celebrity finance’ quote by JIM CRAMER? That’s a really strange aside.

I feel like this article would’ve been more interesting if it was from the perspective of somebody actually interested in researching the impact of subscription boxes on habits and promotion of beauty or makeup.

There are lots of angles for these stories such as
1) the oversaturation of products from major companies, there are months where people may receive the same product over and over in multiple boxes
2) The number of these subscription boxes that have completely gone belly up, and the few that turned into outright scams
3) Women ‘addicted’ to getting as many boxes as possible, racking up a few hundred dollars a month in sub costs (I know a few)
4) The many times that mysterious high-end products swamp the boxes, and then disappear when a few hundred harsh reviews showcase how much of a rip-off said product was. These subscribers and bloggers have a lot of influence.

Instead, somebody waxes nostalgic for their grandmothers makeup? Sigh. C’mon Billfold, do some digging!

tw0lle (#4,354)

@DarlingMagpie These are all such good points. Would love to see a follow-up…

juniorbizarre (#4,044)

@DarlingMagpie Ironically this article actually made me SIGN UP for Birchbox. Just got a raise (!!!!) and feel like a splurge is in order. All of these things sound fantastic to me. I have a super boring makeup routine (moisturizer with sunscreen, eyebrow pencil, mascara, maybe some blush, chapstick–bb cream and eyeshadow or liner if I’m feeling REALLY put together, lipstick if I’m going to a party and not planning on eating or drinking (how do they do it???)) but looove nail polish, love perfume and love to experiment every once in a while for a party or special occasion. I’m not brand loyal at all but like trying out different things each time. I also don’t go through products very quickly so sample sizes last me ages. I am pretty sure I am Birchbox’s target demographic (except I prob won’t buy much fullsize stuff, so maybe I’m not).

Heather F G (#6,074)

@juniorbizarre Seriously! I kind of want to sign up one again and see if I fare any better by saying I’m not concerned with fighting aging.

tw0lle (#4,354)

I’ve had a Birchbox subscription since May 2012 (!). I do it for the “surprise” element, the nail polishes, and the food products. I also have the advantage of sharing my subscription with a friend, who takes the samples I don’t want.

The only time I ever “fell in love” with a Birchbox product (it was Joie matte tinted moisturizer), I eventually paid for a full size with the “points” you accumulate from leaving reviews. So that worked out, because it retailed for $40.

Trilby (#191)

I don’t want an additional monthly bill, even a small one. I feel silly subscribing to Graze, but it comes to me at my office and cheers me up once a week, so.

But emotional attachment make-up– YES!!! My mom always used a liquid rouge that came in a small glass bottle, a drugstore product, nothing fancy. I would just collapse into a heap of jelly, and tears, if I could possess one today. My mom is gone and I miss her terribly.

garli (#4,150)

I’ve never been tempted by birch box due to total lack of beauty routine but does anyone out there do stitch fix? I hate dressing my self and the thought of telling some one what you like and they send you things to wear sounds amazing.

BananaPeel (#1,555)

@garli I do it! I like it a lot. It’s $20/month but if you buy one of the items then the $20 goes towards the cost of that item (or items.) Everything I have gotten has been cool and interesting and probably something I wouldn’t have picked out for myself. If you can afford it and are interested, do it for a month to see how it goes.

garli (#4,150)

@BananaPeel I will! I signed up to have one delivery to see if I liked it but I don’t know anyone outside of bloggers who have tried it. Not that I know bloggers.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@garli Late to the thread but I just signed up for Stitch Fix yesterday! We’ll see. I am hard to fit and also picky as heeeck, but loved all the reviews where bloggers said it made them try things they wouldn’t pick up in a store.

BananaPeel (#1,555)

@garli plus with Stitch Fix there is usually at least one accessory piece (earrings, scarf) that you could keep to give as a gift if there’s absolutely nothing that you’d wear yourself.

ceereelyo (#3,552)

I cancelled my Birchbox the beginning of this year to save the $10. I found that once in a while I would get really awesome products – I did find my favorite BB cream through BBox, and I actually really enjoy when they send Kusmi tea bags, and mascara was always great because I go through mine like gangbusters – but most often it was just stuff. I have a small shopping bag full of perfume samples (none of which I really took a liking to) and outrageously colored nail polish or eye liner that I wouldn’t wear. Also, as much as I love beauty products (I could drop a dime in Sephora) but really, it was for the surprise factor. Unless my friend, who also got BBox would text me LAME BBOX THIS MONTH.

Plus side – if you reviewed the products you got in your box you got points, and I saved up my points to buy my wedding makeup and little gifts for my bridesmaids. Also, the little cardboard boxes are perfect to sending little things in the mail or for gifts, so I’m kind of bummed I don’t have those at my disposal anymore!

theballgirl (#1,546)

I read a blog called Brightest in the Bulb (probably recommended by a commenter here). The author subscribes to a bunch of these services, including BBox, and then breaks down the cost per oz (based on the full size) to determine overall value. She also discusses what she likes/doesn’t like. It has confirmed for me that these are not something I am going to try – far too many products I would never use.

ragazza (#4,025)

I dunno, I like Birchbox. I signed up because I used to write about fashion and beauty a lot and I got a lot of swag, and when I stopped I missed trying new items. Maybe my expectations are low, but I don’t mind the occasional red nail polish or something else I would never use (although I do wish they would stop with the fragrances). $10/month is not a lot out of my budget for something fun, and like other commenters have mentioned, the points system is pretty good.

messica (#2,810)

One thing that is never mentioned when people ask if Birchbox is “worth it” is the points system. The box costs ten dollars, but you get ten points per review you leave on the website about what you got. 100 points = $10, so you can get around 40 to 60 (usually 50) points per month, or $5. As long as the store carries a product you use pretty regularly and you get at least $5 worth of value from the box (for me it’s not hard because there’s usually shampoo or lotion or tea or something in there that I’m not particular about but will use as long as it isn’t awful) and I get to try a few things for the price of buying my moisturizer and dry shampoo on an installment plan, basically. (It’s also useful if you have siblings you can pawn things off on if they’re not for you.)

I think Birchbox is the only one with a points system though. I know Ipsy comes with coupon codes for some of the brands in the box but I know that because they hit the internet the next day and aside from the code there’s no way for an online store to really verify you’re a subscriber to Ipsy’s service so I’ve never signed up.

blink14 (#6,254)

@messica The Birchbox points system is far superior to any other beauty subscription company I’ve seen. I recently redeemed 700 points (with a coupon for a “box anniversary”) for about $90 worth of stuff (including tax) plus a mystery deluxe sample pack. Two of the items I bought I never would’ve gotten otherwise due to the price.

Ipsy, in my opinion, has a really poor point system and its set up so that really the only ones who benefit are those with blogs or Youtube channels who can ask their readers/subscribers to sign up through affiliate links. Each review of a product in your bag is 10 points, and you have to have at least 1000 point to select one of the bonus products – usually there’s 3 or 4 to choose from. On the flip side, Ipsy tends to send mostly deluxe or full size products, mostly drugstore to mid-range brands and works with a lot of independent brands that aren’t sold in your typical beauty store.

spottedwren (#4,437)

I like the surprise factor of Birchbox, though now that the year is coming to an end soon, I don’t know that I will sign up again. One can have only so many tiny wrinkle creams.
That said, I do like how you get 10 BB points per review of an item you get in the box. A commenter above mentioned that it usually comes to about $5 a box. So every 4 or 5 months, I can get my favorite mascara for free. Over the year, those three mascaras have saved me $60. Not a bad return when I spent $110 on a year subscription and have enjoyed some of the other products.

CmdrBanana (#1,872)

I travel a lot for work and I find Birchbox really useful because I can pack sample sizes and throw them out at the end of my trip. I wish it was more customizable – stop sending me bronzers and perfume forever, thank you – but otherwise it’s a nice treat. That being said I’m considering canceling my subscription and switching to Ipsy just for a change. I have gotten samples in Birchbox that ended up working out really well and bought the full-size products, although ironically I tend to buy more from Sephora because samples!

Heather F G (#6,074)

@CmdrBanana Travel! That’s another bonus. I was traveling from the town where I lived back home a lot during the period I used BBox and it was NOIIICE not to have to transfer things to travel-size containers, or buy new travel size products (Aveda will run you $10ish for a single TSA-approved bottle anyway!), or lug full-size products that could leak or get left behind around.

I did Birchbox for a year and let it lapse for pretty much the same reasons, but I don’t regret doing it. I’m pretty cheap when it comes to beauty products, and Birchbox was a good way to explore some more expensive makeup brands without spending a lot of money or fending off the hard sell from a salesperson at Sephora or a mall counter or whatever. I got some really nice stuff (some of it full-size) that, for me, is worth buying on its own. And the samples lasted me a while because I only wear makeup for nice events. I dreamed of wearing it more often when I started with Birchbox, but I reverted to my messy-hair-no-makeup look at work soon enough.

sariberry (#4,420)

This article encouraged me to do something I’ve been meaning to do – cancel my Birchbox subscription. I subscribed for three months and it wasn’t doing anything for me. Lots of lotion samples and other small things that I would really only use when traveling. In a way it helped me realize that I much prefer my ‘tried and true’ products and I’m not much of an experimenter. Although if the products had felt more tailored to me, I might have felt differently. Anyhow, thanks for the push, Billfold!

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