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In case you are not current with the latest definitions, “Poison” is now a Christian Dior fragrance. The firm is spending over $7 million to introduce this perfume which sells for a mere $65 an ounce. In magazines, perfumed pages advertising Poison come at readers. On television, the ads convey this new meaning to an old word. Mothers are writing me to object. Their children are taught to stay away from bottles or containers labeled “poison” or “poisonous.” Now, by watching television, these little boys and girls are told that “Poison” is downright alluring and irresistible.

The “Poison” perfume campaign is just the latest reminder of how many loose wires there are in the cosmetic industry. In the business of selling fantasy, this industry sells at fantastic prices. Joy perfume sells at $210 an ounce, Opium fragrance at $175 an ounce, Obsession smells in at $160 an ounce. Total perfume sales in the U.S. last year were $3 billion.

Why are these prices so sky-high? Because the promotion budgets are sky-high. So too are the markups for packaging and celebrity endorsements. So too are the profits.

B. Striem of Essential Products out of New York City believes such prices are full of overhead that you cannot apply to your skin. He sells less expensive fragrances which match the scents of higher priced brand names but not the colorings. For example, Essential’s Naudet #68 which matches the Poison brand does not contain Violet *2 which Poison embodies, because Striem says he does not use any artificial coloring. His ounce of ladies perfume goes for about $19 an ounce and he has shown letters from customers declaring that they like his copies better than the originals.

The first lesson for a cosmetic buyer is to realize that higher priced cosmetics are not usually any more effective or safer than the lower priced competition.

In its November, 1986 issue, Consumer Reports magazine asked 600 women representing a broad range of ages, skin types and geography whether all purpose moisturizers, ranging in price from 10 cents per ounce to as much as $6.10 per ounce, worked better according to their price level. The finding: most of the expensive products were judged to be in the bottom half of the 48 products used in the survey. The two most expensive – La Prairie, at $6.10 per ounce, and Oscar de la Renta, at $4.29 per ounce -finished in 46th and 47th place, respectively. The 600 panelists who did not know the prices believed the cheaper, plainer lotions performed best.

The cost of materials in cosmetic products averages 7 cents for every $1.00 in retail price. Some lipsticks have 3 cents of material for $3.00 in retail price. Yet cosmetic industry promoters always have a story about the time a company cut its price of a high falutin product only to suffer a reduction in unit sales.

Nonetheless, it pays to be smart in shopping for cosmetics, if you choose to use them. In a study of soaps, with prices ranging from 18 cents per 100 hand-washings to $6 per 100 hand-washings, Consumer Reports says: “When it comes to ordinary cleaning, all soap is created equal.” The differences are in lathering ability, the amount of fats added (to ease the drying effects of soap), deodorants and perfumes added.

Cosmetics cost women and men almost $20 billion this year, not counting what is spent in beauty salons and barber shops. If you are buying function, you’ll find it worth thinking about your choices. If you are buying hope, whimsy, illusion and other intangibles, then this is an industry that gives you ample opportunity to be had. (Next week, the safety of cosmetics.)