Is Drunk Elephant Worth the Coins? A Cosmetic Chemist Helps Me Investigate

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A few months ago I got a pretty robust package from Drunk Elephant’s PR team as I typically get beauty products sent to me by brands because of the nature of what I do. I’d heard of the brand from perusing the skincare aisle at Sephora and seeing their brightly colored packaging, but I hadn’t tried anything from the brand prior to the mailing. As what happens pretty often when beauty products are sent to me, I don’t always know the prices of everything until I look it up or check out any enclosed press releases. Often times I don’t look up the pricing until I’m drafting a review post which is cool because not knowing how much something costs while I’m testing it gives me a bit of a blank slate and no judgment is passed until I see the price afterwards. Before this whole blogging thing was a thing, I obviously bought all of my skincare products and it wasn’t out of the ordinary for me to spend $70 or more on a moisturizer or treatment product. That was prior to like 2009/2010. We now live in a world where affordable skincare is accessible to us via classic drugstore brands who have stepped up the game on their offerings like Olay, Neutrogena, and RoC but also through newer brands like The Ordinary. Even still, you could get great skincare ingredients in brands that didn’t advertise as much as others like Reviva Labs, Alpha Skincare (which used to be Alpha Hydrox), Jason, and derma E. So when I looked on Sephora.com and saw that the Drunk Elephant products I had been casually testing totaled almost $400 before tax, I had to sit down for a sec.

So now like I said, I’m no stranger to paying the same price range for skincare products as I’ve done in the past, but seeing as how I turned into the dad from Everybody Hates Chris AND that there are brands out here that have been around for decades that offer Vitamin C and glycolic serums that may have similar formulations—PLUS there are brands like The Ordinary and derma E, etc. out here—I was having a hard time digesting the price. Meanwhile everything was sent to me so I don’t know why I was feeling the pinch…lol. But I know I’ve seen people RAVE about Drunk Elephant products all the time and wondered did everyone get big raises except for me? Just kidding…lol. I did take to my Instagram though to see what you fine folks there thought. And it felt like most of you were taking the tops off your Maybachs while slathering Drunk Elephant Firma-C Day Serum on your faces. And making folks sign NDAs just to hang with you.

But still, I had to know: is Drunk Elephant worth the coins? I asked Principal Scientist and Product Development Chemist Rhonda Davis (who you might remember from my The Problem with Makeup Wipes story) to give her thoughts based on the ingredients found in Drunk Elephant vs some lower priced alternatives. Davis is also one of the masterminds behind the A.P.D.G. makeup brand who has a foundation shade range that rivals EVERYBODY (see my review and swatches on the medium/deep shades here and the very dark shades here). I asked her thoughts on two of the more popular items from the Drunk Elephant lineup: the glycolic acid serum and the Vitamin C serum.

So before we go into Davis’ responses, I want to point out that the products I asked her to compare aren’t dead-on dupes at all for the Drunk Elephant products. From what I’ve found out from Davis, I might have misjudged Drunk Elephant.

Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos™ Glycolic Night Serum ($90-134)

What we’re comparing it to:
The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution ($8.70)
Derma-E Overnight Peel with Alpha Hydroxy Acids ($15.19)
Derma E Anti-Wrinkle Vitamin A Glycolic Toner with Papaya ($13)
Alpha Skin Care Intensive Renewal Serum ($18.99)

Note that all paragraphs beginning with quotes are Davis speaking–I would have put it all in blockquote or italics, but that would have been a little hard on the eyes since there’s so much great information here. Just don’t get confused thinking I secretly got a chemistry degree…lol.

“Drunk Elephant Glycolic Acid Night Serum contains a special blend of ingredients that helps penetrate the skin efficiently and helps stimulate collagen production. While all of this is happening, this really cool blend encourages cell turnover to promote exfoliation of the skin which eventually helps to even out skin tone and improve skin texture. With the addition of glycolic acid, it also helps to enhance the effects of all of the other ingredients which include an arsenal of sodium hyaluronate extracts, cultures and oil that penetrate skin to hydrate and soothe all while decreasing the appearance of wrinkles and boosting water in the epidermis to promote firm, soft and smooth skin. Suitable for all skin types.

“The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution doesn’t have all of the fancy extracts as Drunk Elephant but it is still an effective product at a much lower price point. Now, while this appeals to your pockets, consumers with dry and/or sensitive skin should be careful with this one. While The Oridinary uses only 7% of Glycolic Acid, which is quite mild, its amino acid cocktail may not be enough for those with really dry/sensitive skin, so extra moisturization is key.

“Comprising of only 5% of AHA’s, Derma E Overnight Peel still helps to gradually remove dead skin cells yielding in a more even and radiant skin tone. The Overnight Peel also contains passion fruit and ascorbyl palmitate which are high in vitamin A and vitamin C respectively, as well as antioxidants which keep the skin looking fresh, young and nourished. The vitamin C helps to protect skin cells and stimulates collagen production. The inclusion of green tea leaf extract acts as an emollient but it also is an anti-ageing, free radical scavenger that has antibacterial, anti-blemish, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

“From an ingredient standpoint, I am very impressed by Derma E’s Anti Wrinkle Toner. It seems to pack a mighty punch! Derma E chose retinyl palmitate, an ester of retinol (vitamin A) combined with palmitic acid, to help promote cell metabolism and turnover. This is great for dead skin but also dispelling wrinkles as it belongs to the family of retinoids. This product is able to work double time because these tiny retinyl molecules can penetrate the outer layers of the skin and work to repair the lower layers where collagen and elastin reside. On top of all of that, Derma E then added DL-Panthenol, a provitamin of Vitamin B5 and Witch Hazel which is not only a cosmetic astringent but also a skin soothing and conditioning agent. Witch Hazel also helps reduce swelling of sores, fights acne and can also be used in remedies for psoriasis and eczema. Now Derma E could’ve just stopped there but they added more! The use of cucumber fruit extract contains beta-carotene, Vitamins A and C and also has anti-inflammatory properties. Cucumber has been used to help soothe puffy eyes, treat acne and moisturize the skin. Derma E then added papaya which has the ability to slough off dead cells from the skin surface, all while brightening and evening out skin tone. It can also protect the skin and offer anti-inflammatory benefits after exfoliation. The use of organic chamomilla recutita (matricaria) flower extract calms the skin and the aloe vera is used to treat skin lesions because of its emollient and soothing actions. Suitable for all skin types.

“Alpha Skin Care Intensive Renewal Serum with 14% AHA provides the highest amount of AHA’s out of all of the products reviewed in this segment. Alpha Skincare doesn’t have an extensive ingredient like Drunk Elephant but it doesn’t mean it’s not as effective. Alpha Skincare’s use of green tea extract, which contains catechins, is an antioxidant and stimulant that helps to limit photo-aging signs, fight against oxidative stress, reduce skin damages caused by pollution and UVs and is an effective inhibitor of the enzyme tyrosinase to promote skin lightening and correct photochemical damage to the skin. Alpha Skincare also used matricaria and aloe vera to calm and soothe the skin. The wheat protein is rich in acidic amino acid with a slight amount of cystine thus helping to maintain an optimum moisture balance in the skin. The use of sodium hyaluronate is only for penetrative measures as it can reach deep into the dermal layer of the skin to mix with, attract, and maintain water. It also promotes blood/skin microcirculation, and helps maintain normal metabolism and nutrient absorption. All of these attributes contribute to the result of decreased wrinkles, fuller youthful appearance, softer and smoother skin. Those with dry/sensitive skin may want to add extra moisturization.

“Based off the ingredient listings alone, I have already gravitated to Drunk Elephant’s Glycolic Acid Night Serum and Derma E’s Anti Wrinkle Toner as these are already in my online shopping cart. I can understand why Drunk Elephant has the higher price point, due to the ingredients chosen, and for someone who wants to take care of her skin and values quality skincare, I have no qualms about shelling out the dollars.”

Drunk Elephant C-Firma™ Day Serum ($80)

What we’re comparing it to:
The Ordinary Vitamin C Suspension 23% + HA Spheres 2% ($5.80)
The Ordinary Vitamin C Suspension 30% in Silicone ($6.80)
The Ordinary Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate Solution 20% in Vitamin F ($17.80)
Derma E Vitamin C Concentrated Serum ($15.99)
Derma E Even Tone Brightening Serum ($25)
KIEHL’S SINCE 1851 Powerful-Strength Line-Reducing Concentrate 12.5% Vitamin C ($62-81)

“I love working with and using vitamin C but it’s surprising that consumers think that all vitamin C’s are the same. Contrary to belief, vitamin C comes in various types and the products for today’s overview use either L-Ascorbic Acid, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate or Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate, each being more potent or less irritating than the other.

“To start, L-Ascorbic Acid is an active form of vitamin C and while it occurs naturally, it is very potent. Through exfoliation, L-Ascorbic Acid can improve the appearance of aged and/or fragile skin but for those consumers with sensitive skin, L-Ascorbic Acid will definitely irritate and should be used in low dosages. If used at higher amounts, it should be coupled with skin soothing ingredients like those found in Drunk Elephant.

“Drunk Elephant Firma C Day Serum provides an extra boost in exfoliation by incorporating not only L-Ascorbic Acid (vitamin C) but also Pumpkin Ferment, Pomegranate Extract, Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) Root Extract and Phyllanthus Emblica Fruit Extract to dissolve dead skin cells and enzymes found on the surface to minimize the appearance of pores and fine lines and also lightening/whitening the skin by reducing hyperpigmentation. This formula also contains hyaluronic acid which works by drawing in moisture from the air and penetrating the layers of the skin to deliver water, skin soothing and moisturizing ingredients for hydration and to promote firmness. The boost of skin soothers and moisturizers such as Sclerocarya Birrea Seed (Marula) oil, Chondrus Crispus Extract (which contains beta-carotene and vitamins A, B, C and D), Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract (derived from White tea), Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Juice Extract, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Acetyl Glucosamine and Hydrolyzed Quinoa nourish and moisturize all while improving skin elasticity, reducing wrinkles and protecting skin cells against damage from the sun.

“Now it’s really hard for a product to follow Drunk Elephant but from a formulators standpoint, I do like that The Ordinary’s formulas lack water thus increasing the shelf life of the product. While both The Ordinary vitamin C 30% and the 23% Suspension + HA 2% use higher doses of vitamin C, they do not contain many skin soothing ingredients. One would think that because the 23% Suspension +HA 2% contains hyaluronic acid that it would be a plus but this can actually be a gift or a curse. Consumers have been told that hyaluronic acid can bring moisture to the skin but what isn’t told is that this moisture surge really depends on the type of environment you live in. If a consumer lives in a very humid climate, the hyaluronic acid will work wonders but if there is zero moisture or humidity, then the hyaluronic acid will begin to pull moisture out of or from your skin, thereby drying it out. So consumers who reside in really dry climates with dry skin should avoid products that contain hyaluronic acid without additional moisturizing ingredients.

“It may appear that I’m a bit impartial to Drunk Elephant but the Derma E Even Tone Brightening Serum is also a game changer. As I continue to age, my skin has gone from extremely oily to now a oily/dry/combination mess. Because of this, I tend to go for products that are suitable for both skin types and I believe the Derma E Even Tone Brightening Serum will be a runner-up option to Drunk Elephant. This Derma E formula uses L-Ascorbyl Palmitate, which is a less potent form of vitamin C, but can still improve the appearance of aged, wrinkled and/or spotty skin. The use of extracts and other ingredients like Lilium Candidum (Madonna Lily) Leaf Cell Extract, Arctostaphylos Uva Ursi (Bearberry) Leaf Extract and Alpha-Arbutin promotes skin lightening to even skin tone on all skin types. These ingredients have a higher ability to inhibit melanin while the Organic Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Leaf Extract acts as an anti-aging agent, Achillea Millefolium (Yarrow) Extract is an anti-irritant, Caffeine is a depuffer and skin conditioner, Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel) Extract skin soothing and Prunus Persica (Peach) Kernel Extract is an emollient and skin conditioner, Salix Alba (White Willow) Bark and Epilobium Angustifolium (Canadian Willowherb™)Extract are respectively exfoliants as well as moisturizers, skin soothers and relieves irritation. Derma E also added Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A) to help penetrate the outer layers of the skin and work to repair the lower layers where collagen and elastin reside to slowly eliminate wrinkles.

THE ORDINARY Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate Solution 20% in Vitamin F

“After reading all of this, you’d think that The Ordinary doesn’t have a chance next to Derma E or Drunk Elephant but don’t count them out just yet. Out of all of the vitamin C’s to use, surprisingly The Ordinary Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate Solution 20% in Vitamin F uses the highest potent version of vitamin C: Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate. This strong antioxidant and proven whitening and hydrating agent, not only has anti-aging properties but it has anti-acne capabilities as well. Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate helps prevent cellular aging by inhibiting the cross-linking of collagen, oxidation of proteins, and lipid peroxidation. Unlike regular L-Ascorbic acid, Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate can be used in high doses and will not exfoliate or irritate the skin, so those with sensitive skin can use without worry.

“Derma E Vitamin C Concentrated Serum uses Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate also known by the trade name, STAY-C® 50. This powdered sodium salt of L-ascorbic acid inhibits melanin activity thus reducing the appearance of age spots and evens skin tone while the Vitamin E fights free radicals. While I previously stated that products containing hyaluronic acid should be avoided by those with dry skin residing in climates that lack humidity/moisture, Derma E Vitamin C Concentrated Serum does contain skin soothing and moisturizing ingredients such as Yacón Root Juice, Lactobacillus (Probiotic), Rosehip Fruit Oil, Aloe Vera Gel Extract, Allantoin, Panthenol (Provitamin B5), Vitamin E and Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride.

“Rounding out the selection, there’s Kiehl’s Powerful-Strength Line-Reducing Concentrate 12.5% Vitamin C which contains 12.5% of pure L-Ascorbic Acid (vitamin C). After a quick review of the ingredient listing, I am not impressed as it does not contain any extracts or any other notable ingredients for label claims. For the price point of $62, I would be more inclined to purchase either the Drunk Elephant Firma C Day Serum, Derma E Even Tone Brightening Serum or if I want to save some money, I would opt for The Ordinary Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate Solution 20% in Vitamin F.”

Ok so we’re back to Danielle talking again ;)

So I tried out a few Drunk Elephant products for a bit to see how they felt, how I liked them in my routine, etc. I LOVE the packaging. There’s been some debate about the best ways to keep certain active ingredients stable and the product sanitary through packaging and I love the way Drunk Elephant goes about it with the twist-top. I’m clumsy so I love that it’s almost impossible for me to break any of the serum bottles and have it all get caught in between the grout on my bathroom tile. Nor will I ever lose the top of the products either.

I tried the Jelly Cleanser along with the Firma-C Day Serum and the Glycolic Night Serum. The Jelly Cleanser was okay but I wouldn’t replace it with the cleansers I have in rotation (Murad Time Release Acne Cleanser, Perricone Nutritive Cleanser, RoC Daily Resurfacing Disks, etc). I don’t really have a *need* for either of these serums in my routine right now and if I continued to use it over time, I doubt I’d see a huge difference because I already take good care of my skin (this is where I get to take the top off my Maybach…lol). But now that Davis has so gracefully broken down the ingredients in the Drunk Elephant serums, I now understand more why they have such a hefty price tag. This will of course be subjective based on individual skin issues and results. My skin was acting funny after I had my period (the dry, cold weather also played a part) and I thought the Drunk Elephant Firma-C serum would help, but what wound up working better for me was the Murad City Skin Overnight Detox Moisturizer ($70)—I did a quick review on it here. So it’s really all about understanding ingredients, understanding what your skin needs, and of course having a cosmetic chemist to break it down helps…lol.

I did like mixing the Marula Oil into my moisturizer whenever I needed a little extra moisture and I loved that it didn’t feel heavy nor did it make my already oily skin even oilier. I’ll keep you posted somewhere down the line if I wind up using the Marula Oil more long-term.

The Babyfacial is likely the Beyoncé of the line because of its ability to give the skin a more youthful appearance through the use of AHAs and BHA, but it’s not something I really need right now. Even though this last winter was annoying, it wasn’t as harsh as what NYC winters can really be like—those are usually the times when something like Babyfacial would be more beneficial to me. But who knows, maybe I’ll go on a press trip to Antarctica and will wind up needing it…lol.

Do you have any Drunk Elephant faves? What do you love about them? Or if you haven’t, would you try the brand after reading this post? Tell me in the comments!

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About Danielle

A former finance girl, Danielle is a New York City based freelance writer and fashion and beauty expert. She's a Hofstra University and Fashion Institute of Technology grad with an obsession with fashion and beauty which she loves to tell you all about every weekday on her award-winning blog. Think of her as your style and beauty entourage all wrapped up into one bubbly brown package. Danielle's work and expertise can be found in print and across the web in Cosmopolitan for Latinas, Allure.com, and more! She's also appeared as an on-air style and beauty expert on The Real, CBS New York's "The Couch" and WPIX11's Savvy Shopper segment.
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11 Responses to Is Drunk Elephant Worth the Coins? A Cosmetic Chemist Helps Me Investigate

  1. Ally says:

    Thanks for the information not all of the brands mentioned are available in the UK but, your insight on vitamin C was brilliant I was totally ignorant until now I thought that the effect would be the same as consuming it. That’s why I need your blog .

  2. Clarisse says:

    I was sleeping on Derma-E and I already have the toner sitting somewhere in my bathroom cabinet, thanks to this I think I will give it a try. I purchased a set of Drunk Elephant minis during Sephora’s VIB sale but they didn’t do anything noticeable for me. Thanks for this nice article, it really helped!

  3. Tara says:

    This is SO HELPFUL! I’ve wavered about purchasing some of the Drunk Elephant products–especially the Vitamin C serum–but the price gave me pause. It sounds like they are in fact really great products but I appreciate the detailed look at other products with similar formulations that don’t pinch my pocketbook quite as much. Thanks, Danielle!

  4. Jessica says:

    What a great post! Personally, am a big fan of the LaLa Cream by DE and love that someone has taken the time to explain why it may cost so much!
    Although this is an informative post, there should’ve been a disclaimer about The Ordinary and their products. On their website, for each of their products, it clearly states that their ingredients and formulas are subject to change at any time. It’s been widely speculated that the brand frequently changes labs and suppliers on a whim so that they can continue to keep their price points so low. To put it in perspective, that Glycolic toner that worked wonders for your skin in a November will more than likely not do the same for your skin in February or March

    • Danielle says:

      Hi Jessica!

      Thanks for reading! The Ordinary products mentioned (and linked to) in this post are from the Sephora site where there is no disclaimer. It’s possible that there are products specifically crafted for Sephora as I’ve heard from insiders that Sephora’s criteria for being sold at their stores and online site is quite stringent. Thanks for your concern though.

  5. Efa says:

    I love the Glycolic Night Serum. I saw results quickly and I would say I don’t have many skin issues except for dullness and this product really brought radiance to my face. A friend of mine has texture concerns and she said the serum dramatically improved the feel and look of her skin. I started this line using one of the value sets so I could try out most of the line and it lasted me a couple of months. I definitely recommend the line, at least trying a set or maybe one star product.

  6. AA says:

    This was a great post and one of the many reasons I enjoy your blog.

  7. Treva says:

    Thanks so much for this post. I was, and still am, thinking about buying some of The Ordinary products. Your article has helped a lot by taking away some of the guess work!

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