Why I Love and Hate The Ordinary

via theordinary.com

The Ordinary, which is the low-cost and simple line from parent company Deciem, has been growing in popularity over the last year and I think in the past 3 months the hype has reached a fever pitch. I find that anything that gets too popular too quickly attracts a lot of attention, positive and negative. I've found myself reflecting on deeply negative and positive feelings toward the brand. This is a meandering discussion of those feelings and where I think they come from.

This is not a product review, although I have tried many of their products and even more from their sister brands. I am more interested in exploring the feelings and thoughts I have seen pop up in the skincare communities online and in my own head while observing the growth of this innovative and unique skincare brand.

The Active Ingredients

It's hard to fault The Ordinary for their brand's understanding of active ingredients. They use scientifically-researched old standards and promising new ingredients and deliver them in a refreshingly transparent manner. As a consumer bathed in green-washed lies of Ancient Coconut Oil Magic and force-fed products whose active ingredients aren't even functional at the pH the product is developed...it's nice to see a company use the ingredient at the right pH and concentration that it claims to. I have noticed a great deal of people who find their formulary honest and straightforward.

On the flipside, I have witnessed pushback and myself felt a twinge of annoyance at the other side of the coin. The Ordinary (and its sister brands Hylamide and NIOD) are so focused on the scientific portion of the skincare experience that it has alienated customers. It can come across as hardlined and elitist.

I personally think that there is room in the skincare market for this type of bald focus on active ingredients, even at the expense of alienating folks who want a more holistic, gentle experience of being marketed to. I have personally seen many routines belonging to skincare enthusiasts who happily use perfumey and luxurious expensive creams alongside a bland and basic Ordinary product. The Ordinary seems to be positioning itself to be the discreet but powerful companion to the artsy, indulgent items that we all enjoy. 

The Formulary

Continuing on a similar theme, this is an area where I personally feel a big cloud of emotions and opinions forming. Because The Ordinary's focus is actives, it leaves out the other piece of the pie. If a skincare product isn't "cosmetically elegant" i.e. fun or enjoyable to apply, then it drastically reduces a person's desire to use it. Skincare is part health, part hobby for many of us. If it were like taking a vitamin pill, nobody would post Instagram photos of their 10-step skincare routine or spend hours discussing their favorite products with strangers online.

So many of The Ordinary products are formulated for maximum potency of actives. Rather than optimizing, which is the practice of maximizing one variable in relation to the other, The Ordinary seems to max out and go balls-to-the-wall with whatever ingredient they are featuring. This means they sacrifice the feel and comfort in much of their line, all in the name of chemical efficiency. I think this is good in a way- it turns some consumers away but it also gets the message across that The Ordinary takes skin health Very Seriously. There is nothing more important to The Ordinary than getting the active ingredients we pay for onto the customers' skin and working.

Many people, including myself, complain about the stickiness, greasiness, graininess, and generally baffling textures of multiple items produced by the brand. What this means is The Ordinary is certainly losing potentially good customers, customers interested in their value proposition, by formulating their products with such a singleminded direction. But nobody can be popular with everyone, and no one brand can satisfy the whole market. What The Ordinary is doing is giving customers highly simplified options that are undeniably effective, even if they are not comfortable.

I worry that people using The Ordinary won't enjoy the products enough to use them long enough to see results. While several of their products have results that can be measured and observed within days or weeks, others claim to have a lasting effect that will manifest over the course of months or years. Peptide serums like the Matrixyl 10% use ingredients whose effects are subtle and far from immediate. If the serum doesn't feel or smell nice, and it doesn't show results quickly, why would a customer stick with it? When the price is the only persuasive factor, the argument for repurchasing dramatically weakens.

You want to give the customers multiple avenues to excuse and justify their expenditure on your product. When they have no silky skinfeel or beautiful fragrance to enjoy, their justifications shrink, and they might end up not repurchasing.

The Repeat Customer

The Ordinary has expanded past their initial launch and each time they announce a new product, there's plenty of excitement. However I still do see the medium and long-term customers' interests waning with time. The excitement over spending $5 on a serum overcomes the initial distaste for smell or texture...but the longer a person uses that item, the price paid becomes a distant memory and therefore less "valuable" as a component of the experience.

The Ordinary does an amazing job of capturing new customers and creating excitement. What I wonder is how many customers they will be able to retain long-term. I know that the products I recommend to others are the ones that bring me a little shiver of joy when I use them. Many of The Ordinary's products are, well, ordinary. They are ordinary by design, but that means they can come across as joyless.

When someone is looking to insert a potent active into their routine, it's possible that's exactly what they want and need. Maybe The Ordinary will build a long-term and loyal fanbase because of their cheap, purpose-driven range. Then again, maybe people will become disenchanted with the negative or plain aspects of the brand and begin to dislike the brand in general.

I think of the skincare brands that have attained household name status in the last decade- and there are quite a few, contrast with my teenage years when it felt like Estée Lauder and Clinique were IT. These newer household name brands blow you down with brand image, fantasy, and combine it with cosmetic elegance. A brand like Tatcha has good products, but by no means ones that are so effective they warrant the price tag for every item. The brand image is essentially snake oil dipped in rice wine and powdered with geisha makeup. But it doesn't matter! That purple and gold packaging, those scents, that skinfeel...it seduces customers. It keeps them wanting more and imagining what they could be if they own the latest Tatcha release.

Of course this kind of aspirational luxury pricing and brand image can really hurt customers. They end up paying high prices for items that either do nothing, or do a mediocre job. I think that for people disenchanted with high prices and underperformance, The Ordinary is a breath of fresh air. But I do question The Ordinary's ability to really delight consumers and fully convince them of value after the initial low-cost shock-and-awe strategy.

The Price

That brings us to price- which is a huge factor in determining the success of this brand. Without the positioning as an ultra-low cost skincare brand, I doubt The Ordinary would have captured the loyalty of so many people who are admittedly offended by its inelegant textures. To put up with greasiness from a $5 bottle is reasonable...to do so with a $150 bottle...not so much.

I remember when The Ordinary first launched and I saw the hype building at a feverish pace. The first thing people remarked on was how damn cheap it was. Could it be? A company producing serums and acids for less than $10 each? Nobody had seen anything close to this before, and I think The Ordinary did an amazing job of entering the market with a bang. If you're going to be inexpensive, then by all means, be so dirt cheap that people have to give you a shot.

I think that because of the development costs associated with creating a perfect product- one that feels good and works- that's why you see such simple, targeted, but unpleasant formulas. At such a low price. Each skincare user has to decide for him or herself if they can put up with certain inadequacies if the payoff is worth it in another way.

Something I rarely think of, but which comes to mind with The Ordinary, is that being cheap is not always a good thing when you're selling to consumers. Brands like Drunk Elephant and Sunday Riley, for instance, keep customers coming back partially because they are so damn expensive. When someone is looking for a gift, or a treat for themselves, or they are pining for good skin and want to be seduced and encouraged, they look for fantasy and beauty. A brand which cultivates an image that's greater than the sum of its parts, through sometimes eyeroll-inducing marketing or exaggerated claims, can still capture much of the market. If you make ostentatious claims, you attract users, and if you aren't completely lying, well, you can retain them despite your initial promises being overblown. And when you do deliver big-time, as with the Sunday Riley Good Genes product, a chemical exfoliant that I wouldn't dream of paying more than $15 for that goes for $150, you get fans who are willing to fight and die defending your high price as "very much worth it." There is a cachet that accompanies high prices, and so it's a valid strategy to chase that type of reputation. It can pay off in the long run.

I think it is fantastic that we now have options for chemical actives and ingredients that were only available at absurdly high prices in the past. More competitive formulas on the market will force innovation and perhaps bring prices down a bit. Although The Ordinary is so low-cost I doubt it's cannibalizing any profits from the really high-priced stuff. I think it's more of a stepping stone to skincare for people intimidated by prices but eager to learn about the science. Indeed, The Ordinary's parent company Deciem has several other higher-cost brands under their umbrella, and I'm sure The Ordinary serves as a gateway drug to attract new customers who can burn cash on their nicer lines.

The Distribution and Service

When I first began thinking about this post, The Ordinary did not have any distributors in the USA. In the UK they had Victoria Health, but in other countries, they sold their products exclusively through their own website. I ordered three times from their website and each time was what I would consider to be an unpleasant customer service experience. First, they took about 5 days to ship. Second, they did not have all their products stocked while simultaneously announcing new releases. Third, their followup customer service was like wrestling a slippery eel. I did not feel a great deal of warmth or goodwill toward the company after my experiences. I began to resent that a company was so focused on new releases and they weren't putting in what was, in my opinion, a very fundamental piece of work to retaining their existing customers.

However, recently The Ordinary partnered with Beautylish and the San Francisco-based beauty e-tailer now carries their full line. I couldn't be happier about this partnership because Beautylish has consistently amazing customer care. Their service is proactive, unobtrusive, and quick, which is exactly what you want as a customer. 

I think that The Ordinary's stocking and service issues were getting so huge that they could not have survived 2017 without 3rd party distribution. When the manufacturer faces the customer directly, and the customer finds the transaction unsatisfying, that poisons the goodwill and the reputation of the brand directly. That kind of stain is very hard to remove, and once somebody thinks of your company as having shoddy service, you've usually lost them forever. I had already decided to never purchase a Deciem product again when my best friend Beautylish decided to carry The Ordinary, at which point I decided I might be willing to give their products another shot.

Finding a reputable distributor who can go above and beyond with taking care of your customers was a smart move for The Ordinary. I had heard people excusing their poor service and shipping times saying that "you get what you pay for" and that people ordering low-cost items shouldn't expect good customer care. This is entirely the wrong way to look at it- because the majority of the market will not think of companies in this manner. The Ordinary was right to course-correct and find someone with the infrastructure in place to stock and ship items in a more streamlined fashion.

Concluding Thoughts

I don't consider myself a fangirl or a hater of The Ordinary. I'm very intrigued by the strong market position they've taken- I truly do believe they're doing something unique. Whether their strategy pays off remains to be seen, but they are surely creating an enormous buzz and capturing an untapped market of potential skincare-users.

Everyone's bundle of considerations (price, delight, aesthetic, personal skin chemistry) will be slightly different. So of course you will find people who despise the brand and who love it, based on their differing perspectives. This is true for any brand, and I'm curious to watch this type of market discussion/impression play out with the bold stance The Ordinary has taken.


  1. This captures so much of what I feel about The Ordinary. Do I love that they're trying to put out science-related skin care at an affordable price point? Absolutely. But when I compared their "Buffet" serum to the similar product from their higher-priced Hylamide line, I was surprised by just how much more enjoyable the feel of the Hylamide serum was. So I have not found any "HGs" (lord how I hate that term) from this brand and have largely cooled on it. Although I might try the foundation if they ever release it.

    1. Yes, having tried a few NIOD and Hyalmide offerings, though they broke me out, the skinfeel and overall "feel" (wotever that means) was significantly better. And of course you have a trade-off here with lower price...but is the trade-off worth it? For some people yes, for me...ehhhh. I have largely cooled as well, as you said, and I'm watching them with mild interest and continued open mind, but I can't help feeling like I got trapped by their ultra-low cost appeal.

  2. One other thing to note is that since their bottles are so tiny, products like the Paula's Choice 2% salicylic acid are actually more cost effective ($29 for 118ml compared to $7.90 for 15ml) for things like daily staples. I do adore their retinol though!

    1. Some of the products are a steal- the Niacinamide is definitely proportionally much cheaper than competing products. But as you noted there's a bit of trickery since the newer acid products are deceptively tiny! And also something like the Natural Moisturizing Factors- I thought it would be a serum but it's a creamy lotion product. And sure, it's $5 but it's also 1 oz. I can get 16 oz of Cerave for $10, so not all of their products, as you said, make sense financially as a rock-bottom cheap option. I haven't sampled their retinol but I am about to try their 2% retinoid and I'm very excited for that one :)

    2. Guh, I meant 2% retinoid in my comment! It smells very much like almonds, and has increased the overall tone and brighness of my skin. I know there's a difference between retinoid and retinol, but i'm not entirely sure what it is. Perhaps an idea for a future blog post, common skincare misconceptions? :P I'm team Cerave in the tub for life as well.

    3. I kind of wondered if you had meant that :) Well that only makes me more excited to try it.

      I think the traditional retinoid vs. retinol distinction has to do mostly with the form of Vitamin A. However the Ordinary's retinoid is unusual and combines retinol ingredients with a form of retinoid. So if I'm not wrong it's not technically 2% *retinoid* but 2% Vitamin A STUFF. I love the texture so far, guhhh it's so soft and nothing like the prescription retinoids I've used for years.

  3. I understand what you're saying but I look at it a little differently. I love that I can cheaply try out different ingredients to see how they work for me, and know that the formulation is effective enough to actually find out. If something works for me, I can continue to buy it or upgrade to something with a more luxurious feel (or something that is actually cheaper per ounce, in some cases). I suspect that a lot of people who find something effective but don't love the feel will end up upgrading to Hylamide or Niod, which I'm sure is great for Deciem.

    I also have found the textures, overall, to be totally fine. I couldn't deal with the texture of the Vit C suspension, but they warn about that and I thought it was worth a try anyway. I gave it to a friend who finds it fine for night. The serums / acids / emulsions have been fine in terms of texture for me - a couple of the serums are a little sticky, but layered it doesn't bother me.

    I've ordered three times, Processing time was a little slow all three times, but I didn't have any problems with my orders. I will definitely order from Beautylish in the future though, Beautylish is awesome and I have apparently just been lucky w/ ordering directly in the past!

    I guess I sort of feel like no brand can be all things to all people, and The Ordinary is filling a niche that I apparently really wanted. All the products definitely don't work for me, but I'm p much thrilled to be able to try out effective formulas cheaply, and I've liked a couple of the products enough to repuchase.

    1. I think maybe you took one part of my post to mean I was 100% against the Ordinary. In fact I think that they are great for a myriad of reasons- and suitable for many folks (including someone like you as you've explained how and why you like em.)

      The reasons that the textural issues are so large isn't because 100% of people find fault with them. They are not "bad" formulas compared to all else on the market. But that there is a significant portion of skincare users who have stopped using their stuff citing textural distaste, so it's a factor, even if it doesn't end up doing them in or losing them too many customers.

      I ordered 3 times and the processing was very slow but also the CS was poor which I didn't discuss in my post. I had to chase them down on social media which is something I hate to do as I think companies should be able to address things privately. They did a cutesy dance and put me off for a total of 4 weeks for my initial question. It was pretty discouraging and definitely made me feel that I had to wait until someone else decided to stockc them. I'm so glad Beautylish has done so.

      The Ordinary can't be all things to all people. And NO brand should be or can be. I think that you've hit upon several reasons they are so good- and why they'll continue to find customers who like them. My overall impression of the Ordinary, despite my criticism, isn't blanket-bad. I am *intrigued* by them. I find fault with many of their products and their business...I also think they're doing something exciting, new, and they're doing it well in many ways. I can't say there's a single company in existence I hate or love unequivocally. For me it's more interesting to explore how or why those of us who love skincare/beauty choose to patronize businesses or abandon them/ignore them.

      Thank you for your discussion and thoughts :)

    2. I understood from your post that you aren't totally against them and you see pros and cons :) It's a really interesting discussion!

    3. I'm glad that The Ordinary really did fill a necessary niche for you. I admit that I might have more bias because so many of their things broke me out. I'm not a huge Paula's Choice fan in terms of having many of their products, but their line did fill that need for me in the past- unsexy, straightforward actives. But of course, The Ordinary has them beat with price, which makes them SO much more approachable as a brand than PC.

  4. lena! what did you like from the ordinary and would recommend trying out? any thoughts on the new foundation launch?

    1. Haven't actually tried a single thing I love. The majority of their products gave me the worst breakouts of my life, so I can't reliably recommend much. But that's a personal thing. The B5 + Hyaluronic Acid was very plumping. The Natural Moisturizing Factors is a nice lotion but for what you get, very expensive.

      People in general seem to like the Niacinamide and the Retinoid 2%.

      The texture of the Azelaic Acid is unusable. If you don't have a super fleshed-out cleansing + moisturizing routine, I'd say give The Ordinary a wide berth as it's FAR too easy to collect a bunch of actives and destroy your skin bc it's tempting to try them all.

  5. I've tried a few items, and there are some textural issues, definitely. The Hyaluronic acid is super thick and sticky, which I've found a work around for, but still annoying. Their niacinamide & zinc has been amazing for my acne, it's even keeping my hormonal acne in check so far. It's one I'm considering buying for friends/family who have similar issues.

    I wonder if, like ELF, they are starting at the rock bottom, but as they get more feedback/more time goes by, they will be improving textures and even prices a bit. I remember when ELF maxed out at $3 and was very hit/miss. It's gotten a lot better and the prices have begun reflecting that. For drugstore, overall, ELF is still cheap, but not as cheap as they used to be. I wonder if by debuting so cheaply,they not only make a name for themselves for effective inexpensive products but they are also, if they are smart, gathering all the issues customers are having with their products and planning on fixing them in the future. This way, even with a modest raise in prices, they will still be inexpensive in comparison, with improved textures. All along, of course, they've built a reputation for solid products with results. A bit longer term plan, and many things can tank a company between beginning to established player, but it would be a smart move.

    1. That would be interesting! I remember when ELF started and they were SO rock-botom as you said, and they grew slowly. I still recall being intrigued by ELF purely because of the price. I never thought of that.

      Because they have NIOD and Hylamide I figured they already had that slightly elevated portion of the company, but yeah, maybe TO is going to grow up a bit, and take over and replace NIOD and Hylamide.

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  7. I love the ordinary. I have a pretty set monthly budget for beauty and skincare, and I'm just really getting into both! Their no nonsense approach to ingredients has really really helped be to decipher which more expensive products are ridiculously priced snake oil and which actually have ingredients my skin likes. I'm willling to sacrifice texture for function/cost in many cases, so they are perfect for me.

    I really feel like their brand could shine as a jumping point for skincare newbies. Even as I've progressed in my skincare journey, I always start looking for a product at the ordinary first. It may or may not be the one for me, but they've secured my brand loyalty!


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