Ulta vs. Sephora: Which Beauty Store Is Better?

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Is the jury out on which of these brands should earn your business? Use this at-a-glance guide to decide which best meets your beauty needs.

Running low on your favorite foundation? Dying to try the latest mascara trending on TikTok? Have a sudden attack of the frizzies and need some new conditioner, stat? Then it’s time to head to one of the two most popular beauty stores across the country—but how do you decide between Ulta vs. Sephora?

The answer comes down to personal preference on a variety of criteria, from the shopping experience and perks to social responsibility and return policies. We did all the research to help you decide which brand is right for you. Of course, there are plenty of beauty buffs who happily shop at both. Life’s too short to pledge your loyalty to just one brand.

What’s the difference between Ulta vs. Sephora?

For starters, let’s look at the foundation and history of each brand.

Ulta, which was founded in 1990, is the nation’s largest beauty retailer. It boasts more than 1,300 stores across all 50 states, and recently launched Ulta Beauty at Target in 100 Target locations across the United States. It sells over 25,000 products across more than 600 brands. The Ulta Beauty Charitable Foundation has donated approximately $22 million to nonprofit organizations. It mainly focuses on improving the lives of women and girls.

Sephora opened its first store in New York City in 1998. Today, there are more than 500 stores across the Americas. Like Ulta, Sephora offers more than 25,000 products, but across a pared-down selection of 340 brands. Sephora has supported over 200,000 women and girls with product donations through partnership with Project Glimmer. In 2020, the brand launched a Charity Awards initiative to support organizations that provide critical aid in its communities. Here’s how to score a free perfume at Sephora.

Ulta Beauty

Ulta Beauty And Cosmetics StoreJohn Greim/Getty Images

There’s plenty to like about shopping at Ulta, including:

1. The atmosphere. When you walk into an Ulta store, you’re typically greeted by a helpful associate, a laid-back vibe, and brightly lit merchandise. Ulta is ultra approachable—perhaps this is because it carries both high-end and drugstore products, and caters to both demographics.

2. Salon services. Ulta is more than a retail destination; it’s a one-stop shop complete with hair and skin services. The Salon at Ulta Beauty offers color, cuts, blowouts, texture and conditioning treatments, lash extensions, makeup lessons and applications, brow and wax services, facials, and more. These appointments are a great way to test out new products before you buy them.

3. Virtual try-on experience. It’s not easy to figure out what makeup colors will look good on you, especially when shopping online. Ulta’s GLAMlab virtual try-on experience takes the guesswork out of shopping for new products. QR codes throughout the store allow customers to try on over 10,000 products through the magic of their phone’s camera. The feature is available on the go on the Ulta Beauty app, too.

4. Purpose-driven initiatives. Ulta recently introduced MUSE 100, an initiative to Magnify, Uplift, Support, and Empower Black voices in beauty. The program recognizes 100 Black makeup artists, hairstylists, activists, authors, and more with a grant of $10,000 each. Additionally, Conscious Beauty at Ulta Beauty highlights eco-friendly, cruelty-free, sustainable brands.

5. Return policy. Don’t love what you bought? As long as it’s been less than 60 days and you have all the original components you’ll receive a full refund or exchange. If you’ve lost your receipt, Ulta Beauty can locate purchases made using your Ultamate Rewards member ID (more on that later). Otherwise, you’ll receive an in-store credit.

Our favorite Ulta picks

Sephora

entrance to a sephora beauty store in the mallJeff Greenberg/Getty Images

There are also lots of reasons to shop at Sephora:

1. Focus on inclusivity. The store aims to be a place where all are welcome. In June 2020, Sephora became the first major retailer to commit to the 15 Percent Pledge, dedicating 15 percent of its shelf space to Black-owned brands. It has also evolved its Accelerate brand incubator program to focus exclusively on BIPOC brands.

2. Product expertise. No matter your question, a Sephora beauty advisor likely has the answer. They’re incredibly knowledgeable about products, ingredients, application tips, and trends. Online customers don’t lose this expert touch, as they can chat with a live beauty advisor for real-time advice.

3. Shopping convenience. There’s no shortage of ways to shop at Sephora, including in stores, online (look for curbside pick-up and new same-day delivery capabilities), and at Kohl’s. The brand opened 200 Sephora at Kohl’s locations. In stores, you can ask to use a complexion matching AI tool called Color iQ. It finds your perfect makeup shades, factoring in undertones, depth, and saturation.

4. Prestige products. From exclusive-to-Sephora brands like Rare Beauty by Selena Gomez and JLo Beauty, to a wider selection of luxe lines, Sephora’s focus is on higher-end products.

5. Return policy. All purchases can be returned for free to any Sephora location. You can also return by mail using a pre-paid shipping label.

Our favorite Sephora picks

Ulta vs. Sephora Rewards Programs and Perks

Who doesn’t love being rewarded for loyalty? When it comes to the great Ulta vs. Sephora debate, both companies know how to win the hearts (and wallets) of their customers.

Ulta’s Ultamate Rewards loyalty program allows customers to earn one point for every $1 spent on products or services. Once your purchases add up to $500, you’ll reach Platinum level, and you’ll receive 1.25 points per dollar spent. At $1,200, you become Diamond, and earn 1.5 points per dollar. Points can be redeemed on any product or service.

Additional perks include member-exclusive communications and offers, double points during your birthday month, and a free gift on your birthday. The Ulta Beauty app helps you track your points balance.

Sephora’s Insider program features three tiers of membership: Beauty Insider, V.I.B. (Very Important Beauty Insider), and Rouge. Each tier rewards members with points for their purchases, which can be redeemed for a variety of products. They’ll also provide access to certain promotions and savings events throughout the year. Highest-tier Rouge members can attend special events and receive gifts, and get first access to new and limited edition products. Rouge members also get first dibs on sales events. Everyone gets to pick from three beauty gifts on their birthday month, no purchase required.

Customers can also opt to use their points to support charitable organizations through the Charity Rewards Program. The Sephora app provides access to previews and promotions, too.

Ulta vs. Sephora Sales and Black Friday 2022

There’s nothing better than scoring a deal on beauty supplies, hair care, perfume, skin care, and makeup. Of course, both Ulta and Sephora run regular seasonal sales and Black Friday sales.

Ulta holds its beloved 21 Days of of Beauty on a seasonal basis. Every day of the sale, Ulta drops five beauty steals up to 50 percent off. The inventory changes daily and includes best sellers and new, trendy products. You’ll recognize brands like Tarte and Bare Minerals, along with up and coming beauty picks.

In 2021, Ulta’s Early Black Friday deals included 50 percent off select items, plus massive discounts on gift sets and free gifts with the purchase of select items. It started online November 20 at 8 p.m. CT and in stores on November 21, and the sale lasted through the end of Thanksgiving week.

Sephora has plenty of sales spirit up its sleeves, too. Though the specific dates vary, you can usually depend on a seasonal sale for Beauty Insiders. In 2022, the Spring Savings Event starts on April 1 and runs through April 11. Rouge members get 20 percent off the entire site through the entire sale. Next tier VIB members score 15 percent off April 5 through April 11, and Insiders get 10 percent off April 7 through 11. Where you fall on the savings spectrum depends on how much money you spent at Sephora in the previous year. Rouge members use their head start to stock up on bestsellers like Olaplex hair repair products, the Dyson Airwrap Styler (which our reviewer loved), and the best shampoos for curly hair. It’s also an ideal time to try something new to refresh your spring beauty routine.

Sephora’s annual Holiday Savings Event offers some of the best deals of the year, though you’ll have to wait until the end of 2022 to see it come around again. As for actual Sephora Black Friday sales, they haven’t yet been released. In past years, though, the event ran only through November 25-26, as opposed to Ulta’s much longer week-long event. While Sephora stores typically open their doors for Thanksgiving and Black Friday shoppers, this year it’s up in the air thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Even if you can’t shop in person, however, Sephora’s Black Friday deals can always be found online.

The bottom line

When deciding between Ulta vs. Sephora, it’s impossible to go wrong. The companies stack up nearly eye-to-eye on important things like loyalty perks, diversity efforts, and flexible return policies. If you’re looking for more prestigious brands and sophisticated employees who are true makeup connoisseurs, Sephora has the edge. But if you’re looking for one-stop shopping that includes salon services and drugstore brands alongside a more relaxed environment, Ulta should top your list.

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Jill Schildhouse
As an editor at large for Reader's Digest, Jill Schildhouse is an expert in health and wellness, beauty, consumer products and product reviews, travel, and personal finance. She has spent the last 20 years as an award-winning lifestyle writer and editor for a variety of national print and digital publications.