Deciding what type of face cleanser to use — gel, cream, oil, foam, and more — is a difficult enough task. That’s before factoring in how much it will cost you. And a strong cleanser is simply the first step in a stellar skincare lineup.
There are countless beauty and skincare products on the market. Depending on your skin’s needs and what you are trying to target, the number of items in regular rotation — cleansers, toners, serums, moisturizers, and more — can add up. So can the cost. The choices can be overwhelming and the investment significant.
The sheer number of options across every category, explains Dr. Michelle Henry, a dermatologist and founder of Skin & Aesthetic Surgery of Manhattan, is the result of advances in technology. While this may lead to decision fatigue, the good news is that the evolution of skincare often translates to better prices for consumers. “As technology gets better with all things,” Henry says, “it gets cheaper.”
For help choosing the best ways to spend your money on your skincare regime, here’s a rundown of commonly used beauty products and guidance on where to save and where to spend.
Because cleanser is not a leave-on product, there’s no reason to spend a lot of money on it. Henry makes the connection that you're supposed to “literally wash your cleanser down the drain,” so it shouldn't be ultra luxurious.
The dermatologist believes a cleanser — the gateway product of all skincare — is important; it just doesn’t need to be expensive to work. Henry prefers pure-and-simple drugstore brands like Cetaphil and La Roche-Posay, both of which retail for about $15.
Merry Thornton, founder of Element Medical Aesthetics in New Canaan, Connecticut, agrees that you can find high-quality cleansers at a low cost and advises people to read the cleanser’s label to find out what ingredients it contains. She recommends L’Oréal Revitalift Derm Intensives Cleansing Gel and CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser.
As a follow-up to a cleanser, a toner removes any leftover impurities and dirt on the skin’s surface. It’s another category in the skincare aisle where you can afford to save money on, according to Henry.
Typically, toners are more of a one-size-fits-all product as opposed to moisturizers, eye creams, and masks. They don’t usually contain “the finest, most expensive rare ingredients,” a factor in their affordability, notes Henry, who praises Thayers’ line of facial toners. Alcohol-free formulations like Thayers’ are less likely to irritate skin or dry it out.
A crucial part of even the most low-maintenance skincare routine, sunscreens protect the skin from the sun’s damaging rays, preventing sunburn and skin cancer. Sunscreens’ and sunblocks’ key ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. They aren’t particularly expensive, so your sunscreen need not be either.
“If strict sun protection is the goal, zinc and titanium are what you need,” says Thornton, adding that these garden-variety sunscreens “are broad-spectrum, meaning they protect against UVA and UVB rays.” Thornton notes that they also “don’t contain any of the chemicals that have been shown to cause cancer.” She adds that they start working immediately when you go in the sun, and they are safe for coral reefs.
The SPF label is regulated, and all sunscreens, no matter their cost, have been tested, explains Henry. She agrees that a bottle of sunscreen doesn’t need to cost big bucks to provide adequate protection. Thornton suggests looking for a sunscreen containing an SPF of at least 30 or higher.
Advances in technology have resulted in well-formulated sunscreens that won’t break the bank. “The cheaper brands don’t necessarily translate to white and cakey either,” Thornton says. “There are some inexpensive brands like Aveeno and CeraVe that rub in very nicely.”
Light and highly concentrated oil- or water-based serums are designed to nourish and protect the skin. Serums, which can be hydrating as well, are applied to clean skin after cleansing and toning but before moisturizing.
Because serums often contain more expensive ingredients, such as vitamin E, it pays to spend more on these items, Henry advises. Because serums target specific skin concerns, such as dryness, discoloration, or acne, she says they are expected “to be rich in active ingredients.”
Serums containing vitamin C, a hydrating, brightening, and protecting ingredient, are popular. However, because it’s difficult to keep stable, Thornton says it requires “some finesse on the part of the manufacturer to deliver a high-quality product.”
Joshua Ross, celebrity aesthetician of the medspa SkinLab in California, also sings vitamin C’s praises, but he stresses the importance of finding a vitamin C serum that contains either pure L-ascorbic acid or THD (tetrahexyldecyl) ascorbate, a lipid-soluble form of vitamin C that helps the ingredient absorb into the skin. He recommends Alphascience’s Tannic CF Serum.
Eye Cream and Moisturizer
Once your skin has had a chance to absorb the serum, it’s on to the next step: moisturizing. Like serums, with their concentrated ingredients and specific targeting, eye creams also tend to be highly concentrated and created to target a specific concern, ranging from dark circles to puffiness and dryness.
The proximity of an eye cream to your actual eyes means they are typically tested for safety, a factor that helps explain why those little 1-ounce jars can command such high price tags, Henry explains.
If you’re looking for a hydrating eye cream, search for one containing hyaluronic acid. And if dull skin is a concern, an eye cream with vitamin C and niacinamide may be able to help. To combat puffy bags under the eyes, find an eye cream with caffeine, which can help address this particular skin concern.
Anti-aging eye creams and moisturizers tend to cost more than non-anti-aging formulas simply because anti-aging ingredients like growth factors and peptides that repair and stimulate collagen, firm the skin, and improve the appearance of fine lines don’t come cheap. “Companies have to invest a lot of money in developing top-notch anti-aging formulations,” Thornton says, “so this is an area to splurge.”
As far as regular face moisturizers go, if you’re looking to hydrate and moisturize the skin, and you don’t desire a product with specific anti-aging qualities, you can hold back on spending, Henry says.
When it comes to high-end beauty products — think: La Mer, La Prairie, Sisley Paris — part of the high cost may be attributed to product formulation and the use of rare ingredients that can help brands distinguish themselves in a crowded market, acknowledges Henry, who points out that the cost of maintaining exclusivity is often part of the equation. “They’re selling you an experience,” she says.
AHA, Retinol, and Masks
Products containing alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) exfoliate the skin, and they don’t need to cost a ton to be beneficial. “I love AHA, but you don’t have to spend a lot to find a good AHA,” says Henry, who endorses L’Oréal’s AHA-containing products as an affordable option.
Sophisticated retinol-containing products, on the other hand, may be worth the expense, according to Henry, while masks — other than those with advanced anti-aging properties — have no reason to break the bank.
Both Ross and Henry recommend getting accustomed to reading the product’s label and checking out clinical studies showing the effectiveness of ingredients. This is the best way to make informed decisions about what you’re putting on your skin.
In his line of work, Ross looks for science-based brands like Alphascience and iS Clinical because they “put money behind research and clinical studies to prove the efficacy of their products.”
The bottom line is that a high price point doesn’t equate to higher quality. “A lot of the drugstore brands can be really impressive in terms of what they can provide,” Henry says. With the exception of a few skincare items, most don’t need to cost a lot of money to deliver results.
Stacey Lastoe is a New York-based writer who has contributed to Women’s Health, The Washington Post, Health, CNN, and The Ethel.
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