I Swapped $460 Worth of Luxury Skin-Care for a $94 Drugstore Routine, and I’ll Never, Ever Go Back

Photo: Getty Images/ Aleksandra Shamomina / EyeEm
My favorite type of skin-care routine is one that doesn't require me to think too much about it. Don’t get me wrong! I care about my skin, but often felt like I needed a dermatology degree just to sort through what I was putting on my face—especially as someone who tests products for a living. And typically, when it came to re-buying empties, my ignorance meant I racked up an expensive regimen just to avoid having to analyze the jargon on the backs of the labels—until now.

Since college, I’ve been using a personalized skin-care service that generates a routine based on factors like my stress levels, alcohol consumption, and travel schedule, plus my location's water hardness, UV exposure, and more. Through it, I paid $30 for cleanser, $45 for a daily SPF moisturizer, and $85 for a luxurious night cream. As a skin-care minimalist, I adored only having to worry about three steps—to me, that peace of mind was worth paying a premium. But that’s not all I was using. The adaptogenic moisturizer I’d tested and grown fond of was $75. A serum that gave me my *glow* was $56, and another serum I relied on for my mirror, mirror, on the wall moment was a whopping $175. Re-buying squeezed the budget more than I liked, so this winter, I vowed I’d test the lower-cost versions. It was time for me to take matters into my own hands, to do the work in regards to figuring out which formulations were best for me, and to try only drugstore products to achieve the same results without the staggering cost.

Weeks into my experiment, I’m wondering how I ever did it differently. These products are just as automatic for me to use, and if anything, more precise, because I’m forced to evaluate what my skin needs at a given time and adjust accordingly rather than just throwing whatever I’d gotten in the mail on my face that day. While I luuurve testing new launches and formulas, having an under-$100 routine gives me complete and utter confidence in my skin. I spent hours in the CVS and Target aisles, poring over bottles and salves. Ultimately, I knew I wanted a great cleanser, makeup remover, and intense moisture. Here’s what made the cut.

Shop my drugstore skin-care swaps

Neutrogena Clear Pore Cleanser/Mask — $10.00

Right from the get-go, I determined one of my priorities in slimming down my skincare expenses would be finding products that did double duty. This Neutrogena Clear Pore Cleanser/Mask is a two-in-one. I could use it to gently and clearly wash my face every night, or leave it on for longer to form a deep, penetrating mask. I love the tingling, mattifying effect of the mask (and the look is very classic ‘00s slumber party fare), and active ingredient benzoyl peroxide works wonders for my acne.

Italic Water Melt Hyaluronic Acid Serum — $24.00

To replace the serums in my routine, I chose the Water Melt Hyaluronic Acid Serum from Italic, an at-cost marketplace that uses the same manufacturers as big-name brands. I trusted that this swap would have similar ingredients to the expensive hydrating serums I was mourning. Hyaluronic acid is generally praised both for its plumping power and its intense hydration—two things my skin tends to be dramatic about. The hyaluronic acid supposedly helps with fine lines and wrinkles (I’m 25, so I can’t bring myself to care too much about physical aging yet), but what I love about it is its quick absorption and the way it helps my skin retain moisture when I layer it under my day and night creams. It works similarly to a toner in that it gives you a bit of bonus cleansing too.

Olay Regenerist Whip SPF 25 — $30.00

I’m always willing to fork over more cash for a stellar SPF; I’m Floridian, which means I drag myself to the dermatologist at least once a year, perpetually worried about developing the sun spots, cancerous moles, and similar problems as my mom and her friends. Granted, that generation didn’t know as much as we do about the importance of sunscreen, but I am desperate to avoid the same scares (and am nearly always in search of the closest sunshine.) This luxe-feeling pot of daytime moisturizer is even better than my expensive kind, with a silky, almost pearlescent texture that I adore and SPF 25 protection. Plus, its featherlight feel is to die for.

Beauty 360, Ultra Soft Makeup Remover Towelettes — $9.00

At night, I needed a way to remove makeup. In fairness, I’ve never opted for expensive makeup remover, but to make it as budget-friendly as possible, I opted for the CVS brand makeup wipes, figuring all 50 pre-moistened towelettes had roughly the same ability to dissolve my beauty products. The big test would be waterproof mascara, ofc. My bar for these was pretty low, but they’re easy to use, gentle on my skin, and even smell good. (Yes, I did a lazy girl’s skin routine with just these at times. No, my skin did not explode.)

Neutrogena Deep Moisture Night Cream — $23.00

The product I was most dreading giving up was the spa-worthy night cream I relied on for moisture, which also happened to be the most expensive part of my routine. I’m a Floridian (humid) currently living in Utah (not), and my skin doth protest against the dry air. Glycerin and vitamin D3 keep this moisturizer intensely hydrating, while the shea butter makes it luxurious-feeling without veering into greasy.

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