Skin-Care Formulators Tell Us the Products to Buy on the Cheap and Those Worth Splurging On

Photo: Stocksy/Nabi Tang
For me, skin-care products are like Pokemon. I gotta catch 'em all. And if I don't have every single buzzworthy active ingredient stocked in my beauty cabinet, I'm just not winning the game.

Of course, as with buying up all of the Pokemon cards, collecting every skin-care ingredient can rack up the dollars and cents. You always want to make sure you're grabbing up quality beauty products so that your skin can truly benefit from the skin-boosting ingredient, but... without breaking the bank.

To decipher the shelves and see which you can be fine with buying on the cheap—and which you should splurge a little more on—I consulted cosmetic chemists for insight from the insiders. Prepare yourself, because you're about to be surprised at the good ingredients you can find at a reasonable price.


Sunscreen: We've been raving about drugstore beauty finds for, like, ever, but even cosmetic chemists rave about drugstore sunscreens (and other affordable options). "There are lots of good face sunscreens at an affordable price such as Australian Gold ($15), Elta MD ($25), Biore ($32), and La Roche Posay ($30)," says Victoria Fu, cosmetic chemist and co-founder of Chemist Confessions. "We prefer an SPF 50 because it gives a solid amount of UV protection without too much of a tradeoff in texture. Just make sure you find a broad spectrum label so you're getting protection from both UVA and UVB rays."

Niacinamide: Niacinamide, aka vitamin B3, is an amazing skin-care ingredient for soothing redness and fighting inflammation, and ya don't have to dole out too many dollars to get a good one. "Niacinamide is another solid ingredient that you can now find at the right levels for cheap," says Fu. "We typically recommend looking for percentages between two and four percent, but there are lots of booster serums like Deciem ($6) and Paula’s Choice ($44) that offer niacinamide at up to 10 percent." Jackpot.

Benzoyl peroxide: The popular acne-fighting ingredient has been around for ages to fight zits, and chemists say it's fine to save your money on it. "It's a relatively easy and inexpensive ingredient to manufacture," says Ursula Diaz, cosmetic chemist and founder of Honor MD. "You can find great products containing benzoyl peroxide anywhere."

Salicylic acid: Another acne-buster chemical exfoliant salicylic acid is also one you can save your bucks when buying. "This is a great ingredient that helps exfoliate skin, prevents acne, and treats breakouts," says Diaz. "You can find really effective products containing salicylic acid in a wide range of prices—fortunately, you don't have to invest to get a really great formulation that works." Praise be.


Retinol: Retinol is probably the most recommended skin-care ingredient by dermatologists. But you shouldn't just grab the cheapest one, because cosmetic chemists say you want to make sure to get the most effective formulation possible. "If you want to splurge, buy retinol-containing products from a doctor's office, since medical grade retinol contains higher percentages of this ingredient and will be more effective," says Diaz.

Vitamin C: The superstar antioxidant is important for nourishing and brightening your skin, but it's easy to oxidize and hard to stabilize, making it an ingredient that's worth investing in. "The percentage of vitamin C a product contains and the way it's formulated are important factors that will determine efficacy, and this may be reflected in the price," she explains. One thing she says to look out for: the percentage of vitamin C that a product contains, which directly corresponds to its efficacy.

Hyaluronic acid: The moisturizing MVP is great for hydrating all skin types, but HA serums aren't all created equally. "You want one that is rich in hyaluronic acid and low in preservatives and other additives," says Diaz. "Many of the products on drugstore or department store shelves claiming to contain hyaluronic acid actually have trace amounts of it, so they will not be as effective as other more powerful formulations." That said, she notes that it's important to read the ingredient list carefully and look for a product that contains at least .5 percent hyaluronic acid and not much else.

Oh, and here are the beauty scams of the world that you don't need to buy at all. And dermatologists say your skin-care routine really only needs "The Big Four," the most important skin-care products of all. 

Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

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