One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in the skincare industry over the past ten years was the number of brands competing on the basis of price. Back in the day, it was seemingly only Paula Begoun and Paula’s Choice who seemed to have a handle on the idea that there was a smart consumer who loved skincare and wanted high concentrations of ingredients in a well-formulated product at a reasonable price.
Today, there’s not only Paula’s Choice, but there are a plethora of quality, low-priced, seemingly modern brands like The Ordinary, the INKEY List, and Maelove, to name a few. On top of that, you have your Amazon-only brands that appear when you search for “vitamin C serums ” and sort price low:high, such as TruSkin or Tree of Life. And, lastly, there are your traditional reasonably-priced drugstore skincare brands, which have admittedly come a long way in the light of such competition. Brands like Olay and Neutrogena have a few products that closely rival physician-grade brands like Skinceuticals or PCA Skin, something that didn’t seem possible 10 years ago.
Below, I’ve sorted out the categories of products I think everyone needs (vitamin CE serum and sunscreen in the morning; retinoid OR AHA serum and peptides/hyaluronic acid/niacinamide in the evening), as well as my favorite $45 and underpriced products in each category to help you build anaffordable skincare routine.
Vitamin CE Serums — Choose One
Of all of the skincare products out there, vitamin CE serums are one of the most important. According to Dr. Leslie Baumann, M.D., vitamin C serums with a concentration of at least 15% L-ascorbic acid have been proven to prevent UV damage, to treat melasma (a form of hyperpigmentation common after pregnancy), stretch marks, and postoperative erythema (redness) (Cosmetic Dermatology).
Vitamin E is important for use with vitamin C because its strength as an antioxidant can be increased through its combination. Vitamin E also has its own benefits, with researchers finding that vitamin E can reduce UV damage, decrease skin roughness, and reduce facial line length and wrinkle depth (Photodermatology, Photoimmunology, and Photomedicine, 1990).
For this reason, I rarely recommend just a vitamin C serum. Instead, I recommend vitamin CE serums. (Or, at times, vitamin C serums plus a moisturizer with vitamin E). At the $100/month total skincare budget, I recommend choosing one of the following vitamin CE serums:
Best for Dry to Normal Skin: Maelove The Glow Maker Antioxidant Serum ($28)
Touted as an alternative to the cult favorite Skinceuticals CE Ferulic ($163), Maelove The Glow Maker Antioxidant Serum promises to deliver the same concentrations of vitamin C as L-ascorbic acid (15%), vitamin E (1%), and stabilizer ferulic acid (0.5%).
The big difference between Maelove The Glow Maker Antioxidant Serum and Skinceuticals CE Ferulic is that Maelove The Glow Maker Antioxidant Serum contains hydrating hyaluronic acid. Used as a humectant (meaning it draws water from the environment into the skin), hyaluronic acid can bind to 1000 times its weight in water, and has been shown to improve skin hydration (Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, 2011).
This means that Maelove The Glow Maker Antioxidant Serum is a lot more hydrating and thicker in texture than Skinceuticals CE Ferulic. Some people love this, particularly those with dry to normal skin types. On the other hand, my skin tends to be combination dry/oily in areas, and I didn’t care for the texture of Maelove The Glow Maker Antioxidant Serum. That said, I know plenty of people who do, and it makes a fine alternative to Skinceuticals CE Ferulic for those with drier skin.
Best for Normal to Oily Skin: Paula’s Choice BOOST C15 Super Booster
Paula’s Choice BOOST C15 Super Booster is as close to Skinceuticals CE Ferulic as it gets. It contains 15% vitamin C, 1% vitamin E, and ferulic acid. While Paula’s Choice BOOST C15 Super Booster does contain hyaluronic acid like the Maelove The Glow Maker Antioxidant Serum, the major difference is that Paula’s Choice BOOST C15 Super Booster has a much thinner base, like Skinceuticals CE Ferulic. Essentially, the high concentration of butylene glycol helps the product be absorbed into the skin, while ethoxydiglycol cuts down the thickness of the product, making it more palatable for those with oilier skin types.
In the past, I’ve used both Maelove The Glow Maker Antioxidant Serum and Paula’s Choice BOOST C15 Super Booster. My skin is firmly combination, oily, and prone to acne in the chin and forehead areas, but dry(-ish) under the eyes. When I tested them both, I find that most of the time I incrementally prefer Paula’s Choice BOOST C15 Super Booster, but when I was pregnant with my son and my skin got super dry all over, I found Maelove The Glow Maker Antioxidant Serum to be better.
Sunscreen or Moisturizer with Sunscreen — Choose One
Best for Normal to Dry Skin: Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen SPF 100
It’s hard to find a sunscreen with an SPF over 30 that doesn’t feel chalky or too heavy, but Neutrogena managed to produce just that with its Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen SPF 100. The formula is a chemical sunscreen, a clever mix of avobenzone and oxybenzone that is stabilized with Neutrogena’s Helioplex complex (Skin and Allergy News).
The key to using this sunscreen is truly using it under your makeup. In fact, Jennifer Lopez reportedly uses this sunscreen as a makeup primer (Allure). While it is dry-touch, smooth, and less heavy than most other high-SPF sunscreens, it really isn’t all that sheer with a typical application. Expect to use it under makeup, whether that’s a tinted moisturizer, foundation, or powder.
Best for Normal to Oily Skin: Belei Oil-Free Face Moisturizer SPF 50
When you have oily skin and/or acne, it’s also hard to find an SPF over 30 that doesn’t feel as though it’s suffocating the skin, or that is overly hydrating.
Enter Belei Oil-Free Face Moisturizer SPF 50. From Amazon’s own skincare line, this lightweight chemical sunscreen formula features 12% Homosalate, 5% Octisalate, 3% Avobenzone, and 3% Octocrylene. Like the Neutrogena product, it dries quickly and leaves a smooth finish, but it also leaves a bit of a white cast if you’re applying enough to get the full SPF protection listed on the label. I recommend again using it under makeup only, whether it’s tinted moisturizer, foundation, or powder.
Retinol Serum — Choose One
(if AHA is preferred instead, see next section)
Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion (Moderate Strength, No Irritation)
Granactive Retinoid 2% in Squalane (Moderate Strength, No Irritation)
Granactive Retinoid 5% in Squalane (High Strength, No to Low Irritation)
Retinol 0.2% in Squalane (Low Strength, Moderate Irritation)
Retinol 0.5% in Squalane (Moderate Strength, High Irritation)
Retinol 1% in Squalane (High Strength, Very High Irritation)
Obviously, for skincare on a budget, I find it hard to beat the variety of products from The Ordinary. The products, all priced at $6.80-$13.90 (as of January 2021), are hard to beat in terms of high concentration of retinoids for the price. I mean, typically you’d pay at least $50 per ounce for 0.5% retinol. And here, it’s just $5.80 as The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane.
The secret to the “Granactive Retinoid” products are that they contain Granactive Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate + Retinol, instead of just pure (ultra-strong) retinol, so there’s less irritation. Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate, also known amongst skincare folk as HPR, is a new form of retinoid that doesn’t have to be converted into trans-retinoid acid (like retinol and other derivatives) (Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, 2018).
The Ordinary products actually contain HPR 0.2-0.5%. This is because “granactive retinoid” is HPR in a 1:10 ratio with a solvent, dimethyl isosorbide. So when you see a percentage of granactive retinoid, you need to divide by 10 to get the actual concentration of HPR. Here, 2-5% “granactive retinoid” means 0.2-0.5% HPR.
Early research demonstrates HPR falls into that “almost too good to be true” category. Early studies have shown HPR had greater levels of gene transcription in vitro with less cell toxicity (Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, 2018). In short, this means that it is speculated there may be more collagen production but less irritation from HPR than other forms of retinoid, but I think more research needs to be done before I’m ready to toss out all other retinoid products.
What I will say is that HPR could be the secret to using retinoids if you have sensitive skin. In fact, in general, selecting which The Ordinary retinoid product is right for you comes down to your skin’s sensitivity level. If you have or are prone to dermatitis, itchiness, redness/rosacea, and/or conditions like dry skin and peeling after using strong skincare products, then I recommend The Ordinary’s “Granactive Retinoid” products. If you have strong, resilient skin that rarely or never reacts adversely to products, then I recommend The Ordinary’s Retinol 0.2-1.0% line.
(if a retinoid is preferred instead, see previous section; please do not use retinoids and AHA together, due to irritation, as well as what may be arguably an incompatible pH level for optimal activity of each ingredient)
People often ask me whether I prefer retinoids or AHAs, and it comes down to your skin, honestly. If you have wrinkles or thin skin, I prefer retinoids, because they seem to increase skin thickness and improve wrinkles faster. However, if you have sunspots or skin discoloration of any kind, I prefer AHAs, because they take care of this concern faster.
If you have wrinkles/thin skin and skin discolorations, then it comes down to skin dryness for me. If you have dry skin, AHAs are better, because they confer a moisturizing effect and function as humectants, helping the skin hold onto water better over time (Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Ingredients). If you have oily skin, stick with retinoids.
L’Oreal 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum
Drugstore products have come a long way since the early 2000’s, and there is no product that exemplifies this more (in my opinion) than L’Oreal 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum. This serum is like the Little Black Dress of Skincare, in my opinion: Simple and elegant, yet surprisingly effective. The star of the formulation is of course the 10% glycolic acid, which has been shown in peer-reviewed studies to increase skin thickness, collagen synthesis, and fibroblast (collagen-producing cell) proliferation (Dermatologic Surgery, 2013).
In addition to 10% glycolic acid, this product contains glycerin, aloe, and sodium hyaluronate to hydrate and soothe, and then alcohol to cut down the thickness of glycerin and aloe. A bit of vitamin C and preservatives round out this formulation. After a few weeks of use, you should notice smoother, less-spotted skin. After a few months of use, you should also notice that your skin is more hydrated, even without use of an additional moisturizer afterwards.
Niacinamide and/or Peptides in a Moisturizer — Choose One
Niacinamide, also known as nicotinamide, is the biologically active form of vitamin B3. Niacinamide has been found in peer-reviewed dermatological research to treat dry skin, hyperpigmentation, fine lines/wrinkles, blotchiness, and sallowness. Niacinamide has also been found to mildly protect against UVA and UVB light (Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Ingredients).
When I think of niacinamide, I tend to think of a great everyday hyperpigmentation fighter. I don’t think it’s as strong as glycolic acid in fighting spots, or retinoids in preventing wrinkles, but I do find it keeps the skin looking brighter, less sallow, and less lined with regular use over time.
Olay Wrinkle Correction Serum with Vitamin B3 + Peptides
When selecting a niacinamide product, it’s hard to go wrong with the Olay line of moisturizers. In particular, the Olay Wrinkle Correction Serum with Vitamin B3 + Peptides is less than $40 (and usually can be found for under $30), and it contains an estimated 4% niacinamide, plus a decent concentration of Palmitoyl Pentapeptide-4. With regular use, this peptide may increase skin’s firmness and appearance (Cosmetics, 2017).
The INKEY List Peptide Moisturizer
Another option, if you’re not as concerned with skin sallowness or pigmentation, but are concerned about fine lines and wrinkles, is The INKEY List Peptide Moisturizer. While this product does the shady skincare thing I don’t like and contains “1% peptide complex,” which includes fillers and is not the same thing as “1% peptide,” it does contain 2% Royal Epigen P5™, which is the recommended concentration as a skin rejuvenator (CosmeticsBusiness). And, for $14.99, it’s hard to beat in terms of price.
For the best affordable skincare routine, forget about cleansers, toners, essences, and specialty products, and focus in on serums and moisturizers for daytime and nighttime, which tend to be more concentrated than other types of skincare products. I recommend:
A Sunscreen or Moisturizer with Sunscreen (choose one): Neutrogena Ultra-Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen SPF 100 OR Belei Oil-Free Face Moisturizer SPF 50
A niacinamide and peptide-rich moisturizer (choose one): Olay Wrinkle Correction Serum with Vitamin B3 + Peptides OR The INKEY List Peptide Moisturizer
Maelove The Glow Maker Antioxidant Serum
Water (Aqua), Ascorbic Acid, Ethoxydiglycol, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Glycerin, Lecithin, Sodium Hyaluronate, Ferulic Acid, Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Callus Culture Extract, Magnolia Officinalis Bark Extract, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Extract, Xanthan Gum, Disodium EDTA, Sodium Metabisulfite, Triethanolamine, Phenoxyethanol, Ethylhexyglycerin, Maltodextrin, Tocopherol
Paula’s Choice BOOST C15 Super Booster
Water (Aqua), Ascorbic Acid, Butylene Glycol, Ethoxydiglycol, Glycerin, PPG-26-Buteth-26, PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Pentylene Glycol, Tocopherol, Sodium Hyaluronate, Hexanoyl Dipeptide-3 Norleucine Acetate, Lecithin, Ferulic Acid, Panthenol, Bisabolol, Oryza Sativa (Rice) Bran Extract, Propyl Gallate, Sodium Gluconate, Sodium Hydroxide, Phenoxyethanol, Ethylhexylglycerin
Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen SPF 100
Active Ingredients: Avobenzone 3%, Homosalate 15%, Octisalate 5%, Octocrylene 10%, Oxybenzone 6%; Inactive Ingredients: Water, styrene/acrylates copolymer, silica, beeswax, cyclopentasiloxane, ethylhexylglycerin, glyceryl stearate, PEG-100 stearate, acrylates/dimethicone copolymer, acrylates/C10-30 alkyl acrylate crosspolymer, fragrance, chlorphenesin, triethanolamine, diethylhexyl 2,6-naphthalate, dipotassium glycyrrhizate, disodium EDTA, BHT, methylisothiazolinone
Belei Oil-Free Face Moisturizer SPF 50
Active Ingredients: Homosalate 12%, Octisalate 5%, Avobenzone 3%, Octocrylene 3%; Inactive Ingredients: Water (Aqua), Glyceryl Stearate, Styrene/Acrylates Copolymer, Glycerin, Cetyl Alcohol, Butylene Glycol, Isopropyl Palmitate, PEG-100 Stearate, Caprylyl Methicone, Pentylene Glycol, Phenoxyethanol, Xanthan Gum, Tocopheryl Acetate, Disodium EDTA, Ethylhexylglycerin, Hydrolyzed Hyaluronic Acid, Stearyl Glycyrrhetinate, Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) Root Extract, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Salix Alba (Willow) Bark Extract, Spinacia Oleracea (Spinach) Leaf Extract, Ammonium Hydroxide
L’Oreal 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum
Water (Aqua), Glycolic, Acid, Glycerin, Alcohol, Denat., Sodium, Hydroxide, Aloe, Barbadensis, Leaf, Juice, Sodium, Hyaluronate, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Ascorbyl, Glucoside, Citric, Acid, Potassium, Sorbate, Sodium, Benzoate
Olay Wrinkle Correction Serum with Vitamin B3 + Peptides
Water (Aqua), Dimethicone, Glycerin, Niacinamide*, Butylene Glycol, Palmitoyl Pentapeptide-4**, Palmitoyl Dipeptide-7**, Panthenol, Hydroxyacetophenone, Dimethiconol, Polysorbate 20, Disodium EDTA, Dimethicone Crosspolymer, Carbomer, Acrylates/C10-30 Alkyl Acrylate Crosspolymer, Aminomethyl Propanol, Phenoxyethanol
*Vitamin B3, **Peptides
The INKEY List Peptide Moisturizer
Water (Aqua), Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Glycerin, C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Cetearyl Alcohol, Glyceryl Stearate SE, Betaine, Butylene Glycol, Phenoxyethanol, Benzyl Alcohol, Carbomer, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter, Sodium Stearoyl Glutamate, Sodium Hydroxide, Ethylhexyl-glycerin, Sodium Gluconate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Dehydroacetic Acid, Hydrogenated Lecithin, Phenethyl Alcohol, Acetyl Hexapeptide-37, Maltodextrin, Pentapeptide-48