when to save and when to splurge on skincare products

Is there really a difference between drugstore and luxury skincare products?

Yep. High-end products usually give you a more luxurious experience. Everything from the bottle to the texture is designed to please the senses and turn your skincare routine into a pampering session.

But in terms of effectiveness? Drugstore products often work just as well.

How do you know when a product is worth the splurge and when you can get the same results for a fraction of the cost?

Here’s when to splurge and when to save on skincare products:

cerave hydrating cleanser

Save: Cleansers & Makeup Removers

Cleansers are the most basic skincare products you can buy. Don’t let their “anti-aging” properties fool you. Cleansers only remove dirt, makeup and impurities from your skin. Any other actives brands sneak in there end up down the drain. Bummer, I know. The trick is to find a cleanser that removes everything without leaving your skin tight (that squeaky clean feel is a giveaway your cleanser is too harsh). You don’t need to spend a fortune on that. Save your money for the stuff that really helps with wrinkles.

Best Picks:

Related: How To Choose The Right Cleanser For Your Skin Type

Struggling to put together a skincare routine that minimises wrinkles, prevents premature aging, and gives your complexion a youthful glow? Download your FREE “Best Anti-Aging Skincare Routine” to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):

drunk elephant c-tango multivitamin eye cream

Save: Eye Creams

Truth bomb: eye creams are facial moisturisers in smaller jars (and a higher price tag). Compare the ingredients of your fave eye creams and moisturisers, if you don’t believe me. They’re the same! But, what about those special ingredients that can get rid of wrinkles and dark spots, I hear you ask? Deep down you know it: they don’t work. If your eye area is considerably drier than the rest of your face, it makes sense to use a separate, richer eye cream. Everyone else, save your money.

Related: The Truth About Eye Creams (Why I Don’t Use One)

peter thomas roth retinol infusion pm night serum 01

Splurge: Products With Retinoids

Retinoids is a catch-all term for all forms of Vitamin A, including retinol, retinaldehyde, granactive retinoid and Tretinoin. Vitamin A is the only thing proven to reduce wrinkles, not just their appearance. It works in three ways: it fights off free radicals before they can give you wrinkles, boosts the production of collagen (the protein that keeps your skin firm), and speeds up cellular turnover (the skin’s exfoliating process) to fade away dark spots and acne. This stuff works.

In the past few years, there’s been an explosion of retinol products at the drugstore. Do they work? For beginners, yes. Retinol concentrations in drugstore products are usually incredibly low and suitable only for people starting out (always start with a small % and build your way up). The exception? The Ordinary Retinol In Squalane collection. Just be aware it’s a very basic product (you get retinol, but no other actives). And the squalane base may not be suitable for oilier skin types.

Best Picks:

Related: What Strength Of Retinol Do You Need?

boots ingredients hyaluronic acid serum

Save: Hyaluronic Acid Serum

I’m a huge fan of Hyaluronic Acid. This moisture magnet draws up to 1000 times its weight in water? Translation: it deeply hydrates your skin, so your face looks plumper (and your wrinkles smaller), it’s softer to the touch, and glows like it’s lit-from-within. If you’re experiencing any dryness or dehydration (especially in the colder winter months), this can save your skin. You just don’t need to spend a fortune on it. Drugstore serums work just as well as cheaper ones.

Best Picks:

Related: Why You Need Hyaluronic Acid In Your Skincare Routine (No Matter Your Skin Type)

purito centella unscented toner

Save: Toners

Most toners are useless. There, I said it. Some are just drying concoctions of alcohol, witch hazel, and nothing else. Stay away from these. Asian versions are hydrating – and skin always like some extra hydration. But do you really need this extra step? For most people, a moisturiser + Hyaluronic Acid serum is more than enough. What about exfoliating toners? These are good, but don’t get too hang up on the name. Your skin doesn’t care if glycolic acid comes in a toner or serum form. If you can find the same active in a different vehicle, you can skip toner altogether.

Related: Is Toner Really Necessary?

best vitamin C serum: drunk elephant c-firma day serum

Splurge: Vitamin C Serums

Science is clear on this: the most effective Vitamin C products contain 15% L-Ascorbic Acid, 1% Vitamin E, and 1% Ferulic Acid (I call this combo CEF). Together, these 3 antioxidants boost one another’s effectiveness, enhance sun protection, and help prevent wrinkles. This combo is expensive – and almost impossible to find at the drugstore (especially outside of the US). None of The Ordinary Vitamin C products have it, which is why I don’t recommend it. If you can splurge and your skin can take it (15% L-Ascorbic Acid can cause irritation), go for a CEF serum.

Best Picks:

Related: Can You Use Vitamin C If You Have Sensitive Skin?

CeraVe PM Facial Moisturising Facial Lotion

Toss Up: Moisturisers

The basic job of a moisturiser is to prevent dryness and flakiness. There are plenty of ingredients that can do this (from natural oils and butters to skin identical ingredients like ceramides and synthetic emollients like silicones), so you don’t need to spend a fortune to keep your skin perfectly hydrated, soft, and supple. If you want to splurge more for a moisturiser with antiaging benefits (think retinol or copper peptides), go ahead. They’re worth it. If you’re happy to get your anti-aging fix from serums, you can save on moisturiser instead.

Best Picks:

Related: Does Everyone Need A Moisturiser?

paula's choice super-light daily wrinkle defense spf 30 review

Save: Sunscreen

Sunscreen is the MOST important skincare product in your stash. UV rays are responsible for up to 80% of premature aging. Skip sunscreen and you’ll be dealing with wrinkles and dark spots way sooner than you thought. Oh, and you increase your chance of developing skin cancer, too. All sunscreens, no matter if they’re cheap or expensive, work in the same way: by absorbing UV light and transforming it into a less damaging form of energy (heat). The real dealbreaker here is the texture. Because if it’s too greasy or white, you just won’t use it. Go with the sunscreen whose texture you like the most, but know you don’t need to spend a fortune on it to get adequate sun protection.

Best Picks:

Related: 6 Things To Look For When Buying Sunscreen

drunk elephant tlc framboos glycolic night serum

Toss Up: Exfoliators

If we’re talking about scrubs, save. Or better, don’t go there. Scrubs are one trick ponies: they remove dead cells and… that’s it. Compare that to chemical exfoliants. Glycolic acid (for dry skin) also fades away dark spots, lactic acid (for sensitive skin) hydrates skin, and salicylic acid (for oily, acne-prone skin) treats acne and blackheads. These days, you can easily find them at the drugstore. But if you’re willing to splurge a bit more, you’ll get a product with some extra actives, like soothing agents to avoid irritatioons. I personally prefer to splurge on this one, but if you only care about the exfoliating benefits, cheaper options work too.

Best Picks:

Related: How To Pick The Best Exfoliant For Your Skin Type

how bubble masks work

Save: Masks

I’m a big fan of saving money on anything that’s not essential. Masks are not essentials. If you’ve got your skincare routine nailed down, masks are just a pampering treat that give you that extra oomph for a special occasion. Plus, they don’t stay on the skin long enough to have long-term benefits. I say save your money here too.

Best Picks:

  • Elizavecca Carbonated Bubble Clay Mask ($8.61): available at iHerb and Yes Style
  • Paula’s Choice Skin Recovery Hydrating Treatment Mask ($24.00): available at Paula’s Choice

Related: How To Choose The Best Facial Mask For Your Skin Type

the ordinary buffet + copper peptides 1% 02

Save: Peptides

This is controversial. For starters, there’s not much proof that peptides (with the exception of skin-firming copper peptides) do much of anything. Most of the anti-aging claims come from studies done by the manufacturer. That doesn’t mean they don’t work. We don’t know how well they do. Are they better than retinoids, for example? Until science gives us an answer, I don’t recommend you splurge on peptides. And that’s the catch. Most peptides serums are super expensive. If you really want to try them, go with the cheapest option you can find. If you’re happy with the results, you can splurge on a more expensive alternative later on.

Best Picks:

Related: What Types Of Peptides Are Best For You?

The Bottom Line 

I’m not saying you should never splurge on skincare. Luxury products often have beautiful textures, elegant bottles, and fragrant scents that turn skincare into an amazing pampering experience. But you don’t need to splurge on them to have clear, younger-looking skin. If you’re on a budget, save on the non-essentials and splurge on the products that are going to make the biggest difference for your skin.