As someone who has been working in beauty for nearly a decade, I’m essentially a walking, talking library of skincare knowledge. A good 90 to 95 percent of the texts I get from my family and friends are things like: “What does this moisturizer do?” “What eye cream should I buy?” or “Can I send you a picture of my weird rash?” (OK, so the last one is a little different, but I get that a lot too.) Between interviewing top dermatologists and product formulators, meeting with beauty brands, and trying pretty much every product that’s ever existed (yup, that includes snail venom moisturizers and bird poop face masks — part of the job!), I’ve basically developed a sixth sense about which lotions and potions legitimately work and which ones don’t have much more going for them than pretty packaging.
And while, I’ll admit, I get a lot of products for free (what can I say? #workperks), at this point, I can pretty quickly tell which products are truly worth their price tag. Spoiler alert: When it comes to skincare, the bargain buys are more often than not just as good as their much more expensive counterparts. Here, IMHO (and the expert opinion of a top derm), is when you should abso-freaking-lutely splurge if you can, and when you should keep that sweet, sweet cash in your pocket.
Here’s why: “This is an especially silly place to spend money, since it is literally going down the drain,” says Chicago dermatologist Jordan Carqueville, M.D. Pricier formulas often have extra skincare ingredients, but they’re not on your skin for enough time to make a real difference, she adds.
My pick: The extra-mild Vanicream Gentle Facial Cleanser ($9; target.com) is a great pick for anyone. I like that it’s fragrance- and sulfate-free, key for sensitive skin (sulfates are harsh detergents found in many cleansers, FYI). But it still gets the job done, removing even a full face of makeup.
SPLURGE: Antioxidant Serum
Here’s why: These serums keep your skin healthy and can ward off damage even before it starts. Even if you’re super obsessive about sunscreen application (and more on that in a minute), some of the sun’s rays still get you. Those, along with pollution, junk food, a lack of sleep, and tons of other things can create skin-damaging free radicals in the skin. These pesky little molecules not only interfere with your natural ~glow~ but can also up the likelihood of skin cancer, too. Antioxidants work like little Pac-Men to destroy those free radicals and prevent skin damage before it starts.
“Serums in general are worth spending money on because they have a higher concentration of active ingredients than any other product,” explains Dr. Carqueville. Powerful antioxidants are expensive ingredients, so when a serum’s price tag doesn’t reflect that, it’s highly likely that product just isn’t as effective. It’s one instance where you definitely get what you pay for. For example, vitamin C quickly becomes unstable and inactive. The more expensive brands use higher quality versions of it and formulate their serums so that the vitamin stays stable and actually works.
My pick: Both Dr. Carqueville and I are big fans of the SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic ($166; skinceuticals.com). It has both vitamin C and ferulic acid, another antioxidant that also just happens to make vitamin C more stable and work even better. SUPER pricey, yes, you only need to use a few drops for your entire face, so one bottle goes a long way.
Here’s why: At the end of the day, most of the ingredients in a basic moisturizer are the same, no matter how much it costs, notes Dr. Carqueville. With more expensive options, you’re usually just paying for fragrance, fancy packaging, or a designer name. It’s the same stuff, just all dressed up to look a little different, like when Blake Shelton puts on a suit for the CMAs.
My pick: No matter what other skincare I’m using, CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion ($11; walmart.com) is pretty much always in my regular rotation. It’s hydrating without feeling greasy, and has ceramides, which are oils that are clutch for people with sensitive skin (🙋). It’s called a night cream, but I’ll also use it in the morning (paired with SPF, obviously).
SPLURGE OR SAVE: Sunscreen
Here’s why: The most, most, MOST important thing to remember when choosing a sunscreen is to find one that you actually like and are legitimately going to want to use; putting it on shouldn’t feel like a chore. After all, it’s the absolute best product you can use to safeguard for your skin. So it’s absolutely OK to shell out some more money to find something you love. That being said, if you find a cheapie you like, save away! Just make sure it’s a broad-spectrum formula with at least SPF 30.
My pick: I’m an admitted sunscreen junkie and have tried them all. For my body, I prefer the drugstore stuff; I truly don’t see any difference between that and the pricier products. I’m hooked on the Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Lightweight Sunscreen Spray SPF 30 ($7.50; target.com); it doesn’t feel greasy or heavy, rubs in easily, and has a special nozzle that makes it easy to get to all those hard-to-reach spots, like your back. But in all my testing and trying, I’ve found that the more expensive face options are quite simply nicer and less sunscreen-y feeling than those you get at the drugstore. They also tend to have other benefits besides just SPF, like a slight tint, or extra skincare ingredients. I’m currently using Elizabeth Arden Prevage City Smart Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Hydrating Shield ($68; ulta.com), which has just enough tint that I can get away with skipping makeup.
Here’s why: Most over-the counter acne-fighters contain either salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, which are readily available in drugstore products. And some of the latest bargain buys also now use ingredients that were previously only available by prescription (and for a LOT more money).
My pick: Differin Acne Treatment Gel ($11; target.com) is my fave. Its star ingredient is adapalene, a type of retinoid that you used to only be able to get from the dermatologist. I use a pea-size amount all over my face every other night to keep my pores clear and breakouts at bay.
SAVE: Eye Cream
Here’s why: Even the most expensive eye cream in the world won’t fully eliminate dark circles (finding a good concealer is your best bet), so definitely skip spending on those promising to do so. It is important to protect and hydrate the thin and delicate skin around your eyes, but for that, your same old sunscreen and moisturizer will get the job done.
My pick: If you do want to pick up a separate eye cream, I suggest ones that have a metal rollerball applicator, like the Garnier SkinActive Clearly Brighter Anti-Puff Eye Roller ($8; target.com). It makes the cream feel extra cooling and refreshing going on, and massaging it in with the metal tip will actually help tamp down puffiness, always a plus after you’ve had a late night or if you have an early morning (or both).