Skincare can be a challenging category to navigate. Even as a
beauty editor, I get overwhelmed trying to figure out what skincare products actually work and which premium beauty brands are really worth the money. There has never been so much choice when it comes to shopping for skincare. And while this can be a great thing, it can also make choosing—and finding—products that work for your own skin type and concerns quite tricky.
Scrolling through social media, you’ll often find influencers and beauty lovers raving about their favorite skincare products and brands. While we love a word-of-mouth recommendation, what works for one person might not necessarily work for you. And as a result, you might accumulate products that end up gathering dust that are not suited for your skin, leaving a big hole in your wallet, too. After all, the pretty packaging of an expensive product may draw us in, but are the contents really worth the investment?
When it comes to skincare advice, there is one type of expert I trust wholeheartedly for an unbiased recommendation, and that is a dermatologist. During an appointment with a dermatologist, you’ll receive impartial skincare recommendations, and more often than not, their suggestions will be affordable. To find out which skincare products are really worth it, I asked three dermatologists to share the products and ingredients that you should save on and the products to spend a little more on if you prefer. NHS dermatologist Cristina Psomadakis; consultant dermatologist Sharon Wong; and junior doctor, skincare expert and Inkey List ambassador Kemi Fabusiwa share their recommendations below.
“Your cleanser literally goes down the drain, so you don’t want to think about the money you’ve spent on it,” says Psomadakis. “The main thing to look for in a cleanser is one that suits your skin type and routine and is a texture you find enjoyable. The Inkey List has a variety of cleansers, all incredibly affordable and suitable to a variety of skin types,” she says.
“My favorite is The Inkey List Oat Cleansing Balm. It is super hydrating and great at removing makeup, all for $4,” says Psomadakis. This balmy texture is ideal at gently removing makeup as a first cleanse.
I always have a bottle of this gel cleanser in my bathroom cabinet. It has salicylic acid, which helps to power through oil and decongest clogged pores and acne. Miraculously, it’s also very gentle. I use this as a second cleanse after removing my makeup. A bottle also lasts me for months, making it great for cost per use.
This is one of my all-time-favourite cleansers, which was recommended to me by a dermatologist when I had an eczema flare. It has a cushiony, lotion consistency and really gently removes makeup without staining even the most sensitive of skins.
“People can spend an absolute bomb on skincare, and higher cost doesn’t mean higher efficacy,” says Psomadakis. Exfoliating acids fall under this category, and they’re worth scrimping on. “AHAs (e.g., lactic and glycolic acid) and BHAs (e.g., salicylic acid) are exfoliating acids, which help to remove surface dead skin cells on the face and scalp to keep cell turnover healthy,” says Wong. “Regular use of these acids is also helpful in keeping scale and dandruff in check, and with salicylic acid being lipid soluble, it can penetrate deeper to unclog pores, making it particularly helpful for oily faces and scalps that are prone to acne breakouts,” she says. If you’re new to using exfoliating acids, look for a low percentage, and use a couple of times a week at first to see how your skin tolerates it. AHAs like glycolic acid are great for brightening, while BHAs like salicylic acid help oily and acne-prone skin.
If dullness, pigmentation, or textural issues are concerns, try glycolic acid. This one from The Ordinary comes in at $10 for eight ounces, meaning that it will last you for ages. Apply a couple of drops to a reusable cotton round, and swipe over the skin to unveil an even-toned complexion.
Salicylic toners are great to address enlarged pores, blackheads, acne, or general oiliness. This one from La Roche-Posay is a French pharmacy favorite.
An excessively oily scalp can lead to dandruff and irritation, but salicylic acid can help address this too. Simply apply this and leave on for 10 minutes before shampooing to help dissolve flakes and buildup. Your scalp with breathe a sigh of relief.
Hyaluronic acid has become one of the buzziest skincare ingredients in recent years, mostly down to it being a great hydrating ingredient for all skin types and holding up to a thousand times its weight in water. You could easily spend three digits on a premium hyaluronic acid serum, but we’re spilling the beans. It’s a cheap-as-chips ingredient for brands to include, so you don’t need to spend a fortune on it. “Spending significant amounts often doesn’t equate to a higher-performing product—the consumer is often paying for the brand, the packaging and the perception of a higher-quality product,” saysFabusiwa.
“One of my favourite budget-friendly hydrators is Inkey’s Hyaluronic Acid Serum,” says Fabusiwa. “Not only will it only set you back $9, but it’s also formulated with 2% premium-grade hyaluronic acid, the optimum level for performance on the skin,” she says.
Price shown is member price. This is one of the best hyaluronic acid serums that I’ve ever tried—and it comes in under $30. In fact, I’d say it’s better than most expensive hyaluronic acid serums that I’ve used. It leaves skin feeling plumped and moisturized and fine lines looking softer over time.
For its seriously competitive price point, this serum has great four- and five-star reviews.
Vitamin C is often hailed as one of the best skincare ingredients you can use. It helps to shield the skin from environmental damage, it brightens pigmentation, and it whips up collagen production too. That being said, vitamin C can be unstable ingredient and tricky to formulate effectively, so it’s worth investing a little more on this skincare ingredient. “There are some ingredients like vitamin C or azelaic acid that are difficult to stabilize into safe, effective and durable products,” says Fabusiwa. “They may also require a different type of packaging to ensure longevity. Some of these products may be worth an additional spend for the effects that they have on the skin,” she says.
Yes, it’s expensive, but SkinCeuticals’ C E Ferulic serum is highly regarded as the best vitamin C serum that money can buy. This antioxidant serum is formulated with vitamins C and E and ferulic acid, helping to combat environmental damage and maintain the skin’s youthfulness. It has a 15% formulation of vitamin C, which helps to brighten pigmentation as well as address any fine lines. It’s a great all-rounder for all skin types and has a water-like consistency that sinks in quickly.
This serum has a 15% concentration of vitamin C, and it also has vitamin E and ferulic acid like the SkinCeuticals one—but at a more affordable price point.
You’ll often spot Medik8 products in the very best skincare clinics, and it’s loved by dermatologists.
Products aside, aesthetic treatments can go a long way to help you achieve your skin goals. “Whilst a consistent skincare routine is the backbone of beautiful, healthy skin, it won’t ever help to correct serious skin complaints such as scarring or severe hyperpigmentation,” says Fabusiwa. “It is often worth saving money and spending it on advanced treatments such as lasers, chemical peels, and micro-needling that have a strong evidence-based and high clinical efficiency,” she says. This is even more crucial if you’re considering injectable treatments such as Botox or fillers. “You absolutely want to pay for someone’s credentials and expertise when it comes to any surgical or injectable procedure,” says Psomadakis. “If it goes wrong—and it can go very wrong—you want to be sure you are working with a qualified professional who can reduce the risk of complications and correctly diagnose and manage the situation if something does happen,” she says.
Whether you wear a chemical or mineral SPF, it is one of the most important skincare products to wear daily to protect from skin cancer and signs of skin aging. While there are many affordable serums out there, what really sets apart the budget versions from the premium ones is the texture and how it feels on the skin. This might seem superficial, but if you hate the feeling of a cheap SPF on your skin, you won’t wear it. And having it sit on your shelf is no good in protecting your skin. So sometimes it pays to find a premium SPF with an elegant formula that you like and will want to use. “It is worthwhile to invest in a formula you love using,” says Psomadakis. “That could mean spending a bit up front to try different ones out on order to find a favorite or keeping a few different ones around to suit different skincare and makeup pairings. In general, sunscreens can be more expensive to make based on the ingredients and the regulation that is involved,” she says. “There are some great affordable options, so don’t rule those out. Just be sure to prioritise your spending budget on a sunscreen you love to use daily.”
I absolutely adore this formula from Shiseido—you can read my full SPF review here. The texture is incredibly lightweight and sits well underneath makeup. It’s also oil-free, so it’s ideal for oily or spot-prone complexions.
This SPF is so good I sometimes wear it on its own instead of foundation. If you like Charlotte Tilbury’s Hollywood Flawless Filter, then this is the SPF equivalent.
Topping up SPF throughout the day can be difficult, particularly if you’re wearing makeup. However, this spray can be easily misted on top for top-ups on the go without disturbing your makeup.
This post originally appeared on Who What Wear UK. Up Next: I’m a Picky Beauty Writer—This Is the Brand That Makes Up 50% of my Skin Routine.