7 derm-recommended drugstore swaps for pricey skincare products

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Give your skin a boost. (Photo: Ulta)
Give your skin a boost. (Photo: Ulta)

The magic words in skincare often seem to call for magic money. Hyaluronic acid, retinol, vitamin C—getting these goods requires you to shell out serious cash and give up something else, right? Well, yes and no. Yes if you go straight to the brands most obvious—Tatcha, Sunday Riley, or even La Mer and Dr. Sturm—and sacrifice an arm and a leg as payment. And no if you know who to ask (and we know who to ask.)

We went straight to the experts—top dermatologists—to find out what a normal person could do to get the best results from the most cutting edge ingredients and they sent us to...the drugstore. That’s right. These pros say there’s a batch of reasonably priced options that work just well as—or better than—the high-end brands that hog the limelight. We pressed for details, and here’s what we got: Seven brilliantly affordable under-the-radar picks from doctors to bring the glow, save the cash, and give you the satisfaction of beating the system.

Instead of Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment, get The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA 2% ($7, from Ulta).

Anything but ordinary. (Ulta)
Anything but ordinary. (Ulta)

Lactic acid has long been hailed as a gentle, dermatologist go-to for anti-aging and exfoliation. Because it’s less irritating than salicylic acid, it’s often recommended for patients with sensitive and dry skin, but it can also help those suffering from rosacea, superficial acne and hyperpigmentation.

“This is a great dupe,” says Dr. Howard Sobel, of Sobel Skin. “It will remove the layer of dead skin cells and reveal a radiant and youthful complexion. The ingredients are very straightforward, with the percentage of active ingredients right in the product name.” Dr. Sobel told us that the info is unclear with the pricier Sunday Riley treatment: “With Sunday Riley, the exact amount of active ingredients isn't as clear.” This is a fairly mild exfoliant, and it is also fragrance-free, making it a perfect option for all skin types. I would recommend using the product once a day to remove dirt and residue from the skin, followed by a moisturizer and sunscreen, like the Sobel Skin Rx Plant Stem Cell Day Cream + SPF 30, to protect freshly exfoliated skin from the damaging UV rays and sunburn."


Instead of splurging on a pricey moisturizer, try La Roche Cicaplast Baume ($15, from Amazon)

Hand-healing for hard times. (Amazon)
Hand-healing for hard times. (Amazon)



Frequent hand washing during the times of coronavirus strips the skin of moisture, while the constant rubbing of the fabric against the face with masks exacerbates sensitive skin and contributes to breakouts from buildup of dirt and oil. It’s important to find a moisturizer that doesn’t clog pores yet at the same time soothes irritated skin, like this La Roche-Posay balm made with shea butter and glycerin.

“La Roche Cicaplast Baume B5 is a lifesaver especially in the time of COVID-19 where hand washing and face mask-wearing is really causing a lot of skin irritation for many,” says Dr. Kavita Mariwalla, founder of Mariwalla Dermatology. “This moisturizer truly heals the hands with its anti-inflammatory ingredients and the formulation does not leave the hands feeling oily or sticky.”


Instead of splurging on SkinCeuticals Hydrating B5 Gel or SkinMedica Ha5, try Neutrogena Hydroboost Water Gel ($25, from Ulta)

Today I am...a small blue thing. (Ulta)
Today I am...a small blue thing. (Ulta)

Hyaluronic acid is produced naturally by our skin to keep our skin plump and well-hydrated, but the amount we create naturally decreases exponentially as we age. Dermatologists recommend hyaluronic-focused products, like this best-selling Neutrogena moisturizer, to hydrate and replenish skin and in doing so, minimize fine lines and wrinkles.

“The Neutrogena Boost absorbs 1000 times its weight, is noncomedogenic and can be used day and evening, at a fraction of the cost compared to other brands,” explains Dr. Patricia Wexler of Wexler Dermatology. “The function of hyaluronic acid is to provide retention of moisture for plump, hydrated, smooth and wrinkle-free skin. It is naturally found in your body and its function is to keep your retain water and keep your tissues well lubricated. This is not only a dupe [for SkinMedica Ha5], but there are unique chains of hyaluronic acid in multiple shapes and sizes which can help stimulate your skin to produce its own hyaluronic acid. Many times, more expensive brands are delivering Hyaluronic acid, but more expensive due to branding, marketing and packaging.”

Echoes Spring Street Dermatology’s Dr. Sapna Palep, “It works just as well to hydrate the skin. The main ingredient is the hyaluronic acid. It’s in a water base instead of a clogging serum. So, it works well with our skin in a time like this when we are wearing masks all the time and need a non-clogging moisturizer.”

Instead of shopping SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic serum, try Vichy Liftactiv Vitamin C ($29, from Dermstore)

Soothing serum rich in Vitamin C. (Dermstore)
Soothing serum rich in Vitamin C. (Dermstore)

An all-in-one powerhouse ingredient like vitamin C serum, which can reduce inflammation, even out pigmentation and add a healthy glow, may be easy to find, but not at an affordable price point. Even more difficult is finding a budget-friendly serum that is manufactured with an effective percentage of the vitamin.

According to Dr. Jennifer MacGregor of Union Square Laser Dermatology, this Vichy Laboratories brightening serum is a spectacular find for the price.

“It has the same potent 15 percent vitamin C as the more expensive and popular C E Ferulic by SkinCeuticals (which I also love), without the vitamin E and Ferulic acid,” she explains. “It’s rare, but some people develop an allergy to topical vitamin E. It’s still an ultra-potent, effective antioxidant, packaged correctly to maintain efficacy and comes in a smaller stock size that is convenient for travel or gym bags.  This version of vitamin C is also combined with hydrating and plumping hyaluronic acid to smooth the skin surface and comes at less than half the price when adjusted for size.”

Instead of opting for an expensive retinol cream, try AcneFree's Adapalene Gel ($10, from Amazon), La Roche-Posay Adapalene 0.1% Acne Treatment ($30, from Ulta) or Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment ($13, from Amazon)


Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment (Amazon)
Differin Adapalene Gel 0.1% Acne Treatment (Amazon)

Effective retinoids are often tricky to find, dermatologists explain, because brands frequently don’t make retinol strength clear to customers. However, while the creams were initially only available with prescriptions, there are plenty of over-the-counter brands that work just as well to help stimulate collagen production reduce lines, pigmentation, dark spots and combat acne.

“People are sometimes scared of using retinoids because they think their skin will get too irritated or that they will be too sun sensitive. But there are many different formulations available, and some are much more tolerable than others,” Dr. Hadley King of Skinney MedSpa explains.

“Adapalene is a third-generation retinoid with proven efficacy and tolerability, for the treatment of acne, and is also effective for anti-aging,” continues Dr. King.“It has been studied in numerous clinical trials that have demonstrated high efficacy and lower risk of skin irritation. Adapalene also has an anti-inflammatory effect due to inhibition of lipoxygenase activity and also to the oxidative metabolism of arachidonic acid. These mechanisms may be the reason for decreased risk of irritation with adapalene. It's marketed for acne but works well for anti-aging too.”

Acne begone. (Amazon)
Acne begone. (Amazon)

For those with acne, Dr. Robert Anolik of Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York recommends AcneFree's Adapalene Gel, which in the past was only accessible via a dermatoligist’s prescription.

“Since most prescription options like other adapalene gels or tretinoin creams are often not covered by insurance, they are relatively a fortune. This is a wonderful go-to product that is an accessible and effective acne treatment for many. In fact, it used to be only available by prescription but fortunately, a prescription is no longer necessary given its safety profile,” Anolik asserts.


Another excellent anti-acne option.
Another excellent anti-acne option.

“I like the La Roche-Posay Adapalene 0.1% Acne Treatment,” offers Dr. Hilary Baldwin, Medical Director of the Acne Treatment and Research Center in Brooklyn. “It contains adapalene, a prescription-strength retinoid acne treatment that was once only available through prescription, so this is a great product at an affordable price point for anyone looking for an acne-fighting solution. For over three decades, OTC acne treatments have been limited to only a handful of active ingredients, mostly with benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid and now La Roche-Posay offers a topical prescription-strength retinoid (adapalene) acne treatment that is available to consumers.”

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