Secrets of the Drugstore

The sheer volume of beauty choices at the drugstore can be overwhelming, but the temptations are just as plentiful. Here’s how to sort through it all—and walk away with the very best.

By Mary Rose Almasi


We love shopping for beauty products at the drugstore for the same reasons that we dislike it. We feel liberated to roam freely through the aisles—until we suddenly find that we’ve wandered into the contact-lens-solution wilderness. We relish the chance to spend as long as we want perusing the makeup shelves without anyone asking, “Can I help you?” (for the fifth time)—until we get stumped and have nowhere to turn. The only thing we’re not on the fence about? The enticement of cutting-edge skin care, hair care, and makeup that is now in drugstores. “The time frame for beauty innovations has shortened, so drugstores have a great deal of new items to offer trend-savvy shoppers,” says Kina Guyton, director of retail marketing for beauty at Walgreens. But actually staying focused enough to find the good stuff? That’s where it can get tricky. More than half of people’s purchase decisions are made after they arrive at the store, says David Zgarrick, professor of pharmacy practice at Northeastern University in Boston, who also lectures on drugstore planning. The secret is knowing what to look out for—and just where to look.


  • START ONLINE. “Many brands, like L’Oréal, Revlon, and Cover Girl, offer shade-matching tools on their websites that are surprisingly accurate,” says makeup artist Emily Kate Warren. After taking one of the online quizzes, print out the resulting shade recommendations and bring them along with you when you go shopping.

  • KNOW WHEN THE NEW TRENDS ARRIVE. Twice a year, drugstores incorporate new shades into their cosmetics lines. “It typically happens in January and July,” says Cheryl Mahoney, vice president of beauty for CVS/Pharmacy.

  • CRUISE THE ENDCAPS. The short shelves on the ends of beauty aisles highlight new products, and drugstores change them weekly or biweekly. Seasonal displays, like fall-color collections, are out for one to two months. In either case, “if you see a shade you love, stock up now, because once it’s sold out, it’s usually gone forever,” says makeup artist Troy Surratt.

  • LOOK FOR RANGE. When shopping for a new foundation, stick with lines that offer a large shade selection, because that way, even if you pick one shade off, you’ll have a close match, says Surratt. “If you’re stuck between two close shades, go with the one that’s a tiny bit darker—it will warm your complexion, and you can always blend it out,” he says. If you already have a foundation that’s a good match but you want to switch brands, take the bottle with you and hold it up against those in the store. “Bottle-to-bottle comparisons actually do work,” says Surratt.

  • BEWARE OF SUPERCHEAP MAKEUP. Some $1.99 lipsticks tend to be waxy and come off easily. Ultracheap eye pencils can do the same—or the opposite: Sometimes they’re hard and won’t glide well, says Surratt. “If you can, swipe a tester on the back of your hand to see how blendable or hard it is,” he says. Otherwise, shop away: Many drugstore lipstick, gloss, and stain colors and textures are comparable to luxury brands.

  • USE THE SHADE STICKERS. Don’t be afraid to go by the label on the bottom of a shrink-wrapped lipstick. “Brands match the color swatches with Pantone chips, which can be reproduced consistently for displays and stickers,” says Guyton. “If the shades seem off, we ask the company to fix them before they reach shelves.”

  • BUY GERMAN. Eyeliners and lip liners from Germany—whether pencils, liquids, or markers—are usually high quality. “There are two factories there that make most liners for luxury and drugstore brands, and you can bet they use similar pigments and waxes to make them,” says Surratt. You’ll usually find the place of origin on the package and on the liner itself.

  • PICK MASCARA IN STEPS. When faced with a wall of 50, narrow the choices first by selecting waterproof or nonwaterproof, then pick your color, and from there choose the formula: thickening, lengthening, or curling. “When in doubt, go with thickening, because you can always use a lash curler first, and a second swipe will lengthen the tips,” says makeup artist Maria Verel.


  • BE SPECIFIC. If you feel overwhelmed, scan the shelves for Aveeno and Olay, which group their products by specific skin issues, such as acne or wrinkles. “It helps you focus,” says Doris Day, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center.

  • OR CONSIDER KITS. “Certain types of skin-care products, especially acne or anti-aging ones, are meant to be used together. Those ingredients will complement each other and won’t overlap—so there’s less chance of irritation,” says Francesca Fusco, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

  • STICK TO ESTABLISHED ANTI-AGERS. Dermatologists say it’s hard to go wrong with trusted ingredients like retinol—as long as you scrutinize the label. “Anti-wrinkle products don’t always call out the percentage of retinol, but ingredients are always listed in order of concentration, so look for it in the top five,” says Amy Wechsler, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. Products with glycolic acid are another sure thing. “These are always going to be a good way to exfoliate, as long as you buy one labeled for your skin type,” says Fusco.

  • THE SAME GOES FOR PROVEN ACNE FIGHTERS. The shelves hold hundreds of different pimple-reducing products; to find the ones that really work, look for salicylic acid spot treatments and cleansers containing 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide, says Wechsler. For body breakouts, move up to a 10 percent benzoyl peroxide wash.

  • SCHMOOZE FOR SAMPLES. Many large drugstores, such as Duane Reade, Walgreens, and CVS/Pharmacy, make beauty advisers available—people who are trained to help customers make sense of beauty products and shades (ask when they’re on duty). They’re also the keepers of free sample packets of skin care, says Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which advises retailers on consumer attitudes and behavior. “It’s never going to be color cosmetics, because the cost is too high for the companies, but you can usually get something from one of the skin-care lines, like La Roche-Posay,” she says.

  • ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT. Many large drugstore chains replenish their stock from giant warehouses, Zgarrick says, so a salesperson can enter your request in a computer and get it in the store, often the next day.

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  • LOOK TO THE RIGHT. “American shoppers scan shelves from left to right,” says Zgarrick. Name brands and new products—the ones that are likely to catch your eye and spark an impulse buy—will often be placed to the left, and store brands typically appear on the right end of the shelf. Eye-level shelves are also where you’ll find big-name products, while store brands are relegated to the lowest shelf, says Zgarrick. “Companies sometimes pay extra to be on eye-level shelves. It’s prime real estate.”

  • GO BIG. Scan the lower shelves and the endcaps for jumbo-size bottles of shampoo, conditioner, or styling products—you’ll often find ones with an additional few ounces thrown in for free. “You’ll see a mousse, and then a big ‘bonus size’ mousse,” says Zgarrick. It’s usually a few dollars more, but it costs less per use. Just make sure that you are actually going to use that much mousse.

  • BEWARE TEMPTATION. Drugstores often intersperse ancillary products, such as hairbrushes, combs, and hair elastics, among the shampoos and styling products to lure you into buying more. Before you throw one of these extras into your basket, ask yourself: Do I really need another brush?

  • AVOID ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL FORMULAS. “Zero in on the brands that break out their formulas for different hair types or needs, such as waves, thinning strands, or long hair,” says hairstylist Matt Fugate of the Sally Hershberger Downtown salon in New York City. “When you pinpoint the right products, you’ll like the results better.” If a product’s label isn’t clear, move right along to another brand.

  • DON’T SWEAT THE SHAMPOOS AND STYLING PRODUCTS. Industry buzz-words, “it” ingredients, and bouncy-haired spokesmodels aside, “there’s not much difference between high- and lower-cost shampoos—they all clean hair effectively,” says hairstylist Nathaniel Hawkins. As stylers go, hair spray, volumizer sprays, and mousse don’t contain expensive ingredients, so even the low-priced stuff is good, says Fugate. Drugstore anti-frizz and shine serums are another win. Because they’re made with a lower concentration of silicone than salon brands, they’re harder to overapply, says Hawkins. “It’s better to use these thinner formulas and build to the shine level you want,” he says.

  • SNAG THE HOT ROLLERS—AND THINK TWICE BEFORE BUYING OTHER HEAT TOOLS. “Unlike blow-dryers or curling irons, hot rollers are the same quality no matter where you get them,” says Fugate. Look for the felt-covered ones—they will create shinier, more glamorous curls, he says. “Use them to set big curls on long hair or to dress up a ponytail.” Splurging on professional-grade tools may be wise in the long run. High-end blow-dryers and curling irons, Fugate says, may well last longer. “Invest in the quality of your tools,” he says. (His favorites are the SuperSolano 3500 Light hair dryer and Enzo Milano one-inch curling iron.)



Shopping at the Costcos of the world is as much about saying no as saying yes. Whether you’re cruising for beauty products or for giant tubs of mayo, the trick is to bypass what you can’t use, or bring a friend and go halves.


“When a giant bottle catches your eye, do some quick math to figure out if you’ll use it in time,” says dermatologist Amy Wechsler. “If you’ll use it within a year, go for it.”


“You need to replace mascara every three months, and that can get expensive—so get the value pack when you can,” says Warren.


When you have a lot of sunscreen on hand, you’ll use a lot. Just be careful not to hoard your supply for years: You have two years from the time you open a tube of sunscreen until it loses effectiveness.


Giant shampoos and conditioners that live in a shower for ages can develop mildew, says hairstylist Nathaniel Hawkins. (Not dangerous, but gross.) His solution: “When you buy a megabottle, pour it into a smaller one for the shower. Wash and air-dry it between fill-ups.”


Still feeling overwhelmed? You can’t go wrong with these must-have items that our experts fill their carts with.

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photo: Chris Craymer, Mark Leibowitz