When to indulge, when to conserve, and what to buy on both occasion. (Photo: Henry Leutwyler)
Skin care products give us hope – hope that with the next night cream purchase our fine lines will disappear; that with the perfect eye cream our dark circles will crawl back into the Hellmouth they came from. No matter how savvy we are as consumers, our optimism is sometimes enough to lure us into dropping a couple Benjamins on the latest-and-greatest serums and lotions.
But despite the joy we get from placing those expensive, exquisite bottles on our countertops, we still wonder: Is the money we spend (or would like to spend) on skin care really worth it?
According to Dr. Neal Schultz, MD, New York City-based dermatologist, host of DermTV.com and creator of BeautyRx, there’s more that goes into the price of a single product than you might think. Of course the concentration, purity and source of active ingredients play a role, but so do lab research fees, advertising and the brand’s positioning, audience and packaging.
So does that $300 serum really deserve a line on your credit card statement? “In my experience, it depends,” says Dr. Brian Zelickson, MD, dermatologist and Founder of MD Complete Skincare. “I see great products that are both reasonably priced and extremely high-priced, just as I see poor products in both price categories.” The bottom line: Read the ingredient list, look at product reviews, and check the website to see if there are clinical studies to back up their claims,“ he says.
Sounds like a lot of work, right? Luckily, we did it for you. We dug deep into the world of skin care to find 26 top-notch products – half of which you can afford on a shoestring beauty budget and half that are worth the investment. Here, the best serums, masks, lip balms and more at every price point.
Save vs. Splurge: Retinol Treatment
The Save: RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Night Cream, $22.99
StriVectin Advanced Retinol Intensive Night Treatment, $112
Any derm will tell you that retinol is one of the most effective anti-aging ingredients because it directly interacts with our DNA to increase the functions that our cells slack on as we get older. For example, it boosts cell turnover, which leads to fresher, more radiant skin.
According to cosmetic chemist Donald Frey, you won’t find an effective retinol for cheap. "Even mass products are in the $20 to $30 range,” he explains. Retinols vary in strength, and higher concentrations tend to be pricier. That said, Frey explains that when products go above the $50 to $60 range, “you are probably starting to pay more for the package and image than you are for the efficacy.”
Based on the ingredients list, this StriVectin treatment contains a marginally higher dose of retinol than the RoC. However, the RoC product offers extra glow-inducing properties, including glycolic acid. On the front end, you can see results from both (used consistently for eight weeks, that is): namely a more radiant complexion and smoother skin. Even though the RoC is a fifth of the price, it isn’t five times less effective.
Save vs. Splurge: Face Oil
The Save: Physicians Formula Argan Wear Ultra-Nourishing Argan Oil, $14.95
Josie Maran 100% Pure Argan Oil, $48
Argan oil promises to treat and moisturize irritated, dry and aging skin. In its purest form, it’s an ancient cure-all. It’s pretty easy to evaluate whether or not your argan oil is authentic, because pure argan oil should list just one ingredient: argan oil (aka, Argania Spinoza Kernel oil).
Both of these Josie Maran and Physician’s Formula products fit that bill – and each feels nourishing, smells lovely and makes skin look utterly dewy. Admittedly, we prefer the Josie Maran packaging (the Physician’s Formula bottle looks a bit like something out of Disney’s “Aladdin,” no?), but we’re sure argan oil addicts on a budget will agree that a little Papyrus font never hurt anyone.
Save vs. Splurge: Facial Scrub
The Save: Boots Botanics Age Defense Microdermabrasion Polish, $12.99
Fresh Sugar Face Polish, $62
Skin-care junkies on a budget can afford to pinch pennies with their exfoliator, according to Frey. “Save your money on your cleansers and first steps,” he advises. In other words, as long as you’re not “harming your skin with a harsh cleanser,” this is not the place to get nitpicky about ingredients and percentages.
Keeping that in mind, Fresh’s sugar scrub is the ultimate splurge. Infused with brown sugar, crushed strawberries and a variety of natural oils, it exfoliates, heals and softens skin, while making it smell amazing.
But if you can’t blow 60 bucks on sugar, this Boots scrub gets the job done. It’s not technically microdermabrasion, but the fine particles smoothen skin nicely, while the plant extracts leave it feeling soft. No hypnotizing smell, but skin tends to be okay with that.
Save vs. Splurge: Daily Moisturizer
The Save: Burt’s Bees Radiance Day Cream, $18
Guerlain Abeille Royale Nourishing Day Cream, $180
According to dermatologists, the most important step in your morning skin-care routine is sunscreen, which often works just fine as a moisturizer. However, if you have mature or dry skin, day creams offer an extra boost of hydration.
A basic, fragrance-free face lotion should do the trick for most skin types. But if you want a little more anti-aging bang for your buck, there are a number of trendy ingredients to try out. One of these is Royal Jelly, an antioxidant-packed honeybee derivative that’s been shown to increase collagen production and moisture content in the skin.
You’ll find Royal Jelly in these Guerlain and Burt’s Bees moisturizers, which both feel hydrating and nourishing. The formulas are lightweight, non-greasy and fast-absorbing. Of course, you can’t compare the packaging. The Guerlain jar looks like something from a museum. But for exactly ten times the price, it’s definitely an extravagance.
Save vs. Splurge: Antioxidant Serum
Save vs. Splurge: Antioxidant SerumThe Save: Paula’s Choice Resist C15 Super Booster, $48
SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic, $162
We reach for serums when we want a concentrated dose of nutrients. Usually a serum is one of the last products to touch your skin (after cleansing and toning), so according to Frey, it’s worth shelling out slightly more for clinically proven ingredients.
In terms of pricing, it’s helpful to think of serums as the wine of skin care, meaning, you can tell a difference between a $10 and a $50 bottle, but between $50 and $500, the difference is mostly reputation.
This SkinCeuticals tonic is packed with ferulic acid, which protects against photoaging (aka, wrinkles caused by the sun), as well as Vitamins C and E, which further fortify that barrier. With the price tag, you’re paying for the high concentrations of these active ingredients.
For less than a third of the price, this Paula’s Choice serum is quite similar, sporting nearly equal percentages of each antioxidant. The product even boasts the same distinctive, almost meaty scent of the SkinCeuticals. (Weird, we know.)
Though you can find even less expensive products at the drugstore (the “Two-Buck Chucks” of serums, if you will), that’s when you start noticing a drastic change in ingredients and efficacy.
Save vs. Splurge: Acne Treatmnent
The Save: Proactiv+ Three-Step System, $29.95
SkinMedica Acne System, $104
In the land of acne treatments, two ingredients reign supreme: benzoyl peroxide, which acts as an antiseptic, and salicylic acid, a chemical exfoliator. The former tends to work best on bacteria-laden whiteheads and the latter on blackheads and big, red blemishes. Used together, they combat all of the above.
SkinMedica’s pricier kit contains a 2 percent salicylic acid cleanser and toner, as well as a 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide moisturizer. The Proactive+ kit features a 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide cleanser and pore treatment, plus a 0.5 percent salicylic acid moisturizer.
The ingredients are the same; it’s the products and concentrations that differ. While SkinMedica focuses more on salicylic acid and Proactiv+ on benzoyl peroxide, both ingredients are proven effective. And according to Frey, when an ingredient’s percentage is stated directly, it means that percentage is guaranteed for the life of the product. In other words, you can trust both kits won’t expire on you.
Marketing-wise, Proactiv+ has geared its product more toward teens and young adults, and SkinMedica toward adult-acne sufferers. Thus, one possible difference in price. But when you break it down, effective ingredients work – and Proactiv+’s won’t care how old you are, as long as you don’t.
Save vs. Splurge: Eye Cream
The Save: Simple Revitalizing Eye Roll-On, $10.99
Do Not Age with Dr. Brandt Triple Peptide Eye Cream, $80
The point of eye cream is to keep your fast-aging under-eye area as moisturized as possible. The more hydrated it is, the tauter it will be, staying firm and wrinkle-free over time.
The good news is that you don’t need expensive ingredients to keep your under-eyes effectively hydrated. However, peptide-loaded eye creams are having a major moment. Peptides help build up the skin’s barrier, making it less prone to burning and redness. Problem is, they’re one of the priciest components of skin-care products. If you have sensitive skin, you might choose to spring for a peptide-infused eye cream, such as this Dr. Brandt pick.
For sensitive skin sufferers on a budget, try this gentle pick from Simple. It’s free of harsh dyes, perfumes and other irritants. Though it’s not a thick, decadent cream like Dr. Brandt’s, it contains derm-recommended elements, like de-puffing cucumber and hydrating glycerin, which get the job done for $70 less. Plus, the packaging is opaque and airtight – unlike the Dr. Brandt jar – meaning the active ingredients are better protected against degradation and bacteria.
Save vs. Splurge: Night Cream
The Save: Mario Badescu Skin Care Seaweed Night Cream, $22
La Mer Crème De La Mer, $170
Both La Mer and Mario Badescu’s products use undersea plant extracts to create rich, deeply moisturizing face creams. While La Mer’s texture is thicker and its scent is a touch more spa-like, there are other factors accounting for the price.
“La Mer’s custom-made jar is much more expensive than standard [packaging],” explains Anne Pouillot, Research and Development Director at Alchimie Forever. Beyond the posh exterior, regardless of what it costs to manufacture the product itself, “pricing La Mer under $50 does not match the brand’s story or desired customer,” Pouillot explains.
In other words, La Mer is meant to be a splurge, while Mario Badescu tells a different story. It’s a suite at the Four Seasons versus a double bed at the Marriott. One might be fancier, but at the end of the day, you’ll sleep fine in both.