The definitive ‘spend vs. save’ guide to mascara, serums, cleanser (and everything else)
by Alle Connell 9/30/15
As a beauty editor, one of the most common questions I’m asked is which products are “worth” spending money on. While this really depends on your budget and beauty lifestyle, some things are just plain better at a higher price point — they last longer, wear more perfectly and come in a cooler variety of colors. Some other products work pretty much the same, no matter how cheap or expensive they are.
That’s where I can help. My whole job is testing out the latest and greatest in beauty products, so knowing what’s genuinely good is my entire reason for being. Here’s my official guide to the beauty products worth the higher cost, as well as where you can save without sacrificing quality.
Makeup remover: spend
Not even kidding — spend a few extra dollars on your makeup remover, and you will be shocked at how much easier your life becomes. My favorite is Lancome’s Cleansing Oil ($42, Sephora), which takes off even the most hardcore waterproof eye makeup — all without irritating my skin or leaving any kind of residue on my face.
Cleanser stays on your face for a short period of time, then goes straight down the drain. Save your dollars. In all my years in the beauty world, I’ve never found anything better than CeraVe Cleanser ($9.49, Drugstore.com.) The cleanser is incredibly gentle and effective on every skin type — even mine, which is notoriously sensitive.
I recommend saving on retinols, within reason. Retinoids are legitimately life-changing in terms of their anti-aging, scar-reducing, adult acne-zapping abilities — of course, their prices vary wildly. Instead of spending $20 on a drugstore retinol derivative that doesn’t work or $150 on a designer potion that promises to put a new face on your face, go to your dermatologist and get a prescription retinoid. You’ll get actual results, and most insurance plans will cover it. A 90-day supply can cost as little as $60, which is a freaking bargain.
The prices on these bad boys are justified. Serums have higher concentrations of active ingredients and fewer fillers, which means that they work — and cost more. You don’t need to spend a trillion dollars to get an amazing serum. I adore Pestle + Mortar’s Hyularonic Acid Serum (Pestle and Mortar, $65,) which keeps my skin hydrated and insanely smooth without sending me spiraling into debt.
Moisturizers are made up of three main ingredients: a humectant (which draws water out of the air and hydrates the skin,) an emollient (which smooths skin) and an occlusive agent (which prevents water loss.) Most super-fancy moisturizers contain these three basic things, which are all generally really cheap, and then a bunch of “extracts” to make them sound posh and justify a expensive price tag. For my money, there’s no better moisturizer than Dr. Jart+ Water Fuse Gel ($38, Sephora) at night and CeraVe AM Moisturizer with SPF ($11.99, Drugstore.com) during the day.
Foundation, concealer, powder: spend
You should spend money on anything you need to match the color of your skin exactly. More expensive lines just have a better shade range. The wear and coverage tends to improve pretty drastically with pricepoint, too. Since you need to use less product to get good results, pricier things will last you a lot longer.
Case in point: my favorite concealer of all time is Make Up For Ever’s Full Cover Concealer ($32, Sephora,) and it is quite expensive. I only need the tiniest blob each time I do my makeup, and a single tube has lasted me well over a year. That’s an investment I’ll gladly make for perfect-looking skin!
Unless you need a super-specific color, drugstore blushes are just as good as the expensive ones.
A fun beauty editor secret: the best highlighters aren’t highlighters at all. Stila Eye Shadow in Kitten ($18, Sephora) has been my ride-or-die skin highlighter forever. In a slightly shell-pink shade just lighter than my skin, it gives my complexion the most gorgeous shimmer that never verges on glittery. These eyeshadows come in a range of neutrals, so odds are you’ll find a shade that works for you, too.
Eyeliner can be tricky. Save on pencils, spend on liquid. Eyeliner pencils max out their awesomeness around $8, but you’ll really see a difference in terms of the color quality, opacity and wear with slightly more expensive liquid liners.
You can save on shadows, but spend on a really good primer to ensure amazing wear and perfect color payoff.
Brow products: spend
Please, god. Nobody wants greasy, smudgy brows. Spend a bit more money to make sure your gel, pencil, powder or pomade stays put on your brows.
Mascara tends to reach peak awesomeness around $20. Anything more expensive than that isn’t worth it, unless you need something genuinely waterproof. Expect to spend around $30 for something that actually stands up to water. Cheaper “waterproof” mascaras will escape down your face at the first sign of humidity.
Lip liner: save
I have never found an expensive liner that works better than my NYX lip liner ($3:50, Nyx Cosmetics).
Save on long-wear products. L’Oreal Infallible Pro-Last Lipcolor is the best long-wear lipstick in history, and you don’t need to buy anything else, ever ($11, Drugstore.com.)
Spend on mattes, because they truly feel better and last longer than cheap products.
Spend on glosses, because I hate when they’re sticky.
Whatever you want on everything else. Invest in lip colors you’ll wear often. I bought a Tom Ford Matte Lipstick in Ruby Rush ($52, Tom Ford Beauty,) and that price tag was worth it because it’s the perfect red. I wear it every other day. I tend to buy cheaper versions of trendy colors, because they probably won’t live in my lipstick wardrobe forever. Like my mum always said, the most expensive lipstick you own is the one you only wear once.