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Drugstore Skin-Care Buys That Are Better Than the Pricey Stuff

New products that go head-to-head with luxury brands

Skin care products on the shelves of a pharmacy shop
Photo Central/Alamy Stock Photo

As a beauty editor specializing in an audience age 50-plus, I test and compare new products that range from expensive to low-cost ... with a big dose of skepticism. That’s because beneath the glitzy title I’m a practical woman who balks at spending $400 on a new face cream and $45 on a cleanser. I also know how smart marketing, trendy buzzwords and bargain pricing can make a $16 serum or $30 moisturizer seem like dupes for those double or triple the price. Can inexpensive beauty products — whether sold at drugstores, mass retailers or specialty stores — match or beat those with the Midas touch? Here are the ones that do.

1. ‘Natural’ serums and oils

(Left to rightå) Botanics Organic Facial Oil; Cocokind Chia Facial Oil; Versed Stroke of Brilliance Brightening Serum; Pacifica Sea & C Love Vitamin Serum
(Left to right) Botanics Organic Facial Oil; Cocokind Chia Facial Oil; Versed Stroke of Brilliance Brightening Serum; Pacifica Sea & C Love Vitamin Serum
Target (4)

Do the words clean, green, vegan, organic or natural resonate with you? How about cruelty-free and paraben-, phthalate- and sulfate-free? You’re probably intrigued by serums and oils that incorporate botanicals, but Vintner’s Daughter Active Botanical Serum with 22 extracts is $195 and Tata Harper Elixir Vitae Ultimate Wrinkle Solution is a whopping $490! Take a look. Drugstores have stepped up and now stock their beauty aisles with face oils like the Botanics Organic Facial Oil ($18, target.com), which includes rose hip oil rich in essential fatty acids; Cocokind Chia Facial Oil ($15, target.com) — vegan and high in omega-3; and serums like the vegan Versed Stroke of Brilliance Brightening Serum ($20, target.com) and Pacifica Sea & C Love Vitamin Serum ($21, target.com), both with vitamin C.

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2. Creams that shout out proven ingredients

(Clockwise from top left) Cetaphil Deep Hydration Healthy Glow Daily Cream with Hyaluronic Acid; e.l.f. Holy Hydration  Face Cream Fragrance Free with Hyaluronic Acid + Peptides; Olay Regenerist Vitamin C + Peptide 24 Face Moisturizer
(Clockwise from top left) Cetaphil Deep Hydration Healthy Glow Daily Cream with Hyaluronic Acid; e.l.f. Holy Hydration Face Cream Fragrance Free with Hyaluronic Acid + Peptides; Olay Regenerist Vitamin C + Peptide 24 Face Moisturizer
Target (3)

Let’s not get seduced by a moisturizer’s iconic fame, price tag or fancy jar. If you’re intrigued but mystified by Creme de La Mer’s “Miracle Broth” or La Prairie Skin Caviar Luxe Cream’s exclusive cellular complex, know that many luxury brands use “proprietary blends of ingredients,” or formulas that don’t explicitly reveal their mix. Drugstore creams have learned to put proven ingredients right on the label — so you know exactly what you’re getting. Want dewier, fresher skin? Choose hyaluronic acid like the Cetaphil Deep Hydration Healthy Glow Daily Cream with Hyaluronic Acid ($22, target.com). Brighter, firmer and bouncier skin? Look for peptides like Olay Regenerist Vitamin C + Peptide 24 Face Moisturizer ($30, target.com), with a bonus of skin-brightening vitamin C; or e.l.f. Holy Hydration Face Cream Fragrance Free with Hyaluronic Acid + Peptides ($13, target.com) for a mix of both. There’s no guesswork.

3. Moisturizers with high SPF

(Left to right) Aveeno Positively Radiant Daily Facial Moisturizer SPF 30; Acure Radically Rejuvenating SPF Day Cream with SPF 30; RoC Multi Correction Hydrate + Plump Moisturizer SPF 30
(Left to right) Aveeno Positively Radiant Daily Facial Moisturizer SPF 30; Acure Radically Rejuvenating SPF Day Cream with SPF 30; RoC Multi Correction Hydrate + Plump Moisturizer SPF 30
Walgreens; Target; CVS

Low-end brands have jumped on the need for everyday creams that check all the hydration and nurturing boxes and also protect skin from the damaging effects of UVA/UVB rays. High-end brands often skip the SPF completely or opt for a low SPF. For getting the job done you can count on basics like the Aveeno Positively Radiant Daily Facial Moisturizer SPF 30 ($22, walgreens.com), Acure Radically Rejuvenating SPF Day Cream with SPF 30 ($16, target.com) and RoC Multi Correction Hydrate + Plump Moisturizer SPF 30 ($33, cvs.com).

4. Sensitive solutions for face and body

(Left to right) Nivea Sensitive and Radiant Face and Body Cream; Burt’s Bees Calming Night Cream with Aloe and Rice Milk for Sensitive Skin; CeraVe Hydrating Cream-to-Foam Cleanser
(Left to right) Nivea Sensitive and Radiant Face and Body Cream; Burt’s Bees Calming Night Cream with Aloe and Rice Milk for Sensitive Skin; CeraVe Hydrating Cream-to-Foam Cleanser
CVS; Target (2)

Many women who are prone to redness, inflammation and allergic reactions think expensive brands will solve all. While premium beauty products can be soothing, their primary objective is not to treat those with reactive face or body skin. Low-cost brands now own this category and their targeted products developed by dermatologists work as preventatives and solutions. Good examples are overnight moisturizers like the Burt’s Bees Calming Night Cream with Aloe and Rice Milk for Sensitive Skin ($18, target.com), loaded with humectants and oils and awarded the National Eczema Association Seal of Acceptance; and body creams like the Nivea Sensitive and Radiant Face and Body Cream ($7, cvs.com) — packed with soothing shea butter and aloe vera, and the CeraVe Hydrating Cream-to-Foam Cleanser ($15, target.com) with hyaluronic acid and ceramides to restore moisture and protect the skin’s barrier layer. All these products are a bargain and come in under $20.

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5. Men-only grooming and skin care

(Left to right) Goodfellow & Co Face Lotion with SPF 30 Kelp & Sea Mineral; Lumin Face Moisturizer Dry Skin Balm; Harry’s Exfoliating Face Wash; Bevel Men’s Body Lotion with Shea Butter & Argan Oil
(Left to right) Goodfellow & Co Face Lotion with SPF 30 Kelp & Sea Mineral; Lumin Face Moisturizer Dry Skin Balm; Harry’s Exfoliating Face Wash; Bevel Men’s Body Lotion with Shea Butter & Argan Oil
Target (4)

A daily after-shave lotion for $65? A fancy shaving cream for $50? Save your money for holidays and birthdays when a pricey bottle of Dior Eau Sauvage After Shave or The Art of Shaving Sandalwood Shower Gel will add a special boost, and head to the drugstore for daily products with wallet appeal. High SPF moisturizers like the Goodfellow & Co Face Lotion with SPF 30 Kelp & Sea Mineral ($10, target.com) with no parabens, sulfates, oxybenzone or synthetic dyes; soothing skin-brightening creams like the Lumin Face Moisturizer Dry Skin Balm ($12, target.com) with vitamin C; gentle exfoliating cleansers like Harry’s Exfoliating Face Wash ($9, target.com) with a clean, energizing eucalyptus and peppermint scent; and a silky body lotion like the Bevel Men’s Body Lotion with Shea Butter & Argan Oil ($13, target.com) all come in attractive minimalist packaging and low-key colors.

6. Affordable menopause solutions

(Left to right) No7 Menopause Skincare Instant Radiance Serum; Womaness Overnight Magic; Mario Badescu Skin Care Facial Spray with Aloe, Adaptogens and Coconut Water
(Left to right) No7 Menopause Skincare Instant Radiance Serum; Womaness Overnight Magic; Mario Badescu Skin Care Facial Spray with Aloe, Adaptogens and Coconut Water
Ulta Beauty; Target (2)

This category is booming as pricey brands like Emepelle, Stripes, Caire Beauty and Pause Well Aging tackle a once-taboo topic and address collagen depletion, dryness, wrinkles, loss of radiance and saggy skin. Sound familiar? It should, since these issues are the backbone of the skin-care business. Most menopause-focused creams, mists and serums are a combo of smart marketing and power-player ingredients like hyaluronic acid, peptides, niacinamide and shea butter that are found in many products designed for mature skin. Try lower-priced menopause options like the No7 Menopause Skincare Instant Radiance Serum ($42, ulta.com) with hyaluronic, glycerin and niacinamide, and the Womaness Overnight Magic ($22, target.com) with the plant-based retinol alternative, bakuchiol. For hot flashes, keep a low-cost cooling mist like the Mario Badescu Skin Care Facial Spray with Aloe, Adaptogens and Coconut Water ($9, target.com) on hand for an instant refresh.

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7. Quick-work cleansers

(Left to right) Garnier SkinActive Micellar Cleansing Water with Hyaluronic Acid + Aloe; Andalou Naturals Deep Hydration Nourishing Cleansing Balm; La Roche-Posay Ultrafine Exfoliating Scrub for Sensitive Skin
(Left to right) Garnier SkinActive Micellar Cleansing Water with Hyaluronic Acid + Aloe; Andalou Naturals Deep Hydration Nourishing Cleansing Balm; La Roche-Posay Ultrafine Exfoliating Scrub for Sensitive Skin
CVS; Target (2)

This hardworking staple of good skin- and makeup-removal routines is available at every price range. Hydrating cleansers in a variety of formats are efficient partners in removing sunscreen and waterproof makeup. Drugstore options are again the clear winners here, thanks to nourishing hybrids like the Garnier SkinActive Micellar Cleansing Water with Hyaluronic Acid + Aloe ($11, cvs.com), which plumps up skin and softens it while removing makeup with no need to rinse; super-fine exfoliating washes like the La Roche-Posay Ultrafine Exfoliating Scrub for Sensitive Skin ($18, target.com); and creamy balms like the Andalou Naturals Deep Hydration Nourishing Cleansing Balm ($17, target.com) that dissolves all makeup (including stubborn liners, mascara and brow pencils) and leaves skin supple.​

My final super-tip? Dip a cotton swab in micellar water to correct mascara or liner smears and eye shadow cheek sprinkles after you finish makeup. It’s as good as it gets.