The Best of Everything: Affordable Beauty Products.

By: Jen Shoop

I received a recent query from a younger reader asking whether I could recommend “beauty products on a budget.” She added: “I’d love to buy La Mer but it’s just not realistic.” I loved the provocation and thought I’d share my favorite affordable beauty finds — nothing on this list is over $50.

+Makeup Remover: Almay Oil-Free Eye Makeup Removing Pads ($4.99) and Garnier Micellar Water. I have used the Almay pads since I was in my teens for mascara. They work incredibly well. For the rest of my face, I use micellar water. I tend to prefer Bioderma’s, but Garnier’s is remarkably similar and can be purchased for less. The only difference is that I find Bioderma’s slightly gentler and more effective at removing every trace of makeup. But both are very good.

+Cleansing Pads: Shiseido Facial Cotton ($12). Trust me when I say that this is worth the splurge over your standard-issue drugstore rounds. You get a LOT of pads for the price and you truly only need one at a time (I find I need two of the rounds from the drugstore because the products leak through the pads!) These are so much softer and gentler on skin. I’m obsessed. Related, I’ve tried lots of different make-up removing washcloths (including the highly-touted Makeup Eraser, which was just ehhhh IMHO — I don’t like how the fabric does not wick away moisture! It just kind of lays on your skin and does not absorb? I don’t get it) and the like but my favorite are these genius navy face towels, which never show mascara stains.

+Cleanser: Tatcha The Deep Cleanse ($38). I love the texture of this product and — more importantly — the way it leaves my skin feeling completely cleansed and smoothed, but not dry. I prefer a cleanser with some grit to it (I used Proactiv for well over a decade) and this does the trick, but gently. I have a travel size that I genuinely look forward to using while on vacation!

+Serum: Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum. Absolutely amazing for the price — I would argue just as good as Vintner’s Daughter. Leaves skin bright, clear, smooth.

+Moisturizer: Belif The True Cream ($38). GUYS. This gel-like moisturizer is INSANE. It glides into skin and truly hydrates. I have even set aside my precious La Mer in favor of this during these ultra-dry lingering months of winter. I LOVE IT. And $38 yields a sizable tub of product that has lasted a long time. Huge fan of this Korean skincare label!

+Eye cream: Ole Henriksen’s Banana Bright Eye Cream ($38). Lightweight, non-greasy, and quick to absorb.

+Mask: Queen Helene Mint Julep Masque (2 for $11). I used this back in high school — it’s an O.G. wonder-worker. Not fancy, available in your local drugstore, but they WORK. I had occasion to use this recently while at home in D.C. and was astounded at how soft and clean it left my skin. Note that this price is for two LARGE TUBES. This will last you a lifetime.

+Concealer: Laura Mercier Secret Concealer ($27). OK, this is an expensive product, but I wear minimal makeup and so a good concealer is a must. This is the one I continue to go back to after trying different products. It’s thick. But it really hides anything and blends very well.

+Tinted Moisturizer: Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer ($46). I just switched to using Chantecaille’s tinted moisturizer but LM’s is the OG and I wore it for probably a decade. Bonus: it includes SPF! I like that this evens out skintone and glides on easily. I do prefer Chantecaille’s formula, which just sort of lays on top of the skin better (I feel like it kind of melts into my face and everything blurs and looks very natural), but LM’s is very good, too, and more affordable.

+Loose Powder: Makeup Forever HD Loose Powder ($20). The mini size will last a long time — this is great at setting a light application of makeup without looking cake-like thanks to an ultra-light consistency. I usually only use this in the wintertime when I feel I need more coverage/finish.

+Blush: Bobbi Brown ($32). This will last you forever and therefore I say it’s worth the incremental cost increase over cheaper brands. I love the colors (especially “Pale Pink”) and the formula (it stays on your cheeks and you only need a swipe or two — highly pigmented!) but I especially love the longevity. I’m sure I should have tossed mine long ago (I know cosmetics have a shelf life) but mine has legit lasted for five years!

+Mascara: L’Oreal Voluminous ($8). I am a bit of a mascara snob, but this is the best you can buy from the drugstore. I know Maybelline’s classic pink and green tube gets all the love from beauty editors, but I much prefer the L’Oreal formula and especially its brush. It gets the job done.

+Lipstick: Maybelline Color Sensational Lipsticks ($6-7). I love the formula and pretty colors of this particular lipstick line; they’re easy to apply, but they last. I own a couple of their pink shades, but my favorite is their Pink Me Up, which I often keep in my handbag. A great everyday neutral hue.

+Wunderproduct: Elizabeth Arden 8-Hour Cream. I’ve talked about this too many times, but I cannot live without this ointment. I use it on lips, cuticles, dry skin (layered over lotion/body oil) — even rashes, burns, and abrasions. It works WONDERS.

+Body Wash: Neutrogena Body Clear Acne Wash ($18 for 3). It’s not sexy, but this stuff is the ONLY formula I have found that prevents body acne outside of Kate Somerville’s Body Wash, which she no longer makes (!!!) I have used this consistently since probably eighth grade and I know immediately when I’ve not used it.

+Body Soap: Dove Beauty Bars ($14 for 14 bars). A classic. I used these in my childhood and still use them now while traveling. We upgraded to Molton Brown body wash purely for vanity reasons (the smell!), but I still adore a classic Dove bar soap. It was all I wanted after my c-section: taking a shower with a fresh bar of Dove soap felt like an anointing.

+Shampoo: Pantene Pro V ($5). If I’m ever traveling without my own shampoos, I always go with Pantene. It’s the most moisturizing and least offensive when it comes to the cloying scents you usually find in drugstore shampoos. If you like to wear your hair straight, I love Organix’s Keratin Treatment Shampoo and Conditioner ($6 each). It really does help with straightening hair so you can spend less time straightening it with hot tools. A girlfriend of mine with GREAT, glossy hair recently shared that she uses Trader Joe’s shampoo ($14) and cannot rave enough about it. Going to give that a try, too!

+Body Lotion: Fresh’s Hesperides ($26). It smells like heaven (a fresh-cut grapefruit sprinkled with sugar) and deeply hydrates. I cannot live without this. In my opinion, worth the cost increase, but not as pricey as some of the balms and lotions you find from other prestige cosmetics providers.

What are your favorite affordable beauty buys?! I feel like y’all will have some incredible additions to this list.

Post Scripts.

+My original best of everything beauty post.

+Pressure is a choice.

+Ordering these for Easter. (More Easter picks here.)

+A great (affordable!) area rug.

+Constraint and the unseen doula.

+Next on my list for a lightweight thriller read.

+Loving this on-trend $60 bag.

+Was not familiar with the label Shona Joy, but loving her floaty frocks — they are reminiscent of Zimmermann, but less expensive: love this and this in particular.

+Dying over this Missoni-esque dress!!!

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24 thoughts on “The Best of Everything: Affordable Beauty Products.

  1. I am shocked that a few things haven’t come up yet:

    1. Pixie glow tonic! My favorite, fast working acid toner. It is magic in a (very affordable) bottle. Brighter skin immediately.
    2. Weleda skin food! I slather this on anything that seems “off” from my cuticles to, on certain dull evenings, my entire face. It cures all things.

    And I echo the perfection of Dior LipGlow. I senselessly own 362718 gently tinted lip products and yet am hopelessly devoted to LipGlow. I carry it from coat pocket to purse to evening clutch- it is always, always within arms reach because it is simply perfect.

  2. A bit late to this party, but have to chime in with my favorite budget skin care item: lanolin! I used to love Bite Beauty lip mask and searched for a “cleaner” replacement. I looked into Lanolips but then realized I had a mostly full tube of lanolin left over from my brief breastfeeding career. Works like a charm, super cheap, lasts forever!

    Also agree with the Voluminous mascara rec! Going to have to try that facial cotton. The Target brand cotton rounds are just not doing the trick.

    Oh one more thing…I’ve been very happy with Mad Hippie face cream, serums and eye cream, for anyone looking for affordable clean beauty. This brand is available in my local grocery so no paying for shipping!

    1. Oo, these are great picks! I love products that I can scoop up while at Whole Foods — I just picked up a bottle of almond oil (Now brand) from there because I’d heard it works wonders on dry skin (and is inexpensive!).

      Voluminous FTW!!


  3. ALLLLL the preach/praise hands for Queen Helene. She’s my go-to, ride or die, pimple-fixer. I will be stockpiling for future generations if they ever decide to stop making it. Thank you for preaching the gospel–as always haha.

  4. For inexpensive but AMAZING sunscreens, check out the Nivea Water Gel or the Biore Watery Essence on Amazon or eBay (they’re from Japan) – I swear you will never go back to anything else. It feels almost like that Belif moisturizer, but lighter. I swear Asian beauty is so far ahead of the game in sunscreen it’s unreal.

    1. Had not heard a thing about either of these, but have added both to my cart! THANK YOU!


  5. Wow – what a great list, Jen, and lots of recommendations from the commenters! There’s a gold mine in this community, for sure.

    I’d also add: Dickinsons witch hazel toner, for under $10! Been using this for years. I think Thayer’s is another popular brand at a similar price point, though I’ve never tried this one.

    I also love M-61 cleansers ($20-30) from Blue Mercury. I alternate between the Perfect Cleanse (so gentle!) and the Power Cleanse depending on what my skin needs (the latter for the week leading up to my period, and during). I almost always use inexpensive washcloths for cleansing but try to be gentle and not rub too hard – I prefer the muslin ones (advertised for babies) over the terry cloth. I get these by the dozen on Amazon! The washcloth is especially helpful for the Power Cleanse as its formulation is quite watery.

    I am a devotee of Aveda’s hand relief cream ($20) after years of countless hand-washings working at a hospital, and my current mom-life. A little goes a long way and it smells wonderful.

    1. Hi! These are such great additions. Love the tip on muslin washcloths vs. terry ones — had not even thought about that but will be sure to add some gentler ones next time I need to re-up. Thanks for the idea!


  6. Thank you for the eye cream recommendation! I also battle dark circles (genetic + allergy induced, I’m convinced, as the amount of sleep I get doesn’t seem to make a difference…) and I will have to try that when my current eye cream runs out.

  7. Have to chime in here! First, I have used the Truth Serum for over a year, and I am only on my second bottle. I only use it in the morning (at night I do a different serum or retinol) and one pump seems to be sufficient for my face and neck. I guess I’m not doing as thick a layer as you, but I still like it! Second, I am obsessed with trying new lip products, but the best I have ever used is Revlon balm stain. Truly. It looks like a crayon so is easy to apply, is usually around $10, is moisturizing, and the color lasts. I use a berry color though I don’t have it on hand so can’t report the name. They also have a matte version but I haven’t liked it as much. Finally, I have tried many different moisturizers, but keep going back to Philosophy hope in a jar. I use the day version with SPF 30, which wears well under makeup and has never broken me out, and the night version, which is luxuriously thick. Compared to other Sephora moisturizers the pricing is very reasonable (under $50 each).

    1. Hi Leah! OMG. What have I been doing with my truth serum?! AHHH. You’ve made me wonder if I apply too much product in GENERAL across the board. Hm. Thanks for the tip, will definitely think about this as I go through my routine! I still love the Truth Serum so I love the idea that I can make it stretch longer.

      Had forgotten about Philosophy’s face cream, but it’s great, too!!! Thanks for the reminder! Love that it comes in a small size (usually up by Sephora’s checkout) for travel!


  8. LOVE Mario Badescu! I still trek to the east side for a facial. They are the only place I can have a facial and walk out the door without looking beat red. Their products not only work great but are also a great value. I also love their Azulene Calming Mask and Rose Water Facial Spray. I am also obsessed with Supergoop! Specifically their Acai Fusion Lip Balm and Forever Young Handcream. Two products I consistently use to the end are the Dior Lip Glow as I find lipstick usually too harsh for my complexion and Bumble and Bumble THickensing Dryspun Texture. Spray.

    1. These are FANTASTIC additions. I also love that B&B spray — I alternate between it and Ouai’s wave texturizing hair spray. Both are excellent.

      I need to check out the Badescu rose water facial spray. I got hooked on Chantecaille’s rose water but then switched it up for Caudalie’s elixir, grateful for the price break. Badescu’s will be next in the rotation!


  9. I’ve “cleaned up” pretty much my entire skincare/makeup routine over the past couple of years and at the same time have really been trying to just get down to the basics. I’m fairly certain a shelf full of expensive potions won’t help my skin more than being diligent with cleansing/moisturizing with quality ingredients, drinking lots of water, and fueling my body with the right foods.

    But the few products that I have found I need still start to add up! I have to say, I’ve been loving a lot of Burt’s Bees products and love that they are (mostly) natural. Their Ultimate Care Body Lotion and Ultimate Care Hand Cream are awesome and their Micellar Water works wonders for cleaning my face. It takes off makeup beautifully and that product, combined with a simple squalane oil for moisturizer (Indie Lee’s is the best), has been my nightly routine for months (after whittling down products to try to figure out the culprit of a BAD reaction to something from The Ordinary that I won’t name — ahem a bad bad batch of Salicylic Acid). While I can’t claim to have skin that glows or looks like I’m reverse aging, my face has never been more consistently clear and problem-free.

    Finding natural makeup has also made a huge difference for my skin. I have found that it causes me to breakout less, therefore needing less makeup to cover it up (it’s a vicious cycle!) and also feeling less inclined to call in every product available to triage the situation. Alima Pure and Ilia are fantastic, well-priced, natural brands.

    Sorry for the lengthy (and not all that pertinent) response!

    1. These are FANTASTIC recs and especially helpful for fellow readers interested in a clean beauty routine! Thanks so much for sharing all of these. Indie Lee in particular has so much hype that I’ve just got to try it, though I’m scared about straying far from Tata Harper’s regenerating cleanser since it’s worked wonders for my skin over the past year or so…


  10. So many good finds here! I need to pull the trigger on the Shiseido facial cotton + Belif cream already. I’m equally intrigued by the Tatcha exfoliating cleanser and the Mario Badescu serum … I haven’t tried anything by Tatcha before, but have heard so many good things from relatives in TX. I do use a bunch of Badescu products already and this affordable serum is next on my list!

    I’ll co-sign the Bioderma micellar water — been using it since I studied abroad in 2004-05 and it is just the best, and relatively inexpensive IMO, AND plentifully available on Amazon. Other recent reasonably-priced beauty/skincare finds:

    – Nécessaire body lotion + shower gel (started by the co-founder of Into the Gloss; really nice products that work — one of my friends was like, “But is it just savvy marketing?” and I do find that both products work well and the eucalyptus-scented shower gel is lovely!)
    – Glossier Cloud Paint in Puff imparts the sheerest, loveliest flush … I only need a tiny bit and the tube lasts forever! I have it in a couple of other colors but this is the one I use the most (I have fair skin + prefer an “undone” makeup look, for reference)
    – La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid (you turned me on to this!!) — not the cheapest at $30/bottle, but blends soooo smoothly and really does a nice, protective job
    – I rarely brush my hair (?!) but Tangle Teezers are the best for getting difficult tangles out. I’ve bought them on Amazon and have also seen them at beauty supply stores. I also like the Wet Brush, which they do sell at CVS, Duane Reade, what have you.
    – On the same note, I do love my Mason Pearson Rake Comb, which is not the cheapest (maybe $35?) but I own it in duplicate — one for home, one for travel — because I love it so much.
    – Finally (this is getting so long, haha) — I am a natural deodorant convert as of a couple of years ago, and my favorite is Malin & Goetz’s eucalyptus scent. Another one that works for me is Megababe’s, and it has a v. pleasant rose scent.

    P.S. I’m interested to hear what people have to say about Glossier Play. The aesthetic is not really up my alley and it seems like it’s geared towards a younger customer, maybe, but I’m curious to see how it fares.

    1. These are wonderful! I just saw someone raving about the Necessaire body cream YESTERDAY, separate from you! It’s a sign!!

      I love that you mention eucalyptus scents twice — such an underrated but fantastic smell. Going to check all of these out!


  11. Love great budget beauty finds! The facial cotton is worth every penny. I was so happy to learn of this product. I’m having an upcoming exchange party with friends of our favorite things and this is what I’ll be gifting them.

    Another great product. A co-worker recently turned me onto Treat lip balm. It is has been a total game changer in warding off chapped lips this winter. They come in fun flavors too and company delightful to do business with.

    1. YES! Facial cotton for you, facial cotton for you, facial cotton for EVERYONE! I gave multiple loved ones packs of it for Christmas 🙂 It’s just the best. Worth every penny. Will never go back!

      Thanks for the tip on the lip balm, too!!


  12. THANK YOU for the recommendation of the Belief cream- heading to Sephora today. You read my mind as I woke up with an itchy flaky forehead despite layering multiple serums and moisturizers before bed. Will this winter ever end?!
    Also, just wanted to recommend the BareMinerals Complexion Rescue as an even cheaper ($32) but amazing tinted moisturizer. I was an LM devotee for years myself but was convinced to try this and actually prefer the finished look, it just blots out all imperfections and gives a nice natural glow! I’ve started to wonder if my late 30s skin needs more coverage, especially in non-summer months, (definitely trying the Chanticaille next) but for your young reader, this would be a great option.

    1. Great rec! Bare Minerals has some excellent pieces and I always forget about them!

      Keep me posted on what you think about Belif!!!


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