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Building a proper beauty routine can be a daunting and sometimes pricey task. The good news is that, as with many things in life, this is one area where a little budgeting and expert intel can go a long way in helping you stretch those hard-earned dollars.
Before you overspend on another mascara (you don’t have to shell out big bucks for big results) or sell yourself short on a skin-saving serum (consider this one a worthy investment), read on as pros take on the role of your personal shopper. We asked experts to break down exactly when to save and when to splurge on popular makeup, skin care and hair care categories — and they shared some of their personal product picks along the way!
Makeup to save on: blush, mascara, lipstick and eyebrow pencils
With so many amazing new drugstore formulas on the market, New York-based makeup artist Mary Irwin says a healthy-looking flush is something that shouldn’t be hard to come by.
“I don’t see a need to spend more unless the blush is really incredible," Irwin said. "As far as affordable brands go, I’m seeing some stunning options from Milani, Maybelline, NYX and Juvia’s Place."
Irwin's current favorite is this gel-cream from Maybelline for its natural finish and flexibility.
“The oil-free formula is lightweight and buildable, offering breathable color that you can control," Irwin said. "The squeezable tube is also convenient, especially for traveling."
Irwin also thinks mascara is one of drugstore beauty's strong suits.
"Mascara is a very personal choice, in which one person’s go-to could be the next person’s nightmare, so the great thing about drugstore mascaras is that you can try three or four formulas for the price of one expensive one,” Irwin said.
For Tara Dowburd, a makeup artist and founder of Make-Up Therapy, nothing beats the tried-and-true L'Oréal Voluminous Original Mascara.
“It thickens, lengthens and separates lashes just as well — if not better — than popular luxury formulas,” she said.
“You can’t talk about drugstore mascara without mentioning L’Oréal Voluminous! It can be found in the kit of every single makeup artist I’ve ever met,” added Irwin, who also touts the benefits of budget-friendly brands like Pacifica Beauty, Maybelline and Milani.
Katherine Dorn, a celebrity makeup artist at Pierre Michel Salon, has found that brow formulas don’t typically differ as much, with consumers often paying more for a brand name and packaging.
“You can find awesome eyebrow pencils at your local beauty supply store or drugstore," she said. “I think brow gels can vary more based on whether it is just a gel or has a tint, but I also gravitate towards the cheaper end here and look for ones that will keep your hairs looking full and in place. If you’re going for a natural look, you can definitely find great options under $20."
This "uni-brow" from Winky Lux is as convenient as it is versatile.
“It has a slanted pencil on one side for drawing small hairs and filling in any patches, and a spoolie brush on the other for grooming untamed hairs," Dorn told us. "It creates a natural effect and the universal shade looks good on all hair colors."
Swiping on, or swapping in, a pigment-packed lipstick is one of the easiest and cost-effective ways to switch up your look.
“If you’re like me, you like to have multiple color and texture options when it comes to lipsticks and lip glosses, depending on your mood, what you are wearing, and where you are going that day or night," Dowburd said. "The good news is that the lip category in drugstores tends to be very affordable, making it easier on your wallet to purchase a variety."
The Colour Riche Lipcolour from L’Oréal boasts saturated, lasting color without stripping lips of moisture.
“Each lipstick in this line has a silky-smooth texture and is super-hydrating (because of omega 3, vitamin E and argan oil)," Dowburd said. "It stays on like nobody’s business and comes in 40 brilliant shades that I can use on my clients, from the darkest to the lightest skin tones."
Some of her favorite universal shades include Spice, Brazil Nut, Toasted Almond and Nature’s Blush.
Makeup to splurge on: brushes, eye shadow, foundation and setting powder
When it comes to makeup, experts say application can be just as important as the formulas themselves.
“Good brushes make application much easier and they will typically last a long time," Dowburd told us. "More expensive versions are typically made with natural bristles sewn in, whereas cheaper ones are often made with synthetic materials that are glued in and therefore more likely to break or fall out easily."
Dowburd has come to rely on Bobbi Brown for its sleek, comfortable-to-hold designs and durability.
“The bristles are tightly packed so they don’t shed easily," she told us. "This face brush (which has nearly 9,000 likes from Sephora customers) cleanly blends liquid and cream foundations to give your face an airbrush-like finish, without having makeup look or feel too heavy on the skin." The Bobbi Brown Powder Brush, Blush Brush and Eye Sweep Brush are also among those in her collection.
A quality eye shadow comes with a certain set of criteria: it needs to go on smoothly and delicately (the skin around your eyes is among the thinnest and therefore most sensitive), be blendable, and withstand creasing and blinking.
“My clients typically need their eye makeup to last multiple hours, so using a better quality eyeshadow makes a huge difference,” explained Dowburd.
If you're looking for long-lasting color, Dowburd thinks Smashbox is worth every penny.
“Smashbox eyeshadows tend to blend more easily, don't fade or crease easily, and have incredible staying power so you don’t have to worry about looking in the mirror constantly to make sure they're still on," she siad. "They also tend to have more pigment so they last longer and you end up using less product, which may save you money in the long run."
Dowburd is also a big fan of Charlotte Tilbury Eye Luxury Eye Shadow Palettes.
Neil Scibelli, a celebrity makeup artist and beauty expert in New York City, has come across some substantial drugstore foundations, but hasn't been able to ditch his luxury formulas.
“It's important for foundations to be a perfect match for your skin tone, and also blend into your skin without the wrong undertone, which is where I see the difference most," he said. "Luxury foundations tend to have a more neutral range of undertones, and wear smoothly throughout the day."
“More expensive formulas tend to have an elegance that make them easier to apply," added Carissa Passerella of Hooked on Beauty. "Whether it’s a silky liquid or powder mineral version, you’re literally wearing your investment on your face."
Often hailed as the gold standard of foundations, Scibelli says he’s been using the Armani Beauty Luminous Silk Foundation on clients for years.
“It gives the perfect amount of coverage while still having your skin peek through," he said. "It has a soft luminous finish to it, which gives the skin a beautiful radiance."
Dowburd is also a believer. “I love the glowy healthy finish that it leaves on the skin, without looking too shiny," she told us. "So many of my clients have to look just as fabulous in person as they do on camera, and their makeup needs to last. I prefer to apply it with a damp Beautyblender sponge."
New York-based celebrity makeup artist Shira Aaron told us a quality setting powder can make a big difference in the wear of your makeup.
“Dust it lightly on top of your liquid or cream foundation to lock it into place," she said. "The best formulas are translucent, talc-free and finely milled, ideally with light-reflecting particles that can help blur pores, fine lines and any other imperfections."
According to Aaron, the Laura Mercier Setting Powder has earned its cult status.
“The bestselling powder (which has a near five-star rating from Laura Mercier customers) is finely milled, doesn’t settle into fine lines, and never looks cakey,” she told us.
Skin care to save on: moisturizer, cleanser and sunscreen
If you're splurging on your serum, which goes on your skin first, Scibelli says you can typically save when it comes to your moisturizer.
“Many affordable moisturizers now contain ingredients that are comparable to luxury ones (such as hyaluronic acid, retinol and anti-aging peptides), so I would look for labels that include them if possible,” he told us.
Scibelli suggests this gel-cream from Neutrogena for its lightweight texture and plumping, hydrating capabilities.
“Neutrogena’s use of hyaluronic acid in this product is a true example of powerful luxury ingredients made accessible," he said. "It also works great under makeup because there's no residue."
Given the wide array of sophisticated solutions (and the fact that you’ll typically be relying on other products to do more heavy lifting), experts say you can opt for a more affordable cleanser.
“There are lots of good drugstore buys that offer gentle cleansing — either creamy or foaming — including some with salicylic acid for those who are acne-prone," explained Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "Other active ingredients like anti-aging peptides or antioxidants will have more impact in your leave-on products (like serums)."
King recommends formulas with salicylic acid for exfoliating skin and removing excess sebum, especially for those with oily skin types.
“Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) which, similar to an alpha-beta hydroxy (AHA), dissolves the bonds that hold dull, dead skin cells on the surface of the skin so the skin will gently shed, revealing smoother, brighter skin underneath," King said while describing the AcneFree Blackhead Removing Scrub. "This is a great 2% salicylic acid product that is also formulated with charcoal to help absorb oil."
Sarah Akram, a master celebrity esthetician and founder of Sarah Akram Skincare, also likes Garnier Micellar Cleansing Waters as a gentle cleanser and makeup remover for sensitive skin types.
While many experts say sunscreen as a category is one of the most important investments you can make for protecting and preserving your skin, you typically don’t need to break the bank on the sunscreen itself.
“The best way to go is with a mineral or physical sunscreen," Akram said. "Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the UV rays and turning them into heat through a chemical reaction, whereas physical sunscreens block UV rays. A mineral sunscreen has microscopic-sized physical SPFs, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, that apply smoothly and sit on the surface of the skin, reflecting the sun’s UV rays."
“I always tell my patients to start out with the highest SPF possible," added Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. "In the real world, they aren’t applying as much as they should, so the level of protection gets diluted out."
One of Akram’s go-to sunscreens is this gentle lotion from La Roche-Posay, which offers broad-spectrum protection.
“It’s formulated to be safe for use on your face and body with a 100% mineral sunscreen," Akram said. "It’s also oil-free and noncomedogenic, so it’s safe for acne-prone skin.”
Skin care to splurge on: serum, eye cream and face/body oil
When it comes to achieving great skin, our experts agree that a quality serum will work hard for your money.
“The reason that serums are so expensive is because they use high concentrations of active ingredients," Zeichner told us. "Many of these ingredients require special formulations to maintain their stability and ensure penetration into the skin."
“Other types of facial products, like creams or lotions, have added emollients and higher amounts of fillers and are typically not as concentrated as serums," added Anna Guanche, a board-certified dermatologist, beauty expert and founder of the Bella Skin Institute. "The thinner, lighter consistency allows for ease of penetration into the skin and also allows for product layering."
This multitasking potion from iS Clinical has garnered a five-star rating for its ability to combat signs of aging while keeping oil under control.
“It minimizes the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, improves blemishes, smooths the skin, and reduces the appearance of enlarged pores," Guanche said. "As with most serums, a little goes a long way!"
Similar to a serum, Dowburd says eye cream is a product where you can typically expect to get what you put in.
“You are paying for the quality of ingredients and the technology and science that was used to create it," explained Dowburd. "Your under-eye area in particular is very delicate, therefore you want to protect it and be as gentle as possible with what you choose to you apply in that area."
La Mer has made a name for itself with a range of ultra-luxury formulas, including its popular Eye Concentrate.
“This concentrate is like a drink of water for my under eyes, keeping them bright, smooth and hydrated, while minimizing the appearance of fine lines," Dowburd said. "It contains the brand’s patented Concentrated Miracle Broth that absorbs right into the skin and, as powerful as it is, remains gentle enough for the most sensitive of skin types ... like mine!"
Body and facial oils are often more on the pricey side — and for good reason. It’s important that a good amount of care (and often funding) go into the sourcing of ingredients and formulations of oils to ensure they nourish and penetrate the skin without causing irritation or breakouts.
“Oils tend to use botanical extracts that are much more costly to produce as compared to lab-made ingredients,” Zeichner said.
“The quality and processing of these oils will determine how effective they are and how potent their antioxidant, anti-aging and other properties are, and that they are noncomedogenic,” King added.
King relies on this "everything oil" from Carter + Jane for keeping facial skin primed and protected.
“It contains cold-pressed, organic prickly pear seed oil, organic avocado oil, organic sweet almond oil and organic aloe vera," she said. "Together, these ingredients work to brighten the skin by offering antioxidant protection, anti-inflammatory properties, increased cell turnover, hydration and increased collagen production.”
She also likes Herla Gold Supreme Illuminating Body Oil for a healthy, below-the-neck shimmer.
Hair care to save on: masks, hair brushes and accessories
When it comes to keeping hair moisturized, Los Angeles-based celebrity hairstylist Bradley Leake says consistency is key, so he suggests opting for a more affordable option and upping your at-home treatments.
“I recommend masking every two weeks, and more often when preparing hair for a color appointment,” he advised.
This mask from It’s a 10 is formulated with vitamins A and E for nursing dry, malnourished strands back to life.
“The goal of a hair mask is to repair the hair internally," Leake said. "Typically women experiencing breakage, dry brittle ends, or damage from excessive hair color will benefit from the vitamins and proteins in this mask."
When shopping for a new brush, Leake says the focus should be on finding the right one for your hair type and needs, and not an expensive label.
“There are many affordable brushes that will leave your hair smooth and tangle-free just as easily for a fraction of the price,” he said.
He particularly loves the Wet Brush Speed Dry Hair Brush for its sleek and functional design.
“This brush is great for removing tangles from wet adult and children’s hair. The vented design also speeds up drying time for a faster blowout,” said Leake, who suggests a boar-bristle brush for helping to smooth and eliminate frizz.
Hair accessories are having a big moment, as they prove the perfect solution for styling in a pinch.
“Clips, barrettes and headbands are so trendy and can easily change with your mood or outfit, which is why having a few great affordable pieces is the way to go!” Leake said.
Leake loves the versatility of a hair scarf, which can be wrapped around a bun or tied around your head like a headband to conceal roots until your next color appointment. He especially loves the designs offered by Basic B Beauty.
“Who doesn't love a little leopard print?" Leake said. "This one comes in three different patterns to match your mood.”
Hair care to splurge on: shampoo, extensions and heat tools
Starting with a clean slate is the first and most crucial step to achieving a beautiful mane.
“Using a shampoo that is free of sulfates and isn’t going to weigh your hair down or leave a residue behind is important for stimulating new hair growth and managing buildup, which means you also shouldn’t have to shampoo as often,” Leake explained. He also recommends consulting with your hairstylist on a professional conditioner specific to your hair condition and type.
Leake’s current obsession is the Color Wow Color Security Shampoo, which he says offers a deep yet gentle clean and helps to neutralize the hair’s pH.
“It’s sulfate-free, but does have a generous lather, unlike other sulfate-free shampoos," Leake told us. "Color Wow is also great for all hair types and textures, as well as extensions as it contains no silicones or pearlizing agents, which also dull color-treated hair.”
Leake recommends temporary extensions as an easy way to up the ante when it comes to volume or length.
“High-quality extensions will last for years," he said. "Good hair extensions are double-drawn (they are full) and made of Remy human hair, which means they can be heat styled. I’d recommend temporary extensions, such as clip-in or tape-in extensions, before jumping into the commitment of permanent extensions."
Leake loves Hidden Crown’s assortment for adding extra hair to clients for special events.
“Their double-drawn, human hair extensions come in shades for every color and have a range of styling options, including clip-less, clip-ins, toppers, and even ponytail pieces," he said. "The clip-in sets are very unique and such great quality.”
Stylists warn that regular — and especially excessive — heat styling can take its toll on hair.
“High-quality hot tools will save your hair from excessive damage and some time in your morning schedule," Leake said. "They should also last longer (check for a warranty) and provide longer-lasting results (meaning you don’t have to use them as often).”
He recommends the Boujee Beauty Boujee Infused Straightener, which is designed with a special steam vapor technology that Leake says will smooth even the most stubborn of strands.
“The advanced technology will speed up styling time and efficiency, and the optional infused argan oil leaves the hair healthy, shiny, and styled to perfection," he said. "It also has six temperature settings, heats up to 450 degrees, and has a one-hour auto shut-off for added safety.”
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