Saving face: 'I swapped expensive skincare for budget buys'

<span>Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

My budget beauty journey began, as many cut-price odysseys do, in the aisles of my local Aldi.

In the midst of a last minute pack before an overseas work trip, I discovered I’d run out of my usual cleansing wipes (M.A.C, $25 for 30 wipes) so I popped to the store around the corner and threw a packet of Aldi’s Lacura cleansing wipes ($1.69 for 30 wipes) in my basket. Not only did they remove all the grit and grime while I was on assignment in Texas, the soothing sweet almond oil and aloe vera formula proved the perfect pick-me-up for my sandpaper skin (riding all day beneath the baking sun on a ranch will do that to you).

Related: Bare-faced chic: Funmi Fetto’s good skin guide

I returned to Sydney a Lacura convert and wondering what other cut-price beauty products could outperform my expensive skincare arsenal. As a long-time sufferer of rosacea and ridiculously sensitive skin (mysterious rashes, blotches and itchiness materialising god-knows-why but god-knows-all-the-time) I’d always thought forking out the big bucks was the only way to placate and protect my visage. But what if it wasn’t? Recently there has been a proliferation of affordable new skincare brands that claim to deliver real results. I decided to try them.

I began with a trip to Sephora, which recently launched a collection of skincare products from $9-$30 running from cleansers, micellar water and scrubs to eye creams, serums and mud masks. The line was created in France, adding a soupçon of marketing je ne sais quoi to cheap cleanser. Sephora claims it contains a minimum of 90% “natural ingredients”, which I thought might be just as gentle as the more expensive Sisley, Aesop and Votary products I had purchased for the same reason.

When I got home I began replacing my twice-weekly swipes of Dr Natasha Cook Concentrated Micropeel ($125 for 16 sachets) with Sephora’s Glow Peel Pads ($24 for 60 pieces). Where my wipes by the Sydney dermatologist had the fine texture of a wet tissue, Sephora’s were pleasingly thick with exfoliating bumps on one side. The sting of the cheap pads was far less powerful (if that’s any indication of efficacy) but I nonetheless experienced noticeably smoother skin after use, and the small container was perfect for my frequent work travel.

Sadly Sephora’s Overnight Firming Cream and Ultra Glow Serum (containing a concoction of vitamin C and E) were far from rich enough for my skin, and I found myself constantly reapplying them.

But with so many cut-price brands on department store shelves, how do you know which ones actually deliver results?

“It is possible for budget products to deliver results similar to luxury brands but it’s dependent on what the ingredients are so you need to do your research,” says Michelle Wong, a Sydney chemistry PhD whose website Lab Muffin uses science to analyse which beauty products are worth buying and which aren’t.

Where I hit pay dirt was The Inkey List, a British brand which recently arrived in Australia. In the UK it claims to have sold one product every 60 seconds since launching in September last year. Like the Canadian brand The Ordinary, The Inkey List’s USP is no-frills formulas and cutting down on expensive packaging to focus on premium single ingredients, such as retinol (which has evidence-backed wrinkle-reducing properties), niacinamide (used to treat premature ageing caused by air pollution) and alpha hydroxy acid (a chemical exfoliate that makes skin look brighter and dewier).

I tried the brand’s Vitamin C Serum (30ml for $18, containing 30% vitamin C compared with my usual 50ml Kiehl’s Powerful-Strength Line-Reducing Concentrate for $103 with 12.5% Vitamin C), Lactic Acid Serum ($18) and Polyglutamic Acid Serum ($22), which The Inkey List claims holds four times more moisture than hyaluronic acid.

After using the products in tandem my skin felt as smooth as a freshly peeled egg, and it was pleasing to customise a cocktail specific to my skin rather than having to buy more expensive products containing ingredients I didn’t need or want. I also liked the minimal black and white packaging and no-BS product explanations.

“We found there was a lot of confusion in skincare and a gap for helping people to understand ingredients and how to use them,” says The Inkey List’s co-founder, Colette Newberry, who previously worked for the UK pharmacy giant Boots. “Our background in large-scale beauty companies has allowed us to go higher-up the supply chain direct to the source of quality ingredients to get the best price.”

Wong says: “The actual ingredients in beauty products don’t cost that much. Generally they are well under $1 so it’s things like packaging, logistics and celebrity endorsements that push the prices up. But with the really, really budget products there isn’t much put into the formula in terms of raw ingredients. Most of the time fillers are used, like water, ethyl alcohol or something oil based which helps the ingredient dilute or spread more nicely across the skin.”

Perhaps this is why I found the $29 Bakuchiol Booster (a retinol substitute) by British brand BYBI Beauty to produce less-than-glowy results and Mario Badescu’s Hydro Moisturiser with Vitamin C ($28 for 59ml) to lack its promised “radiance-boosting” effect. However, K-beauty did rise to the cut-price challenge. A 16Brand kelp sheet mask (just $2!) revived my puffy face after a big night out.

For the best chance of budget beauty success Wong recommends carefully reading the label to see what percentage of active ingredients a product actually contains, and scrolling through online reviews by people with a similar skin type to yours. “The ingredients list is useful but it doesn’t predict how it will work on your own skin.”

Once you’ve settled on some cut-price candidates, the best test is to try a single product at a time, rather than slapping multiple unctions on your face – so, not what I did.

“Don’t introduce too many things to your skin at once or you risk irritation,” says Wong. “Try each product for one or two weeks so you can really see if they work or not.”

Wong’s favourite budget buys include The Inkey List and Australian brands QV (for its $10.65 body wash) and Natio (for its $19.95 Daily Defence Face Moisturiser SPF 50+ ). In my own affordable beauty journey I also found several Australian brands to be effective. For instance, the Aussie Flyer Leave-on Recovery Mask ($26 for 60ml) by Lanolips plumped up my dehydrated skin better than the outrageously pricey Chanel Sublimage Mask ($305 for 50ml) I had been using.

After two weeks of lathering, moisturising, scrubbing and masking, the truth is that my skin was no better or worse than before. This could be because I refused to swap out my core cleansing routine, and often found myself reaching for my hardcore moisturisers when budget buys were not nourishing enough.

While there are some beauty expenses I will never give up, after my initial encounter with the Lacura wipes I’ve discovered other affordable products I will definitely introduce. Maybe I’ll see you in the aisles of Aldi sometime soon.