Beauty On a Budget: Where to Spend Your Skin Care Dollars

This morning, one of my clients asked me, “Which beauty products are most important, Heather? Are there affordable options?”

“There are some good, affordable options,” I told her. “But let’s start with what you’re concerned about.”

We went on to discuss specifics, and I thought, “What a great topic for Beauty Tastes Great!”

So, here we go!

Begin By Taking Inventory

cosmetic products and brushes

Before you purchase anything new, take a look at what you have. Toss whatever has expired. Old cosmetic products harbour bacteria; in any case, their active ingredients will have disintegrated. If you bought something on a whim and you haven’t been using it, work it into your routine now or throw it away. There’s no point in keeping something you won’t use.

Once you’ve tossed the duds, organize what you’ve got. I put my day products into one basket and my night products into another.

I keep my make-up in a separate container. I recently purchased  this handy travel bag. Here it is for USA readers. If you want to know what I think of it, check out my Reviews section.

Keeping your products organized lessens the likelihood you’ll waste money purchasing products you already have.

Know Your Skin Type 

a pot of face cream and some flowersPurchasing skin care products begins with knowing your skin type. The simplest way to discover your skin type is to blot your face with cosmetic blotting paper an hour after washing your face. If there’s an oily residue on the paper, your skin is oily. No residue, it’s dry. Some oil here and there, combination.

If your skin reddens easily when it comes into contact with heat, cold, touch, etc., you are sensitive. Acne is self-evident.

Knowing your skin type makes it easier to choose products, and say no to those you don’t need.

The Two Most Important Skin Care Products

Cleansers and moisturizers are the most important products in your kit, and choosing the right ones for your skin type is vital to maintaining your skin’s natural moisture barrier and preventing trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL). Preventing TEWL is fundamental to having “good” skin, regardless of age.

Protect the Acid Mantle! 

Human skin is covered in a thin film known as the acid mantle. It’s made up primarily of sebum (oil) and sweat and has a pH of between 4 and 6. The acid mantle protects us from bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants. Modern cleansers are formulated with a pH of about 5.5, so that they don’t interfere with the skin’s acid mantle.

Despite being formulated to complement our skin’s natural defences, manufacturers of cleansers don’t recommend we leave them on our skin for an extended period, because most contain surfactants. Surfactants are not yet sophisticated enough to distinguish between sebum, lipids within our cells and oil-soluble dirt on the skin’s surface. To leave them on your skin for more than 30 seconds or so is to risk damaging the acid mantle.

Washing off  your cleanser quickly lessens the likelihood it will disturb your skin’s acid mantle. This is why manufacturers recommend we wash and rinse twice rather than doing one prolonged wash and a rinse. (And I thought they just wanted to sell more product.) Use cleansers for no longer than 30 seconds and rinse at least twice as long as you wash to ensure all product is removed.

Gel Cleansers vs Milk Cleansers

face cream and a flowerInexpensive and expensive cleansers have similar ingredients. The important thing is to purchase a cleanser that suits your skin type and wash your face with tepid water. Hot water can damage the acid mantle.

Generally, gel cleansers are for oily and combination skins and milk cleansers are for dry and sensitive skins.

Gel cleansers work by emulsifying oil, dirt and cellular debris on the epidermis and lifting them off. Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser is an excellent affordable choice of gel cleanser.

Milk cleansers are oil-in-water emulsions that work by dissolving oil and dirt. They’re less likely to strip the skin of what little oil there is on it, and they’re excellent for removing eye make-up, because they are non-irritating. Burt’s Bees has a good, inexpensive milk cleanser.

Exfoliants: Cleansers Plus!

Exfoliants are cleansers that hasten the removal of cells from the stratum corneum. They can be either physical or chemical.

Physical exfoliants use some sort of abrasive ingredient to rub off dead skin cells, while chemical exfoliants use acids and enzymes to loosen the bonds that hold skin cells together.

While exfoliants can help to restore youthful radiance, too much of a good thing will leave you red and scaly. Generally, it’s best not to use exfoliants more than a couple of times a week, less if you’re dry or sensitive. Experimentation is the only way to know how often you can exfoliate. If your skin looks stressed, ease off.

Chemical Exfoliants are Preferred for the Face

Chemical exfoliants are preferable to physical exfoliants for facial care, because they’re easier to control. Some physical exfoliants, such as crushed nut shells, are never recommended, because they can cause microscopic tears in the skin.

For best results, look for exfoliants that contain alaphahydroxy (AHA) and betahydroxy (BHA) acids. AHA’s are water soluble and don’t penetrate the epidermis. They loosen and remove cells that are ready to desquamate. BHA’s are oil soluble, so they can reach deeper into pores and loosen the ‘glue’ that holds cells together. This, and the fact that they’re anti-inflammatory, makes BHA’s well suited to tackling acne.

If you prefer physical exfoliants, this one is a good bet. It’s affordable and gentle. Here’s the same one for USA readers. I also love Beauty By Earth’s  konjac sponges.

exfoliant to remove dead skinYou can make a physical exfoliant by adding a 1/4 tsp of table sugar to a dab of your regular cleanser before washing your face. Don’t substitute salt; it’s too drying.

If you’re looking for a quality chemical exfoliant at a good price, try this one or, if you’re in Canada, this one. You can also make your own gentle chemical exfoliant cleanser with 1 part apple cider vinegar (ACV) and 4 parts water or green tea. Never use ACV neat. It has a pH of 0.5, which is about the same as stomach acid. Too corrosive for your face!

What’s In a Moisturizer?

There isn’t a clear industry definition of what constitutes a moisturizer other than to say it’s something that relieves the signs and symptoms of dry skin. When skin is able to retain moisture it functions well and looks fresh.

Originally, moisturizers were simply occlusive agents that created a barrier to prevent water loss from the skin. Today, moisturizers usually include emollients and humectants. Those aimed at anti-aging also include antioxidants. (If you want me to write a post explaining particular cosmetic anti-aging ingredients, please leave a comment below.)

What are Emollients?

Emollients prevent transepidermal water loss (TEWL). They soften and smooth the cells of the epidermis and give it a silky texture. Emollients can be found in silicones such as dimethicone or cyclomethicone, and in oils such as grapeseed and argan. Waxes such as jojoba or bee’s wax are emollients, as are butters, such as cocoa and shea. Alcohols, such as stearyl and cetyl alcohol are emollients, and so too are petroleum derivitives such as petroleum jelly and mineral oil.

What are Humectants?

flowers and a pot of skin creamHumectants bond with water molecules in order to increase the water content of the skin. They can draw moisture from the air and enhance water absorption from the outer layer of the skin. Glycerin is a common humectant in moisturizers, as are lactic acid, hyaluronic acid, urea, collagen, elastin, and sugars such as honey, glucose, fructose and sucrose.

What are Topical Antioxidants?

Antioxidants are chemicals that are able to ‘mop up’ free radicals. They have been incorporated into moisturizers since the 1990’s and often include vitamins C and E, which work together, and vitamin A in the form of retinol. Resveratrol, ferulic acid, Q10, green tea, licorice, peptides, essential oils…the list of antioxidant cosmetic ingredients is extensive and grows daily. (If you want me to identify and explain the benefits of anti-aging ingredients in another post, please tell me so in the comments section below. Thanks!)

The best moisturizers for mature skin contain emollients, humectants and antioxidants. However, the key to determining the best moisturizer for you comes down to knowing your skin type, what issues you want to address, your budget and how much time you want to spend on skin care.

The Most Important Consideration

a watch faceSaving money starts with not buying what you don’t need or won’t use. So, before you purchase products, think about how much time you want to invest in skin care. There’s no point buying a 10-steps system if you prefer a simple cleanse and cream before bed.

By the way, along with protecting your skin from prolonged sun exposure, cleansing and moisturizing before bed is the best thing you can do for your skin. At night, skin is repairing itself and it can’t do that properly if it’s clogged with make-up, sebum, sweat and air pollution. If you washed your face before bed, all you need do in the morning is rinse with tepid water, moisturize and you’re good to go.


It’s no surprise that sunscreen is the number one thing to look for in a moisturizer, if you’re concerned about hyperpigmentation. SPF stands for sun protection factor. If your moisturizer has an SPF of 15, it means you can stay in the sun 15 times longer than you could without protection before you begin to burn. Bear in mind that when sunscreens are tested in labs the scientists generally apply them much thicker than most of us do. So, even if you’re using a moisturizer with SPF, it’s important to seek shade whenever possible, especially if you’re concerned about hyperpigmentation.

Hydroquinone is the Rolls Royce of ingredients that combat hyperpigmentation. A 4% solution is most effective; however, that’s available only by prescription. Products with 2% hydroquinone are available over the counter in the USA and Canada. Hydroquinone was a suspected carcinogen; however, such claims seem to have stemmed from products made in Africa that were tainted with mercury. Today, at 2% concentration, there seems to be nothing to worry about. 

That said, if you’d prefer not to use hydroquinone, but you’re still concerned about hyperpigmentation look for products that contain mandelic acid, kojic acid, azelaic acid, retinoids, corticosteroids, and vitamin C.

Dryness, Fine Lines and Wrinkles

bathroom mirrorSerums are packed with active ingredients, including humectants and antioxidants that are aimed at moisturizing skin while softening the appearance of fine lines and wrinkle. They don’t include heavy emollients, so they glide on and absorb rapidly into skin. They’re recommended for use around the eyes and mouth and on the neck. Look for serums that have vitamin C and E combined with ferulic acid, and those with hyaluronic acid,and collagen and elastin.

Retinoids are the heavy hitters when it comes to decreasing fine lines and wrinkles. However, they come with caveats: No waxing; No AHA or other exfoliating acids; No Benzoyl Peroxide; and, they’re not to be used by people with sensitive skin or pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Retinol is an over-the-counter retinoid that’s often included in anti-aging creams. While Retinol does reduce fine lines, wrinkles hyperpigmentation, it takes time to see results. Three months is not unusual. Here are a few Retinol creams you might like to try: Instanatural Retinol Serum, Kate Blanc,Pure Biology,and Roc.

Redness and Sensitivity

Glaxall Base is an inexpensive moisturizer recommended by dermatologists for people who have sensitive skin. It’s a heavy emollient which contains no perfumes, dyes or other irritating ingredients. Glaxal Base can help to relieve eczema, frost-nip, dermatitis and other conditions which compromise the skin’s barrier.

Reducing inflammation is key to decreasing redness and soothing sensitive skin, and there are carrier oils and essential oils which can help. Carrier oils you might try include Calendula, Borage, Evening Primrose, Argan, Rose hip, Sweet almond, and Wheatgerm.

Essential oils are meant to be diluted. Add them to carrier oils or aloe vera gel to make your own serums, or put a couple of drops into your moisturizer to increase its effectiveness. Some anti-inflammatory essential oils include German Chamomile, Blue Tansy, Turmeric, Lavender, Yarrow, and my favourite, Rose. Here’ s a link to help get you started blending oils.

Congestion and Acne

It’s maddening to find your skin congested with blackheads and spotted with acne, whether you’re 15 or 55, but it happens, and it’s usually the result of hormones going awry. If you’re really struggling with acne flair-ups, speak to your doctor. There are prescriptions that can help, and family doctors are generally well versed in acne treatments, because they are regularly asked for them.  It’s worth mentioning that a diet rich in quality carbohydrates and antioxidant-rich foods plays a role in controlling acne.

Helping your skin to normalize begins with taking care of the acid mantle, and over-washing or neglecting to use moisturizer will compromise it. Use a gel cleanser formulated to treat acne, and choose an oil-free cream that is matifying, non-occlusive and non-irritating.

Do you have a favourite beauty budget tip or experience of a great value product? Share it below! Thanks!

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.