Budget Skincare That Really Works

I’ve been going to town on my skincare testing recently, after a summer of general beauty laziness, and I’ve been focusing on some of the more affordable, results-driven brands that have begun to really make waves in the industry. I’ve whittled it down to a great selection of potent products with no-frills packaging, non-exaggerated beauty messaging and price tags that are generally more than fair. So if you’re looking for effective formulas and visible results from your skincare but don’t want to break the bank, keep on reading!

This isn’t the first time that I’ve done a beauty round-up that focuses on low-cost skincare, but it is the first time that I’ve really concentrated on products with active ingredients. Acid toners that will quickly exfoliate, vitamin C serums that will brighten and protect, hyaluronic acid serums that will plump and hydrate and salicylic treatments to clear up congested t-zones; everything here actually does something, and most products cost under a tenner.

Those who have no clue what I’m on about here, with the acids and the vitamins, might want to start off by reading the Basic Beauty Routine post and then coming back – all of the products that I’m about to talk about are nice additions you could make to a basic routine to help your skin look glowier or smoother or just feel more hydrated.

So let’s get started with some of my budget skincare recommendations – budget skincare that performs as well as many of the high-end equivalents, I should add.

I’ll begin with Garden of Wisdom’s (GOW) Vitamin C + Ferulic Acid, which is £10 at Victoria Health here. It’s incredibly high-strength, the texture is pleasing and surprisingly creamy and if you’re looking for something that will visibly brighten and help with dark spots then this won’t disappoint. It’s a fraction of the cost of many other high-powered Vitamin C serums.

Cheaper still, The Inkey List’s Vitamin C which is £7.99 at Amazon here* and at Cult Beauty here*. This one feels more like a dry paste (it’s a waterless formula) and contains 30% pure, stable L-Ascorbic Acid. If you’re after something to brighten and even out skintone but don’t want to spend the week’s rent money then direct your attentions this way!

I apply my Vitamin C after cleansing and before moisturiser/sunscreen in the morning but you can use it at night if you’d prefer. Even if you don’t have pigmentation issues, Vitamin C is great for its antioxidant action – an extra layer of protection against things like pollution and cigarette smoke that the outside world might lob at you on a daily basis.

Moving onto Hyaluronic Acid and Avon’s Clinical Anti-Wrinkle Plumping Concentrate, which is £12 at Avon. Hyaluronic helps the skin to retain moisture and so makes it look plumper and smoother and helps with the appearance of fine lines, as well as making it feel more hydrated. This Avon serum’s a good, solid choice with hyaluronic acid at three different molecular sizes to work at a deeper level.

(If you prefer a creamier feel and don’t want the faff of a separate serum and moisturiser then Indeed Labs have a lovely, intense lotion that I reviewed here. It’s pricier but still brilliantly cheap considering its outstanding performance.)

OK, we’re onto two of the product types that people tend to ask about most – if we take retinol out of the equation – and they are salicylic acid and alpha hydroxy acids.

Salicylic acid is excellent for those with spot-prone skin, blackheads, congestion and angsty hormonal pre-period I-just-want-to-purge-my-face kind of skin. It gets right into the pores and gives everything a bit of a once over whilst keeping the skin relatively soothed and balanced.

You can get it in lotions, creams, wipe-on liquids and leave-on gels but I’ve been bowled over by the Salicylic Masque from The Ordinary which is £9.90 at Cult Beauty*. It deserves its own review (as do all of the products on this page) and so I’ll get onto that, but for the moment just know that this is the sort of mask that will knock your socks off, should you be wearing any. It’s tingly on application but nothing too hair-raising – well worth it for the clearer skin and resulting glow.

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (or AHAs) are brilliant for powerful, non-abrasive exfoliation. If you want the equivalent of an overnight facial then this is your best bet – glowing, smooth skin almost instantly. I really like Nip+Fab’s Glycolic Fix Gentle Pads, £9.95 at Amazon*, because they’re formulated for slightly more sensitive skin and so are a good way to ease into acids.

If you don’t get on with glycolic acid then the Lactic Acid from The Inkey List, £7.99 here*, is a really simple – but potent – liquid exfoliant that you just pat or wipe on and leave. I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks and it’s very effective.

Have you just read through the descriptions of all of these wonder products and felt thoroughly confused as to how the hell to use them all? My answer would probably be not all at once. For sure, there are loads of things in the beauty world that you can mix and match and even quite literally mix, as in put on at the same time, but unless you have the time and inclination to research each and every product I always think that it’s far less complicated just to decide on what your skin needs and plump for a simple solution.

So, with the exception of hyaluronic – I’d layer that before my moisturiser in any sort of situation, pretty much, even after the AHAs or the mask or the vitamin C – I would choose one thing in the morning and one thing at night. Vitamin C I tend to use in the morning, as a kind of undercoat to the SPF (my way of remembering it is just to always pair it with the sunscreen, like sunscreen underwear!) and acids I would always use at night, two or three times a week. The salicylic mask I use once or twice a week only when I’m hormonal and my skin feels like a lava field.

The nights in between I use retinol, which you may have noticed is conspicuously absent in this post. It’s absent because a) I’m still testing the under-tenner ones and b) it’s such a hot topic that I think it’s an article on its own. So I’ll get back to you on those.

But to give you an example of my routine, it would be something like this, alternating between Day 1 and Day 2:

Day 1:

AM: Cleanse, Vitamin C Serum, Moisturising SPF

PM: Cleanse, Retinol, Moisturiser

Day 2:

AM: Cleanse, Vitamin C Serum, Moisturising SPF

PM: Cleanse, AHA, Moisturiser

Note that a lot of the time I’ll stick a hyaluronic acid serum on before the moisturiser, to superboost the powers of the moisturiser, so to speak. Some mornings I don’t use a Vitamin C serum and just use a hyaluronic acid, it really just depends how I’m feeling, how lazy I’m being and how my skin is behaving. I honestly can’t be doing with a lot of steps, not because it takes too long (I mean, it takes seconds to apply a serum!) but because it taxes my brain when I’m not yet switched on into work mode.

Anyway, I videoed all of this, which makes me wonder why I just spent hours writing it all down – if you press play below you can hear all of this information again with a few minor deviations and aberrations. I know some of you will just want to hear my voice… Hohoho.

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  1. Jessica Shippee-Hartman
    October 18, 2019 / 8:22 pm

    Thank you so much for the recommendations! Do you know if it is possible to buy the GOW serum in store anywhere?

  2. October 1, 2019 / 6:16 pm

    Awesome content, budget skin care may be work

  3. Rachel
    September 24, 2019 / 10:31 am

    Thanks for the blog post as well as the video Ruth. Having the post to refer to makes life so much easier when I want to come back to things, rather than having to fast forward through videos to find the tiny bit I need!

    • September 24, 2019 / 5:59 pm

      Oh that’s good to know, I didn’t actually think of that before!

    • September 24, 2019 / 5:59 pm

      It is! Good idea to mix it. x

  4. charles coffey
    September 22, 2019 / 11:58 pm

    Great ! Info video , can’t wait to try these products where they apply!

  5. Carrie
    September 22, 2019 / 4:17 pm

    RE: Hyaluronic Acid: May I humbly suggest the King/Queen (both in terms of effect and price + value_ = Hydalabo HAs. 170ml for a tenner or so + refills (so even cheaper and environmentally friendlier). The Premium version (5 x HA molecular weights) = awesomeness in a bottle.

  6. Sophie
    September 22, 2019 / 1:42 pm

    This was so helpful, thank you Ruth! I’m on a budget and can’t afford a lot of what skincare people recommend.

    On a side note I just noticed your post about art – have you seen the podcast that Russell Tovey does about art? He is a big collector apparently. You might be interested.

  7. Lynn McManus
    September 22, 2019 / 9:12 am

    Hello, that’s a really helpful post. Thank you for writing it all down as I seldom watch videos. Have enjoyed teading all your posts for a few years now.

  8. Wendy J Fink
    September 22, 2019 / 7:41 am

    I know I’m far, far , far from being a model. That said, I’m 49 and not only do I have 37 years of skincare knowledge ( I started reading Vogue and Mademoiselle – remember that?- when I was 12); my skin looks pretty damn good for any age. I think you should give a shout out to The Ordinary’s L-ascorbic acid powder, which has the active part of Vitamin C without the harshness and you just mix the powder with a bit of moisturizer. It runs around $6! Also, Neogen Calendula real flower cleansing water: it’s gentle ( the name of the game) and great for when you’re too tired to do a full face wash – I keep a bottle next to my bed- it’s $8. Finally, in my opinion, less is more: cleaning your face 2x a day even with the gentlest cleansers, is too harsh. Use a refreshing mineral water spray or a toner in the A.M.
    Anyway, that’s my opinion for what it’s worth. Thanks for giving me a platform! You’re doing a fantastic job.

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