Cheap Alternatives To Pricey Skin-Care Buys — That Actually Work

Pretend for a moment that you don't know the names Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lopez, or Kerry Washington. Imagine you ran into one of them on the street, when they were out of their couture gowns and loaner diamonds and wearing jeans and ponytails. You'd probably still do a double-take, right? And we bet you'd think: She's rich.
How would you know? The skin. Skin is what really separates the A-listers from the mortals. And it makes sense: They have access to the best of the best — derms, facialist treatments, products — and it shows in the form of bright, even, luminous complexions. (Just ask Alicia Keys.)
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But the good news is that you can have expensive-looking skin, too — for cheap. All it takes is commitment and a bit of research, which we've gladly done for you. So, actually, all it takes is clicking through this slideshow, then hitting "add to shopping cart," then parting with a tiny amount of money. Now you just need the personal chef and closet dedicated solely to shoes and you're practically headed to the Oscars.
At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.
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Spend: Micellar Water
Like it or not, micellar water is the cleanser du jour for Francophiles, frequent fliers (because you should not be splashing your complexion with plane water), and sensitive skin types. This one removes your longest-lasting makeup gently and has a subtle rose scent, which makes for an especially nice touch.
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Save: Micellar Water
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it — or spend way more money on it than you need to. This French drugstore classic, arguably the micellar water that started it all, wasn’t always easy to find in the US. Now, it’s readily available stateside, and the ideal price to be purchased in bulk.
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Spend: Moisturizer For Dry Skin
This 30% hyaluronic acid cream has one of the most magical textures we've ever touched — and we've touched a hell of a lot of creams. It looks thick and white in the jar, but as soon as it hits your skin, it becomes as thin and invisible as water. Then, seconds later, it's gone without a trace. The only evidence is how healthy and hydrated your skin feels as the day progresses.
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Save: Moisturizer For Dry Skin
It's rare to find a cream that works across the board for oily skin, extra-dry skin, and sensitive skin, but this fragrance- and- oil-free gel packed with hyaluronic acid and moisturizing olive extract makes the cut.
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Spend: Brightening Eye Cream
The diamond dust in this formula gives dull skin and dark circles an instant, highlighter-effect boost, while herbs and plant extracts work to plump and smooth the area over time.
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Save: Brightening Eye Cream
Daisy blossom extract, a proven brightening powerhouse, is the hero ingredient of this gentle eye cream.
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Spend: At-Home Peel
This box has enough peels to last you two months if you use them as recommended (twice a week). And considering the heavy-duty dose of vitamin C and glycolic acid in each, we'd say that's a worthy purchase if you're concerned with dark spots and uneven texture.
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Save: At-Home Peel
If your skin is easily irritated, opt for this gentler glycolic peel, which can be used daily at night after cleansing.
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Spend: Night Cream
This night cream feels like it's working moments after you massage it in; by the time you wake up, you're noticeably glowier than you were eight — or four — hours prior.
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Save: Night Cream
This is a must for fast winter skin repair, but a word to the wise: Apply the rich cream an hour before hitting the pillow (avoiding the eyes) to give it ample time to sink in.
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Spend: Face Scrub
This cult-favorite, good-enough-to-eat blend has been making us crave cinnamon rolls every time we frost it over our face for years.
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Save: Face Scrub
If St. Ives' original apricot scrub was too aggressive for you, this creamy version should hit the sweet spot. It's got real oats and walnut powder to buff away dead cells and honey to coddle everything else.
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Spend: Purifying Mask
For a deep, oil-zapping clean, wash all your makeup off, do a quick steam if you're feeling indulgent, then smooth this on. In 10 to 15 minutes, the clay and charcoal combo will seriously diminish the amount of sebum and dirt building up in your pores.
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Save: Purifying Mask
Every one of these little single-use pods fits in the palm of your hand and still manages to pack in charcoal and clay (for drawing out the bad stuff), oatmeal and aloe juice (for calming), and tea tree oil (for keeping bacteria away).
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Spend: Liquid Exfoliator
Highly effective, Instagram-friendly, French: The cultiest of cult-favorite skin-care products has all the makings of a good (as in, totally worth it), splurge. Made with a concoction of lactic and salicylic acids, gluconolactone, sulfur, and a handful of extracts that sound more like components of a salad than skin care, this pore-shrinking powerhouse has also spawned a thousand imitators since its launch in the ‘70s.
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Save: Liquid Exfoliator
This brand-new launch, from the mind behind your favorite edible dusts, was formulated specifically to be a “cleaner,” plant-based version of the original, combining some of the same ingredients — glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid, niacinamide — with the brand’s earthy signature ingredients, like reishi mushroom extract. Like its inspiration, it’s a facial in a bottle, and works to brighten and clarify every skin type.
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Spend: Sensitive-Skin Cream
This heavy cream is the Holy Grail for those with special snowflake skin that freaks out the second it senses wind or cold or added fragrance. How do you know it'll do you right? It's 100% sterile and safe to use on babies and burn victims.
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Save: Sensitive-Skin Cream
Cotton isn't just your best bet for comfy tees and underwear: The fluffy white plant also treats your skin with the utmost TLC when it's built into your moisturizer.
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Spend: Sunscreen
Yes, it’s pricy, but this luxurious sunscreen is beloved for its lightweight, invisible finish and the silky smooth canvas it leaves behind. Perfect for wearing alone or under makeup, skin is left looking and feeling as fresh as it gets.
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Save: Sunscreen
Perfect for breakout-prone and sensitive skin, this sunscreen is oil-free and has colloidal oatmeal to soothe your face and body in the sun.
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Spend: Cleansing Device
We love the smaller version of the Clarisonic — the gold standard for getting your face squeaky-clean — because it's ideal for travel and has a delicate speed setting, for days we need to take it easy.
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Save: Cleansing Device
We challenge you to find a better, cheaper tool that erases every trace of makeup and dirt with a brush on one side and exfoliates with a silicone pad on the other. Hint: You can't.
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Spend: Acne Treatment
The rollerball on this treatment makes application easy and mess-free — just remember to wipe it clean after every use to avoid spreading bacteria.
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Save: Acne Treatment
Refinery29 beauty writer Sam Sasso swears by this drugstore spot treatment that goes on clear without any stickiness, and takes down pimples overnight.
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Spend: Retinol
Retinol can be irritating, which is why derms warn that you should always ease in and build up your tolerance. But this one — from the Los Angeles-based esthetician that A-listers like Chrissy Teigen and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley swear by — offers a workaround, with a gentle aloe-infused formula that'll dramatically brighten and smooth skin without ever making you red or flaky.
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Save: Retinol
Almost every derm we've asked agrees: RoC is the leader in wrinkle prevention at the drugstore. Get to the bottom of the tube on this one and you'll see firmer, smoother skin and diminished crow's feet and smile lines.
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Spend: Brightening Treatment
SK-II's secret Pitera sauce works magic on dark spots and areas of discoloration. This spin-off of the classic essence feels more substantial — it's more of a serum than a water — and delivers results in just a few weeks. Plus, all you need is a pump or two for your entire face.
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Save: Brightening Treatment
This toning concentrate boosts your moisturizer's effectiveness, helping to drive the active ingredients deeper into your skin. Just massage a few drops of it on after cleansing, then layer your day or night cream on top.
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Spend: Depuffing Eye Patches
When an eye gel manages to look this chic and hide the fact you slept no more than four hours last night — after just 10 minutes of using it — you know you've found a worthy investment.
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Save: Depuffing Eye Patches
The combo of soothing cucumber and licorice root extract are a surefire way to look wide awake — for less than you'd spend on a latte.
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