Which Beauty Products Are Actually Worth Splurging On?

Rachel Krause

Photo: Getty Images

We love beauty products, but we also kind of like having money. There are $5 lipsticks and $500 face creams, and there’s tons of middle ground, too, which can make it difficult to decide which areas are worth investing in and which you can get away with scrimping on. Just because that $500 face cream exists doesn’t mean you need it! Here are five categories worth your extra money, along with five that aren’t—but we won’t blame you if you decide to indulge in them all.

Worth It: Foundation
Whether you prefer heavy-duty coverage or a lightweight tinted moisturizer, a reliable base is one thing you should definitely invest in. When it comes to something you apply regularly to your entire face, the quality of the ingredients matters, especially for sensitive and acne-prone skin types—the last thing you want is to exacerbate the skin issues you’re trying to hide in the first place. That isn’t to say that all high-end foundations are created equally, but the formulations tend overall to wear longer and look better on. Tarte Beyond BB Perfecting Liquid Foundation ($48, tartecosmetics.com) is perfect for medium-to-full coverage on all skin types.

Not Worth It: Body Lotion
Unless there’s a particular scent you’re partial to or you have special skin needs like eczema, there’s no need to splurge on fancy moisturizers for anything below the neck. Most body lotions, whether they’re $5 or $50, are full of the same filler ingredients and silicones that serve little to no purpose when it comes to actually moisturizing. Try using a skin-friendly oil like coconut or jojoba instead—not only are they super-affordable, but you’ll know exactly what you’re putting on your body. We also love St. Ives Fresh Hydration Lotion Spray ($6.49, target.com) because it’s soothing and super-easy to use, not to mention cheap.

Worth It: Moisturizer
The difference between high-end facial moisturizers and budget options comes down to the formula. Cheaper ingredients beget cheaper prices, which is why many drugstore moisturizers contain essentially useless proven pore-cloggers like mineral oil and lanolin. Some pricy options contain these unsavory ingredients, too, so know what to watch out for before you buy. Look for flower and plant extracts and oils in your skin care, like those in Kate Somerville Nourish Daily Moisturizer ($65, katesomerville.com), which are more effective and of better quality than commonly used chemicals, like dimethicone and propylene glycol.

Not Worth It: Blush
Unless you’re going organic, most blush formulas are pretty much interchangeable blends of talc, mica and color pigment. Granted, there are a lot of high-end blushes that we love, but they’re really a luxury rather than a necessity. Cheaper formulas tend to be less pigmented, so choose bold, bright colors for maximum impact. Revlon Photoready Cream Blush ($13.99, cvs.com) in Flushed is a gorgeous vivid hot pink that blends smoothly and lasts all day.

Worth It: Conditioner
We all have that one friend with a gorgeous mane who swears by Pantene, but for most of us, that is not the reality. Any gentle shampoo will do, but when it comes to conditioner, silicone-heavy drugstore formulas can do way more harm than good. Silicones coat the surface of the hair without actually hydrating it and can lead to buildup and further dryness and damage. Look instead for conditioners with naturally occurring ingredients like the bamboo extract and sunflower seed oils in Alterna Bamboo Luminous Shine Conditioner ($22, alternahaircare.com), which actually nourish and feed hair rather than put a band-aid over it.

Not Worth It: Toner
Some experts advise skipping toner altogether on the grounds that it’s an unnecessary additional skin care step. It is true that toner’s use is to balance the pH of skin, which most cleansers do already, but there’s something to be said for swiping a toner-soaked cotton ball over your face to remove every last trace of makeup and grime. The problem is that many lower-priced toners are full of alcohol, which absorbs oil and leaves the face feeling “refreshed” but can cause extreme drying. As an alternative, witch hazel, particularly the classic Thayers Witch Hazel with Aloe Vera and Rose Petal ($7.96, vitacost.com), makes a great natural toner that’s easy to find and won’t break the bank.

Worth It: Perfume
Fragrance doesn’t have to be over-the-top expensive, but it’s definitely time to retire those Victoria’s Secret body sprays. If you’re a perfume wearer (and hey, not everyone is), shelling out some cash for a perfume you love isn’t the worst way to spend your money. Better-quality perfume ingredients are longer-lasting and more potent, so you’ll need less to carry you through the day. Another smart, affordable fragrance option: Perfume oils like C.O. Bigelow Musk ($15, bigelowchemists.com).

Not Worth It: Mascara
Let’s put it this way: Mascara is mascara, and more often than not, the one that costs $30 has the exact same ingredients list (and manufacturer) as the one that’s $9.99. What makes many mascaras great is their brush, not their formula. Slender, comb-like wands are great for separating and lengthening lashes, while larger, more densely packed brushes, like the one that comes in Maybelline Volum’Express The Rocket ($7.77, drugstore.com) are ideal for volume and thickness. There are some amazing drugstore mascaras on the market that are just as good as their department store counterparts.

Worth It: Lipstick
There are some good drugstore lipsticks out there, too, but when it comes to the best pigment, the best (read: least drying) formula, and the best ingredients for something so close to your mouth (think about it!), high-end is the way to go. In fact, we like to spend our hard-earned cash on lip colors with ingredients we can pronounce, like BITE Beauty Luminous Crème Lipstick ($24, sephora.com) and ILIA Lipstick ($26, iliabeauty.com).

Not Worth It: Brushes
Why splurge on super high-quality brushes when you can pick perfectly good ones up at the drugstore for a fraction of the price? We can’t recommend all budget brushes, but we can certainly sing the praises of those from both Real Techniques and Sonia Kashuk. They’re soft, durable, and easy to use, and it won’t break your heart if one happens to get misplaced—certainly not the case for the $40+ Tom Ford brushes, which, yes, we also love.

Read more: 5 Cult Beauty Products Worth Every Penny (and 5 That Aren’t)