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Building a Skincare Routine on a Budget

When it comes to building a skincare routine, most of us have eyes that are bigger than our wallets. With the near-infinite options available, including plenty of gorgeously packaged and enticingly marketed luxury skincare, it can be easy to overspend—or to give up on the whole concept, sure we won’t be able to afford to put together a really effective routine.

But the great thing about Asian beauty is its versatility and all the budget-friendly yet well formulated (and fun!) options available. If you’re trying to put your routine together on limited funds, follow this guide to get the most bang for your buck.

Budgeting for Skincare

Everyone’s budget is different—one person’s steal may be another person’s splurge. For this reason, I won’t be drawing specific lines here about what skincare is “budget” and what isn’t. Instead, I suggest you focus more on the proportions of your skincare spending: what you’re willing to spend more of your budget on, and what you’d like to spend less on.

Also focus on how many products you really need. The long, luxurious, multilayered skincare routine may look appealing, but will become impossible or counterproductive on a very limited budget, since it’s not just the number of products that matters, but the actual effectiveness of each of those products for your skin. And there are ways to replicate some of the effects of a longer routine with a smaller number of products. If what you’re looking for is that ultra-plump, dewy glow, for example, multiple layers of a single hydrating toner can do the trick.

Once you have a rough idea of how many products you think you’ll need and how much you can spend on them, you’ll be in a much better position to use your money wisely.

When to Save

Unless your skin has very specific requirements, like the need to avoid certain common ingredients, I generally find it best to save on basic, single-purpose products, like cleansers, exfoliators, hydrators, and moisturizers. None of these are difficult or expensive to formulate well. As long as you aren’t looking for special effects from them, simple and inexpensive options can perform just as well as fancier ones. In fact, in many cases, the cheaper products may suit more people’s skin, due to a relative lack of fragrance or “fancy” (and often obscure or sensitizing) ingredients.

Cleanser: I don’t ask a lot from a cleanser. I want it to be at a pH of 7 or below in order to prevent damage to my moisture barrier, and I want it to clean my skin well without drying it out. Cleansers wash off, so any “special” ingredients they contain will likely do little to nothing for your skin. This makes finding a lower-priced cleanser easy: when in doubt, I just grab yet another bottle of Hada Labo Gokujyun Hyaluronic Acid Foam Facial Cleanser ($12), which has worked well for me for years.

Hada Labo Gokujyun Hyaluronic Acid Foam Facial Cleanser

Hada Labo Gokujyun Hyaluronic Acid Foam Facial Cleanser - $12.00

Exfoliator: Similar to a cleanser, an exfoliator just has to do one thing well. It needs to exfoliate (without tearing up my skin). Luckily, plenty of inexpensive products deliver this effect without the kinds of bells and whistles that drive up a product’s price. If you’re looking for physical exfoliators, you can go ultra-gentle with Skinfood’s Rice Soft Scrub Wash Off Mask ($10), a little bit grittier with Skinfood’s Black Sugar Honey Wash Off Mask ($10), or more intensive with Skinfood’s Black Sugar Strawberry Wash Off Mask ($11.50).

Skinfood Rice Soft Scrub Wash Off Mask Skinfood Black Sugar Honey Wash Off Mask Skinfood Black Sugar Strawberry Wash Off Mask
Skinfood Rice Soft Scrub Wash Off Mask
Skinfood Black Sugar Honey Wash Off Mask
Skinfood Black Sugar Strawberry Wash Off Mask

If you prefer chemical exfoliators, COSRX’s products do the job and last forever. I’ve been using the same bottle of COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid ($22) for almost a year to keep the pores in my T-zone clear and minimal. COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid ($19) lasts a similarly long time and works well to maintain smooth skin texture and a bright glow.

CosRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid CosRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid
CosRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid
CosRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid

:Here’s where you’ll want to start considering whether you want a single-purpose product or one that can achieve more than one objective at a time. Some hydrating toners claim additional benefits, like brightening, oil balancing, or anti-aging. Those tend to cost more but may be worth it to you if they allow you to skip another step in your routine. Their special effects tend to be less notable than those you’ll find in more specialized product types, however. If you don’t particular need the additional benefits, a pure play hydrating toner like the insanely hydrating Hada Labo Gokujyun Premium Hyaluronic Acid Lotion ($15) will do the job, and one bottle lasts for months and months. You can even soak cotton pads in it and use it as a DIY mask!

Hada Labo Gokujyun Premium Hyaluronic Acid Lotion

Moisturizer: The main objective of a moisturizer is to add and help retain moisture in skin. As with hydrators, this can generally be achieved simply and inexpensively. Like toners, some moisturizers do promise additional effects, but, also like toners, these effects are generally less spectacular than what you’ll get from a targeted treatment product like a serum. They’re more of a bonus rather than the primary purpose of the product. For most skin, an affordable basic moisturizer like COSRX Hyaluronic Acid Intensive Cream ($22) will keep skin happy without breaking the bank.

CosRX Hyaluronic Acid Intensive CreamCosRX Hyaluronic Acid Intensive Cream

When to Splurge

The money that you save by sticking to no-frills products for your skincare basics will come in handy for more targeted products like essences and serums.

The reason I often say that multipurpose products (like creams that claim additional benefits) don’t work as well as single-purpose treatment products is because each product type has some specific formulation requirements. Creams, for example, must contain high amounts of fatty ingredients to provide a moisturizing effect, along with watery ingredients as well as enough emulsifying ingredients to bind these components together for that cream consistency. There’s less room for targeted active ingredients.

Essences and serums, meanwhile, provide more room to play with active ingredients. In general, this allows them more potential to contain enough of the right ingredients to significantly improve skin issues like dark spots or acne. For that reason, I find it most efficient to save the bulk of the skincare budget for these types of products.

The general understanding of essences vs serums is that essences are more watery while serums are more concentrated. In practice, some brands seem to use the terms interchangeably, so I’d look more to effects than to the way the product is named.

Most essences do have a stronger hydrating component to them than serums and tend to be used earlier in a skincare routine. This doesn’t mean they aren’t effective, however. There’s really nothing quite like Naruko La Crème Face Renewal Miracle Essence ($70) for giving my skin a bright, translucent glow, most likely due to the high concentration of rice extract and the other brightening ingredients in the product.

Naruko La Creme Face Renewal Miracle Essence
Naruko La Creme Face Renewal Miracle Essence

For even more targeted effects, look for a well formulated serum that contains ingredients to treat your particular skin concerns. I generally focus on brightening and spot fading. My holy grail serums in that category are pretty much all from the Holy Snails Shark Sauce line, which makes sense, since brand owner Chel made the original Shark Sauce to my specifications of an ideal brightening serum. I generally use either Double Shark ($38) for a whopping 10% dose of proven brightener niacinamide or Great White Shark ($38) for 5% niacinamide plus vitamin C.

Holy Snails Shark Sauce

Holy Snails Shark Sauce
From $9.00 - $47.00

When Moderation is Key

There are two other categories of product whose cost I think is important to consider.

I love sheet masks, and I love it when other people love sheet masks, too. The great thing about sheet masks is in the vast majority of cases, the super-expensive ones aren’t worth the money. (The SK-II sheet mask, for example, does nothing for my skin, and the blanketlike material inspires fits of loathing whenever I remember putting it on.) On the other hand, I’ve unfortunately never encountered a sub-$1 sheet mask that was worth the time it took to apply. There are lots of extremely cheap sheet masks on the market, and as far as I can tell, most of them are made of water, alcohol, and disappointment.

Almost all of my personal favorite sheet masks are midrange in price, which I define as between $1.50 to $3 per mask if purchased in a box. They’re affordable enough to use frequently, which is great, because while a sheet mask can always give skin an immediate boost, consistent long-term use does bring cumulative benefits to skin hydration and appearance. Among these, the Annie’s Way Hyaluronic Acid + Seaweed Hydrating Sheet Mask ($24/box of 10) and Naruko Narcissus Repairing Sheet Mask ($24/box of 10).

Annie's Way Hyaluronic Acid + Seaweed Hydrating Sheet Mask Naruko Narcissus Repairing Sheet Mask
Annie's Way Hyaluronic Acid + Seaweed Hydrating Sheet Mask
From $3.25 - $24.00
Naruko Narcissus Repairing Sheet Mask

When it comes to sunscreen, meanwhile, you have to take into account the fact that you need to apply a lot of it at a time in order to receive the full protection advertised on the label. I go through about one and a half tubes of sunscreen a month just using it on my face, neck, and upper chest. This means that pricey luxury or spa brand sunscreens are not an economically viable option. (I’ve also never used a luxury sunscreen that I liked, so that’s good, at least.) On the other hand, the high volume required for full protection means that you can’t just grab any sunscreen from the drugstore and expect it to work well. Most will end up way too goopy, greasy, and white-casty to be realistic options.

Sunscreen is important not just for beauty but for health, so here I think the finish and wearability of the product are important. Try to find one that’s pleasant enough for you to use at the current amounts, and budget around that if you can. Out of the options at Glowie Co, I like Neogen Day-Light Protection Sunscreen ($30), which I found non-greasy and without noticeable white cast on my skin.

As a final note, remember that not everyone needs to use all the possible steps of an Asian-style skincare routine. If you don’t have any particular skin concerns beyond keeping it clean and moisturized, you can easily skip essence and serum. If you don’t really enjoy using sheet masks, don’t feel like you need to. Consider what you will actually use and don’t force yourself to add steps that you don’t need. Everyone’s skin and lifestyle are different, after all. With some research and trial and error, you can find the routine that fits your needs and your budget!