Great beauty products should be available to everyone, regardless of income or budget. Some are easier to find than others, though. Great inexpensive pencils, nail polishes, mascaras, body lotions and glosses are 10 a penny. Decent budget foundations and concealers are harder to find. I’ve tested more products than I care to mention over the past 20 years, and if something isn’t right for my skin, it’s passed on to trusted people who better fit the bill. The products I’ve chosen are those that consistently perform very well across the board.
Naturally, there are a number of bargains that have already appeared in my column – it seemed unfair to overlook the truly brilliant purely in the name of originality. Equally, there are several favourites I’ve left out, not because I love them any less, but because no one needs to hear me quacking on about the genius of Neutrogena Deep Moisture Body Lotion for the 1,000th time. Also missing are basic toiletries such as deodorant, toothpaste and razors, which all cost roughly the same; and cheap perfume, which, apart from being an entirely personal choice, almost never smells nice.
What remains are skin, hair and makeup products that represent great value for money, whether they sell at £2 or £20. (And they are good at any price, not just poor relatives of the luxury set.) Especially gratifying for me are the number of products I have discovered via the letters, emails and below-the-line comments you write. If you spot your pick below, thank you very much for sharing. If you don’t, please let me know which budget treasure I should try next.
1 Vichy Aqualia Thermal Serum £17.50
Yes, I have been banging on about this for the best part of a year, but truly it’s the first mid-price serum I have ever routinely chosen over a luxury brand. One or two pumps gives a perky, healthier-looking finish to all dehydrated skin types, whether young or old, oily or dry, and layers seamlessly under any moisturiser. You should see a difference in just a couple of days.
2 Klorane Gentle Dry Shampoo £7.50
Dry shampoo is no longer limited to festivals and soap-dodgers: it’s now a styling staple for adding volume, texture and a matte finish. This is probably my all-time favourite because it doesn’t have a nasty chemical smell, won’t cause scalp-itch, and leaves hair soft, not like stable hay.
It was a reader, Vicki, who alerted me to this. It goes on like a dream and stays there: no creasing under the eyes, no cakeyness around the nose, and the wand applicator means you needn’t bother with a brush. When layered and set with powder, it’s dense enough to cover the most evil of spots. Annoyingly, the print comes off the packaging, but for four quid you can’t moan.
A beauty classic, and with good reason. Uses sheer purple tones to counteract brassiness and add brightness and shine to grey, silver or bleached blond hair. Don’t be alarmed by the colour in the bottle. You will not end up looking like Mrs Slocombe, I promise.
5 Olay Complete Everyday Sunshine £9.99
I never expected to love this as much as I do. Not only does it give the most even, natural-looking tan to the face (expect it to develop in an hour or so), but it’s also a lovely moisturiser that provides a near-perfect base for makeup. Great on normal, combination and dry skins, mature or young.
6 The Wet Brush £11.99
People now seem to be onboard with the idea of a wet hair detangling brush, but I struggle with the popular no-handle designs, which slip out of my palms. This works miles better. It cuts through tangles like a hot knife through butter; no drag, no snag, and distributes styling product evenly.
7 L’Oréal Elnett £2.39
I occasionally flirt with designer lacquers, or slum it with the (very good) Silvikrin, but I always come back to this, the queen of hairsprays. It holds style without stiffness, tames flyaways, stops dresses from clinging to tights (just lightly mist your stockinged legs) and brushes out without a blizzard of dandruffy flakes. A worthy winner just for the scent – to me, Elnett will always smell of great nights out.
8 L’Oréal Glam Bronze Mono £7.99
A bargain matte bronzer is a rare thing. Bafflingly, a low price seems to guarantee an overkill of shimmer and glitter. This is an unusually sophisticated affair. It has no sparkle, no orange tinge, and blends smoothly and realistically. Use a fat, rounded brush to sweep on to cheek hollows, temples and jawline, adding depth of field and a healthy-looking glow. (Warning: the ‘Duo’ version isn’t anything like as good.)
There are so many good products in the Rimmel London range, but this relative newcomer is outstanding. It takes the high shine of lipgloss and backs it up with bold, saturated colour – think Studio 54, Helmut Newton and American Hustle. The colour choices are great, too – Nude Eclipse is the perfect partner for a dark, smoky eye. It’s restored my faith in lipgloss, which I’ve always found pretty underwhelming. The matte version is much less good.
Cheap as chips and, according to several top session stylists, the best mousse for big, unsticky blowdries that keep their hold all day. Four empty cans later, I’m inclined to agree. Stroke an apricot-sized ball of mousse between your palms, then rake through damp roots and lengths, avoiding ends. For the biggest hair, blowdry upside down, then finish the right way up with a round brush or rotating styler.
11 Origins Super Spot Remover £15
Admittedly, Origins is no bargain brand, but this spot remover comes under budget, lasts ages and works better than anything else I’ve come across. The concentrated salicylic acid formula is not for smearing over large areas, but for zapping isolated spots of the large, throbbing, painful variety. Dot the gel over the zit’s head with a clean cotton bud. Repeat two to three times daily, and again before bed.
12 Revlon Colorburst Lip Butter £7.99
These much copied sheer lipsticks are still the best. They deliver soft, wearable, semi-transparent colour that feels comfortable and balmy on the lips. Crème Brûlée is perfect with a dark, sexy eye; Candy Apple remains the ultimate ‘gateway red’ for those who think they can’t wear it – just a few goes and you’ll feel confident enough to remove the stabilisers and wear a full-on pillarbox.
13 Elvive Fibrology Shampoo and Conditioner £1.87 each
Probably the most effective volumising shampoo and conditioner I’ve ever used. This uses technology normally employed by cracked windscreen repairers to coat and thicken the hair shaft, and results can be extraordinary. The only drawback is that you will temporarily sacrifice some softness, so give your hair a couple of weeks’ break every two months or so.
14 Lush Ultrabland cleanser £7.25
Another Weekend reader recommendation, this thick, unctuous cream is made from honey, rosewater, iris and almond oil for a rich, gentle cleanse. It’s thorough, too – it can easily remove a full face of photoshoot makeup when used with a hot flannel (as all cleansers should be). Leaves skin baby soft. The scent isn’t everyone’s poison, so have a sniff before buying.
15 Bourjois Cream Blush £8
I wear powder blushers less and less as I get older. Cheek colour is still a must, but I prefer the softness and glow of a creme formulation, as well as the convenience of not having to carry a brush. The texture of Bourjois is perfect and the colours universally flattering for all skins. The new flip-top packaging contains a mirror, righting this excellent product’s only wrong.
16 Prestige Cosmetics Liquid Eyeliner £6.99
Believe it or not, this is actually expensive for Prestige, a US brand not distributed in the UK, which sells many brilliant products at around $5 a pop. The excellent Cult Beauty site has managed to source this, one of the most celebrated, for British customers. Proper dense black liquid and a firm, easy-to-control brush make it perfect for sharp lines and feline flicks.
17 Erborian CC creme HD SPF25 £16
Makes mincemeat of every other CC cream I’ve tried (and I’ve tested several dozen). Evens dark patches, sunspots and redness, covers light blemishes and gives the whole face a very natural-looking, glowy veil of healthy colour. Its only significant fault is that it’s suitable only for Caucasian and some Asian skintones (for darker skins, try Sleek’s CC Cream, £8.99). A deeper shade please, pronto.
18 Garnier Ambre Solaire Dry Mist SPF30 £8.50
It’s remarkable how many beauty editors, with access to any brand on the market, choose Ambre Solaire sun protection for their family holidays. It’s ideal if, like me, you have children who make a bid for freedom as soon as they see you rummaging in your beach bag. It allows you to douse wriggling bodies quickly and thoroughly, and the dry texture stops them complaining about grease.
19 Nivea In-Shower Body Moisturiser £5.29
Applying body lotion is essential for many, but it’s a tedious, time-consuming task, especially first thing in the morning. This – a body lotion that’s smeared on swiftly like a shower creme, then rinsed off to leave a film of moisture – gets around the problem brilliantly. I was deeply sceptical, but now I’m never without it.
20 Real Techniques Brushes from £5.99
I’m a terrific snob about makeup brushes. As with kitchen knives, you generally get what you pay for, so I have only two budget brands in my expansive kit: Zoeva and Real Techniques. The latter scores extra points for high street availability, clear online tutorials and a really impressive duo-fibre range that gives even Mac a run for its money. Superb value.
21 First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads £17.38
I use exfoliating pads around twice a week, after cleansing, to remove dead skin and add glow. Those with spot breakouts or visible pores can up the ante to three to four times weekly. These combined AHA/BHA discs do the job, and are decidedly un-stingey for a high-street buy – the pads are large and sufficiently saturated to offer 60 treatments in one pot.
22 Sleek Makeup i-Divine Palettes £7.99
I’ve yet to meet a budding makeup artist without at least a couple of these brilliant eye palettes in his or her kit. Unlike many cheaper shadows, they deliver dense, punchy pigment in a soft, easy-to-blend formula. The colour choices are clever and versatile, too. If eyeshadow isn’t really your thing, do check out the rest of the impressive Sleek range: there’s barely a duff product.
One of my most commonly requested recommendations is for an everyday oily skin moisturiser. This is it. It softens, comforts and provides an agreeable base for makeup. And while there’s usually nothing wrong with using oils on oily skin, I do find the oil-free texture appeals to those at war with grease. It’s frustrating that the UK is denied the full Neutrogena skincare range – it’s consistently fantastic and often the first thing I stock up on when visiting America.
24 L’Oréal Lash Architect in Black £10.99
Mascara is one product category where price is no indicator of quality – there are as many great cheap ones as there are bad expensive ones. This, while not as bargainous as some, is particularly fantastic for anyone who wants big, fat, long, spidery lashes. It has the perfect brush shape (like a tapered pipe-cleaner, not a twig or toilet brush) and doesn’t flake. Fans of the natural look need not apply.
The entire Superfacialist range is pretty great, but I single this out because lovely quality, all-natural, facial oil blends are usually much pricier. This holds its own against the luxury brands and gives visible results – skin should feel immediately softer and more supple, and look nicer tomorrow than it did today.
If you get flaky limbs, rich body creme isn’t always the solution – it often just sticks down the flakes temporarily. To slough them off, choose a lotion containing alpha hydroxy acids. This, one of my favourites, rubs in fast, without greasiness. It also works brilliantly on keratosis pilaris, the goose-bumpy effect seen commonly on upper arms. Warning: apply regularly before bed, not before going out – it smells revolting.
27 Dove Silk Body Wash £2.55
A budget ‘moisturising shower product’ is something of a misnomer. It’s hard to see how products generally packed with sulphates and alcohol can do anything to improve the condition of the skin. This somehow manages it. A beautifully silky, not at all slimy creme that rinses away to leave soft, lovely smelling skin. Also great as a leg-shaving cream.
28 Models Own Polishes £4.99
Maybelline and Rimmel London have the best longevity, but when it comes to colour choice, Models Own are the guvnors. Their new collections are those I most look forward to seeing, from mirror-finish chromes and disco ball glitters, to demure speckled eggshell and multi-toned iridescents. Frequent multi-buy deals online make your cash go even further.
29 St Moriz Tanning Mousse Regular £4.99
By far the best budget tanner for those who like fast, deep colour without a hint of orange. Goes on smoothly with the reusable mitt (sold separately, and essential to avoid stained palms), and doesn’t tint bedsheets. Lasts as well as its luxury rivals (four to five days), but costs so much less. There’s a good wash-off version, too.
30 Weleda Skin Food £7.95
A seriously thick, rich, hardcore moisturiser for very dry hands, feet, shins, elbows, even your face (very dry types may like to use it as an in-flight face mask, as Victoria Beckham is rumoured to). Provides comfort and several hours of effective moisturisation, as well as what I consider a very lovely, herbal, slightly medicinal smell (though not everyone would agree).
Easily the loveliest, most luxurious bargain bath and shower collection on the high street, where it’s exclusive to Sainsbury’s. I could have chosen any number of things from the range (made by the founders of luxury brand Elemis), but plumped for this, which can be poured under running bath water or slathered on a shower sponge. Smells beautiful, and feels as if it costs three times as much.
As someone who is prone to skin dullness, I’m always drawn to brightening masks. I’ve tested heaps over the years, but this is still my favourite. It’s extremely simple and fast to use: just smear over dry skin, leave for a few minutes, then remove with a wet flannel (better than a muslin). If you’re really in a rush, just mix a blob in with your normal cleanser. Gives tired skin instant glow.
33 Lanolips 101 Ointment £10.99
I’m a lipbalm fiend, but I always feel a bit antsy if I don’t have this one to hand. Its purest, medical-grade lanolin softens lips and any other dry areas for hours, without gloss, flavour or stickiness. Crucially, I find I can put lipstick over the top and the colour still adheres. I’ve even used it under my eyes on long flights. Marvellous stuff.
34 Bioderma Hydrabio H20 £10.20
No big catwalk makeup artist works without this, an extremely gentle, super-fast makeup remover for use either before proper cleansing, or to quickly clean up smudges and mistakes. Also acts as an indispensable bedside companion for when you are too broken with tiredness, or too soaked with gin, for thorough ablutions.
The handiest product in my bathroom. Remove fingernail polish almost instantly by dipping them into the pot and twisting, or use the sponge on the cap to do toenails (ingenious if you don’t want to smudge an existing manicure in the process). No need for cotton wool. So simple, so brilliantly effective.
Retinol – one of the few ingredients proven to help reduce wrinkles and other signs of ageing – is always expensive, so while this isn’t cheap by any other measure, it does represent great value. Containing three forms of retinol in one smooth, ungreasy serum, it should deliver visible results within 12 weeks.
37 Body Shop Lip Line Fixer £8
As skin ages around the mouth, it can be hard to hang on to your lipstick, which naturally feathers into any lines. This invisible pencil simply and easily fixes the problem. Just trace around the outline of your mouth before applying lip colour. The waxy line acts as an unseen dam, allowing the colour to stay sharp. Several luxury brands have copied this; no one has bettered it.
You simply don’t need to spend fortunes on brow gel. The application method means that, within weeks, the tube will be full of skin cells and face powder, and need to be chucked. This is more than adequate. It grooms and fixes hairs properly, and the tint gives brows a tad more definition than clear mascara.
39 Burt’s Bees Almond Milk Hand Cream £9.99
This achieves the seemingly impossible: a rich, heavy-duty hand cream that doesn’t leave hands maddeningly greasy. It’s very effective on dry hands, comes in a very sweet, gift-worthy jar, and smells better than almost any product I can think of: think newborn babies wrapped in marzipan blankets. I adore it.
40 Boots Essentials Curl Creme £1.99
My curly-haired friends are evangelical about this de-frizzer. The thick, pearlescent gunk is raked through wet curls with fingertips or a wide-tooth comb, before drying either naturally or in a diffuser attachment. Adds great definition, and comes in a pleasingly no-frills pot that should last several months if the creme is applied sparingly (too much makes hair crunchy).
41 Soap Glory The Ultimelt £10
I normally associate Soap Glory with lovely bodycare and very good, if unambitious, makeup, so this facial cleanser took me by surprise. It’s excellent if your skin is oily or combination and you like the comfy, thoroughly cleansed feel of a balm cleanser (no need for a separate eye makeup remover here). It’s good on blemishes and blackheads, and leaves behind no residue.
42 La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo+ £15.50
When women with mild acne ask me for help, this is usually the first thing I recommend (in severe cases, there’s no substitute for a medical professional). Its USP is that it very effectively tackles spots without aggravating redness and inflammation (often even reducing them), or causing the parched discomfort many other spot treatments leave in their wake. Use under or instead of moisturiser.
43 L’Oréal Professionnel Next Day Hair £14.99
My hairdresser Luke Hersheson told me I had to try this on my fine, floppy hair, and within two applications I was hooked. Does what it says on the tin: takes clean, slippery, disobedient hair and gets it to behave like it’s been up all night partying. Expect more grip, great texture and as much hold as a light hairspray. Fantastic.
44 Biona Organic Virgin Coconut Oil £4.75
The internet is rammed with people holding up coconut oil as a miracle product for health, beauty and nutrition. I’m relatively sceptical, but I will say that it makes a very effective cleanser, body moisturiser and hair oil. To remove makeup, massage into dry skin to loosen, then hold a hot flannel over the face before sweeping away the oil. This is the coconut oil I favour, but any will do.
The major flaw with deep conditioners is that they’re meant to be left on the hair for far longer than the duration of a decent shower. This works in just one minute, and leaves my hair as soft and silky as the slowcoaches. Curly types can use it a couple of times a week. I slather it on my fine hair once a month, the day before nothing special.
46 Maqpro Makeup Mixer £10
Legendary makeup artist Val Garland shared this industry secret with me, but it’s not just for the pros. It mixes perfectly with any foundation, concealer or tinted moisturiser to lighten its coverage, acts as a lovely primer to provide a smooth base, a pleasant face and body moisturiser and, perhaps most impressively, can be mixed with powders to turn them into liquid. Superlative.
47 Topshop Kohl Pencil £4
Topshop is seriously good at pencils. This, by my reckoning, is a perfect kohl: soft enough to smudge and smoke with a finger or dry brush, firm enough to sharpen properly and offer some precision, gentle enough to pop in the waterline without redness or streaming. It’s almost identical to another favourite, which costs four times as much.
48 La Roche-Posay Redermic R Eyes £18.37
I tried to allow only one entry per brand, but some of LRP’s products are just too good to limit. This, to my mind, is by some distance the best high-street anti-ageing eye cream. Contains proven ingredients and aims for achievable results. The key is to use regularly and not quit too soon. Apply nightly with your ring finger, and don’t forget the upper lids.
49 Boiron Homeoplasmine £14
Generally speaking, I’m not enthusiastic about homeopathy, but credit where it’s due: this calendula-rich cream works a charm on severely dry lips, rough skin patches and that annoying post-cold flaky redness around the nose. Unlike many chapped-skin remedies, this is almost matte, and not greasy, so makeup can go straight over the top and stay there.
50 Max Factor Crème Puff £5.99
There are many more natural-looking, more subtly scented powders than this, but none of them can truly be called an icon. This 60-year-old pressed powder shows its age in the best possible sense: it smells glamorous, gives a perfectly groomed matte finish to noses and chins, pulls together a fully madeup face like nothing else. Plus, it can be snapped out of its case and popped into a standard vintage compact. Fabulous.