It’s been four years since my last bargain special, and since then, there’s been a seismic shift in high street beauty. While I wasn’t quite grappling around for decent products for inclusion then, I was more reliant on the tried and tested stalwarts that had either invented a category (Batiste dry shampoo) or at least defined one (L’Oreal Elnett hairspray). This time, advances in science, consumer knowledge and appetite for innovative, effective and sophisticated products (thanks to brands like The Ordinary and Beauty Pie), and the increased affordability of quality ingredients, means I’ve been spoilt for choice. So much so, that I’ve been able to lower the qualifying budget from £20 to £15, and still had so many worthy contenders that after three months of playing with products, my long list means we’re having to run over two weeks. Today is makeup, hair and nails. Next week: skincare and body products.
One of the biggest and most gratifying changes since my first special in 2013 has been the decision, that year, to ban animal testing in the EU, effectively meaning that now only brands sold in China, where animal testing is mandatory, cannot be considered cruelty free. You’ll see a ‘CF’ next to those here who don’t, at the time of writing, distribute there. These are also more difficult times for bricks and mortar retailers but nonetheless, I believe that beauty should be as democratic as possible, and so I’ve deliberately skewed towards products that are available nationwide, rather than hard-to-find cult buys. As is always the case, everything here has been chosen without any commercial consideration.
Although I’ve tried to keep repetition to a minimum, there are a handful of products that appear here again – not because there aren’t dozens of great alternatives, but because it seems disingenuous to pretend they’ve been surpassed when they are still, in my view, the very best. But over the next two weeks, I hope you’ll also discover some of the new innovations, improved formulas and sleeper hits (several of them discovered after you recommended them to me – so, thank you) that also stand out as the very best in their field. That said, nothing should be inferred from omission. If I haven’t included something I raved about in the last budget special, or in a previous column, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve gone off it, or that it has become outmoded. It simply means I’ve either tried to avoid repetition, or fallen hard for something new.
I’m delighted this squeaked in on budget, because on dehydrated skins there is no better high street foundation. Moist, ungreasy, refreshing, spreadable application and a smooth, lasting, radiant, skin-plumping finish that mimics medium coverage foundations costing three times the price. Awards must be given.
Rimmel Kate Moss lipsticks, £5.49
High street brands have raised their lipstick game considerably in the past five years. I’m spoilt for choice, but still believe Kate Moss’s perfectly curated reds and nudes in creamy, comfortable, lasting formulas are unbeatable. There’s something flattering for everyone (including a very good lip balm).
Real Techniques Eye Shade Blend Set, £8.99. Cruelty free (CF)
When it comes to makeup brushes, I travel light and carelessly. This useful set is perfect for blending powder shadows, buffing in creams and smudging liners to soften and smoke. I keep them in my handbag, never fretting about losing them when I’m on the go, while my luxury brushes stay safely at home.
If you like a dramatic, sharp brow, look elsewhere in the NYX portfolio: this unusual pencil is all about combining the soft, natural-looking definition of powder with a pencil’s control and ease of application. Stroke upwards to fill gaps and sparseness, then sweep through the attached spoolie brush to blend. Excellent.
Zara Ultimatte, £9.99
Finally, I found something in Zara that I love. These exceptional matte lipsticks are creamy, densely pigmented and vivid, without that horrible dry-wellies-down-a-wet-slide drag of inferior mattes. Comfy, lasting and cool. UM16, an almost neon orange red, is my favourite.
Collection Lasting Perfection Concealer, £4.19 (5ml), CF
I tried to find something newer and better, but nada. This bargain concealer still reigns supreme. Thick enough to cover blemishes, light enough to live on under-eye circles without settling into lines or exacerbating dryness, and with due consideration given to different skin undertones. You can’t do better for the cash.
WetBrush Classic, £11.99, CF
I recently misplaced not one, but three WetBrushes and realised how much my family and I rely on them. Glides through wet tangles like a hot knife through butter, with no snags or breakages. Essential in distributing styling products, detangling tired, fractious children, and caring for thinning hair or extensions.
Avon True Colour Illuminating Pearls, £10 (40g)
These look dated at first glance, but on the skin, they impart the loveliest, most natural, semi-matte glow (no spangle or shimmer) and set foundation a treat. Newly brought back from the dead, these, like most Avon products, go in and out of stock. It’s worth persevering.
Muji Silver Nail Clippers, £4.95 (fingers), £7.95 (toes), CF
It is among my missions in life to make everyone buy one of these. I’ve used nothing else for 15 years, and have barely needed a nail file in all that time. Precise, razor sharp, and with a nifty, hygienic clippings collector in the handle. Run, don’t walk, to get yours.
L’Oréal Paris Paradise Mascara, £11.99
I make a point of trying every black mascara that crosses my doormat, but this made it all the way to my handbag. It gives length and volume without making lashes brittle and clumpy, and is extraordinarily well behaved, staying put all day without flaking or smudging.
Shea Moisture Fruit Fusion Masque, £12.99 (340g), CF
I could easily have chosen any deep conditioner from this reliably excellent vegan range, but this is my personal favourite. Adds stacks of moisture without weighing down fine hair or flattening curls. Rinses out thoroughly and leaves hair smelling like sweeties – in a good way.
Primark Glitter Obsessed Palette, £4, CF
I take the view that a glitter palette should be fun, and there’s nothing fun about parting with forty-odd quid for something you’ll use only a couple of times a year. This cheering spectrum of sparkles is a fantastic bargain and is surprisingly good quality. I’ve converted a couple of makeup artists (and kids) to its charms.
Boots Extra Firm Hold Mousse, £1.50 (200ml)
The best volumising mousse, according to me, and more importantly, to umpteen session stylists I’ve worked with over the years. Rake a golf ball-sized blob through the roots and flip hair upside down for a big, bouncy blow-dry.
Barry M Gelly Nail Paint, £3.99, CF
No bargain special is complete without British beauty icon Barry M. His list of great products is near endless (lifetime achievement award goes to Dazzle Dust glitter), but I’ve opted for these, his famous, vegan-friendly nail polishes. The colours are delicious, the finish – very shiny, slightly plumped, always vivid – is remarkable for four quid.
Klorane Dry Shampoo With Oat Milk, £9 (150ml)
A plant-based, biodegradable formula shampoo spray that absorbs oil, adds bulk and gives grip – all without that horrible chalky powdered wig look.
Sleek MakeUp i-Divine Palettes, £8.99, CF
Overall, I think Sleek may be the best budget brand on the high street. It does almost everything well, but these vibrant, blendable, intelligently curated eye shadow palettes, with splendid colour payoff, are in another league. Its nearest competitors are from NYX, which came in a smidge over budget.
It may not be cheap, but should prove well worth it if you suffer from persistently splitting, peeling or breaking nails. Paint on daily – over polish or bare nail – and you should see a difference in a fortnight. This, by morning + a little cuticle oil at night = manicure gamechanger.
There’s so much to love about vegan brand e.l.f. (try its fantastic eye crayons), but the value on this is next level. A densely pigmented matte bronzer with no orange tinge, and a flattering powder blusher with superior colour payoff. Two colourways for different skins, though it could use yet another, to be sure.
Lush Shampoo Bars, from £7.50 (55g), CF
Lush has just opened an entirely packaging-free store in Manchester, but these bars of cleansing, sudsy hair soap have been around since the 1980s. Arguably Britain’s most environmentally friendly beauty products, they wash hair 80 to 100 times each and there’s a version for every hair type.
Lord Berry eye pencils, from £8.50, CF
The sootiest, softest, silkiest, sexiest eyeliner pencils, as loved by pro makeup artists and eyeliner addict Claudia Winkleman. Just stroke on then quickly smudge with a clean brush or pinky finger (if you’re looking for sharp flicks, opt for its liquids instead). Lord Berry’s lip pencils are equally as good.
The best, easiest and most compact solution to stray grey hairs and grown-out roots – should you not want them to show, of course. This strokes on in seconds, covers greys and whites completely, then dries fast to a non-crunchy finish. It doesn’t transfer on to skin and clothes. There’s one in my handbag right now.
It’s maddeningly hard to find proper liquid eyeliner these days – felt tip liner pens (which run out faster and never seem as black) have grey-squirrelled them out of town. Bourjois’s liquid is among the last standing, and it’s a cracker. Gives smooth, firm application of sharp, blackest-black lines that last.
Flower Beauty Light Illusion Foundation, £12.99 (30ml), CF
Every time I wear this, someone asks me what it is. Liquid, medium-coverage foundation for all types and ages that delivers superior light reflection for a blurred, soft-focus finish. And it lasts without getting patchy (rare in cheaper foundations). Superdrug: please roll out the rest of founder Drew Barrymore’s racially inclusive shade range ASAP.
Fudge Urban Matte Head Master, £6.99 (200ml), CF
A male friend with thinning hair recommended this to me last year, and he was right – it does instantly thicken and add texture and guts to fine, flat hair types. It gives great hold even on clean hair, while still allowing it to move, like a day-old blow-dry.
As I Am Coconut CoWash Cleansing Conditioner, £9.99 (454g), CF
Curly girls: this may be the best tenner you’ll spend this year. Here’s a superior detergent-free co-wash for thick, afro, wavy and curly hair types that lifts grease, removes any odour (and I mean really) and leaves hair soft, comb-able, shiny and fragrant. Works way better than conditioner alone.
Hands down, the best cream highlighter on the high street. Dab with fingertips on to eyelids, cheekbones, collarbone – anywhere where you’d like a casual-looking gleam. You can even mix it into lipstick to give it some shimmer. Comes in two shades, for pale and deep skin tones.
L’Oréal Elnett, from £2 (75ml)
I wanted to be more original – really I did, but resistance ultimately proved futile. Fast-drying, easily removable (just brush through), with a flexible hold and the unmistakable aroma of a brilliant night out. There’s no use being contrary: Elnett is the world’s best hairspray, at any price.
Kryolan Lip N’ Cheek, £11.50, CF
Don’t forget professional makeup brands – they’re often the best source of high-quality bargains. This water-resistant tinted lip-and-cheek cream is what I call “casual colour” – just dab on to skin and pat for a natural, cool, insouciant sort of flush. Perfect for holidays and weekends. Rose is my personal favourite.
Charles Worthington Everyday Gentle Micellar Shampoo, £5.99 (250ml), CF
Among my most frequently recommended, this shampoo is just the ticket if you want to scale back on sulphate use, but find co-washing (with only conditioner) causes your hair to flop or feel dirty. This uses micelles (like a makeup remover) to cleanse without stripping or weighing down. There’s a matching conditioner (good) and a leave-in conditioner (meh).
Essie Gel Couture, £9.99
I know it seems a cheat – £10 is hardly cheap for nail polish (plus the matching topcoat is essential). But this deserves credit for being better than lacquers more than double its price. The brush and application are perfect, the gorgeous shades are longer lasting than any other not requiring a UV lamp.
(CF) Cruelty free
• Next week: Sali’s 30 best skincare and body products under £15
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.