Who hasn't been tempted by the outrageously expensive beauty product? The $60 body scrub that promises immediate thigh firming? Or the wrinkle cream with wild Himalayan yak's milk that costs more than your last phone bill? Sometimes these indulgences turn out to be worth every dime, "but a lot of times, much of the cost is hype―the marketing, the packaging. Most expensive doesn't always mean better," says Stuart H. Kaplan, a dermatologist in Beverly Hills.
But then, neither does least expensive. A $3.99 tube of lipstick is a cheaper pick-me-up than a new cocktail dress (or even a cocktail!). But all those inexpensive tubes, pencils, and cases at the bottom of your handbag do add up. Sometimes it's better to invest in staple colors that are integral to your look and avoid impulse buys.
So what's worth the money? Here, experts reveal where to invest and where to save, from facial creams to hair products. You may be surprised at what items you can scrimp on―and those for which it might just be worth disconnecting your phone.
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Splurge or Save on Day Cream?
Dermatologists agree that the single most important skin-care product for day is sunscreen. And plenty of inexpensive moisturizers provide good sun protection and hydration. But even beyond opting for products on the lower end of the price spectrum, there are ways to save. The first step to saving on face cream? Simply use less. If your method is to begin with a big dollop and then smear it between your hands, that's where most of the cream will stay. Instead, dab a dot on your forehead, cheeks, and nose, then spread it and rub it in. Recommended product: Eucerin Everyday Protection Face Lotion SPF 30 ($8 at drugstores and target.com) is oil- and fragrance-free and good for all skin types.
Skin that is already damaged or has a specific problem, like rosacea, eczema, or hyperpigmentation. "If your goal is simply to avoid having dry skin, many less expensive moisturizers can accomplish this," says dermatologist Kenneth R. Beer. "Skin that has sun damage or special needs will require certain products and ingredients," like antioxidants and retinoids.
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Splurge or Save on Anti-Aging Night Cream?
"If you have a limited budget, your splurging should be done on your treatment cream," says New York City dermatologist Bradford Katchen. What do you get for your money? More sophisticated research and development, and active ingredients that are of higher quality and concentration. Recommended product: Crème de la Mer Moisturizing Cream ($160 for 1 ounce, bloomingdales.com) nourishes skin with fermented sea kelp, which has iron and vitamins B12 and C.
Don’t shell out for anti-aging creams with alpha hydroxy acids, which help increase skin-cell turnover, as their main active ingredient. "Concentrations of AHAs in drugstore brands often don't differ a lot from department-store brands," says New York City dermatologist Doris Day. So finding an effective formulation doesn't require a lot of cash.
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Splurge or Save on Eye Shadow?
Makeup artists agree that department-store-brand shadows are vastly superior to their drugstore counterparts. "The color is richer, they adhere to the lids better, and they go on smoother," says Tina Turnbow, a makeup artist for beauty.com. Drugstore brands tend to crumble (since they are not as finely milled), and you rarely get as deep a color on your skin as in the package. "Certain pigments, such as deep blues and purples, are very expensive," says Tom Winarick, executive vice president of Prestige Cosmetics, which makes mass-market products. "Companies that charge more can use more of them." Recommended product: M.A.C Eye Shadow ($15, maccosmetics.com) has a high concentration of pigments.
If you want to try a new, trendy color but aren't sure it's for you, experiment with a cheaper brand. If you hate it, you've spent only a few dollars. If you love it, buy the quality version.
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Splurge or Save on Foundation?
It's important to find the right shade and formula for your skin, but you can rack up quite a bill by trial and error with inexpensive brands. Instead, have a makeup consultant match the perfect foundation to your skin and allow you to test it at the counter before you buy. Your age and skin type may determine whether you need a creamy, sheer formula or one that offers more coverage. It's tough to tell which is which without trying them on. But do figure out what works: "If your skin doesn't look good," notes San Francisco makeup artist Hillary Clark, "nothing else will." Recommended product: Giorgio Armani Luminous Silk Foundation ($62, shop.nordstrom.com) is a makeup artists' favorite.
If you tend to use foundation sparingly (just around the nose and chin to reduce redness) and you know the undertones in your skin, you might consider a drugstore purchase.
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Splurge or Save on Blush?
The pigments in blush are very similar to those in eye shadow―the less expensive the product, the more likely it is that the pigments have been diluted with talc and other powder ingredients or are not milled as smoothly. "Inexpensive blushes might leave streaks, and they rarely give you a silky feel," says San Francisco makeup artist Hillary Clark. If you want to add color and dimension to your face, it's worth the money to buy a blush that stays on. And you shouldn't have to swipe your cheek 18 times to get the color you want. Recommended product: Nars Blush ($27, narscosmetics.com) is loaded with pigments that are finely milled.
"Inexpensive cream blushes tend to have more lasting color than powders in the same price range," says Turnbow. Because you dab them on the apples of the cheeks (rather than brushing them across the entire cheekbones), you can get a rich shade.
If you want a bright red lipstick to wear just for the holidays, then head to the drugstore. If you're looking for a rich color from your gloss, you may want to invest in a more expensive one. Recommended product: Bobbi Brown Lip Gloss ($23, bobbibrown.com) pops with color.
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Splurge or Save on Mascara?
"There is very little difference in mascara formulas from luxury to drugstore brands," says Tom Winarick. "It is really the brush that maximizes the performance of the product." It's no surprise that the drugstore brands Maybelline, Max Factor, and L'Oréal have long been the leaders in sales of mascara. "The richness of drugstore brands is the same as expensive ones," says Turnbow. With any mascara, pumping air into the tube before you apply it allows bacteria to grow, so you should buy a new tube every three to four months―all the more reason to spend less. Recommended product: Max Factor Lash Perfection Mascara ($7.50, amazon.com) coats each lash using flexible plastic bristles.
If you want a color outside the normal brown-black range―for example, a midnight blue―you may want to look for a pricier brand with a wider variety of shades.
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Splurge or Save on Face Powder?
If you're using powder as an all-purpose foundation/concealer/ makeup setter, it's worth buying one that stays on and makes your skin look flawless. Multipurpose formulas, which typically look like compacts, cost a bit more. A well-made powder with higher-quality pigments will last longer because you don't need to apply so much of it. "I'd invest here, because it's difficult to match your shade at a drugstore," says Tekeyla Perdue, senior artistic director of aesthetics at Mitchell's Salons & Day Spas in Cincinnati. Recommended product: Prescriptives Flawless Skin Total Protection Pressed Powder ($30, prescriptives.com) blends well, thanks to micronized and silicone-treated powders.
If all you need is a colorless translucent powder to set your makeup without changing your look, you don't need to spend a ton, says Clark. Drugstores carry a host of options, from loose powders to compacts.
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Splurge or Save on Eye and Lip Pencils?
Generally, the more expensive the pencil is, the softer the wax and the smoother the application. So invest in a softer-wax pencil for drawing around the sensitive eye area. "Cheaper eyeliners can pull the delicate skin around the eyes or break off and crumble," says Tekeyla Perdue, senior artistic director of aesthetics at Mitchell's Salons & Day Spas in Cincinnati. You can spend less on lip liner, which doesn't require such careful application. "With lip liners, you can go low-cost and still achieve the look you desire." Recommended product: LancÃ´me Le Crayon KhÃ´l ($24.50, sephora.com) is a smooth eyeliner with intense color.
If you change your eye pencil with every outfit and your collection is as varied as a pack of coloring pencils, then all those $15 sticks can add up. For a cheap but gentle liner, makeup artist Tina Turnbow suggests gel formulas or liners that come in plastic pencils, as wooden ones tend to be drier. Recommended product: Wet n Wild Lipliner Pencil in Brandy Wine ($1 at drugstores and amazon.com) is considered by makeup artists to be a great drugstore find for color and consistency.
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Splurge or Save on Shampoo?
Shampoos are designed to cleanse the hair, and any fancy ingredients will probably go down the drain with the suds. If you have normal, non-chemically treated hair, most drugstore shampoos will do the trick. If you love the feel or the scent of an expensive shampoo but worry about the cost, rotate in a less expensive brand every other day or once a week, depending on how often you wash your hair. Recommended product: Garnier Fructis Fortifying Shampoo ($4 at drugstores and amazon.com) is touted by hairstylists as a great inexpensive shampoo.
If you have spent a small fortune coloring or highlighting your hair, you might want to go with the product that your hairstylist recommends to best preserve your color.
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Splurge or Save on Hair Conditioner?
Conditioner is the main way to protect and repair hair. Yes, you rinse conditioner out, but "these products are emulsions, which means they contain an oil or a wax that doesn't mix with water. Whatever healthy ingredients are in them adhere to the hair and don't wash away," says Alison Griffin. High-end conditioners sold in salons tend to have more advanced delivery systems for ingredients, meaning they penetrate the hair shafts rather than simply coating them. Spend money on one great product that makes the most difference in your daily style, says Los Angeles stylist Charles Dujic. You can conserve hair conditioner by slowly adding it to your hair's ends, rather than your entire head, then rinsing excess away, says Maité Lopez, a stylist at the James Joseph salon, in Boston. Recommended product: Leonor Greyl Nourishing Treatment Jasmine Mask ($55, amazon.com) can be used as a daily conditioner. It has a high concentration of botanical oils and proteins, so only a small amount is needed.
Women with fine or oily hair don't need a heavy conditioner weighing it down. They might skip conditioning altogether in favor of a light, leave-on spray.