The rise of low-cost skincare: Are budget products becoming more sophisticated?

‘Oh, the CeraVe cleanser is my favourite,’ I hear a beauty editor say during a recent press dinner.

Her words are met with nods of approval among other beauty experts, who are regularly sent products of all kinds from the widest price range imaginable.

Even with all the luxury options available, CeraVe – a low-cost American skincare brand that’s known for its no-frills line – is the preferred choice here.

Higher prices were once associated with better products, but that attitude has been shifting in recent years.

You can browse ASOS, Boots, Cult Beauty, SpaceNK, and plenty of other beauty stockists for easy access to once niche or overlooked, ‘budget’ brands.

The plethora includes The Ordinary, The Inkey List, Skin Proud, Garnier, plus the French pharmacy brands, such as Bioderma and even La Roche Posay, whose prices vary from low to mid-range.

Add on a promo code and you’ve got yourself a new wardrobe of skincare, all for the cost that one luxury product could amount to.

A recent report from L’Oréal Active Cosmetics Division found that the online
conversation around skin concerns has increased by 71% since pre-lockdown,
and searches for certain skin types have been steadily growing by 39% year-on-year.

The average skincare consumer is now much more engaged and knowledgeable than ever before – terms like hyaluronic acid and retinol have become part of our common lexicon.

With brands like The Ordinary revolutionising the low-cost, yet highly scientific beauty space, have budget brands embraced the consumer desire for more sophisticated products?

Sure, Chantecaille’s Blue Light Protection Hyaluronic Serum (yours for a nail-biting £135) is undeniably beautiful, sinking perfectly into skin and providing bounties of hydration.

But does good skincare have to be so costly? The answer, these days, is no.

There is a strong place for the luxe market, but no longer do people have to fork out for potent ingredients and high-spec formulations – the skincare landscape is changing.

Claiming a stake in the skincare space

Dr Soma, an NHS and private dermatologist, tells ‘Definitely brands have become more sophisticated in their formulations.

‘We’ve had more years of research behind us now and better developed techniques, we understand skin more, we’ve identified things like the microbiome, which we didn’t even know about to the extent we do now just 10 to 15 years ago.

‘That has triggered and inspired people on the cosmetic side of science to find ingredients and formulas that work.’

She has worked alongside body care first brand Aveeno for the launch of their new skincare line, which is evidence of yet another affordable brand capitalising on the growing skincare market.

Known for their eczema-friendly formulations, the range is likely to be a hit this winter.

Dr Soma explains the range uses colloidal oatmeal, which, being a lesser known ingredient, she says: ‘Not many people know its benefits like strengthening skin barrier, preventing epidermal water loss, and soothing and restoring skin.’

The line also contains a powerful antioxidant in the form of a flower.

‘Those who are interested in the science of skin and skin ageing know antioxidants are our fighters against oxidative stress, which causes wrinkles and pigmentation, so it’s super important to prevent DNA damage,’ she adds.

Even trusty family brands like Nivea have smartened up their offering.

Their Cellular Luminous 630 range targets dark spots, which is something that typically requires potent actives to diminish.

A spokesperson from Nivea tells us: ‘Dark spots and uneven skin tones are a common skin complaint, affecting a large proportion of women globally.

‘Through extensive research we found that 28% of women have expressed it as one of the most frustrating skin issues – often dark patches can bring many insecurities.

‘As a result of this, we spent over 10 years looking into pigmentation and melanin production.’

So, innovation in skincare marries scientific progress with consumer demand, though perhaps the people buying the products are giving more of a steer than they used to.

The spokesperson continues: ‘Consumers are now more conscious than ever before; many also turn to the collective wisdom of the online beauty community and “skintellectuals” for information and to broaden their knowledge.

‘Skincare has had to adapt to the times and brands have had to be more intentional about the way they develop products and how they market them.’

Dr Alexis Granite, who works with CervaVe, echoes this view.

She says: ‘Consumers know now that skincare doesn’t need to cost a fortune to be effective.

‘CeraVe products are a great example of how products across luxe and accessible ranges often contain the same ingredients, but how they are formulated affects efficacy and potency. 

‘CeraVe’s unique MVE technology ensures that active ingredients are delivered slowly,’ meaning they’re designed to be effective over a longer duration of time on the skin.

It’s not just about ingredients themselves, rather the technology behind them too.

But it wasn’t always this way.

A changing landscape

‘Skincare companies are marketing the ingredients now more than the experience of using the product, whereas before you might get ads for skincare that focus on how it feels. Now it’s about “this is what’s in here” and it’s science driven.

‘So people are buying things as a targetted treatment, to a certain extent (though over the counter ingredients aren’t necessarily treatments),’ Dr Soma says.

With that change in messaging, low-cost brands have had to step up their formulations in order to compete.

Saying something ‘feels nice’ isn’t enough anymore.

Certain watershed moments in the beauty industry sped this up – one of which can be attributed to budget brand The Ordinary.

Having launched in 2016, they later became part of the mass market and people were learning words like niacinamide for the first time as their products are named after the main ingredient inside.

‘This evolution pre-dates the pandemic, it was bubbling in consumer culture.

‘The Ordinary was one of the first brands to be so widely accessible and talk about ingredients to the point where now people demand to know what ingredients are in their skincare.

‘A lot of super high end brands don’t necessarily tell you what’s in there because if you start asking those kinds of questions you might not then be able to justify the high price you’re paying,’ Dr Soma says.

Then lockdown amplified this. With travel, fashion, makeup and other areas in which we might spend and study having become temporarily redundant, skincare got pushed to the forefront.

‘Over lockdown a lot of people took to skincare and consuming skincare content online, whether it was blogs, YouTube or social media.

‘There are more experts on social media too, such as dermatologists and doctors.’

With more people able to freely speak to these concerns, consumers started learning what their skin does and doesn’t need.

However, consumers are new in this journey and Dr Soma believes there’s more to understand.

It shows in the way percentages of active ingredients can be discussed.

Talk of percentages ‘leads people to think higher percentages are better, so there’s almost a bidding war with some products where they’ll say higher and higher percentages, but that’s not necessarily a good thing,’ Dr Soma explains, though percentages can be a helpful guide to what you’re using.

Ultimately, Dr Soma believes you can complete your skincare arsenal without spending much.

‘I think you get relatively affordable options that are extremely good quality in pretty much any type of product,’ she says, ‘one thing that’s challenging is getting a good sunscreen – you probably want to go mid range.’

Not just about money and marketing – skincare is, at the end of the day, a business – there’s been actual evolution scientifically which has filtered down to affordable brands.

Indulgence is perfectly valid in skincare, but it’s no longer necessary.

Here are our top low-cost buys that are worth adding to your next skincare shop:

Aveeno Face Calm and Restore Oat Serum

Get it for £15 from Boots.

The long-time body care brand aimed at sensitive and compromised skin has now expanded into skincare.

This serum helps lock in hydration without feeling heavy.

The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%

Get it for £5 from Deciem.

Oily skin? Try this.

Though a little gloopy in texture, it effectively regulates sebum levels for better oil control.

Get it for £8.99 from Boots.

There’s no fix for naturally dark under eyes no matter how much you spend… sorry.

But caffeine will help to improve the overall appearance of that area.

CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser

Get it for £9.50 from Boots.

This is the cleanser that beauty editor was raving about, so we suggest adding it to basket if you’re prone to feeling uncomfortably tight in your skin after cleansing.

Get it for £2.99 from Boots.

It’s become a low-cost skincare classic, now one of the most popular micellar waters on the market.

Nivea Cellular Luminous 630 Anti-Dark Spot Night Cream

Get it for £26.99 from Superdrug.

Hyaluronic acid is the star ingredient along with their luminosity complex to even out skin.

Studies have shown it reduces dark circles.

Cetaphil Healthy Radiance Brightness Toner

Get it for £16 from ASOS.

New to the brand, this toner contains niacinamide to strengthen the skin barrier.

Another American derm-approved brand, products come in at a lower price point.

This article contains affiliate links. We may earn a small commission on purchases made through one of these links but this never influences our experts’ opinions. Products are tested and reviewed independently of commercial initiatives.

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