We’ve tested dozens of beauty products, from lotions to mascara, and we’ve learned that sometimes the drugstore stuff works just as well as—and sometimes better than—the expensive brands.
“Cheap” doesn’t necessarily mean “inferior” when it comes to beauty products. Inexpensive brands are often owned by much larger companies, and benefit from their resources and research in terms of quality and consistency. For instance, the company that makes our mascara pick, L’Oreal Voluminous, also owns Lancome, Urban Decay, and Giorgio Armani. Don’t mistake branding for quality.
Also, drugstore brands don’t cost a fortune, so you don’t have to think twice about using liberally (important with sunscreen) and tossing frequently (even expensive mascara expires in three months). This is related to one of my favorite life tips: If you took the plunge on an expensive beauty product, don’t try to save it for special occasions—use the hell out of it! You deserve it, and more important, it will not be good forever.
We considered dozens of shaving creams, foams, and gels, and narrowed the field to eight after combing through reviews and scrutinizing formulas. We pitted top contenders against each other for two weeks of showers, using one for one half of the body and one for the other half, to directly compare the feel of the formula and shave. Aveeno Therapeutic Shave Gel stands out as the best shaving aid for body hair for most people. Aveeno has a scent that’s slightly sweet, but light, unlike much of the competition, which will have you feeling like you stepped foot in an Axe commercial. The thick and creamy gel creates fluffy suds. It’s not as slippery as some of the formulas with lotion specifically added (you should put on lotion separately, outside of the shower, if you’re worried about dry skin).
It’s worth noting that though we liked the Aveeno gel better than others, we found that all gel formulas are very similar. If you prefer a scented shaving gel, pick out another kind (but steer clear of blue shaving gels marketed toward men for use on facial hair—those left fat blobs in the shower). I really liked the smell of the Venus with a Touch Of Olay Shave Gel in Violet Swirl, though I don’t think everyone will. It’s slightly creamier and fluffier than the Aveeno gel, and much more fragrant.
Aveeno’s packaging is neutral, and it’s the number-one best-selling product on Amazon in Men’s Shaving Gel. “I’ve been shaving my head on a daily basis for years…when I use Aveeno shave gel, I don’t get razor burn or ingrown hairs,” writes reviewer Joseph Dewey. “The best shaving gel I have ever used,” says reviewer Carolette. “Smells nice but not perfume-y.”
If you want something that’s less slippery, go with the Eos Ultra Moisturizing Shave Cream. It’s a lotion that doesn’t foam or lather, and, as advertised, it made dry shaving easy and comfortable, as long as I rinsed my razor every few strokes. (I tried dry shaving with Aveeno, and it was much harder because the suds get everywhere.) It’s available in three scents; I tried Vanilla Bliss and found it to be light and pleasant. Bonus: Out of all the shaving creams I tested, Eos’s understated design was my favorite. —Shannon Palus
After reviewing nine top-rated body razors and testing five of them, we prefer the Gillette Venus Swirl refillable razor for its unique multidirectional pivoting head and easy-to-grip handle. For a disposable option, the Bic Soleil Bella gave us the smoothest and most efficient, nick-free shave and had the most comfortable handle.
Body razors are different from facial razors in that they’re designed for shaving both thick and fine hair in long strokes over subtly curvy legs, underarms, and other tricky areas, rather than shorter and thicker facial hair, which requires shorter downward strokes at sharper angles.
The Swirl’s handle has the most comfortable and secure grip of the razors we tested—features that are paramount in a razor. The rubberized sides and hefty but not obnoxiously curved handle feel natural to hold. Our panel of six people all preferred the Venus Swirl to the other razors, based on handle comfort and design alone.
The Swirl also stands out because the razor head not only pivots up and down, as other razors do, it also pivots left and right. That means you need fewer passes to shave difficult areas like your knees, ankles, bikini line, and underarms. Because of this multiple-angle design, there’s a slight learning curve for holding the razor at the best angle to catch all your hairs. But once you get used to it, you’ll find you need much less pressure to get a close shave than you would need with other razors.
Gillette’s razors’ cartridges are interchangeable with the razor handles, so you could use, for example, a Venus Embrace cartridge with a Venus Swirl handle or vice versa. If you look closely at the cartridges, though, the Venus Swirl sports a comb that lifts hair up and away from skin, unlike any of the other cartridges we tried. After a couple days of not shaving, the areas we shaved with the Venus Swirl clearly had the the least amount of stubble after not shaving.
The Venus Swirl does have one big downside: A much higher cost of ownership than comparable razors. For the handle and starter cartridges plus a year’s worth of cartridges (24, assuming you replace the cartridge every two weeks), the Venus Swirl will cost you $137. That’s $44 more per year than the Venus Embrace and $57 more than the Schick Hydro Plus. For our money, that $4 to $5 per month difference is worth it because the Swirl offers the closest, least irritating shave. However, if you’re on a tight budget or would rather spend those five bucks every month on something other than razor cartridges, either the Gillette Venus Embrace or the Schick Hydro Plus will get you nearly as close a shave.
If you want a cheaper, disposable option (for your gym bag or for travel, for example), get the Bic Soleil Bella razor. It’s more compact than refillable razors, but its thick handle still feels comfortable and secure in the shower. It also adds moisturizing strips to help the razor glide over your skin and has—unprecedented for a disposable razor—four blades. This makes it the best value for a disposable razor that could even rival your regular razor. Other disposable razors have handles that are too thin, too short, and too plasticky for a secure and comfortable grip, and little to no protection for your skin from supersharp blades. —Melanie Pinola
After testing 22 brushes from five makeup brush brands available in drugstores and places like Target, we found Boots No. 7 to be the best value line in makeup brushes for their softness.
Our three panelists tested all of the brushes with both powder and cream makeup, and rated each brush against four criteria: bristles (how soft they were, did they shed, how well they held their shape), application (how well the brushes picked up and applied the pigment, how easily they blended makeup), handle (how it felt based on weight, size, size, and texture), and cost. After scoring the brushes, Boots No. 7 came out on top.
All of the brushes we tested have synthetic bristles. They’re less expensive than brushes with natural bristles made from animal hair, are easier to clean, more widely available, and less likely to irritate people who might be allergic to animal hair. One caveat: Synthetic bristles are better suited to creamy and liquid foundations, eye shadows, and other types of makeup, whereas natural bristles excel at picking up and applying powdered makeup. You can use synthetic-bristle brushes with both liquid and powdered makeup, but you’ll need to load the brush with powder more often and use more strokes to apply it effectively. More-expensive brushes are also more likely to have better quality of construction (i.e., the bristles aren’t constantly falling out onto your face). Thankfully, our picks also met this criteria.
The five brushes we tested from Boots—the Concealer Brush, Eye Shadow Blend & Contour Brush, Stippling Brush, Retractable Bronzer Brush, and Foundation Brush—tied with EcoTools’ brushes for softness, and were nearly as soft against the skin as some makeup brushes we own from Stila and other brands made of animal hair. The Boots handles all have a comfortable thickness and length, as well as the clearest, easiest to read labels of the brushes we tested. (Indispensable when you own a bunch of brushes and can’t remember which one is the regular eye-shadow brush and which is the eye-shadow blending brush.) Most important, the Boots No. 7 brushes never shed, so we never had to pull bristles off our faces after using them, unlike we did with one of the Sonia Kashuk brushes and one of the E.l.f. brushes we tried. Boots No. 7 brushes excelled at applying liquid foundation and offered great smooth coverage for powdered eye shadow and bronzer.
If you’re looking for synthetic brushes that were able to pick up more powder and pigment than other options, head to Target for Sonia Kashuk’s brushes. These brushes were the easiest to use to apply eye shadow, blush, and other powdered makeup for either light or heavy, layered coverage. The handles are smooth but easy to grip. These brushes cost a bit more than the others in this category, but if you’re looking for brushes that work equally well with powder and cream products, these are a decent investment. We liked Sonia Kashuk’s Core Tools Precision Liner Brush – No 202 and the brand’s Kashuk Tools Medium Eye Shadow Brush – No 28. —MP
Whether you’re just home from the gym or running late to a meeting, when you don’t have time to shower, dry shampoo is a great quick-fix for greasy hair. We tested 10 products, each on the first day after our hair was flat and greasy on top, usually two days after a wet shampoo. The best drugstore version is Batiste Dry Shampoo.
Batiste was the only dry shampoo we tested that comes in both original and color-specific versions, something usually found only in higher-end, expensive products. The dye in the colored versions can help you avoid the telltale white streaks entirely. However, the colors can also show up around your hairline and part, so go easy when applying the tinted version close to your face and any visible scalp.
We mostly tried spray-in products that use butane or propane as a propellant, and found those easiest to apply and brush out. We also tried Klorane’s propellant-free powdered formula, but it was tough to apply evenly and felt gritty.
Most of the dry shampoos we tested use aluminum starch, which we found often leaves white streaks that are tricky to brush out. Batiste uses rice starch, and in our testing, it was the easiest to brush out without much residue, and it left hair feeling soft and fairly clean.
Just to cover our bases, we should tell you that dry shampoo is not a permanent replacement for washing your hair—it’ll get you through a day or two, but you still need to get all the dirt and skin cells out of your locks to keep your scalp healthy.
If the drugstore doesn’t have Batiste, pick up Tresemmé Fresh Start. Your hair will be a little less touchable—this shampoo has a little bit of a hairspray feel to it—but it has a light grapefruit scent and leaves almost no visible residue behind to brush out.
If you don’t have time to get to a store and need a quick fix, sprinkle a little cornstarch or baby powder on your roots and brush it out. It’s not perfect, and it takes a lot of brushing, but it’s nearly guaranteed to be available, no matter which corner of the globe you’re at.
We spent two weeks testing eight makeup removers, including cold cream and baby oil, and found one we would happily use in Neutrogena Oil-Free Eye Makeup Remover. It’s designed specifically to remove waterproof eye makeup (a must if your eye makeup is waterproof, like our favorite mascara and eyeliner). Though we didn’t test expensive formulas, the best thing that a makeup remover can do is get the job done quickly without leaving your eyes or skin feeling weird, and our top picks accomplish both.
Every waterproof remover I tried did a similar job of actually removing makeup; where the Neutrogena remover shines is in how it feels, and the bottle’s design. Most important, it didn’t sting the eyes, leaving only a light residue that washed away easily with water. The bottle’s mouth is sturdy, won’t leak, and is perfectly sized to press a cotton ball against or for pouring the liquid into a travel container. In contrast, some removers I tried had bottles that felt flimsy, and some had a narrow neck designed to dribble out a little remover at a time, which was inconvenient and messy compared with wide-mouthed bottles that I could press a cotton ball against.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $6.
If you want a childproof cap, go with L’Oreal Clean Artiste Waterproof & Long Wearing Eye Makeup Remover. The formula has the same first two ingredients as the Neutrogena remover—water and cyclopentasiloxane—and I couldn’t tell the difference between them. Aside from the cap, the bottle is similar too: sturdy, and drip-free.
Though they both seem to get the job done in the same way, the Neutrogena remover is marketed as an oil-free formula and the L’Oreal remover is not. Cyclopentasiloxane technically isn’t an oil, but it has many similar properties. It separates from the water in the bottle (so you have to shake before using) and leaves a little bit of an oil-like residue, though it’s much lighter than that from a true oil.
A true oil formula may be better for removing longwear lipstick if you have sensitive lips, or if you are sensitive to the cyclopentasiloxane formula (numerous positive reviews indicate that it should work for most, but everyone’s different). For an oil-based remover, we’d get Johnson’s Baby Oil and transfer it into one of the Wirecutter’s pick for toiletry bottles. Any oil (e.g., olive, coconut) will also work as makeup remover, but the baby oil worked just as well as the true oil formulas, and is much less expensive to boot. The baby oil had a light powder scent, and removed makeup efficiently and gently.
Several removers I tried stung my eyes. Irritation will vary, depending on what you’re sensitive to and how careful you are about avoiding rubbing remover in your eyes. But here’s a helpful hint: Oil-free formulas that rely on detergents, rather than an oil-mimic, are more likely to sting (though oil-mimic formulas can still contain detergent-like ingredients). Creams tended to irritate my eyes more, chemically or physically. Ponds Cold Cream did not sting and was in fact the most efficient at actually removing makeup, but it clotted around my eyelashes and was annoying to remove.
Many removers claim to be “hydrating,” but if you wash makeup remover off, it’s not going to be effective at keeping your skin moist. Though we did find oil-based formulas less drying, if you have dry skin you should use a separate lotion.
We didn’t test micellar water, a trendy product marketed as a makeup remover and face wash. “Micellar water” is basically a fancy way of saying low-foaming cleanser, and it won’t do anything special that your normal cleanser won’t.
We left out towelettes, too. Not only are they more expensive than regular remover, many people use them incorrectly. If you wipe them around your whole face (which is unnecessary for a remover anyway), you’ll leave behind a residue of dirt unless you use a cleanser afterward—which sort of defeats the point. —SP
After spending five hours reading dozens of lip balm reviews, sifting through many testimonies about lip balm addiction, checking in with a skin cancer educator (who reminded us to reapply often if we’re worried about burning our lips), and testing eight lip balms with a panel of five people (after chucking three balms we had tried that were truly gross), we recommend Maybelline Baby Lips with sunscreen for everyday wear.
We tried the mint fresh flavor, which three of five panelists highlighted as a favorite. This balm has a smooth and slick feel without being goopy or sticky, and the flavor is faint—just enough so that the balm doesn’t have a clear sunscreen smell, the way that many lip balms with sunscreen do. And with an SPF of 20, it’s enough to protect your lips on a daily basis, according to experts we spoke to for our sunscreen guide. The cap covers the whole stick and clicks on securely, which means it has less potential to smash the top of the balm or get grimy in a bag. Don’t be turned off by the green packaging; we promise this stuff is good. (Maybelline Baby Lips come in a host of flavors and colors—we didn’t try others, but we suspect the consistency is similar.)
If you’ll be outside all day, or you prefer a gooier and sticker balm, go with Aquaphor Lip Repair + Protect. Our two panelists who did not like the Baby Lips both agreed that this one was nice. It also has an SPF of 30—crucial if you’re going to be outside a lot. Panel testers noted that it did smell a bit like sunscreen, but it was overall far less smelly than other balms that packed the same high-SPF punch. Plus, packaging is nice: small, understated, and with an angled applicator that helps the balm go on smoothly.
An honorable mention goes to Eos Smooth Sphere Lip Balm in sweet mint. Two of our panelists considered this one their favorite (and another ranked it in the top three) for its tacky-but-not-sticky feel, and the fact that it is very slightly tingly. Some testers thought the strong mint flavor—editor Casey Johnston noted that it smelled like Extra chewing gum—was a bonus, others were turned off by it. Most agreed that the orb-like packaging, featured frequently in music videos, would be a little awkward in real life. Our photo editor has these balms at home and has to keep a close eye on his daughter’s use of them because she thinks they’re candy. Luckily, you can also buy it in stick form. This is also a good choice if you prefer your lip balm without sunscreen. —SP
After spending 25 hours on research and interviews, and many more wearing sunscreen on our bodies, we found No-Ad Sport 50 is the best sunscreen. It’s affordable, goes on easily, and feels good against your skin, which means you can use as much as you need. No-Ad Sport 50 is also rated as being water-resistant for 80 minutes, the maximum amount of time that a sunscreen can claim to be water-resistant, making it among the most water-resistant of all the sunscreens we considered. Though you should apply sunscreen when you get out of the water or stop exercising, you will have as much protection as a sunscreen can afford you until then. And despite its marketing as a sports sunscreen, we found that it was pleasant enough in consistency and smell for everyday use, and that it works under makeup.
The best sunscreen for everyday use is the one you’ll use correctly. According to all seven dermatologists we interviewed, as well as the many scientific papers and lit reviews we read, you should wear sunscreen pretty much whenever you’re outside. You should apply a full shot glass’ worth of sunscreen to your near-naked body about once an hour for full protection from the sun—even if you’re just going for a run, drinking beer on on a sunny terrace, or doing errands. You are getting a fair amount of sun rays “unless you are a spelunker,” said Rachel Herschenfeld of Dermatology Partners. “I put it on every single day. I will leave the house in smelly workout wear, but I never leave the house without my sunscreen.”
We specifically did not choose a spray-on sunscreen. Though they seem convenient, sprays can result in patchy application (PDF)—especially in windy, outdoor conditions—you can’t measure how much you’ve applied, and you still need to rub them in.
As for all the controversial “chemicals”: No study has shown that they do harm to humans with normal use. (No-Ad’s active ingredients are avobenzone, 2 percent; homosalate, 15 percent; octisalate, 5 percent; and oxybenzone, 5 percent.) You should be way more concerned about protecting your skin from the sun. —SP
The best lotion for most people is Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Lotion. We came to this conclusion after spending 20 hours researching what makes a good lotion, interviewing three dermatologists, and testing 10 of the most popular lotions on the market with a panel of seven people. Aveeno was the hands-down favorite. Our testers liked Aveeno’s consistency—it spreads easily without being runny, and won’t leave a greasy film, unlike some competitors. Aveeno has a neutral scent, unlike many lotions on the market. (Our testers described some of the competition’s smell as “perfumey,” “horrible,” “awful,” and “disgusting.”). And it’s available in a pump dispenser, making it easy to use.
A good lotion is one you’ll use liberally and often: We learned that the best way to deal with dry skin is to prevent it by putting on lotion within a couple minutes of getting out of the shower. Lotion is great at locking in moisture, but despite what you many lotions claim, it can’t actually add moisture. (If you already have dry skin, use lotion while your skin heals to prevent further moisture loss, and keep using lotion consistently once the problem is solved.) It’s easy to spend a lot of money on a lotion, but you likely won’t get better lotion for more cash. If you spend a lot of money on a lotion, you might hesitate to apply it as often and liberally as you should.
Our pick has all the ingredients you need to lock in moisture effectively—namely, occlusives. (Think petroleum jelly, the gold standard for occlusives.) If you just slathered on occlusives, your skin would retain moisture, but you’d just be a greasy, sticky mess, so manufacturers add water and other ingredients. Aveeno uses a combination of petrolatum and dimethicone, a popular oil-free occlusive, to do its job well. Though additives like antioxidants, ceramides, and amino acids theoretically could improve your skin, off-the-shelf lotions just don’t have high enough concentrations of these ingredients to make a difference. For an in-depth breakdown of lotion ingredients, see our full lotion guide. —Hannah Waters
Not all mascaras are created equal—our top pick in our mascara guide is from Sephora—but luckily you’ll have great options at the drugstore. A good mascara doesn’t clump when you put it on or require a lot of fussing to get long, separated lashes, and won’t flake during a day of wearing it. We considered more than 50 mascaras, including many high-end versions, and put 13 to the test with a panel made up of people with different kinds of lashes.
If you’re looking for a mascara to give you more volume, L’Oreal Voluminous Original beat out both higher- and lower-end mascaras to become our second favorite. It has a classic nylon brush that will help you apply a lot of product for thick lashes, and a formula that clumped less than the other nylon-brush mascaras we tried. (The downside of L’Oreal’s nylon brush is that adding more than one coat of mascara creates clumps, so you have to get it right on the first try.) It’s not waterproof, so you’ll be able to take it off or at the end of the day—or if you mess up the application—just by washing your face, and it smudged less than other non-waterproof mascaras we tried. Bonus: It was one of the least-expensive mascaras we tried, even among the drugstore crowd.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $6.
If you prefer length over volume, we recommend CoverGirl Clump Crusher by LashBlast. True to its name, this one won’t clump, and will leave your lashes looking softer than other lacquer-like formulas we tried. The elastomer brush will keep your lashes separated, but beware of flaking—we’d stop at one or two coats with this one to keep flaking to a minimum.
We also liked CoverGirl Bombshell Curvaceous by LashBlast. It was a surprise hit. We admit that the chunky two-ended tube looks kind of weird and unwieldy, but testers liked the dramatic look that resulted from combining two brush styles. One end of the tube has an elastomer brush for adding length, and the other end has a nylon brush for adding volume. We found we could use both sides together for a dramatic, made-up look, or use one or the other for something more subtle. Though it’s not specifically waterproof, we found that we needed makeup remover to take it off.
If you are looking for an eyelash curler at the drugstore, look no further than the Trim Eyelash Curler. We think this curler is a good deal for its very inexpensive price. In testing, we found that it gave us enhanced-but-still-natural-looking lashes. Though there’s no one-size-fits-all curler, the Trim will work for most eye shapes—it’s not too round or too flat. We found the Trim’s round handles easier to grip than the competition’s.
We’re not the only ones who like the Trim. We found the Trim via expert Bryan Barron, research director at Paula’s Choice Skincare. The Amazon reviews are enthusiastic about it, too. “Best curler hands down ever!,” notes one reviewer, explaining that it provides “volume and curl like no other.”
To keep the Trim (or any eyelash curler) in top shape for the longest amount of time possible, always curl your lashes before you apply mascara. Clean your curler off with makeup remover every now and then, and swap out the pad every 6 to 12 months if you’re using it regularly (it gets worn down with consistent use).
We think the Trim is a good curler to use if you need something for occasional use—certainly the best among those available at the drugstore. But we found that it was more rickety and had firmer pads—and was therefore more pinch-y—than the luxury competition. If that’s a major concern, and you might be willing to spend four or six times more on a curler, consider checking out our full guide on eyelash curlers.
If you’re not sure you want to use an eyelash curler at all, the Trim is a great way to try one out for just a few bucks. If you don’t currently use a curler, you might be surprised by how much you like them—two of our testers were won over by the concept, and reported that they planned on purchasing curlers for themselves. —Camille Chatterjee
*At the time of publishing, the price was $8.
Eyeliner comes in three basic formats—pencil, liquid, and gel—and for some of them, spending a little bit more money will make a difference. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t very solid products available for a few dollars.
For pencil eyeliner, we found the best one overall that had staying power yet was also soft and pigmented was a higher-end liner, Stila Stay All Day Waterproof. However, L’Oreal Paris Extra-Intense Liquid Pencil Eyeliner is a great drugstore option. It’s a sharpenable pencil with a very soft, dark core that glides on easily, smudges beautifully, and sets to a finish that won’t move around as much as the competition. If we had any quibbles about it versus our main pick, it would be that the pencil is so soft as to be a little hard to control; a light touch helps.
In our eyeliner guide, both of the best liquid eyeliners were sourced at drugstore prices; even pricier brands could not beat them for drying time, staying power, or ease of removal. Our main pick, Revlon Colorstay Skinny Liquid Liner, uses a very finely tipped dip brush that’s actually a shaped piece of foam, with no bristles that can fray or get bent out of shape. The tip is still easy to control, and the formula sets quickly to a matte finish that won’t smear or budge. Removal is likewise painless, so your cat eyes will come off easily. NYX Cosmetics Collection Noir Liquid Liner is a good complement to the Revlon liner; it has a real dip brush with smooth but sturdy bristles. NYX goes on pretty wet but dries to a shinier, more vinyl finish. This one is also completely smear-resistant.
Of all the gel liners we tried, L’Oreal Paris Infallible Lacquer was our third favorite—not bad when going up against competition like Bobbi Brown Long Wear Gel Liner, which was the darkest of all the high- and low-end eyeliners we tested, and stayed on the best. However, testers also liked the softer formula of the L’Oreal, and found it brushed on easily. If you’re a dedicated gel liner user, investing in a good brush will make a world of difference; we’d suggest trying one of the liner brushes in the Boots No. 7 line from our makeup brushes section.
Originally published: October 3, 2016
The key's under the mat.