Plus, I found a new favorite acne product that's only $13.
Hi, my name is Amanda, and I canâ€™t stop talking about acne. Thatâ€™s what happens when youâ€™re an adult human who, for the first time in her life, breaks out like a pubescent, hormonally whacked-out teenager at the age of 27. Indeed, earlier this year, just in time for my Saturn Return, a bout of unwelcome blemishes sprouted across my face (you can read about what caused them here), causing me to panic-spend hundreds of dollars on all the beauty editor- and facialist- approved acne products and services Iâ€™d learned about over the years. (Thatâ€™s hundreds of dollars not even counting all the stuff Iâ€™ve received for free, due to this blessed line of work.) Because thatâ€™s the thing about getting acne for the first time as an adultâ€”you flip out because you donâ€™t recognize your skin and are willing to go practically bankrupt fixing it. At least thatâ€™s what I did.
As luck would have it, the changes I made to treat my acne seemed to work. A combination of professional facials (shoutout to my queens Cynthia Franco, Shani Darden, and RenÃ©e Rouleau), plus a litany of potent at-home treatments including much of RenÃ©e Rouleauâ€™s acne line, plus items from Sunday Riley, Osea, Shani Darden, Drunk Elephant, and Epicuren cleared my chin breakouts significantly. The problem was, when I took the time to add it all up, the products I was using (not even counting the facials) amounted to over $700. If I didnâ€™t have access to complimentary samples from brands, thereâ€™s no way I would realistically spend that much cash on my pimples. $700 for a bunch of acne products that are gonna run out in two months? Thatâ€™s beyond bankrupt.
So, I decided to set a reasonable skincare budgetâ€”an amount of money that seems less than outrageous to spend on an at-home acne routine. My number? $150. Then I took a look at the key ingredients in my pricier productsâ€¦ AHAs and BHAs, retinol, zinc oxide, fruit enzymes, tea treeâ€¦ and tried to find more affordable alternatives that contained the same. The result? The following 10-product routine, which amounts to about $149 total. Read on to learn my honest thoughts about which cheap acne products work, which Iâ€™d really rather splurge on, and how my skin is doing after two-weeks on this new budget acne routine.
Yes to Tomatoes Detoxifying Charcoal Mask
So hereâ€™s something I quickly noticed while shopping for products: Thereâ€™s a lot of charcoal happening on the drugstore acne market. Iâ€™m a little on-the- fence about charcoal because, even though itâ€™s pretty much taken a seat at the table of respected skincare ingredients, dermatologists arenâ€™t convinced thereâ€™s enough research to support the claim that it actually draws breakout- causing impurities from the skin. That said, I did find two charcoal products that piqued my interest: The first was Yes to Tomatoesâ€™s Detoxifying Charcoal Mask ($16), which has won some beauty awards, was recommended to me by a fellow beauty editor, and contains other proven acne fighters like 0.5% salicylic acid â€”which I know works well for my skinâ€”in combination with anti-inflammatory aloe, watermelon, tomato, pumpkin, and chamomile extracts. I used this mask twice while on my budget acne routine. It has a mud-like texture and smells incredible, but more importantly it genuinely minimized redness and lessened the appearance of the few chin blemishes I had. I canâ€™t say the product is as potent as my favorite pricy masks (RenÃ©e Rouleauâ€™s Rapid Response Detox Masque and Triple Berry Smoothing Peel, $152, objectively offer a much stronger and more complex blend of active ingredients). However, I dug the results just about as much as those produced by my other favorite mask, Oseaâ€™s Black Algae Flash Mask ($48), which employs fruit enzyme exfoliation. Overall, I can see why it won an awardâ€”solid bang for your buck.
Physicians Formula Charcoal Detox Cleansing Stick
The second charcoal product I acquired was Physicians Formulaâ€™s Charcoal Detox Cleansing Stick, which seemed right up my alley due to its compact, travel- friendly packaging (Iâ€™m a sucker for tiny skincare sticks). Even if the product werenâ€™t $6, Iâ€™d be impressedâ€”the stickâ€™s non-irritating physical exfoliation (enhanced by a bit of glycolic acid) left my face smooth, but because the first ingredient is hydrating glycerin, not tight or dried-out. The thing about cleanser in general is that itâ€™s only on your face for 30 seconds, so as long as itâ€™s not filled with icky chemicals or pore-cloggers, youâ€™re kind of fine. This cleanser, however, happened to be more than fine. From now on itâ€™ll have a permanent place in my travel bag.
Hanskin Pore Cleansing Balm
On the topic of cleansers and exfoliators, I picked up a few other affordable options that I really liked: One is a product that Iâ€™ve continued using every day since this tight-budget experimentâ€¦ Hanskinâ€™s BHA Pore Cleansing Balm ($20). Because Iâ€™ve had such severe breakout-paranoia, Iâ€™d all-out given up on solid cleansing oils, which can be pore-clogging, but also used to be my go-to for removing stubborn makeup. This luxurious, creamy, solid cleanser contains salicylic acid, so it actively clears your pores while lifting up foundation and mascara. It has a light orangey-lavender scent and leaves the skin super soft, but not greasy. I am deliriously happy to have found a fairly cheap cleansing balm that melts makeup and pore-clogging bacteria.
Nip + Fab Glycolic Fix Daily Cleansing Pads
Next up: Nip + Fabâ€™s Glycolic Fix Exfoliating Facial Pads ($13). I used these circular cloths after cleansing and scrubbing, in place of my favorite $41 anti- acne toner. The product, which contains 2.8% glycolic acid and witch hazel, reminds me of Dr. Dennis Grossâ€™s iconic peel pads, and though theyâ€™re not formulated with additional BHAs, theyâ€™re also less than a sixth of the price. As glycolic acid is wont to do, it certainly had a brightening effect on my skin (though if I were to repurchase something similar from the drugstore, Iâ€™d probably go for Pixiâ€™s Glow Tonic, which is more potentâ€¦ and smells better).
Tree of Life Exfoliating Facial Scrub Face and Body Cleanser
Tree of Life Beautyâ€™s Green Tea/White Tea Exfoliating Facial Scrub ($13) is another wallet-friendly exfoliant Iâ€™ve been enjoying. This extremely gentle, antioxidant-rich product uses jojoba beads to physically exfoliate and has a super refreshing effect on the skin; so, on the days when my skin looked inflamed, this was a 10/10 option. (The packaging is a little lame, but I love that Tree of Life is family-owned and totally non-toxic.)
Versed Nix It Solution
Onto serums and spot treatments: Versedâ€™s Nix It Complexion Solution ($13) was my go-to during these two weeks. The non-toxic, cruelty-free product, which contains tea tree and salicylic acid, is something I already owned and earned by approval for its all-natural formula and effective antibacterial, pore declogging properties. Iâ€™ve found this product works much better on already- erupted pimples (to keep them from coming back), rather than the painful cysts that Iâ€™m sometimes plagued with. Bottom line: Rather than whipping out the big guns to kick a blemishâ€™s ass, it gently and civilly asks it to leave and never return. But all in all, itâ€™s certainly one of my favorite spot treatments Iâ€™ve found at the drugstore.
Derma E Anti-Acne Acne Blemish Control Treatment Serum
Derma Eâ€™s Acne Blemish Control Treatment Serum ($17) has a similar formula to Versedâ€™s spot treatment, but with a few extrasâ€”0.5% salicylic acid, niacinamide, tea tree, aloe, green tea, and a bunch of good-for-your-skin plant extracts. The ingredients are simpler and more natural than the $50 AHA/BHA serum Iâ€™m used to, but the productâ€™s ingredient list is absolutely legit and Iâ€™d recommend it to those looking for a non-toxic acne serum that wonâ€™t blow your budget. (I also used Derma Eâ€™s non-toxic, oil-free, mineral sunscreen, $20, instead of my $34 Drunk Elephant one. Both SPF 30 formulas contain antioxidants and zinc oxide, which helps fight acne. However, I found that the white cast Derma Eâ€™s product left on my skin was a little more visible than Iâ€™d like, so I stopped using it after day 2 or so. Natural sunscreen is so damn tricky.)
The Ordinary Retinol 0.5% in Squalane
The Ordinaryâ€™s Retinol 0.5% in Squalane replaced my Shani Darden and Sunday Riley (I use these at nighttime), and let me tell you, I would recommend this $6 gem to any current retinol user. As far as I could tell, the 0.5 percent retinol formula, which has an oil-like texture, kept my skin as bright, clear, and flake-free as the pricier optionsâ€”and Iâ€™m planning to continue using just to see how the results hold up. (Fair warning, this sort of formula can be irritating for retinol newbs, though that wasnâ€™t the case for me.)
Garnier SkinActive 3-in-1 Face Moisturizer with Green Tea
And finally, I topped off my routine with Garnierâ€™s moisturizer-with-green-tea' target='_blank' rel='noopener noreferrer' >Balancing 3-in-1 Green Tea Moisturizer ($12). This refreshing cream, whose formula is 97% natural, is incredibly lightweight, mattifying, and features a simple ingredient list boasting green tea and a touch of salicylic acid. My regular $48 moisturizer by Osea has a completely different ingredient list targeted toward anti-pollution, but the result is actually quite similar: bright, non-greasy, antioxidant- protected skin.
(P.S. a couple products that didnâ€™t wind up fitting into my budget but that I also tried and loved were Patchologyâ€™s Breakout Box, $20, specifically the salicylic acid treatment dots, and Caudalieâ€™s Vinopure line, especially the pore-minimizing serum, $49.)
Soâ€¦ final verdict on my $150 acne-righting routine? It was honestly doable. I think in part that might be because my skin was already in a pretty good place. I endured a couple minor breakouts during these two weeks, and at times I really wished I had access to RenÃ©e Rouleauâ€™s peel and anti-cyst treatment. However, this was a completely sufficient lineup of products, especially for oily skin types who want a more natural routine and donâ€™t require more intense acne medication.
Generally speaking, Iâ€™d conclude what I probably knew before, which is that when it comes to cleansers and moisturizers for acne-prone skin, going the budget route is perfectly fine. Itâ€™s those specialty serums and treatments that conquer your breakouts with a well-crafted combination of actives that require you to pony up a bit more.
Acne is an evil little beast, and itâ€™s honestly cruel that the best treatments for it cost so much (they know weâ€™ll pay anything!). But, if you spend your dollars strategically, you can have your cake and your clear(ish) skin too.
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