Hi, my name is Amanda, and I can’t stop talking about acne. That’s what happens when you’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 I’d learned about over the years. (That’s hundreds of dollars not even counting all the stuff I’ve received for free, due to this blessed line of work.) Because that’s the thing about getting acne for the first time as an adult—you flip out because you don’t recognize your skin and are willing to go practically bankrupt fixing it. At least that’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 Renée Rouleau), plus a litany of potent at-home treatments including much of Renée Rouleau’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 didn’t have access to complimentary samples from brands, there’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? That’s beyond bankrupt.
So, I decided to set a reasonable skincare budget—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 products… AHAs and BHAs, retinol, zinc oxide, fruit enzymes, tea tree… 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 I’d really rather splurge on, and how my skin is doing after two-weeks on this new budget acne routine.
So here’s something I quickly noticed while shopping for products: There’s a lot of charcoal happening on the drugstore acne market. I’m a little on-the-fence about charcoal because, even though it’s pretty much taken a seat at the table of respected skincare ingredients, dermatologists aren’t convinced there’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 Tomatoes’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—which I know works well for my skin—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 can’t say the product is as potent as my favorite pricy masks (Renée Rouleau’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, Osea’s Black Algae Flash Mask ($48), which employs fruit enzyme exfoliation. Overall, I can see why it won an award—solid bang for your buck.
The second charcoal product I acquired was Physicians Formula’s Charcoal Detox Cleansing Stick, which seemed right up my alley due to its compact, travel-friendly packaging (I’m a sucker for tiny skincare sticks). Even if the product weren’t $6, I’d be impressed—the stick’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 it’s only on your face for 30 seconds, so as long as it’s not filled with icky chemicals or pore-cloggers, you’re kind of fine. This cleanser, however, happened to be more than fine. From now on it’ll have a permanent place in my travel bag.
On the topic of cleansers and exfoliators, I picked up a few other affordable options that I really liked: One is a product that I’ve continued using every day since this tight-budget experiment… Hanskin’s BHA Pore Cleansing Balm ($20). Because I’ve had such severe breakout-paranoia, I’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. (It’s worth noting that the product does contain mineral oil, which some consumers don’t like, though the “risks” of this cost effective, non-comedogenic ingredient have been entirely debunked). I am deliriously happy to have found a fairly cheap cleansing balm that melts makeup and pore-clogging bacteria.
Next up: Nip + Fab’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 Gross’s iconic peel pads, and though they’re not formulated with additional BHAs, they’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, I’d probably go for Pixi’s Glow Tonic, which is more potent… and smells better).
Tree of Life Beauty’s Green Tea/White Tea Exfoliating Facial Scrub ($13) is another wallet-friendly exfoliant I’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.)
Onto serums and spot treatments: Versed’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. I’ve found this product works much better on already-erupted pimples (to keep them from coming back), rather than the painful cysts that I’m sometimes plagued with. Bottom line: Rather than whipping out the big guns to kick a blemish’s ass, it gently and civilly asks it to leave and never return. But all in all, it’s certainly one of my favorite spot treatments I’ve found at the drugstore.
Derma E’s Acne Blemish Control Treatment Serum ($17) has a similar formula to Versed’s spot treatment, but with a few extras—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 I’m used to, but the product’s ingredient list is absolutely legit and I’d recommend it to those looking for a non-toxic acne serum that won’t blow your budget. (I also used Derma E’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 E’s product left on my skin was a little more visible than I’d like, so I stopped using it after day 2 or so. Natural sunscreen is so damn tricky.)
The Ordinary’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 options—and I’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 wasn’t the case for me.)
And finally, I topped off my routine with Garnier’s 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 didn’t wind up fitting into my budget but that I also tried and loved were Patchology’s Breakout Box, $20, specifically the salicylic acid treatment dots, and Caudalie’s Vinopure line, especially the pore-minimizing serum, $49.)
So… 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 Renée Rouleau’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 don’t require more intense acne medication.
Generally speaking, I’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. It’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 it’s honestly cruel that the best treatments for it cost so much (they know we’ll pay anything!). But, if you spend your dollars strategically, you can have your cake and your clear(ish) skin too.