1 Garnier Ambre Solaire Sensitive Face Fluid SPF50+, £7 for 40ml
The surprise mega hit of summer 2020, this extremely thin, non-oily, quickly absorbing facial sunscreen feels and behaves like one costing eight times as much. Beauty insiders are mad for the stuff.
2 Eucerin Hyaluron Mist Spray, £10.50 for 150ml
I love Eucerin, and to ignore this little-talked-about brand is to miss out on some excellent clinical skincare in all categories and for all treatment needs, from dehydration to pigmentation. I chose this because it has everything that is good and useful in a facial mist: hyaluronic acid; glycerin; a can that stays cold enough for the proper amelioration of hot flashes; and positively no irritants such as essential oils and fragrance. Spray liberally during pregnancy, fatigue, heatwave or menopause.
3 La Roche-Posay Toleriane Ultra 8 mist, £19.50 for 100ml
Not much from La Roche-Posay came within budget, but I’m delighted this product squeaked under the line. The concept is simple and necessary: a spray-on face moisturiser to instantly soothe and calm skin too upset for even fingertip touch. Suitable for rosacea, eczema, psoriasis and other sensitive skins. Just spray whenever skin seems fraught, under or over makeup. Genius.
4 The Body Shop Carrot Cream, £14 for 50ml, vegan (vg)
I loved this moisturiser as a teenager, and the new version – made from wonky carrots rejected by the food industry and packaged in 100% recyclable materials – is every bit as good. An unfussy but wonderful cream for drier, sensitive skins, which works as well by day under makeup as it does by night.
5 Simple Water Boost Micellar Cleansing Water, £6.99 for 400ml (vg)
Please, if you take nothing else away from this list, know this: spending fortunes on micellar water is pointless. Pretty as expensive ones may be, they will not work any better than this one, and very possibly not as well. It’s simply the best – fast, thorough makeup removal when time is tight and energy is low. No breakouts, no bother, no bankruptcy. Now cruelty-free and in a 100% post-consumer recycled bottle.
6 DHC Deep Cleansing Oil, £10 for 70ml
When it comes to cleansing, I’m balm by night, milk by day, but fans of oils should proceed directly to this cult classic from Japan. The olive oil base makes light work of makeup and sunscreen, while just enough emulsifier ensures a fast, clean rinse-away without any residue. Even cheaper and almost as good is Muji’s own-brand version.
7 Superdrug Vitamin E Hot Cloth Cleanser, £4.99 for 200ml (vg)
My bathroom cabinet holds around 25 cleansers, many of them press samples which cost a fortune, yet I still reach for this more than any other. A simply perfect morning cleanser to clean any skin type except super oily, leaving it soft and calm. Massage into dry skin, add a drop of water to loosen, remove with a warm, wet flannel
8 Yes To Watermelon Super Fresh Gel Moisturizer, £10.99 for 50ml (vg)
Finally, an affordable, hydrating moisturiser for all skin types (including oily) that contains no peeling, bobbling silicone to interfere with makeup. The cooling sensation and gel texture will appeal to men, teens and anyone grease-averse. Contains a minuscule amount of retinol that is probably rendered inactive by its jar packaging, but pop on some sunscreen nonetheless.
9 Olay Total Effects 7 In One Eye Transforming Cream, £14.99 for 15ml
A Guardian reader recommended this to me at a literary festival, and I’m thrilled she did. What sets it apart from other eye creams is its light-reflective pigments, helping to temporarily brighten under-eye circles (I’ve never seen compelling evidence that topical eye creams can actually treat circles long term). The texture is lovely, too – comfortable, cushioning and plumping.
10 M&S Pure Ultimate Cleanse Rose Cleansing Balm, £12 for 100g (vg)
There is a very lovely, super-posh, extremely expensive rose cleansing balm in my bathroom that I like a little less than this Marks & Sparks bargain. A luxurious, silky balm that shifts all makeup and sunscreen, wiping clean away without rubbing. It’s divine, though spend more if you need the rose scent – this is, deceptively, more lemony (and, to me, smells all the better for it).
11 BeautyPro Avocado Infused Sheet Mask, £4.95 for 22ml
I’m something of a curmudgeon when it comes to face masks and, in fact, all things described as “pampering”. I take the view that if an ingredient is beneficial to your skin, then you’re better using it little and daily, rather than as an occasional treat. That said, I do sometimes dabble ahead of a night out (remember those?) and this soothing, skin-drenching sheet mask really impressed me. Leaves skin plump, soft and calm.
12 Face Halo Makeup Remover 3-pack, £18 (vg)
These eco-friendlier cleansing discs became an indispensable part of my routine once I’d suspended my disbelief. When soaked in warm water, they really do remove all makeup, including full-coverage foundation and heavy mascara, clearing the decks ready for cleanser and reducing packaging waste significantly. That said, microfibres can shed into the water supply and don’t biodegrade, so I always use a mesh washing bag from Lakeland.
13 First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Lip Therapy, £11 for 14.8ml
OK, I concede that £11 for a lip balm may not seem like great value, but for persistently cracked, chapped, even bleeding lips, this is a godsend that’s well worth the cash. Apply liberally day and night – you should see a big improvement in 48 hours. You can switch to something more prosaic between courses.
14 The Inkey List 15% Vitamin C and EGF serum, £14.99 for 30ml (vg)
I don’t wish to play favourites, but if I could own only one serum for the rest of my life, its main ingredient would be vitamin C. Nothing more instantly imparts glow to all skin types while also, in the long term and in sufficient concentration, helping to fade pigmentation. At 15%, this one is unusually high for a high-street product, and contains no annoying silicone to cause foundation to peel on contact.
15 Revolution Skincare 2% Salicylic Acid Toner, £10 for 200ml (vg)
For years, oily and spotty readers would ask me what they could use to make their pores less visible, and my only sincere recommendation came at a high price. All that changed with this, a 2% salicylic acid exfoliating solution swept over problem areas after cleansing to remove excess oil, clear blockages and smooth out bumps. It just works.
16 Beauty Pie Triple Hyaluronic Acid & Lipopeptide Serum, £14.98 for 50ml to members (vg)
You need at least one hyaluronic product in your routine. This one takes three molecular weights of water-grabbing hyaluronic acid for hydration and combines them with ceramides for skin-barrier function (essential for comfort and calm) and peptides (short chains of amino acids that are known to be beneficial to skin structure). A very worthwhile spend, regardless of your age and skin type.
17 Revolution Skincare 0.5% Retinol With Rosehip Seed Oil, £10 for 30ml (vg)
Things I did not see coming: an extremely good quality, thoughtful and credible skincare line from Revolution, purveyors of bargainous eye palettes the size of tea trays. This retinol (a 0.5% concentration, so a step up from entry-level strength) is well formulated to tackle uneven texture, pigmentation and wrinkles, while the oil base comforts and moisturises (oily types should swerve it). I’d change the packaging to an airless pump, but leave everything else as is. Truly terrific for the price.
18 The Inkey List PHA Toner, £9.99 for 100ml (vg)
This direct exfoliant tonic uses polyhydroxy acids (PHAs, a little gentler than the usual AHA and BHA exfoliants) to slough away skin-dulling flakiness to improve texture and increase glow. Drench a reusable cotton pad and sweep all over (yes, I do include the eyelids) after cleansing. Start with every other day and ramp up to every morning.
19 Typology Botanical Oils, from £11.80 for 100ml
Impatient skin carers are well served by oils. A quick, easy basting with a good-quality facial oil should make skin look better tomorrow than it does today – no wait, skill or faff required. Typology has a great selection. My favourite is the Organic Carrot Macerated Oil for sumptuous moisture and increased glow, but all varieties are sustainably sourced, beautifully and practically packaged (the streamlined bottles can be sent in the regular post and slip through your letterbox), and affordable.
20 Hada Labo Tokyo Anti-Ageing Super Hydrator, £17.45 for 150ml
Fans in the UK need no longer pay duty on this celebrated Japanese hydration brand – it’s now stocked at Superdrug. The star of the lineup is this, a hyaluronic acid essence, applied with fingertips after cleansing and before serum, to give a bouncier, plumped-up appearance.
21 Bioré Watery Essence sunscreen, £7.97 for 50ml
Of all my recommendations over the last decade, this has proved one of the most popular with readers. A thin, feather-light, high-protection facial sunscreen from Asia that casts no ashy shade on brown and black skin, adds zero grease to oily types and costs a fraction of many that do both. Terrific.
22 La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo (+), £17 for 40ml
This matte moisturiser is one of the very few products to have also appeared in my previous bargain specials. A light, watery gel-cream to keep skin comfortable, while niacinamide, zinc and salicylic acid (all anti-acne essentials) soothe inflammation, clear congestion and reduce shine. A true skincare hero and worth every penny.
23 Garden of Wisdom C-Deep Vitamin C Serum, £18 for 30ml
There were many contenders from Victoria Health’s exemplary own brand. But this silky, plant-based squalane “oil” (for moisture and barrier maintenance) blended with stable, high-quality antioxidant vitamin C (for imparting brightness and fading pigmentation) saw it through the cut. Can be used day or night, but oilier types will prefer it just before bed.
24 CeraVe SA Smoothing Cleanser, £12 for 236ml
CeraVe is so good that I considered every single one of their products for inclusion. This excellent face wash ultimately took the rosette. Containing salicylic acid (essential for clearing pores and easing congestion), it quickly and thoroughly cleans oily and problem skin. The teenagers in my life love it. Sold out consistently for months, it’s now back in plentiful stock.
25 L’Oréal Paris Age Perfect Golden Age Night Cream, £14.99 for 50ml
Conceived and formulated for women over 50, this excellent night cream is a cracking choice for anyone on the dry side, regardless of maturity. Rich and velvety, it leaves skin more comfortable and bouncy right into the morning.
26 Superdrug Optimum Retinol Eye Cream, £12.99 for 15ml (vg)
I don’t believe that many of us need an expensive eye cream when we can safely use active facial skincare around the eyes; but I will concede that in the case of potent anti-ager retinol, something specifically designed for this delicate area can be useful. This simple, efficacious cream is typical of Superdrug, whose skincare range always strikes me as far better than it could get away with.
27 Versed Skin Soak Rich Moisture Cream, £16.50 for 43g (vg)
If you want a rich but ungreasy facial moisturiser that feels like something that costs a great deal more, look no further than this, from Versed, a consistently good brand focused on natural ingredients. This beautiful, expensive-feeling cream is suitable for all (including the very dry), but oily types may prefer it only at night (Versed’s Dew Point, £13.50 for 60ml, will serve them better for day).
28 The Ordinary Squalane Cleanser, £5.50 for 50ml (vg)
I may have mixed feelings about the single-ingredient, multi-step craze they inspired, but must give credit to the Ordinary for some exceptionally good products. This is my favourite – a light, moisturising, cleansing balm that leaves skin soft but ungreasy, clean but not stripped. Rub lightly into dry skin, emulsify with warm water, remove with a wet flannel. Suitable for all.
29 Avène Tolérance Extrême Emulsion, £15 for 50ml
The sensitive-skinned know French pharmacy brands serve them better than practically any others. Among the best is Avène, an entire range for easily irritated and inflamed skin. This, their classic facial moisturiser, is a perfect starting point if you’re experiencing a reaction to retinol, allergens, the sun or anything else. It keeps things comfortable and moist while allowing skin some R&R. Bland – but in the best possible way.
30 Indeed Labs Retinol Reface Skin Resurfacer, £19.99 for 30ml
Combining clinically proven retinol, natural bakuchiol and peptides (important for skin texture and structure) makes for a night-time treatment with a lot to offer at a very fair price. This is potent stuff, and there’s a good chance you won’t love how it leaves your skin for the first couple of weeks, so start slow on clean skin (twice a week), working up to four or five times. Do persevere for better texture, less visible pores and a reduction in fine lines. And SPF in the daytime, please. Always.
• Next week: Sali’s 30 best makeup and hair products for under £20