Budget beauty – Sali Hughes’s 50 top picks under £20 | Beauty

There has never been a better time in budget beauty. It’s broadly true that in 2022, “bad” products as we once knew them have all but vanished from high-street and department-store shelves. In fact, research, innovation and technology in beauty have advanced so fast that a cheap beauty product launching now is likely to be of materially higher quality than a luxury product launched 10 years ago.

The dramatically improved performance of modern beauty products made this year’s bargain special an even bigger joy to compile – and given the financial climate, a more useful and necessary endeavour. What we do spend on must work.

As co-founder of the Beauty Banks charity, I know which products struggling families actually need to stay functioning: shampoo, soap, shower gel, nappies, sanitary protection, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant and the like.

The selections in this rundown represent something altogether different: little extras that work either as well as or even better than their premium or luxury equivalents. They are for those in the fortunate position of being able to treat themselves with beauty, but perhaps looking to cut back their spending in leaner times. This absolutely can be done with little difference in performance.

Every one of the items that follow – for body, skin and hair – is outstanding in its field and well worth your precious spare cash.

Palmer’s Retexture Renew body lotion 400ml, £6.99
What was already, hands down, the best affordable body lotion for treating bumpy upper arms and flaky shins is now even better. Exfoliating lactic acid lifts dead skin and smooths texture, while cocoa butter and coconut oil moisturise beneath. Smells weird but works great. I won’t be without it.

Marks & Spencer Provenance Greek olive bath & shower gel 500ml, £5.25
In general, my daily showers are cheap and functional – my less-frequent baths are a more decadent and luxury affair – but this newish gem from M&S combines the two. Bubbles abundantly, doesn’t strip skin, smells delicious and comes in a huge bottle that lasts for ages. A guiltless luxury at the end of a fraught day.

Sainsbury’s Sun Protect sensitive skin spray 200ml, £4.50
Sunscreen is vital for all families, but the cost stacks up. Sainsbury’s makes very good, non-irritating, fairly priced sun protection that I wouldn’t hesitate to slather on my own kids.

Soft Ventilate gel heel socks, two pairs £9.99
If you suffer from dry, cracked heels that cause discomfort or pain or even bleed, these will change your life. Just pull on at night whenever your heels are suffering, or simply in preparation for sandal weather, either over bare skin or a foot cream like Flexitol. The difference in just a couple of nights’ wear is dramatic. Machine washable.

St Moriz Professional tanning mousse, 200ml, £4.99
St Moriz makes the best budget self-tan by a mile. In fact, it’s better than many brands costing four times the price. This mousse is easy to apply (always exfoliate and moisturise dry bits first) and gives a good, even golden glow, lasting around three days. Apply with a cheap mitt to avoid orange wrists.

Garnier Intensive 7 Days shea butter probiotic extract body lotion for dry skin 400ml, £2.62
An excellent, nicely fragranced, well-absorbed body lotion for non-problem skins in need of moderate daily moisture. The very dry-skinned will crave more oil, but balanced types who find lardy ointments a turn-off will love its non-greasy, cushiony, softness.

Vaseline Intensive Care Advanced Repair body lotion 400ml, £5.99
If this time of year sees your normally happy skin dry up and flake out, this classic richer moisturiser offers just the right level of escalation. Hugely versatile, it works as a hand cream, foot cream, body treatment and even – at a push on dry skins – a face moisturiser. Apply daily after showering and you needn’t wait long to get dressed.

Steinder Precision foot file, £9.99
You can buy all the foot creams and book all the pedicures in the world, but without regular filing away of hard, dead skin, your feet will never look their best. This rasp style works fastest and most effectively, if you can exercise restraint and stop filing when you reach virgin skin. Once every 7-14 days should be enough, after which you can maintain the smoothness with a pumice stone if needed (less likely to chip your nail polish).

Skin products

Simple Water Boost micellar cleansing water 400ml, £4.66
I’ve said it before and I stand firm: spendy micellar water makeup removers are an absolute waste of your cash. Cheaper micellar water is every bit as good as expensive, and Simple micellar water is better than them all. This is the one I buy and use myself for shoot days, late nights, festivals and anywhere one might need a water-free makeup change or face cleanse (hospital, for instance). Great on very sensitive skin, too.

Garnier Ambre Solaire Super UV anti-age/anti-dryness face protection cream SPF50 50ml, £8
Two very affordable sunscreens – one for balanced/combination skins, one for dry. Both offer high sun protection, a smooth base for makeup, no stinging or eye watering, more sustainable packaging and a comfortable, bouncy finish. I got through three tubes of the anti-dryness version in one summer, despite having expensive alternatives to hand.

CeraVe SA smoothing cleanser with salicylic acid 236ml, £12.50
If your skin or that of your tween or teen child is oily, congested, flaky, moderately spotty or dotted with blackheads, this is a great first step. Can be used on the face or body (it’s good on oily teen backs) and lathers up without stripping skin dry. The price may not seem that low, but the quantity of product is around double the expected cleanser size.

Byoma hydrating/clarifying serum 30ml, £10.39
I admire this brand, founded by the creators of (the much more expensive but equally great) Tan-Luxe, because it concerns itself first and foremost with the health of the skin’s barrier function, while many of its high-street competitors seem happy to batter it with high-concentration actives. There are few duds here, but these two serums – for dehydrated and oily skins, respectively – are my picks.

Superdrug Vitamin E hot cloth cleanser 200ml, £4.99
Still the best budget cleansing cream in town. Creamy, skin-softening and easily removed with a warm flannel, it’s a pleasure to use. Not sturdy enough for makeup removal, but perfect as a second cleanse afterwards, or as a morning cleanse. My only annoyance is the tiny, pointless muslin included in the box. Time to retire it.

Q+A oat milk cream cleanser 125ml, £5.62
I love this bargain British range of straightforward, honest skincare. It’s a great place to start for those on a budget. I picked this super gentle cleanser for any skin type (including sensitive), but it’s hard to make a bad decision anywhere in the lineup.

Bioré Aqua UV Aqua Rich protect lotion SPF50 70ml, £11.81
The Japanese beauty industry is famed for its featherlight textures, and there are few categories in which this is more greatly appreciated than sun protection, which has a tendency to be too greasy for oily types. This elegant, hydrating facial sunscreen can barely be felt once applied, leaves no white or ashy cast on deeper skin tones, and gives hi-tech protection against UVA and UVB rays. The best at any price.

Burt’s Bees natural moisturising lip balm 45g, £5.99 for a duo-value pack
A perfect, all-natural lip balm from an ethical company that puts plenty back into the community. Has everything I require: no jammy-textured, hair-catching gloss; a stick rather than a fingernail dipping (and clogging) pot, several hours’ of comfortable moisture, and a smell that is never Haribo-adjacent. Ticks every box for a very reasonable three quid a tube.

budget beauty

Olay Regenerist retinol 24 max 50ml, £19.99
The RRP of this excellent entry-level, non-irritating retinol is technically over my self-imposed £20 threshold, but I’ve included it because every time I look, it’s on offer somewhere for £19.99. Retinoids remain by far the most well-evidenced treatment against signs of skin ageing (wrinkles, uneven tone and texture, loss of firmness), and if you’d like to try them, this is a perfect place to start your journey.

La Roche-Posay Cicaplast baume 100ml, £12 (special offer)
For grazes, burns, bites, roughness, irritation, sensitivity, adverse reaction to a product and general dryness, reach for this. I think of it as a sticking plaster in a tube and my home is never without it.

Gallinée perfume-free cleansing bar, £13
This gynaecologist-formulated, milky, lightly sudsing cleanser is gentle enough for intimate washing without risking UTIs or vulval irritation (if you know, you know). I can also confirm that it works perfectly well on sensitive faces and bodies, too.

Garnier Pure Active SOS anti-blemish stick 10ml, £5.99
A break-glass-in-case-of-emergency treatment for occasional spots. Includes everything one needs in a breakout: salicylic acid to exfoliate and de-grease, niacinamide to soothe and zinc to control oil production. Dab directly on to a clean spot and repeat every few hours.

Curél Intensive Moisture facial cream 40g, £19.50
Japan’s favourite dry skin brand, Curél, sets itself apart from western counterparts by delivering very rich, super-moisturising ingredients such as ceramides in very light, finely textured creams and lotions. Everything in the range, from foaming cleansers to eye cream, is terrific. But if your face craves all the moisture and none of the grease, you’ll want to start with this.

Bondi Sands self-tanning drops 40ml, £9.99
If your skin, whatever its tone, lacks warmth or becomes ashy in autumn and winter, bronzing drops are a great solution. Twice a week, I mix a couple of drops into any daily moisturiser and massage in the whole cocktail in one go, washing hands after use. Within a couple of hours, I look more alive. These are the best of the budget offerings.

Towelling wash mitts, £10.95 for 10
Brands vary and are broadly unimportant, but I now buy all my cotton flannels in mitt form (giving greater purchase for product removal and skin exfoliation) in quantities of 10, from hotel suppliers or Amazon. Take a fresh one each morning for your cleanse, use again for your nighttime makeup removal and any face masks, then throw in the wash and repeat.

Kose Softymo speedy cleansing oil 60ml, £4.59
Korean and Japanese brands make extremely sophisticated budget skincare products, and this oil cleanser from Kose is among my favourites. Fast, gentle, thorough, luxurious makeup removal with no greasy after-feel. Remove with the towelling mitt.

Makeup products

NYX Professional slim lip liner pencil, £4
Pencils are generally a good place to save money, and these are as good as those at four times the price. They don’t drag or scratch and are proper pencils, sharpened with a sharpener, not those twist-up plastic things that are permanently too blunt. Just Nude Pink and Hot Red will cover you for most lipstick choices.

L’Oréal Paris brow artist plumper, £8.99
There’s stacks to love at the L’Oréal Paris counter, but I include this because it’s largely overlooked. An easy-to-apply tinted brow gel that plumps up each hair, then sets without crispy flakiness. Ideal for fluffy, modern-looking brows.

e.l.f Halo Glow liquid filter, £14
A versatile glow-giver to add non-glittery gleam under foundation, on the high planes like cheek and brow bones, or alone as a fresh-looking complexion improver on casual days. Outstanding value and one of my products of the year.

L’Oréal Paris True Match nude plumping tinted serum, £14.99
This terrific light-coverage base delivers moist, natural-looking glow via sponge, brush or careless fingertips. Looks as appropriate under a faceful of evening makeup as when worn alone on a Sunday-morning dog walk. Ideal for anyone who seeks even, smooth, polished coverage without traditional, skin-masking foundation.

Morphe Blush Balm soft-focus cream blush, £12
Morphe is unarguably among the very best budget makeup brands (check out its palettes and lipsticks too), but this relative newcomer to the stable is a standout. Soft, effortless and moisturising, it doesn’t slide off as fast as it goes on, like too many other budget cream blushers, and gives an instant, natural, healthy-looking flush.

e.l.f. No Budge shadow sticks, £6
To have a crayon or two of cream eyeshadow in one’s handbag is to never be more than three minutes from a dressed-up makeup look. These bargain sticks sit alongside those by Bobbi Brown, Vieve and Laura Mercier in my makeup bag, and more than hold their own. Scribble on to lids, then soften the edges with a clean, fluffy eye brush. And you’re done.

Glossier Solar Paint luminous bronzer crème, £17
Is Glossier technically a budget brand? Granted, no. Is this fantastically good value for a high-end cream bronzer in an inclusive, flattering, gleaming, orange-free shade range, delivered via a handy wand applicator that a small child could master? Absolutely, yes.

Bourjois Healthy Mix anti-fatigue foundation, £11.99
The greatest high-street foundation in history, in my humble opinion. Versatile, buildable, medium coverage for all skin types. A nation mourned at its 2020 withdrawal from the UK market, then rejoiced at its 2022 return (exclusively to Superdrug).

Beauty Pie Superluminous Undereye Genius, £10 to Beauty Pie members
I have deliberately limited Beauty Pie to just one entry, since this bargain beauty buyers’ club does involve an annual membership fee. The competition was fierce, but this made the grade because it goes on my face every day, almost without fail. Instant brightening for dark undereye circles. Just dab on very sparingly with finger or brush.

Essie Gel Couture nail polish, £9.99
When it comes to nail varnish, I’d always recommend salon brands over makeup brands – whether high street, designer or luxury. Essie’s main competitors, OPI (much more expensive in the UK than in the US) and CND (trickier to buy retail) are terrific too, but Essie’s combination of accessibility, ease of application, colour range, affordability and staying power makes it the easy winner here.

Bourjois Rouge Velvet lipstick, £9.99
For those who like their lips drenched in bold, vibrant pigment that stays matte without sacrificing comfort, this remains best in class.

Kiko Lasting Precision automatic eyeliner and khol, £8.99
Italian brand Kiko makes the best, most vibrant and longest-lasting eye pencils on the high street. There are several types in their portfolio, but this one is, for me, the most impressive, for its shade lineup and integrated smudger. My only gripe is that it’s not wooden and therefore sharpen-able, but for a smudgy, smoky (as opposed to precise) line, this is immaterial.

NYX Professional ultimate shadow palette – warm neutrals, £16
Huge eyeshadow palettes can be a false economy, since several shades can go unused while others wear down to the pan. This extremely wearable, easy-to-blend set of neutrals suits everyone, works for any occasion and comes from the best budget eyeshadow brand on the high street.

beauty budget makeup Photograph: Martina Lang/The Guardian

Superdrug makeup sponges, £7.99 for a pack of two
I’m baffled by expensive makeup sponges. I’d no sooner pay £16 for a disposable foam egg than I would for a cup of tea. These, at four quid a sponge, are more acceptable, and indistinguishable from luxury versions. Use damp and in a bouncing motion to blend foundation, cream or liquid bronzers and blushers. Keep in an airy place. If it starts to smell or perish (three to four months is likely), swap for new.

got2b Glued for Brows, £5
This takes an iron fist to the sort of lawless brows that drop within an hour of setting and is the best thing for those fluffy, slightly spiky arches that have largely replaced the sharp, filled-in brows of pre-pandemic social media. Essentially, this mascara wand glues hair transparently into place and doesn’t let up until bedtime. Takes a good five minutes to dry, so get it on early.

Isehan Heroine Make Long & Curl mascara waterproof black, £16.44
The best high street mascaras are by Maybelline and L’Oréal Paris, but I draw your attention to this because it simply does not budge – however rich your skincare, hot your flashes, wet your home climate, active your lifestyle or teary your mood. Designed with (typically more straight) east Asian lashes in mind, this gives superior curl and lightweight volume that lasts.

Hair

Hair

Schwarzkopf got2b Glued blasting freeze vegan hairspray 300ml, £5
Yes, we all know L’Oréal Elnett hairspray is the best for flexible hold, but if you want your blowout, scrunch-dry or up-do to have as much give as a granite worktop, reach no further than for this. None shall pass.

Boots mini brush, £1
One. Single. Pound. Which means I’ve now spent a total of four quid to ensure I am never caught anywhere without one. An absolute essential, because nothing takes someone from bedraggled to groomed more instantly than a hairbrush.

Philips touch-up pen trimmer for body and face, £18.99
This nifty gadget has almost faded the psychic scars from upper-lip threading (truly, I’ve had easier labours). What I use for any unwanted fuzz on small areas. Couldn’t be any faster or easier, and with no adverse long-term effects.

Shrine Drop It hair drops, £9.99
If you have blond, grey or white hair and like to switch up the tone or shade without commitment, these will change your life. Essentially a food colouring for the hair, these concentrated drops are mixed into your usual conditioner, left for 10 minutes, then rinsed out as normal, to tint light hair for three to five washes. Brunettes: save your money.

Josh Wood Colour Miracle Mask, £19
Squeaking just under the price threshold, but worth it, this conditioning mask for colour-treated hair somehow manages the extremely rare feat of adding plenty of moisture without flattening like a swimcap. Keeps colour vibrant and roots wholly ungunked.

SheaMoisture Strengthen & Restore Jamaican black castor oil hair treatment mask 355ml, £8.66 (special offer)
This black-owned brand makes, in my view, the best hair-conditioning masks on the high street. This one – the richest and most potent – is designed to soften and strengthen textured hair. Leaves curls lustrous and defined. The smell is an acquired taste but I love it.

Pantene Cheat Day dry shampoo foam 50ml, £4.99
Never have my expectation-v-reality levels been so out of whack. This is truly brilliant for days when you don’t have time to wash and blow-dry your hair and need to fake it fast. Massage a golfball-sized amount into dry roots, then blast upwards with a hairdryer for a minute or two for less oil and more volume. That’s it. Tiny effort, huge difference.

Naturelab Tokyo Perfect Volume blowout jelly 120ml, £13
For when you do have time to wash and blow-dry, this extremely fine, fragrant Japanese hair gel gives serious volume and bounce to flat, fine hair. Rub a tiny amount between palms and rake hands through damp roots before drying upside-down with a dryer. Sounds pricey, lasts an age.

Hershesons Almost Everything cream 50ml, £12
Called “Almost Everything” because it doesn’t stand in for dry shampoo or hairspray, but turns its hand to pretty much anything else. This peachy-scented, award-winner defrizzes, adds smoothness, texture and shine, defines curls and coils, softens beards, protects against heat and even works as a conditioning mask. Add to any hair type, wet or dry – the finer your hair, the less you should use (a pea-size amount is plenty for me).

Boots Everyday curly hair mousse 200ml, £1.50
I’ve raved lots about the regular version of this laughably cheap hair mousse, but the formula has seemingly, and needlessly, changed for the worse. This sister product for curly hair appears to remain unspoilt for now.

Prices correct at time of going to press

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