Working out what your skin really needs to look and feel its best can be tricky, but there are a few steps that skin experts unanimously agree should be part of a good skincare routine. First, a good cleanser. Think of this step as the foundation on which the rest of your routine is built. Second, an SPF. Wearing sun protection is the one piece of skincare advice that I hear most from dermatologists for preventing everything from signs of aging to pigmentation. Third, moisturizer is vital for every skin type, from oily to dry, for repairing the skin's barrier and maintaining hydration levels. Finally, a serum, which is possibly one of my favorite steps in my skincare routine and one that Kate Moss's facialist told me is key to maintaining youthful, glowy skin.
But serums undoubtedly have a bit of a bad reputation for being costly, so it's understandable that many people skip this step entirely and head straight for the moisturizer. But do you really have to pay upward of $100 to find a serum that will deliver results? Turns out you don't.
In fact, I've tried hundreds of serums over the years, and I'm confident that I can find you an affordable dupe for even the priciest of formulations. Keep scrolling to shop seven of the best cheap serums that are just as good as their expensive counterparts in my eyes. This is ideal if you're just venturing into the world of serums or simply don't fancy taking out a mortgage on a bottle of skincare.
While I have been lucky enough to try this celeb-adored serum from Dr. Barbara Sturm for myself, there aren't many of us who can justify spending three figures on a serum—even if it is seriously skin-quenching. Its magic lies in the fact that it contains both long- and short-chain hyaluronic molecules to provide an instant moisture hit as well as more long-term hydration.
While the First Aid Beauty might not have the same levels of scientific know-how behind its moisturizing formula, it does contain a decent dose of hydrating hyaluronic acid alongside skin-smoothing peptides and soothing aloe and oatmeal. And it's noncomedogenic, so it's great for oily skin types too.
If it's glowy skin that you're after, then an AHA serum should be your first port of call. This one from Drunk Elephant has a loyal following thanks to its resurfacing blend of alpha and beta hydroxy acids, including glycolic, lactic, tartaric, citric, and salicylic. It gently exfoliates overnight for a smoother, brighter complexion come morning.
However, if you're after a real hit of radiance, then The Ordinary's AHA serum might be even more up your street. It's potent—it contains 30% AHA compared to Drunk Elephant's 10%—so be sure to patch-test it first. However, it basically gives you skin that looks like you've just had a professional facial in just 10 minutes. Yes, this is one skincare product that's trending on TikTok for good reason.
Another AHA superhero comes in the form of mandelic acid, an often overlooked skincare ingredient that's naturally derived from almonds. It boasts antibacterial properties that are brilliant for treating acne as well as doing all the good stuff, such as reducing discoloration and accelerating cell turnover for plumper, healthier skin. I recommend the Allies of Skin serum to anyone dealing with regular breakouts, as it does such an amazing job of clearing breakouts overnight while improving the health of your skin barrier.
Similarly, the Garden of Wisdom Mandelic Acid is incredible for exfoliating away dead skin cells, treating active breakouts, and gently cleaning pores. I'm always so impressed with how much clearer and calmer my skin looks come morning with this, especially considering the $10 price tag.
To me, using a La Mer serum is about more than just what the product does for my skin—it's about everything from the ritual of applying it to the luxurious packaging to the scent. The brand's beloved serum is derived from marine peptides and plant stem cells to promote your skin's natural collagen production and reduce the signs of aging and tiredness. It's effectively youthful skin in a bottle, and it has legions of fans for good reason.
While the ingredient list of this $7 serum from The Ordinary really can't rival that of La Mer, it does contain a healthy dose of blue-green algae and skin-friendly marine bacteria for some of the same under-the-sea hydration benefits as the La Mer. If you're looking for a simple hydrating serum that will plump and smooth the surface, then it's a fantastically affordable option.
If I could use only one serum on my face for the rest of my life, then I'd opt for a salicylic acid–based one. Trust me—if you're blemish-prone, then it's your best friend. This one from IS Clinical contains a hefty dose of willow bark extract—a natural source of salicylic—alongside soothing mushroom extract to tackle inflammation, calm active spots, and even skin tone. If you have the money, then it's really effective, I have to say.
Equally good, though, is this one from Caudalie that I discovered recently. Again, along with pore-unclogging salicylic acid, it contains grape-seed polyphenols to protect the skin and refreshing peppermint essential oil to tone and invigorate. I really love it.
Created by celebrity facialist Shani Darden, this retinol-infused serum has a long list of celebrity fans including Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Kim Kardashian West, and Laura Harrier. Retinol is renowned for causing skin irritation, but this serum boasts a mild concentration that has all of the benefits—reducing sunspots, pigmentation, and fine lines—with none of the downsides.
There's no doubt that it's this gentle aspect that justifies its $88 price tag, but this one from The Inkey List is a great starting point if you're new to retinol and are looking for an affordable place to start. Again, it has a non-irritating formulation thanks to a blend of retinol, retinoid, and hydrating squalane, so you get that lovely, even skin tone without any rashes or redness.
Admittedly, $49 wouldn't usually be considered a cheap serum in my book, but when compared with the three-figure price tag of the cult SkinCeuticals serum, it certainly feels less eye-watering. The fact is potent ingredients can cost more money, and SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic is undoubtedly one of the best vitamin C products that I've ever tried. It brightens, evens skin tone, and smooths uneven texture, and truly deserves all of its accolades.
However, this brilliant Paula's Choice booster is just as good and also boasts a blend of 15% vitamin C, a touch of vitamin E, and that all-important ferulic acid for extra efficacy. No, it isn't the cheapest alternative, but it just might be my favorite.
This post originally appeared on Who What Wear UK.