As much as I love my expensive skincare, I do love a good drugstore staple. When you can get an amazing moisturizer/serum/face wash/eye cream/[insert skincare product here] that is just as good as the pricier counterparts, why not take advantage of that? In fact, I would dare to say some of the formulas are even better than the more expensive options. Personally, I'm about 50/50 when it comes to my collection of drugstore and "designer" skincare products. I like to mix and match, and I'm always updating my rotation with new finds. For example, some days, I could use a drugstore makeup remover, daily moisturizer, and face wash but will apply a $166 vitamin C serum. It's all about a balance, right?
But I understand it can get a little overwhelming when you're shopping the drugstore aisles because there are so many brands and options. To help, I polled a bunch of dermatologists and got a list of their favorite drugstore buys. Here's what they would recommend over and over.
Ope Ofodile, MD, MPH, of Dermatology and Surgery Specialists of North Atlanta recommends CeraVe's foamy cleanser because it's great for sensitive skin but will also adequately cleanse skin of oils, sebum, and makeup. Ife Rodney, MD, FAAD, of Eternal Dermatology and Aesthetics agrees, adding, "You still need a separate cleanser for your face since most soaps can dry out your face and change the pH balance. Cetaphil gently removes dirt without drying your skin using ingredients like vitamin E, B5, and glycerin."
Co-founder and partner of Dermatology and Surgery Specialists of North Atlanta, Kathleen S. Viscusi, MD, FAAD, FACMS, says both Pond's Cold Cream Cleanser and Wet Cleansing Towelettes have been staples and essentials to her skincare routine for years. She always has the cold cream on hand when she wants to indulge. "[They're] very likely my best-kept secret—so excited to share it here with you all!" she says.
Viscusi says she uses the towelettes most due to her busy schedule and frequent traveling. "Both of these products not only remove makeup and associated residue (including all things 'waterproof' and makeup intended for heavier coverage), but they also are incredibly moisturizing and leave skin hydrated without being even the slightest bit greasy or oily. And trust me—I've tried everything!" she adds of both the towelettes and cold cream.
"The gentle cleanser by Vanicream is a staple in my routine because of its soap-free formulation; it never leaves my skin feeling stripped and is a great option for all skin types," says Caroline Robinson, MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist, and founder of Tone Dermatology.
"It's a great, relatively new product. While benzoyl peroxide is an OTC favorite for acne, it can often be drying," says Michele Farber, MD, FAAD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group. "This new CeraVe wash is a gentle formulation that contains ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and niacinamide to moisturize, reduce redness, and most importantly, improve tolerability."
"My favorite OTC product for mild hormonal acne is St. Ives's Daily Facial Cleanser with tea tree oil," recommends Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip, MD, FAAD, founder and CEO of Vibrant Dermatology and Skin Bar MD. "I love this product because it combines the pore-cleansing properties of salicylic acid with the anti-inflammatory benefits of tea tree oil. This is a great product for women who experience a mild increase in whiteheads and small cysts right before their period."
A majority of dermatologists I spoke to recommended Vaseline. "Petroleum jelly has been around for years and remains a medicine-cabinet staple because of its emollient properties, ability to help with skin healing, and safety record," explains Deborah Spey, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group. "It is allergenically inert, meaning you can't be allergic to it. Keep the contents of your jar clean and germ-free and choose a purified, triple-distilled version like Vaseline to avoid dangerous contaminants."
And Imahiyerobo-Ip adds, "I love Vaseline. It's extremely effective for chapped lips and dry skin, can be layered over lipstick, and is extremely hypoallergenic."
"There are times when our skin is just parched, irritated, or over-treated, stripping our natural oils (despite our best intentions when using our skincare products!), and we can feel it," Viscusi says. "I have never found anything that helps me reset more than Vaseline or Aquaphor. There is a reason these ointments are still a gold standard for so many things, including moisturizing."
"I recommend Neutrogena's Hydro Boost Water Gel as a great affordable daily moisturizer, as it hydrates the skin without the use of occlusive products that cause a heavy or oily residue," Ofodile says.
"It would help if you had a moisturizer to lock in water after your shower," suggests Rodney. "This cream contains hyaluronic acid, a naturally produced substance that attracts and binds moisture from the environment. It can also heal your skin, repairing those little cracks and dryness that you can't see with the naked eye. CeraVe also contains ceramides, compounds that form a protective layer on your skin to keep moisture longer and protect it from external pollutants."
"If you're looking for a two-in-one product, you can find a moisturizer with added sun protection," Rodney says. "Olay contains ingredients that heal your skin like amino peptides, niacinamide, and vitamin E. With broad-spectrum SPF 50 built in, you won't have to worry about forgetting your sunscreen."
"This skin-nourishing moisturizer has been shown to help reduce the itching and irritation of eczema. It contains colloidal oatmeal and ceramides and is free of steroids and fragrance. It has also received the seal of approval from the National Eczema Association," Spey says.
"Melé is a new skincare brand that is specifically designed for and co-created in collaboration with women who have melanin-rich skin," Imahiyerobo-Ip says. "The Melé moisturizer with SPF 30 guards against the harmful effects of UV and blue light (which is great, given our increased screen time). It is completely transparent and elegant in skin of color."
"It has a slight, fresh citrus scent that dissipates quickly as it spreads easily on the skin in a lightweight moisturizing formula. The opaque pump dispenser ensures that the vitamin C maintains its potency and the peptides add a next level of cell signaling to maximize the effect," says Corey L. Hartman, MD, FAAD, founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology.
"It has 10% L-ascorbic acid, silicone for soothing, and hyaluronic acid for hydration. This is an excellent go-to for those with sensitive skin or who are dipping their heels into skincare for the first time!" Viscusi says.
Viscusi recommends this vitamin C serum, which contains 10% vitamin C/ascorbic acid, salicylic acid, and glycerin, a moisturizing agent that naturally attracts water to the skin.
"It's a hydrating serum that gives the skin a radiant glow while working to soften fine lines and wrinkles," Ofodile says.
Robinson says this one is a favorite of hers because "it combines low- and high-molecular-weight hyaluronic acid with the gold standard humectant glycerin, vitamin B5, and other hydrators to deliver optimal hydration to the skin by attracting water nine layers deep."
"It is definitely one of my favorite drugstore sunscreen options. Its staying power is amazing even in extreme heat and humidity, and I love its dry-touch texture. You also can't go wrong with UVA/UVB protection!" Viscusi says.
Both Imahiyerobo-Ip and Robinson recommend this sunscreen oil. "I use [it] on my body. It spreads easily and absorbs, leaving the skin feeling silky smooth, and leaves no residue," Imahiyerobo-Ip adds.
"This great drugstore sunscreen has the ability to hydrate your skin while providing broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection," Rodney says. "It's also filled with antioxidants to heal your skin, and it's noncomedogenic, meaning it won't clog your pores. Make sure to apply it before heading out and reapply every two hours or as needed."
"Daily SPF is the most important thing to do for anti-aging and skin cancer prevention. I love this product because it is cosmetically elegant, rubs in well, and its mineral blockers provide good coverage. This comes in both tinted and non-tinted, so it has many purposes," Farber says.
Imahiyerobo-Ip also recommends this one from Avène, saying it goes on sheer, even on darker skin tones.
Retinols and Retinoids
"RoC's retinol deep wrinkle night cream is powerful for collagen production without a lot of cost," says Jason Emer, MD, FAAD.
Hartman says this is a good option for those who have started to see fine lines and wrinkles form and have drier skin: "It contains a concentrated retinol but also Vichy Volcanic Water, which has 15 minerals and hyaluronic acid to help with the dryness of initiation of a retinol."
"Olay's Regenerist Retinol 24 has been a crowd favorite for years for a reason," Hartman says. "The secret may be the inclusion of niacinamide, vitamin B3, which helps to calm inflammation (which can speed aging) and provide an extra antioxidant glow to the skin. It's a good go-to for someone just starting with a retinol."
Multiple dermatologists recommend Differin's gel. "Differin gel is one of my all-time favorite drugstore products," Farber says. "Retinoids are one of the best products for stimulating collagen, reducing wrinkles, and treating acne. As the only prescription-strength retinol available over the counter, Differin is a great choice for any anti-aging or anti-acne routine."
"This is great especially for those new to retinol because it's formulated with retinol, niacinamide, and a maximum concentration of hydrators that penetrate the surface of your skin so that your skin feels softer, less dull, and is visibly smoother over time," Robinson says.
Treatments and Toners
"It contains vitamin C and retinol to pack a powerful punch to even skin tone," Hartman says. "This advanced corrector renews the look of skin, brightening skin's tone and improving dark spots and discoloration. The bonus is that this product also contains the two most important components of an anti-aging skincare regimen to treat wrinkles."
Ofodile recommends this toner for oily or acne-prone skin because it uses salicylic acid to gently unclog pores.
"My holy-grail drugstore lip SPF option is the Sun Bum Mineral SPF 30 Sunscreen Lip Balm. This broad-spectrum, zinc-based lip balm safely protects from UVA/UVB rays and provides both hydration and a healthy glow—making it perfect for year-round protection," Viscusi says.
Robinson recommends this ointment for lip-care, saying it contains dimethicone and lip hydrators.
"While most sensitive cleansers don't lather, this cleanser offers rich suds while soothing dry, sensitive skin," Spey says. "It is free of fragrance and parabens and contains colloidal oatmeal to soothe and moisturize. It is hypoallergenic and noncomedogenic and has received the seal of acceptance from the National Eczema Association."
"I love Dove's Irritation Care Body Wash, a gentle, fragrance-free formula that has been clinically proven to help your body produce the ceramides it needs and one that leaves skin feeling soft after every wash," Robinson says.
"I'm not a fan of body bars and body washes. These soaps strip the protective layer of your skin, leaving it dry and exposed to dirt and sun damage," Rodney says. "A Dove Beauty Cream Bar (or the liquid equivalent) is one of the best things you can buy in a drugstore. These bars can clean your skin while still leaving it hydrated. The added shea butter contains fatty acids and anti-inflammatory vitamins to heal your skin."
"It's a great choice because it both hydrates and heals dry skin without ever leaving it feeling greasy," Robinson says.