I remember the very first time I waltzed into a Sephora on a mission: to buy my first lipstick. The gold and lacquer-black tubes sparkled in my eyes as I swiped and tested and blotted to my heart’s content until I landed on the perfect hue. All I know is that my spirits sank when I saw the price tag, which was just out of my then-teenager budget.
Which all goes to say that the world of makeup is dazzling, sure, but like skin care, the prices range from drugstore diamond-level to extravagant. And as I learned during that first Sephora shop, it’s easy to fill your cart in a frenzy only to realize it might be financially wiser to shop with more of a strategy in mind. Guess what? I’ve got the insider tips on exactly how to put together said strategy. I asked a handful of pro makeup artists to tell me exactly which cosmetics products are worth the splurge, and which you can save your bucks on with more budget buys.
A general rule of thumb? “The bigger the surface area you’re tackling, the more likely a splurge will pay off,” says Jeannie Vincent, makeup artist, explaining that an affordable eye or lip product will look more expensive when paired with the perfect foundation. Now for more MUA-approved intel on shopping makeup like a pro.
Mascara: We’re big fans of drugstore mascara, and it turns out that makeup artists are, too. “To me, mascara is a drugstore staple,” says Vincent, who loves Burt’s Bees Nourishing Mascara ($13), L’Oréal Voluminous ($7), and L’Oréal Lash Paradise ($8). Suzy Gurstein, New York City-based celebrity makeup artist, agrees. “There are many quality mascaras on the market that don’t break the bank,” she tells me. Her pick? Physician’s Formula Organic Wear ($12).
Eyeliner: Along the same line as mascara, eyeliner is another item to save your money on. “There are just so many great drugstore eyeliners out there—Maybelline, Revlon, and Physician’s Formula come to mind,” says Vincent, who adds that brow products can be bought on the cheap too. “For brows, L’Oréal has some really great options,” she says.
Lip gloss: Out of all the lip products out there, lip gloss is one for your budget buys. “Lip gloss doesn’t really last that long when you wear it, which is one reason not to splurge,” says Vincent. The same goes for tinted lip balms, which add a pop of color while nourishing your pout. “Tinted lip balms are a great way to add some life to your face,” says Gerstein, who likes the Burt’s Bees Tinted Lip Balms ($6) for an affordable bag staple.
Anything trendy: Not sure if the green eyeshadow or glittery lipstick look is for you? Try it—but don’t shell out major bucks to do so. “I love using cheaper products to test drive trends and try out something out of my comfort zone,” says Merrady Wickes, makeup artist and beauty director at The Detox Market. “A neon liner or a bright red lip might not make it into heavy rotation, so it’s fine to get something less pricey to see how you like it. Vincent agrees, noting that more trendy products aren’t always worth shelling out for since “you might only be wearing them for one season or less,” she says.
Foundation: Every single makeup artist I spoke with unanimously agreed: Out of all the makeup products to spend your money on, spend the most on your foundation. “Getting the right shade and formula match for your foundation is worth the splurge because when your skin looks polished, the rest is really icing on the cake,” says Gerstein. Wickes echoes this sentiment, saying you should splurge on anything for your complexion because “if your skin doesn’t look good, no one cares what your lashes are doing.” Unlike other makeup products, you’re typically able to try on foundation shades before buying, which helps. “Some beauty retailers offer complimentary samples,” says Vincent. “Flawless skin is really priceless, and with a perfect base, you can get away with doing a lot less with the rest of your makeup.” Truth.
Multi-use products: Those MVP multi-functional makeup sticks and and creams are a makeup bag staple, and it’s worth buying a good one. “A 30 dollar price tag for a high-end blush is a lot more palatable when you know you can use it for lips and eyes too,” says Vincent. “Plus, using the same color on multiple areas of your face will give your makeup a cohesive, polished, and put-together look.” Monochromatic, anyone? Think multi-use products—like these from Noto Botanics ($25), Olio e. Osso ($28), and RMS ($36)—which give you more bang for your buck.
Lipstick: The thing with lipsticks is that though there are zillions you can buy for less than the price of an oat milk latte, it’s really, really worth it when you invest in a good quality one. “The perfect lipstick is a whole look in itself, so while it’s fun to experiment with less expensive options, you might buy five lipsticks at the drugstore before finding ‘the one,’” says Vincent. This is especially frustrating if you can’t even try the color on first. Save the cash and the clutter to swipe and blot until you’ve nailed the perfect shades to spend wisely on.
Eyeshadow: “If you’ve ever purchased a really cheap eyeshadow, you know the quality doesn’t compare to the good stuff,” says Vincent. “Drugstore eyeshadow can be dusty with no color payoff or lasting power.” (This gives me flashbacks to the powder-blue shadows I bought at Claire’s back in the 90s—she’s right.) “Invest in one good palette or a couple of singles and they’ll last you for years.” Also key? She points out that powder doesn’t breed bacteria, so you don’t actually need to change it out as often as you do with your mascara. And there you have it.