Back in 1975, a Bonne Bell Lip Smacker—the big, fat, juicy one—retailed for $2.50 at my local Rexall. My friend Elizabeth and I trekked to the drugstore, quarters jangling in our braided leather purses, and plunked down what was, basically, a couple weeks’ worth of savings.

At the time, that mighty watermelon Lip Smacker represented a substantial purchase for my lowly pocketbook, and not just because it was jumbo sized. You see, I was the daughter of a math professor, who raised my allowance each year with the price of inflation: In 1975, my $1 per week was increased to a whopping $1.09. (I’m serious.) I tell you this not to tar the memory of my beloved father, but to explain that from very early on, this lip-gloss-loving gal knew the value of a buck.  

I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford a Chanel lipstick for $37, but I still frequently find myself in the drugstore scooping up bargain-basement scores.

These days, I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford a Chanel lipstick for $37, but I still frequently find myself in the drugstore scooping up bargain-basement scores. There are a few reasons for this: Even though testers are still limited (unless you’re in a cosmetic Mecca, like Ulta), the return policies now rival those of department stores, which means mistake purchases no longer get tossed in the trash. The selection of brands and colors have literally exploded over the last few years, with pro lines like NYX (the company that boasts a huge makeup-artist following) sitting beside the Maybellines of the world. And foundations—L’Oreal True Blend, for one—are now available in nearly 30 shades.

In years past, plenty of magazine articles doled out advice about which products were worth spending on (foundation, usually), and which weren’t (mascara). But the recommendations have become passé as you can find rock-star goodies at every price point—even if you’re honing in on sophisticated rejuvenating products. Sure, there are some differences between the highs and lows, but they’re not deal-breakers anymore.

Makeup: Let’s Look Inside

Base ingredients: Department-store cosmetics typically contain higher-quality base ingredients, which consist of things like fragrance, emollients, and sunscreens. It’s the reason a super-hydrating Chanel lipstick smells like a heady rose, while an occasional drugstore brand might be candy scented with a waxy feel that doesn’t glide smoothly onto mature, lined lips. Or the reason a drugstore moisturizer might not have the SPF 50 your posh cream boasts.

Color:  Pigments, too, play a role—the pricier shadows are often manufactured with finely milled powders that sweep on easily with truer color and less fallout. But this benefit is showing up in drugstore palettes more and more these days. Check it out yourself when you’re swiping shadow on the back of your hand and see if the product creates a lot of excess dust, or if the color, when applied, morphs from the color you see in the compact.

Sure, there are some differences between the highs and lows, but they’re not deal-breakers anymore.

Packaging: This is where price tends to differentiate itself. While low-end brands are looking swankier than ever, chances are the packaging is lightweight, more susceptible to breakage, with a less substantial feel in the hand when you use it. And if you’re like most women, you get that undeniable designer rush when pulling a beautiful, weighty tube of lipstick out of your purse. Reason enough, sometimes, to plunk down $40.

A Side-By-Side Buying Guide

Of course, knowing that you can’t go wrong no matter where you shop doesn’t exactly help narrow the choices. So we’ve done the footwork for you, with a list of our faves on each side of the cosmetic fence. By the way, if you buy any of these items via the links we provide, NextTribe does make a itsy, bitsy amount of money. But we hope you won’t mind supporting us in this way, since every little bit helps us continue to bring you great stories like this. 

 

NextTribe best makeup bargains

Highbrow Foundation

Lancôme Teint Idole Ultra Longwear Foundation Stick SPF21

Anyone who was in love with the liquid Teint Idole formula, but wants to simplify life a bit, will fall in love with the stick version—excellent coverage, super-glide-on formula, weightless, with an airbrushed, matte-like finish. Swipe it right on the face and blend with a brush, or, for a lighter application, swipe the brush over the stick and then apply. $42

NextTribe best makeup bargains

Lowbrow Foundation

L’Oreal True Match:  The big draw here—besides the fact that it comes in 28 plus shades—is the texture. With a lightweight, layerable, luminous finish, this foundation masks imperfections, but also blends to sheer when you want to lighten up on coverage. About $9.

 

 

NextTribe best makeup bargains

Highbrow Concealer

Bobbi Brown Intensive Serum Concealer: Like a makeup cocktail for mature skin, this lightweight, nourishing hide-all has a clever way of concealing the tired, the weary, the huddled dark shadows, yet still floats magically above your fine lines. $42

NextTribe best makeup bargains

Lowbrow Concealer

NYX HD Photogenic Concealer: Pots of thick, sticky concealer have the ability to put a shadow, circle, or blemish into instant hiding, but they can be a pill to apply. NYX, on the other hand, offers similarly high coverage (20 shades—almost unheard of), but with its wand applicator, it’s a breeze to apply. Plus, the luminous glow magically blurs out those eye creases. $3.49

 

 

NextTribe best makeup bargains

Highbrow Mascara

MAC Extended Play Gigablack Lash Mascara:  Sure, we love the fact that this long-wearing mascara lasts up to 16 hours and is a cinch to remove with warm water (“innovative thermal technology”), but the way its slim, little brush sort of grabs your lashes and lifts them into place is one of those have-to-try-it-to-believe-it things. $18

NextTribe best makeup bargains

Lowbrow Mascara

L’Oreal Voluminous Original: It’s almost impossible not to get overwhelmed when staring at the mascara wall in a drugstore. But let your eyes focus on this classic, no-nonsense formula that has a soft, feathery feel, building lash length and volume quickly without clumping or dryness. About $6.

NextTribe best makeup bargains

Highbrow Eyeshadow

Urban Decay Naked Heat: The company has an almost cult-like following for its line of perfectly coordinated palettes (The Nakeds, Naked 2, Naked 3, Naked Basics). But their newest amber-hued neutrals—like an Arizona desert sunset glowing from light to dark—allow you to create subtle-yet-sultry daytime looks as well as smoke it up for night. The palette includes some shimmer (better than full-on metallic for crease-prone skin), some matte, and everything in between. $54

NextTribe best makeup bargains

Lowbrow Eyeshadow

BH Cosmetics Neutral Eyes: If you are looking for something akin to a full-on paint box from an art class, this budget-friendly box (28 shades!) focuses on a matte palette of warm neutrals, from putty to pink, clay to earth. $12.99

 

 

NextTribe best makeup bargainsHighbrow Lipstick

Kat Von D Studded Kiss Crème Lipstick: Super creamy, amazing coverage, 40 shades, and a formula that holds on tight without going matte (crucial, because mature lips need all the moisture they can get) may be just the sales pitch you need. But the cool-as-shit case—black, riveted, and fierce—could be the real draw here. $19.
NextTribe best makeup bargains

Lowbrow Lipstick

Maybelline Color Sensation LipstickThe New York Times recently referred to this pick as “the MAC of the drugstore.” With more colors than Crayola, uber-affordable, and a range of finishes from matte to mega-metallic, this is the one basic you can stock up on with abandon. About $5

 

 

NextTribe best makeup bargains

Highbrow Blusher

Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Cream Blush: Just dab a tiny bit of this silky-smooth cream into the apples of your cheeks and watch as a subtle, diffused bloom begins to brighten up your face. Then take comfort in knowing that this flush is accompanied by rejuvenating ingredients usually found only in moisturizers and sunscreens. $24.50

NextTribe best makeup bargains

Lowbrow Blusher

Milani Baked Blush in Luminoso: Plenty of makeup artists advise cream blush for their older clients to avoid the powdery dryness that can creep into and accentuate lines on the face. But sweep on this shimmery, peachy-pink beauty, and you’ll see a subtle glow that adds youthful light and warmth to the skin—no crepey-ness in sight. $7