10 Budget-Friendly Products Inspired By the Most Popular Skincare of 2021

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Expensive skincare and beauty products from Sephora compared to affordable drugstore products

From La Mer’s miracle cream to Kopari’s cult favorite Coconut Melt, this year has taken a huge step forward in luxury skincare. Many women are finally realizing the importance of skincare by dialing back from spending on makeup and putting their money towards quality skincare products – after all, what good is a face full of makeup if the canvas is subpar?

Although I’m a huge advocate of the 10-step Korean skincare regimen as well as affordable beauty products, I wanted to play the devil’s advocate and dive into the world of luxury skincare. So that you don’t have to, I spent a whopping $481.66 on the top 10 most popular beauty products of the year just to see if they were worth the splurge.

Well, were they? Keep reading to see my verdict as well as affordable alternatives for each one. You’ll thank me later.

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La Mer Créme De La Mer: $170.00

La Mer Créme De La Mer: $170.00 (1 oz)

Alternative – Nivea Creme (German): $13.95 (400 ml)

An interesting backstory of the La Mer company: Supposedly some aerospace scientist burned himself at his lab while making rockets and spent 12 years developing a miracle cream made of kelp to heal his burn wounds. From that, Créme De La Mer was born. The story sounds unusual: how did an aerospace scientist break into the beauty industry? Why did he spend over a decade playing with kelp?

Cremé De La Mer is a super popular luxury beauty favorite and many women swear by it. But would you pay $170 for an ounce? If this thing really could heal burns from an explosion over a decade old, I seriously wonder how come more people don’t know about it. I really wonder.

Alternative: There are tons of articles online comparing Nivea Creme to Créme De La Mer. Some people say it’s pretty much the same thing, minus the magic kelp. Admittedly, Nivea Creme isn’t a mirror alternative of La Mer, but it has the same consistency and moisturizes just as well as Créme De La Mer does (not to mention you get a HUGE tub for $14). Even celebrities like Kate Winslet, Joan Collins and Alison Steadman swear by it, and they look pretty great to me. Another pro: it’s much faster to put on compared to Créme De La Mer’s tedious application process. Make sure to pick up the German version, as the formulation is much more different than the US version.

If you don’t believe me, check out this article on DailyMail.com where they ran tests over several days using 3D imaging and a face scanner to measure the results of La Mer’s Créme De La Mer vs. Nivea Creme. It’s pretty legit.

Glamglow Supermud Clearing Treatment: $69.00

Glamglow Supermud Clearing Treatment: $69.00 (1.7 oz)

Alternative – Freeman Charcoal and Black Sugar Mask: $8.25 (6 oz)

The Glamglow Supermud Clearing Treatment has been around for a few years now, but the hype never stopped. This clay mask claims to lighten dark spots, reduce the look of large pores and eliminate acne while revealing your smoothest skin. Although I can personally say that the mask works great, I still don’t think it’s worth almost $70 for a tiny 1.7 oz jar.

Alternative: If you want a good charcoal mud mask that draws out impurities and reduces the oiliness of your skin, pick up Freeman’s Charcoal and Black Sugar Mask. It’s less than $5 and contains not just detoxifying charcoal and kaolin clay but also has a blend of fruit acids which helps to gently exfoliate, just like Glamglow’s, except much less drying.


Aside from Freeman, there are other amazing charcoal masks out there: try the L’Oreal Pure Clay Detox Mask if you want another drugstore mask. If you’re into Korean beauty, the Elizavecca Milky Piggy Carbonated Bubble Clay Mask fizzes and bubbles on your face and makes your skin squeaky clean. Lastly, if you want something a little on the higher-end of the spectrum, the Origins Clear Improvement Active Charcoal Mask is an amazing mask you can find at Sephora, but still under $30 for 3.4 oz – that’s twice the size of the Glamglow 1.7 oz and less than half the price.

Biossance 100% Squalane Oil: $58.00

Biossance 100% Squalane Oil: $58.00 (3.3 oz)

Alternative – The Ordinary 100% Plant-Derived Squalane: $7.90 (30 ml)

Ah, squalane. Not to be confused with squalene, which got a bad rap for being molecularly unstable and particularly dangerous in vaccines, squalane is a naturally occurring fat-soluble antioxidant found in our skin that protects against environmental stressors. Cosmetic squalane is usually harvested from shark liver, as it isn’t as abundant in plants.

Using pure squalane oil helps to lock in moisture and hydrate skin, making it a perfect anti-aging oil when considering its antioxidant properties. The most popular squalane oil on the market, Biossance 100% Squalane Oil, is harvested from sugar cane. This supposedly makes it more precious than shark-derived squalane, as the collection process is much more tedious (I’m also assuming this is why the price tag is so steep). Other than that, I can’t justify almost $60 for a little over 3 oz of serum.

Alternative: The Ordinary’s Squalane is also 100% pure and derived from sustainable plant sources. The best part? It’s only $7.90 for 30 ml. I highly suggest you check out The Ordinary‘s other products, as everything is science-based and doesn’t rely on fluffy marketing ploys. This brand is honest, straightforward, and more than fairly-priced. I dig it.

If you want a squalene oil to throw into your Amazon basket, try out the Timeless 100% Pure Squalane. It’s made from olives and only $11.35 for 60ml.

Tatcha The Water Cream: $68.00

Tatcha The Water Cream (1.7 oz): $68.00 (1.7 oz)

Alternative – Make P:rem Hydrate me. Micro Tension Cream: $29.99 (2.19 oz)

People who like The Water Cream enjoy a lightweight but hydrating moisturizer. This kind of formula is a godsend for not just dry skin but oily skin as well since it provides proper moisture without feeling weighed down. It’s also a great moisturizer for sensitive skin since it contains soothing Japanese botanicals, which honestly just sounds like an expensive marketing ploy. Oh, and let’s not forget that it contains 24k gold.

Alternative: If you could care less about cute packaging and the idea that you’re slathering gold on your face, Make P:rem’s Hydrate Me Micro Tension Cream is another lightweight but deeply hydrating moisturizer that is less than half the price of Tatcha. It’s also suitable for sensitive skin since it’s paraben-free, dye-free, sulfate-free, phthalate-free, and formaldehyde-free. This formula also contains botanical extracts and antioxidants, so you get all the anti-aging and rejuvenating effects that The Water Cream would provide.

You can get it on Amazon or pick it up at your local Target.

Kopari Coconut Melt: $38.00

Kopari Coconut Melt: $38.00 (7 oz)

Parachute Naturalz 100% Organic Virgin Coconut Oil:  $8.99 (12 oz)

You’ve probably seen tons of Instagram influencers tote this multitasking “miracle product” around. It works as a facial moisturizer, makeup remover, body lotion, hair serum, cuticle softener, shaving oil and just about anything else. Sounds perfect, right? Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news: Kopari Melt is just virgin coconut oil in a cute frosted glass tub. You’re paying almost $40 for a jar of coconut oil dubbed as “coconut melt” that you can get at a health foods store. You can do better.

Alternative: It’s true, not all coconut oils are the same. If you want coconut oil that’s as high-quality as Kopari’s Coconut Melt, make sure to 1) get one in a glass jarnot a plastic jar (plastic chemicals can be absorbed into the oil – especially when warmed up during shipping, whether it’s to the store or to your house), 2) look for unrefined, cold-pressed and organic, 3) get one that is made in the Phillippines. A good option you can get on Amazon is Parachute Naturalz 100% Organic Virgin Coconut Oil. You can get 16 oz for just $8.99. Oh, and you can use it for cooking too.


If you’re looking for other options, Spectrum carries another great quality coconut oil that’s $6.99 for 14 oz. Supposedly Nutiva Organic Coconut Oil is the #1 internationally selling coconut oil as well, but just make sure to get the glass jar.

Son and Park Beauty Water: $30.00

Son and Park Beauty Water: $30.00 (11.49 oz)

Garnier SkinActive Micellar Cleansing Water: $6.49 (13.5 oz)

Micellar cleansing waters have broken new ground this year in the skincare industry: these gentle pH-balanced formulas are made of tiny oil molecules suspended in soft water, which helps to remove makeup without drying out the skin. The result? Balanced and cleansed skin.

You may have seen the most popular micellar waters like Son and Park Beauty Water ($30) or Bioderma Sensibio H2O Micelle Solution ($31.99) get tons of praise… but are they really worth it?

Alternative: I’m all for micellar waters and gentle cleansing methods, but Garnier’s SkinActive Micellar Cleansing Water gets the job done at a much cheaper price. A huge 13.5 oz bottle is only $6.49, and you can choose between the original formula, mattifying formula (for oily skin), or the formula for stubborn waterproof makeup.

SK-II Facial Treatment Essence Mist: $179.00

SK-II Facial Treatment Essence Mist: $179.00 (5.4 oz)

Missha Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence Intensive: $24.00 (5.4oz)

SK-II’s Facial Treatment Essence is one of the holy grail staples of Asian skincare – it’s like the Chanel of Japanese skincare. After using toner and before your serums and moisturizer, applying this essence will prepare your skin for the next step while refining your skin and making it brighter. Although it delivers incredible results thanks to it’s unique “Pitera” blend, an ingredient that apparently works voodoo and makes you look like you’re 12 again, it’s crazy that this small bottle is $21 short of $200.

Alternative: Missha Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence Intensive is a wildly popular comparable product for SK-II’s overpriced essence, and although it’s nowhere near expensive as SK-II, it doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. The First Treatment Essence contains 80% fermented yeast extract, which pretty much does the same magic as SK-II’s Pitera – it just doesn’t sound as nice. Let’s be honest, fermented yeast doesn’t exactly sound as alluring as Pitera.


Grab a bottle of Missha and just close your eyes as you apply it or turn the bottle so you can’t see the label – I mean, the bottle even looks the same. You seriously will not regret getting this miracle essence.

Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil: $105.00

Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Night Oil: $105.00 (1 oz)

The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalane: $6.70 (30 ml)

Retinol oils have taken wind in comparison to cream-based retinols, as oils are much more suitable for hydration and anti-aging purposes. Sunday Riley’s Luna Sleeping Night Oil is an ultra-popular oil that claims you will wake up with luminous skin overnight with smaller pores, less wrinkles and redness, and only smooth, bright skin.

Alternative: The Ordinary did it again with another incredible product at an incredible price. Their most popular retinol product, The Ordinary Retinol 1% in Squalane is a comparable retinol oil blend (that’s only $6.70) to Sunday Riley’s crazy expensive $100+ oil. And if 1% is too harsh for you, they have a retinol line featuring different percentages.

Peter Thomas Roth 8% Glycolic Solutions Toner: $40.00

Peter Thomas Roth 8% Glycolic Solutions Toner: $40.00 (5 oz)

Pixi SkinTreats Glow Tonic: $15.00 (3.4 oz)

If you have oily, congested or even acne-prone skin, glycolic acid toners are perfect for you. Glycolic toners are a 2-in-1 product that can reduce oiliness while gently exfoliating the skin with glycolic acid without overdrying. In fact, glycolic acid works well to reduce fine lines too.

Peter Thomas Roth is popular for their acid-based products, and their 8% Glycolic Solutions Toner is said to work miracles on all skin types.

Alternative: I personally feel that 8% is a bit too harsh to be used on a daily basis; however, most people will probably use it daily, leading to potential sensitivity and reactions. A safer and more affordable solution is Pixi SkinTreats Glow Tonic. At only $15, it does the same thing as Peter Thomas Roth’s and is much more gentle with a 5% glycolic acid formula.


Deesse Premium LED Mask: $450.00

Deesee Premium LED Mask: $450.00

Neutrogena Light Therapy Acne Mask: $25.00

Have you seen the Kardashians use these crazy masks on Snapchat? LED light therapy has been around for a long time now, but the technology is finally being brought home, making treatments much cheaper. LED lights have the ability to penetrate deeply into the dermis – red lights can stimulate collagen production, making it perfect for anti-aging benefits, while blue lights can destroy acne-causing bacteria.

These treatments do work – I used to do these treatments on my own clients (disclaimer: I’m a California licensed esthetician). However, it does take several sessions for it to prove effective long-term. Being able to do these treatments at home can save tons of money!

Deesee’s Korean LED mask normally goes for anywhere between $1,800 – $2,500 and is used by celebrity estheticians like Shani Darden. Although you can catch it on Amazon for $450, it’s still extremely overpriced for your average Jane (and FYI, you need a transformer to use it, since it’s from Korea).

Alternative: The Neutrogena Light Therapy Acne Mask is only $25.00 and does the job!  It truly does dry up acne after repeated usage.

FYI: Neutrogena was a little shady about this product, as it comes with an “Activator” which is really just a plug-in remote control with a power button. After 30 uses, it no longer works and you have to buy a new one. It’s a terrible business practice that results in more electronic waste, buuuut if you read the customer reviews you’ll see a few people learned how to solder it and make it work past 30 uses.

Creams and skincare products

Now that you’ve seen them all, what do you think? Would you pay full price for these luxury skincare products, or would you be willing to try out these affordable alternatives? Let me know in the comments and subscribe to my newsletter below for more affordable beauty. Don’t forget to follow me on Instagram!

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Pinterest graphic with expensive luxury beauty products sold at Sephora and affordable dupes



  1. / 7:58 pm

    Thanks girl! Will be trying quite a few.

  2. Montana
    / 8:47 pm

    Loved this! Will def be engaging in some of these Awesome dupes! Nivea has always been a staple for body lotion but fell off using it, But with this cold winter weather, will now go back to an old fav and look into grabbing the german version!

    • The Baller on a Budget
      / 3:24 pm

      Let me know how the German version works out!

  3. Kate
    / 1:53 pm

    Just came across this looking for a dupe for SKII. I didn’t want to like it so much, but when I got a sample in a Sephora box, I knew I’d have to get it or something like it!

    I’ve heard good things about the Missha FTE, but I ended up getting the Cosrx Galactomyces Whitening Power Essence.

    And since I always hear about the miracles of La Mer, I can’t wait to try the German Nivea…thanks for this article!

    • Kate
      / 1:55 pm

      Forgot to add that The Ordinary has a really reasonably priced Glycolic Toner as well…I think it’s only 7%, though. I’m really enjoying their Retinoid oil….seeing good things with it.

      • The Baller on a Budget
        / 6:23 pm

        Thanks for being a reader, Kate! I absolutely love Cosrx but if you want a really close dupe of SKII I highly recommend looking into the Missha FTE.

        Also, I love The Ordinary too! I just got a bunch of stuff from them in late December and have been testing them since then. I’ll be posting a review on several of their products hopefully by the end of February!

  4. Db
    / 3:04 am

    Sorry SK II is not from Korea it is a Japanese product

  5. Ayesha
    / 9:10 pm

    Good article.

    I have used the Pixie Glow Tonic – it’s really good. Their glycol serum is also really good, esp in combination with the toner. You make an excellent point that it is really not advisable to use super strong products on a daily basis – it might look good for a few days, but it makes skin too sensitive long term, and I think overuse of harsher products can make the dermis/top layer of skin too thin as well. I use the Glow Tonic toner may be once or twice a week, and micellar water toners on other days.

    I have used the SKII mask a few times, and it is really good – expensive but does what is promised. I tried the Missha Time Revolution Essence a while back, and it did not work for me – actually caused a bunch of small bumps/ spots on my face, that weren’t there before. I ended up giving the bottle away to a friend. After I stopped using it, those spots/ bumps also went away. However, no such issues with SK-II products. So I don’t think it works as a dupe for everyone – I was quite disappointed.

    I am south asian, with combination skin, prone to occasional breakouts – might get an occasional pimple every few months . As long as I wash my face and use a toner daily, I generally avoid breakouts – otherwise my skin is in very good shape. May be the Missha dupe works for people with dry skin, who don’t have to worry about clogging pores.

    • The Baller on a Budget
      / 10:06 am

      Hi Ayesha! It could be that since the Missha formula isn’t an exact match for the SKII one your skin may have had an intolerance to an ingredient, or maybe the formulation balance was not something your skin fancied.

      I do agree it’s not for everyone but it’s definitely worth a shot if people want to chance it to save a lot of money!

  6. Liza
    / 7:15 am

    Prem moisturizer in on Amazon for $57???? That’s insane. I rather buy the Tatcha for $68

    • The Baller on a Budget
      / 12:09 pm

      Hi Liza, the P:rem moisturizer I linked is actually at Target for $29.99. I don’t always suggest buying from Amazon as some items can have inflated prices depending on the seller.

  7. Candy Washburn
    / 8:08 pm

    I have been using Tatcha products and I m almost out of my essence. I am looking forward to trying the Missha essence that you recommend. Also going to look into the dupe you suggested for the Tatcha Water cream. Not sure about it but will try. I am a diehard Tatcha Fan…

  8. Myra
    / 11:45 am

    The Neutrogena acne light therapy mask has been discontinued. Johnson & Johnson did a voluntary recall due to some complaints of temporary vision issues using the mask. *sigh. I have been using acne light therapy mask for 5 yrs now and the neutrogena brand for 2 yrs. what would be a good dupe for this now that it’s no longer available? Thank you

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