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6 Ways to Shop Smart & Save on Personal Care & Beauty Products

Wandering the health and beauty aisles of a big box retailer in search of the perfect product can be a daunting task. You’re faced with hundreds of carefully branded lotions and potions, with prices ranging from very affordable to prohibitively expensive.

If you’re focused on getting products that are affordable, high quality, and healthy for your hair, skin, and body, the task is even harder. Fortunately, there are a number of strategies employable to help you save a few bucks while not compromising on the quality of the products you buy.

For specialty items (such as designer makeup), you likely need to visit a specialty store such as Ulta or Sephora. And you should probably prepare to pay accordingly. But for shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, shaving cream, lotion, facial moisturizer, body wash, and the other basics, a big box store, drug store, or major online retailer such as or should do the trick, even for products deemed healthy and natural – and there are plenty of ways to save.

1. Examine Ingredients

At first glance, it’s hard to know whether a $40 bottle of shampoo really is better than a $4 bottle. Therefore, the first rule of shopping for personal care products is to pay more attention to the back of the label than the front of the label.

According to Minneapolis CBS affiliate WCCO, hair care expert Linda Gearke says that it’s important to note the order of ingredients on a product bottle, not simply the ingredient list. Water is likely to make up a high percentage of many personal care products – up to 80% in shampoo and many cleansers, according to the Daily Mail. Focus on what’s in the remaining 20%. Higher concentrations of ingredients appear first, so if you’re hankering for a “Moroccan Oil Conditioner” but Moroccan oil is listed as the last ingredient, you’re not really getting what you paid for.

Gearke also says that every price point has both good and bad product options, so expensive doesn’t necessarily equal “good,” while cheap doesn’t necessarily equal “bad.” Ingredients trump all.

How to Evaluate Ingredient Lists

How you evaluate an ingredient label truly depends on what’s important to you. For example, if you have dry skin, you might look for a lotion with hydrating shea butter. If you have itchy, irritated skin, you might want one with soothing oatmeal.

If you’re looking for acne control, keep an eye out for ingredients such as salicylic acid. If you’re pregnant, avoid products containing retinol (a form of vitamin A), which studies have suggested can be harmful to unborn children. It’s helpful to first research active, effective ingredients in the type of product you want so you’ll know specifically what to look for on the label. Many personal care products have long lists of unpronounceable ingredients (such as panthenol), but that’s not necessarily a negative thing.

Here are some items that you should feel good about seeing on an ingredient list. You might see these in a wide variety of personal care products, including shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream, cleansers, lotions, and facial moisturizers.

  • Oils from nuts and seeds
  • Avocado and avocado oils
  • Oatmeal
  • Cocoa butter and shea butter
  • Fruit, nut, seed, and plant extracts

It’s also common to see the following perfectly safe ingredients:

  • Glycerin
  • Sodium citrate and citric acid
  • Vitamins, including vitamin E and the aforementioned panthenol (which is a form of vitamin B)

If you know how to evaluate an ingredient list, you can try to find the same ingredients found in high-end products in more affordable versions. If two products contain very similar ingredient lists – in a similar order – but one costs three times as much, you can bet that most of that superfluous expense is due to the company’s expenditures on marketing, advertising, and packaging. Save your money and go with the cheaper option.

Beware of Chemicals

The following is a list of ingredients that are common in personal care products but are also controversial, and you may want to avoid them:

  • Sulfates. Common in shampoo, body wash, and other cleansers, sulfates produce the lather that we all love. However, in the process, they can strip hair and skin of necessary oils and can be drying. According to Women’s Health, people with naturally curly, dry, or brittle hair should consider avoiding shampoos containing sulfates. The same goes for cleansers for people with sensitive skin. Fortunately, the recent consumer demand for sulfate-free shampoos and cleansers have coerced more manufacturers to produce sulfate-free shampoos and cleansers, and “sulfate-free” is no longer the realm of ultra-specialty (meaning ultra-expensive) items.
  • Phthalates and Parabens. Phthalates and parabens are extremely common in personal care products including shampoo, conditioner, body wash, shaving cream, and lotion. Phthalates and parabens are subject to quite a bit of controversy. According to The Washington Post, phthalates and parabens are endocrine disruptors and critics believe that they may interfere with hormone function. People who are particularly sensitive, including pregnant women and very young children, may want to consider avoiding products with phthalates and parabens to be on the safe side. Again, with increasing demand for products that avoid these ingredients, anyone can minimize or eliminate them from their personal care regimen with a little effort.
  • Synthetic Fragrances and Dyes. If your personal care product smells good or has a pleasant color, check the ingredient list to see what’s driving that visual and olfactory appeal. If plant, fruit, or flower extracts are used, the fragrance or dye is unlikely to be an irritant. If you have sensitive skin, you may want to avoid synthetic fragrances and dyes. You can also look for products that are labeled as “hypoallergenic,” meaning they are less likely to contain ingredients that commonly cause allergic reactions. Keep in mind that the term “hypoallergenic” isn’t regulated, so if you know that you have sensitivities to certain ingredients, it’s up to you to scrutinize the label.
  • Formaldehyde. Formaldehyde helps inhibit the growth of bacteria, and, thus, helps cosmetics and personal items have a longer shelf life. But according to the International Agency for Research on Carcinogens, formaldehyde is considered to be a human carcinogen (meaning a potential cancer-causing agent) and it’s a good idea to avoid it.
  • Propylene Glycol. Propylene glycol is extremely common in any product that is supposed to penetrate your skin or hair, such as conditioner, moisturizer, and sunscreen. It’s a penetrating agent, but it’s also an irritant and has been shown to cause hives and other skin irritations including dermatitis. If you have sensitive skin, skip products containing propylene glycol.

Remember, the term “natural” isn’t heavily regulated either, so just because you see “natural” on the label doesn’t mean the product is what you’re looking for. The term “organic” is regulated, so you can trust when a product lists organic ingredients – but just because a product calls itself organic doesn’t mean that every ingredient listed is organic. Plus, becoming certified as an organic company is prohibitively expensive for many companies and can significantly drive up prices for companies that do undergo certification.

Look Organic Ingredients

2. Know Where to Look

While studying ingredients is a good start, there’s more to smart shopping than scrutinizing a label. It also matters where you look in the store.

Retailers encourage impulse buying by placing the most expensive items at eye level on the store shelf, so you’re more likely to notice them first. You may have to squat down (or reach way up) to check out the cheaper options.

And don’t be fooled by fancy displays, especially those located on “end caps” (the short displays at the end of an aisle). According to a study published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, end cap displays give consumers the impression that the featured product is being offered at a special deal or discount, even if no such discount exists.

Items placed on “out of context” displays are also notoriously tricky to navigate. For example, there might be a random display of facial moisturizer with SPF next to the camping equipment. You might not have been shopping for facial moisturizer with SPF, but when you go to purchase a tent, the presence of the display could trigger the sudden thought that you might need that very product on your camping trip.

When the product isn’t in an aisle next to other brands, you aren’t able to compare prices and ingredient lists and make an informed decision. Ditto goes for those infamous check-out lane displays. Impulse buying is a surefire budget-killer.

If “natural” products are important to you and your retailer of choice has a “natural” aisle, that’s a great place to start – but don’t forget to check the mainstream aisles as well. You might be able to find a product that meets your criteria even if it’s not branded as natural or organic.

Know Where Look

3. Shop Online to Compare Prices

According to research conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, online shopping accounted for approximately 6.8% of retail sales in the first quarter of 2015, up significantly from 2.8% of sales during the first quarter of 2006. One of the reasons online shopping is becoming so popular is the convenience factor. Another compelling reason is that it allows you to quickly compare prices across multiple retailers from the comfort of your home.

If you find a product that interests you, check the websites of the top big box retailers (such as Target and Walmart), drug stores (such as Walgreens and CVS), and online retailers (such as and to compare prices and availability. If a retailer doesn’t publish a price online, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call in order to ask for a price check.

You don’t necessarily have to purchase your product online – and if you do, make sure to factor in the cost of shipping, which can be more expensive than the product itself in some cases – but at least starting online gives you an idea of what you can expect to pay. Shopping online also affords the opportunity to read reviews from other consumers, and many sites list ingredients so you can do a virtual “back of the label” check before you make a purchase.

Shop Online Compare Prices

4. Consider Private Label Products

One of the primary downsides of the online craze is that online retailers such as and don’t carry private label products. Private label products, also known as “store brand” or “generic” products, are produced and labeled under the store (or proprietary brand name) of the retailer. For example, Target carries private label products under the “Up & Up” brand name, and Costco carries private label products under the “Kirkland Signature” brand name. According to TIME, private label brands are often more like 30% cheaper than name brand equivalents at full price.

The labels of private label products often include a subtle nod to the products they intend to mimic. For example, a private label intensive moisturizing lotion might feature the language “compare to Vaseline Intensive Healing Cream” on the label.

While the term “generic” is often associated with lower quality, that’s not necessarily the case. This is one situation in which the back of the label check is crucial.

Grab a private label product and its corresponding name brand item. Again, turn them both around and read the ingredient lists. In many cases, the ingredient lists are nearly identical. Sometimes the ingredient lists are only different enough to avoid lawsuits stemming from infringement on the part of the private label brand.

In some cases, the same manufacturing facility actually makes both the private label version and the name brand version. According to the Private Label Manufacturers Association (PLMA), many large manufacturers of name brands use extra manufacturing capacity at their plants to manufacture and supply store brand versions. The branding might not be as pretty, but the functionality is comparable. And in any industry that’s regulated for safety and testing, the private label product is subject to the same scrutiny as the name brand product.

Why Private Label Products Are Often Cheaper

According to the PLMA, the main reason that store brands can afford to sell products for a lower price is that they typically spend much less on advertising dollars than the corresponding name brands. That’s because the private label brand is already wrapped up in the retailer’s brand, so incremental advertising dollars aren’t necessary.

The PLMA states that big name brand manufacturers set aside up to 25 cents of every dollar to “build brand equity” – in other words, for advertising. If the retailer doesn’t have to spend those 25 cents on advertising a private label product, it can opt to pass those savings along to the consumer.

Consumers are starting to notice that private label brands offer a similar user experience at a less expensive price. TIME found that 77% of all consumers report comparing private label brands and name brands before making a purchase.

Private Level Products Often Cheaper

5. Consider Alternatives

If you’re still not finding what you want within your price range, consider thinking outside the box – or, at least, outside the regular personal care aisles. You can find multipurpose oils and vinegars in the grocery department or household aisle that can pull double duty as haircare and skincare items.

Since these double-duty products aren’t necessarily branded, packaged, and advertised as beauty and personal care products, you as the consumer aren’t footing the bill for the supermodel spokeswoman and two-page advertising spread in the hottest fashion magazine. Here are several alternative options:

  • Coconut Oil is gaining traction as a multipurpose health and beauty item. It’s used as a makeup remover, moisturizer, shaving cream, deep conditioning hair treatment, and even facial cleanser. Best of all, coconut oil typically comes in a large package, commonly at least one pound of product per package. Since a little goes a long way, a two-pound container of coconut oil that costs $15 could last you a year.
  • Jojoba Oil has a strong reputation as a multipurpose moisturizer, serving many of the same functions as coconut oil. A four-ounce bottle of 100% pure jojoba oil costs around $14. Again, a little goes a long way – I’ve had a four-ounce bottle of jojoba oil for three months and I use it on my face every night.
  • Tea Tree Oil has some antibacterial qualities and may work (in small doses, diluted with oil such as almond, coconut, or jojoba) as an acne treatment and facial toner. A four-ounce bottle of 100% pure essential tea tree oil sells for around $13. You’re likely to dilute tea tree oil, so this four-ounce container could last you six months.
  • Apple Cider Vinegar can be used as a hair rinse that may add shine and volume. A 32-ounce bottle of raw, organic apple cider vinegar costs around $12, and even if you rinsed your hair with a full quarter cup at a time and use it twice per week, your bottle should last eight weeks.

Consider Finding Alternatives

6. Remember That Price Doesn’t Equal Quality

Fortunately for your wallet, some health, beauty, and personal care product categories are simply not worth splurging on. Here are two of the most frequently bought personal care product categories, both of which demonstrate that price doesn’t necessarily equal quality.

Shampoo and Conditioner

According to CBS News, an investigation with shampoo expert Paula Begoun revealed that testers couldn’t tell the difference between the results of a $4 bottle of shampoo and a $20 bottle of shampoo. Begoun says that consumers shouldn’t spend more than $6 on a bottle of shampoo or conditioner.

As someone with particularly challenging long, curly hair, I am skeptical, but open to the possibility that Begoun is correct. I currently have two bottles of shampoo in my shower: One is a $26 bottle reserved for days when I know I need a good hair day; the other is a $6 bottle that is good for everyday use.

Curious, I turned the bottles around to examine the ingredients. While the more expensive shampoo contains more fancy-sounding extracts (such as almond oil and argan stem cells), the primary ingredients are strikingly similar. And, yes, both ingredient lists start with water.

Here are several options that meet expert Begoun’s price criteria but also avoid some or all of the controversial ingredients described above (such as sulfates, parabens, and phthalates). Prices are according to

  • L’Oreal EverPure Moisture Shampoo: $5.60
  • Nature’s Gate Biotin Enriching Shampoo: $5.59
  • OGX Scalp Therapy Australian Tea Tree Shampoo: $5.79
  • Giovanni Direct Leave-In Weightless Moisture Conditioner: $5.29
  • Avalon Organics Conditioner, Thickening Biotin Complex: $6.19

Moisturizer and Facial Skin Creams

Moisturizer – especially facial moisturizer – is a product which many people assume a more expensive price equates to a higher quality product. However, this may not be true.

According to the Daily Mail, a 47-year-old woman spent a month using a $2 pot of Nivea face cream on one half of her face, and a $160 jar of famously luxurious Creme de la Mer face cream on the other half. At the end of the experiment she declared Nivea to be the unequivocal winner, having produced superior results. Celebrities including Kate Winslet and Joan Collins also claim to be devotees to Nivea.

According to Newsweek, while expensive moisturizers and facial skin creams might indeed feature exotic, expensive, and hard-to-find ingredients, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they work better. “If you want to pay so that when someone walks into your bathroom they see a $400 jar of face cream on your shelf, that’s what you’re paying for,” Dr. Vesna Petronic-Rosicassistant, professor of dermatology at the University of Chicago, tells Newsweek.

The dermatologists that Newsweek interviewed cited Oil of Olay, Nivea, and Cetaphil as all being reliable facial moisturizers available at reasonable prices.

Here are a few facial moisturizers that are both affordable (under $15) and contain natural ingredients. Prices are according to

  • EO Everyone Face, Moisturize: $7.99
  • Every Man Jack Face Lotion Daily Protection: $4.79
  • Derma E Refining Vitamin A Wrinkle Oil: $10.20

And here are a few hand and body moisturizers that are also affordable and contain natural ingredients:

  • Desert Essence Pure Jojoba Oil for Hair, Skin, and Scalp: $7.49
  • Vanicream Moisturizing Skin Cream: $5.29
  • Alba Botanical Very Emollient Body Lotion, Unscented: $7.39

Moisturizer Facial Skin Creams

Final Word

The health and beauty aisle can be an intimidating place, but it doesn’t have to be. By shopping around and paying attention to labels, you can uphold your high standards for quality without spending a fortune. New products are always being introduced to the market, so don’t be afraid to keep exploring until you find the products that work best for your skin, hair, and body needs.

What are your favorite affordable, safe personal care products?

Ellen Gans
Ellen Hunter Gans is a full-time writer who loves highbrow books, lowbrow TV, late afternoon sunshine, Oxford commas, adding to her "countries visited" list, and the three Cs: cabernet, coffee, and carbohydrates. She's also a fifteen-time marathon finisher and Ironman triathlete. Ellen lives with her awesome husband and adorable son.

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