Working out what your skin really needs to look and feel its best can be tricky but there are a few steps that skin experts are pretty unanimous on. Firstly, a good cleanser; think of this step as the foundation on which the rest of your routine is built. Secondly, an SPF; wearing sun protection is the one piece of skincare advice that I hear most from dermatologists advising on how to prevent everything from signs of ageing to pigmentation. Thirdly, moisturiser is vital for every skin type, from oily to dry, for repairing the skin's barrier and maintaining hydration levels. Finally, a serum, which is possibly one of my favourite steps in my skincare routine and one that Kate Moss's facialist told me is key to preventing early signs of ageing.
However, serums undoubtedly have a bit of a bad reputation for being costly. (For reference, my current favourite serum costs £116 for a mere 30ml of product.) So it's understandable that many people skip this step entirely and head straight for the moisturiser. But do you really have to pay upwards of £100 to find a serum that will deliver results? Turns out—no.
In fact, I've tried hundreds of serums over the years, and I'm confident that I can find you an affordable dupe for even the priciest of formulations.
Keep scrolling to shop seven of the best cheap serums that are just as good as their expensive counterparts in my eyes. Ideal if you're just venturing into the world of serums or simply don't fancy taking out a mortgage on a bottle of skincare.
The Drunk Elephant C-Firma Day Serum has definite cult status amongst beauty editors. So popular was this product when it first landed on British soil that it was pretty much impossible to get hold of—and I can see why. It's seriously good if you're looking for a serum that brightens, protects and evens skin tone.
However, coming in at less than half the price, it's the Lumene Glow Boost Essence that is my daily vitamin C serum of choice. While this serum is definitely not as active as the Drunk Elephant one (so it might make a better choice if your skin is sensitive or very reactive), my skin always looks instantly glowier when I've used this, and pigmentation left behind from old spots has definitely diminished over time.
I have been lucky enough to try the seriously spendy Dr. Barbara Sturm serum for myself, and, admittedly, it is really good. (I'd expect nothing less from one of VB's favourite facialists.) Its magic lies in the fact that it contains both long- and short-chain hyaluronic molecules to provide that instant moisture hit as well as more long-term hydration. Let's be real though—although the cost per wear might not be major if you're using it every day, hyaluronic acid is more of a weekly treatment for me, so I really can't justify a £200+ price tag.
Instead, I opt for this truly purse-friendly option from The Inkey List. Its a totally fuss-free, simple hyaluronic acid that helps to condition your skin and improve its ability to maintain moisture. Best of all, it really works.
Created by celebrity facialist Shani Darden, this retinol-infused serum has a long list of celebrity fans including Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Kim Kardashian West and Laura Harrier. Retinol is renowned for causing skin irritation, but this serum boasts a mild concentration that has all of the benefits—reducing sunspots, pigmentation and fine lines—with none of the downsides.
If I had to pick just one retinol serum to use though, I always recommend this affordable one from Indeed Labs. Again, this one has a gentle formulation thanks to a blend of retinol, retinol-like peptides and plant-based retinol so you get that lovely, even skin tone without any rashes or redness.
Another cult product from Drunk Elephant comes in the form of this glycolic acid serum, which, I'll admit, I wasn't entirely sold on when I first tried it. However, I've now found that a cocktail of this and the Drunk Elephant B-Hydra Intensive Serum (£44) is a match made in heaven for my skin. As mentioned, the star ingredient is glycolic acid—an alpha-hydroxy acid (or AHA) that works on the surface of the skin to exfoliate for a smoother and brighter finish.
And if it's that hit of radiance that you're after, then you really can't go wrong with The Ordinary's AHA serum, which costs a purse-friendly £7. Containing a whopping 30% AHA, you should definitely give this a patch test before smothering your whole face with it. However, I love the tingling effect—it really feels like its working—and I basically look like I have a whole new face after 10 minutes with this on.
Another AHA superhero comes in the form of mandelic acid, an often overlooked skincare ingredient that's naturally derived from almonds. It boasts antibacterial properties that are brilliant for treating acne as well as doing all the good stuff like reducing discolouration and accelerating cell turnover for plumper, healthier skin. I recommend the Allies of Skin serum to anyone dealing with regular breakouts as it does such an amazing job of clearing breakouts overnight while improving the health of your skin barrier.
Similarly, the Garden of Wisdom Mandelic Acid is incredible for exfoliating away dead skin cells, treating active breakouts and gently cleaning pores. I'm always so impressed with how much clearer and calmer my skin looks come morning with this–especially considering the £9 price tag.
If I could use only one acid on my face for the rest of my life it would be salicylic. Trust me—if you're blemish-prone, then it's your best friend. This one from Cosmedix contains a heft dose of the good stuff along with purifying tea tree oil and resurfacing retinol to diminish active breakouts, minimise the chances of them re-appearing and calm and soothe the skin.
Equally good though is this one from Nip + Fab that I discovered recently. Again, along with pore-unclogging salicylic acid, it has aloe vera to hydrate and calm the complexion and ginseng extract to regulate oil production for healthy, shine-free skin.
To me, using a La Mer Serum is more than just about what the product does for my skin—it's everything from the ritual of applying it to the luxurious packaging to the scent that I love. The brand's beloved serum is derived from marine peptides and plant stem cells to promote your skin's natural collagen production and reduce the signs of ageing and tiredness. Its effectively youthful skin in a bottle and it has legions of fans for good reason.
While the ingredient list of this £6 serum from The Ordinary really can't rival La Mer, it does contain a healthy dose of blue-green algae and skin-friendly marine bacteria for some of that same under-the-sea hydration benefits as the La Mer. If you're looking for a simple hydrating serum that will plump and smooth the surface, then it's a fantastically affordable option.