If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then some products in the drugstore are downright sycophantic. Alongside best-selling lotions, shampoos, and scrubs sit eerily similar lotions, shampoos, and scrubs. They’re often packaged in bottles that resemble their neighbors in shape, name, and claims — for as little as half the price. You don’t hear much about these generic competitors, but an enormous amount of thought goes into their creation. “Drugstores will often identify the market leaders and then do their best to duplicate those products for less,” says cosmetic chemist Jim Hammer.
While the term “generic” used to be regarded as pejorative, that’s changing fast. “In the past five years, we’ve seen real improvement in the quality and performance of these lines,” says cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson. “Chemists now spend a lot of time breaking down the original formulas, sourcing the same raw ingredients, and reformulating them.” In fact, in many cases, there may be very little difference between a generic and its muse. “There are no rules against making an exact copy, as long as the technology isn’t patented,” says Robinson, founder of beautystat.com.
That said, some products are harder than others to replicate. The active ingredients in anti-agers may be patented, which means “generic anti-aging versions sometimes need to find different ingredients to deliver similar results,” says Robinson — and performance may suffer as a result. “The only real way to know if they’ve succeeded is to try them for a few weeks and see,” he says. This actually is an option: Most stores that sell generics will refund any product within a month (yes, even if you’ve used half the jar).
And lately, many stores are stepping up their offerings by creating so-called private-label brands — often with well-known experts — that cost a little extra. And though, like generics, these lines are exclusive to a particular store, the store’s name is usually downplayed on the packaging, or even omitted.
We asked dermatologists, cosmetic chemists, makeup artists, and hairstylists to test bags and bags of store-brand and private-label products to find the ones that truly stand out.
Ulta has its own comprehensive line of makeup and skin-, hair-, and body-care products. (There are more than 110 shades of lipstick alone in Ulta’s generic range.) There are also free makeovers.
Ulta Cheek Color, $6.50. “Every shade in this range works,” says makeup artist Troy Surratt. “None of them are too bold — it’s a goofproof assortment.”
Ulta Eye Shadow in Sandstone, $6.50. Surratt was able to find something close to his favorite Shu Uemura eye shadow (Me Gold) in this collection. “All of the shadows have a silky texture and blend beautifully,” he says, “but Sandstone just looks great on everybody.”
Ulta Illuminating Foundation, $12.50. “This oil-free formulation gives just enough coverage to even out the skin while still hydrating,” says Surratt.
Ulta Daily Moisturizer Face Glow, $6.99. “This lotion feels lightweight, has a pleasant fragrance, and gives a subtle bronzing effect that can be intensified over several days of use,” says Hammer.
Ulta Color Restoring Glaze, $9.99. “This deposits just enough dye to intensify your hair color, then coats the strands with silicone to add shine and seal the cuticle,” says Hammer. The colored versions will make hair brighter, while the clear one adds shine.
This discount megastore is the world’s largest retailer — but it’s not just a place to stock up on laundry detergent and paper towels. Its line, Equate, offers great hair, bath and body, and skin-care options.
Equate Healthy Glow Daily Moisturizer, $4.54. “Because self-tanners all use the same tan-developing ingredients, expensive ones don’t necessarily give better color,” says dermatologist Heidi A. Waldorf. This gradual one left us with a natural-looking golden glow after just two days.
Equate Deep Moisture Body Wash, $3.23. “The high concentration of glycerin in this formulation leaves skin feeling soft,” says Robinson. We also love the thick, creamy texture and the clean scent.
Equate Daily Regenerating Cleanser, $4.28. Robinson likes this cleanser’s one-two punch: Small beads slough away dead skin, while salicylic acid accelerates cell turnover.
Equate Fortifying Shampoo for Color-Treated or Highlighted Hair, $1.97. “With vitamin B6, fruit acids, and niacin, this shampoo replenishes nutrients lost due to heat damage,” says Robinson.
Equate Face Lotion SPF 15, $6.82. “A generous dab of this lightweight lotion in the morning will protect skin from incidental sun damage,” says dermatologist Doris Day. “It also has vitamin A and glycolic acid, which gently exfoliaes the skin,” Robinson adds.
Walgreens offers some of the best deals around: There’s a private label called Studio 35 that has makeup tools, plus a generic skin-care line packed with incredibly cheap basics (many items actually cost less than a dollar).
Walgreens Cocoa Butter Moisturizing Cream, 99 cents. Body butters may come in a variety of packages and prices, but Hammer says that most contain the same ingredient — cocoa butter — at very similar concentrations. “It’s a rich, fatty emollient that helps seal in moisture without leaving the skin feeling greasy,” he says. “This should hydrate dry skin just as effectively as the more expensive versions.”
Walgreens Gentle Skin Cleanser, $7.99. “I would recommend this to my patients with normal to dry skin,” says Day. “The milky formulation lathers well, washes away dirt and makeup, and leaves skin feeling soft.”
Walgreens Complete Moisture Dry Skin Lotion, 99 cents. “The glycerin and petrolatum in this formula will help lock in moisture and keep your skin feeling hydrated,” says Waldorf of this light, cucumber-and-melon-scented body lotion.
Walgreens Skin Essentials 3 Step Acne System, $12.99. With a cleanser, toner, and moisturizer, this set includes one of the best topical ingredients shown to clear and prevent breakouts: benzoyl peroxide. “Plus, the concentration is high enough that someone with normal to oily skin will see results,” says Day.
Rite Aid’s selection of generics is huge — and hugely popular. (Every day, it sells 7,200 generic skin-care products alone.)
Rite Aid Advanced Wrinkle Corrector, $9.99. “A film-forming polymer helps tighten the skin temporarily, while microscopic balls of nylon fill in creases so they’re less visible,” says Hammer.
Rite Aid Aloe Enriched Lotion, $1.99. “A lotion with high concentrations of aloe, like this one, will cool the skin and help with inflammation,” says Day.
Rite Aid Oatmeal Bath Treatment, $4.49. Day recommends a packet of colloidal oatmeal like this one in a warm (not hot) bath to soothe sensitive, irritated skin.
Rx Suncare Faces Sunblock SPF 50, $8.29. “I love this,” says Hammer of the antioxidant-packed formula created by the sun line Ocean Potion. “It goes on smoothly and disappears quickly, without leaving the skin feeling greasy at all.”
With CVS’s own line and numerous exclusive skin-care and makeup collections, the store clearly aims to offer something for everyone.
CVS Radiant Eye Treatment, $22.99. “This cream is loaded with beneficial ingredients,” says Hammer. “Glycerin hydrates, two polymers work together to fill in wrinkles, and a bioflavonoid improves circulation and minimizes dark circles.”
CVS Oil-Free Acne Cleanser, $4.29. “This daily wash contains 2 percent salicylic acid to keep skin clear, and aloe and chamomile to soothe,” says Robinson.
CVS Pore Cleansing Scrub, $8.49. Its lather will remove dirt and makeup, “while the salicylic acid in the formula should help to minimize the appearance of pores over time,” says Waldorf.
CVS Skin Relief Body Wash, $5.99. “The ingredients in this product look like the Aveeno Skin Relief Body Wash, right down to the natural colloidal oatmeal,” says Waldorf, who suggests trying it on dry, itchy skin in place of soap.
It’s easy to be seduced by the 200-plus fragrance, makeup, hair, nail, and skin-care lines on the shelves, but there are real bargains in Sephora’s own line.
Sephora Long Lasting Metallic Eyeliner, $10. Liquid liners are notoriously difficult to apply, but makeup artist Susan Giordano says that this one (which she says resembles a discontinued liner from Estée Lauder) has a felt-tip applicator that makes it easy to use, and the formula dries quickly.
Sephora Blush Me! in Meringue Jalouse, $12. Every now and then, makeup artists stumble across a shade of blush that will flatter (pretty much) everyone who tries it. “Meringue Jalouse is one of those colors,” says Giordano.
Sephora Colorful Eye Shadow Palette in Taupe Model, $24. After testing hundreds of shadows, Giordano fell in love with this palette of shimmery and matte neutral powders: “The shadows blend really well and suit everyone, and the mix of matte shades with pearly ones makes these flattering colors a little more exciting.”
Sephora Blush Me! Trio, $15. “These palettes remind me of the Bobbi Brown Shimmer Bricks,” says Giordano, who loves the Rose shade. “Just swirl the colors together and sweep them on your cheeks — they give the face a gorgeous glow.”
Sephora Matifying Compact Foundation, $20. Giordano usually doesn’t like pressed-powder foundations: “They tend to look opaque and dry on the skin. But this formula feels light, looks sheer, and evens out the skin tone beautifully.”
This shop for pros is packed with private-label brands, including Beyond Belief skin care, Femme Couture makeup, and both Beyond the Zone and Ion for hair.
Beyond Belief ABH Intensive Repair Serum, $7.99. “This serum contains significant levels of alpha and beta hydroxy acids, so it should help to smooth, clarify, and even out skin tone,” says Robinson.
Beyond the Zone Noodle Head Curling Creme, $7.99. “It has a flexible polymer that forms a film along the hair to attract adjacent strands and create a lasting curl,” says Robinson.
Femme Couture Mineral Effects Pressed Make Up, $12.99. “This comes in a wider variety of shades than some of the more expensive brands I’ve seen,” says Surratt.
Ion Shaping Plus Styling Spray, $2.49. “This holds but still leaves hair touchable,” says hairstylist Garren.
Femme Couture Flawless Touch Brightening Corrective Pen, $8.99. “This lightweight concealer is a wink and nod to YSL Touche Éclat,” says Surratt.
Although it may be easy to rush past the beauty section in search of Target’s latest designer fashion collection, it’s worth slowing down and taking in the sights. Target has its own brand with more than 150 products — each under $5; a body-and skin-care line, Soap & Glory, created by Bliss founder Marcia Kilgore; and hair products from Beverly Hills stylist Umberto Savone.
Target Eye Makeup Remover, $4.22. “One cotton pad soaked with this liquid removed my mascara without leaving any greasy residue behind,” says Giordano.
Target Non-Irritating Skin Cleanser, $3.99. “This is a good, basic cleanser that is most suitable for people with dry skin,” says Day. “And I also love that it’s fragrance-free but still smells so fresh.”
Umberto Beverly Hills Volumizer Thickening Spray, $8.99. A few squirts will add volume to fine hair and help define curls, says Garren. And according to Robinson, it contains film-forming polymers similar to those found in pricier styling products that will add fullness and hold.
Target Age-Defying Cleansing Towelettes, $4.29. Stash this packet of soft, moist towelettes in your gym bag. “These are perfect for taking off makeup before your workout and then refreshing sweaty skin afterward,” Day says. “And since they have softening ingredients like vitamin E, they won’t dry out skin.”