Pinch Hitters: 7 Under-the-Radar Skincare Products to Try in Place of Your Go-Tos

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One of my earliest memories is washing my face with Noxzema. I couldn’t have been more than eight years old at the time. Now, 15 years later, I still vividly remember scooping out globs of thick white cream to put on my unblemished skin and the tingling sensation that soon followed. My skin was never really the same again. Over the years, when I think about the time and money I’ve sacrificed trying to regain the dewy, “I woke up like this” complexion that I had so carelessly abandoned in an attempt to grow up faster, I feel the absurdity of it all. And yet, along the way I have learned how to identify—through lots of trial and error—the duds from the keepers. This isn’t to say that I’m an expert or an armchair dermatologist with all the answers; rather, I’m a combination skin, acne- and acne marks-sufferer who has dealt with problem skin for a good portion of my life, who knows how important it is to feel comfortable in your own skin. So it’s with that in mind that I recommend these seven products, all of which I have incorporated in my skin regimen at one point or another, and so can attest to their efficiency and results—at least for me. Bonus: These products are far more affordable than other, similar, and frequently touted products. And while obviously, all of this is subjective to your own skin issues, but if you have problem skin like I do, then I’m pretty sure these products will help.

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Aztec Healing Clay
Swap out: Origins Active Charcoal Mask
Find at: Whole Foods

When it comes to finding an affordable face mask, Origins fits the bill nicely budget-wise, but I’ve found the results to be mediocre (see also: Boscia). Once applied, it effectively tightens the pores, but the end results are underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, my face looked and felt clean afterward, but in more of a I-just-washed-my-face-before-applying-this-mask way, rather than because it had “draw[n] out deep-dwelling pore-cloggers” as Origins claims. It just isn’t worth the buy. Instead, if you are willing to put in a little work and want to see what your skin will really look like without blackheads, then Aztec Healing Clay is the best fit. Sure, once applied, it will feel like the life itself is being sucked out of you, but that’s because it’s pulling out all the impurities—those dreaded blackheads buried in your pores. It’s reminiscent of what it felt like to pull the blackhead strip off your nose back in the early 2000s, when that method was at its peak. The only negative with Aztec Healing Clay is that it will dry you out. So, depending on your skin type, it’s better to use it once a week or once every two weeks with a moisturizer. I do it once a week with coconut oil as my moisturizer, and only mix the powder with water but if you’re gung-ho on using activated charcoal in your mask (a la the Origins mask), then try combining the clay powder with activated charcoal powder for a mask that will brighten your face and remove all impurities from your pores. Plus, not only is this stuff cheap, it comes in a big enough jar that it will last you a year.

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Dr. Alkaitis Organic Purifying Facial Cleanser
Swap out: Lush Ultrabland Cleanser
Find at: At Wilderness

I use to be a Lusher (Lush-lover) before using the Ultrabland Cleanser. From the recommendation of everyone in the store and the rave reviews on the company’s website saying how coveted it is by Lush staffers, I thought it would be a great alternative to the black soap I had been using, which had been too harsh for my face (and my newly pierced nose). So I took the bait, only to find out that the name matched the results to a T. Lush says to replace everything—even your makeup remover—with Ultrabland so you can see how evenly toned your skin will look after a few weeks. While, admittedly, my face had never felt more moisturized, I soon found that my layer of moisture was resting over a layer of dirt. And let me make this clear: I wanted this to work. I really did. Not only because I spent money on it but because I’ve been buying Lush products for the last two years and was really into them. So I used it in the shower where hopefully the steam from the shower would help activate some hidden step that maybe I wasn’t unlocking with just a warm, damp cloth. I held out like most of us do when we have suffered from acne and hyperpigmentation for years. We become extremely optimistic about any and every product that says it will help the grocery list of problems from which we suffer, even when the product fails to deliver time and time again. And that is what happened with me and Lush. We had history. We had a bond. So I held out. Until, that is, the cystic pimples from not properly washing my face for weeks started forming. Luckily, at the time, I was doing a story about At Wilderness, a luxury apothecary and gift shop in Boerum Hill, and the owner Lori Labedz, who had been an esthetician at Great Jones Spa, gave me samples of the Dr. Alkaitis Organic Purifying Facial Cleanser. Within a week and a half of using it, my face was back under control (including erasing the damage that the black soap had done prior to all this). And since Dr. Alkaitis is an organic skin line (i.e.: safe enough to ingest but don’t), I felt comfortable enough to use it around my piercing, at which point I started noticing that it was finally healing properly too. This is the priciest item I’ll recommend, but a dime size of this product will go a long way. And it’s worth it.

 

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Thayers Rose Petal Witch Hazel Toner
Swap out: Murad Hydrating Toner
Find at: Various Locations

You know what doesn’t get talked about enough? Toners. This is so unfortunate because besides removing excess dirt you might of missed from your wash and closing your pores, toners will help restore your skin’s pH balance. So if you have oily, dry, or combination skin this can be the one thing between you and having that “normal” skin type we all pine for. Basically, whether in mist form or applied by cotton ball, toners are your best friend. Your winter glow up would be nothing without them—particularly those from Thayers. While I don’t have any unkind words for Murad or their hydrating toner, switching to Thayers Rose Petal Witch Hazel Toner was the best thing I could’ve done for my face. And if I had to choose one thing to keep in my skin regimen from this entire list, it would be the toner. A few months back, I had been dabbing plain witch hazel on freshly popped pimples (a bad habit that I’m prone to do), and realizing that whenever I did this, my skin in that particular area looked more even and toned. So I did some digging and stumbled upon Thayers and instantly fell in love with the rose petal witch hazel toner. Super low-maintenance, a quick application of the toner between cleansing my face and moisturizing was all it took to permanently step up to my A-game.

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Naturopathica’s Sweet Cherry Brightening Enzyme Peel
Swap out: Palmer’s Cocoa Butter Formula With Vitamin E
Find at: Naturopathica

Post-inflammatory hyper pigmentation aka acne marks also commonly known as acne scars (even though that’s not exactly what they are) stress me out more than acne itself. Mainly, this is because, even when the whiteheads and cystic pimples are gone (or rather are dormant), the marks continue to linger. I’ve had some acne marks longer than most of my friendships, a reality that is both amusing and depressing. And despite my incessant desire to sever ties with these unwelcome face guests, I must confess that I haven’t been persistent about getting rid of them. I did microdermabrasion for two months and was somewhat satisfied with the progress but $143+ for each treatment was a bit too much for me to be paying twice a month for four months. (In hindsight, the amount of money I’ve spent since then trying to remedy all my skin issues probably would’ve equated to these treatments but I try not to think about that.) I would later switch to cocoa butter because, well, who hasn’t been told about the magical healing powers of cocoa butter when it comes to moisturizing and lightening up marks–stretch marks, acne marks, you name it. But, mostly, I bought it because it was so cheap, which has been a major selling point in my spending habits. So to say that I was a bit hesitant when At Wildnerness’s Labedz recommended I try Naturopathica would be a major understatement. Naturopathica’s Sweet Cherry Brightening Enzyme Peel is a delicious-smelling cherry purée mask that claims it will brighten and even out your skin, but if you’re a cocoa butter enthusiast, like me… well, spending $56 a jar is going to be a tough switch. And while in normal circumstances I would say stick with that $3 cocoa butter stick, if you’re looking for quick, effective results and want to see a holistic change in your skin, rather than just a spot treatment, then you kind of have to make the switch. Unfortunately, healthy skin comes at a price, and usually it’s a double digit number. Also, I got my mom this–she’s suffered from two stubborn acne marks for the past few years–along with other Naturopathica products and she absolutely loves it.

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Frank Body Original Body Scrub
Swap out: Neutrogena Deep Clean Gentle Scrub
Find at: Frank Body

I’m not sure which is messier: The possible Kardashian-Tyga-Blac Chyna family tree or Frank Body scrub. Probably Frank Body, which is really the only negative thing I can say about it. So if you plan on using Frank Body, make sure you’re prepared for it to get everywhere, which is ok, actually, since you will want to slather this all over your face and body. So get rid of that boring, basic Neutrogena scrub (which continues to use microbeads as an exfoliant even though they’re known to pollute the water system and which are basically illegal since President Obama approved a bill to ban products that use the ingredient)! In its stead, swap in Frank Body scrub; with ground coffee beans as the main ingredient, the scrub works to remove that layer of dead skin cells that we all carry around with us since we all exist. And to exist means to have impurities and imperfections, things like dry and flaky skin, cellulite, stretch marks, eczema, and psoriasis. Frank’s Body also gives an intense boost of hydration when you rinse and dry off, like, the kind of hydration that’s unexpected since scrubs usually have a way of sucking out all the moisture, leaving  skin feeling raw and exposed. All of which is to say: Finding a brand of exfoliant that not only brightened my complexion but also nourished my skin felt amazing. And it’s good for the environment! Win-win.

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Life Flo Pure Almond Oil
Swap out: Your current facial cleansing routine
Find at: Downtown Natural Market

What’s the first thing you think of when you brush your finger (make sure it’s clean!) across your cheek? If it’s not “supple” or “smooth” than you should reconsider your current cleansing routine. I’ve been doing the oil cleansing method for the past month and a half, and not only have my breakouts subsided–I’m talking no new cystic pimples to replace the old ones each week–but my skin has a downright supple feel and dewy look to it again. And it’s all thanks to oil cleansing. I choose to cleanse and moisturize with a dime-size amount of almond oil but argan oil is another option to help promote healing and balancing for your skin. And while a month might be too soon for me to suggest that oil cleansing is a magical cure-all to my—or your—skin needs, I can’t deny that my skin has never looked this healthy. Like, healthy to the point where I am comfortable leaving the house without makeup—which for an acne sufferer, is a big deal. Makeup has always been a crutch for me, so to say that I finally feel comfortable in my skin is a beautiful thing. Will I stop wearing makeup? No. But for the first time I realize that I don’t need it. When researching before testing this method, I noticed that some people are against using oil because of breakouts. And while not everything is for everyone, a lot of people who had these bad experiences were using coconut oil, which I wouldn’t recommended based on it’s high comedogenic rating. And while I do moisturize my body with coconut oil, I found it to be too heavy on my pores; it had a definite tendency to clog them. Another factor to take into consideration is that changing my sheets every week and cleaning my face with a new cloth each time was essential for this method’s success. (Fact: Oil can start to collect on your pillow cases.)

Side note: Ever realize that one side of your face is more prone to breakouts than the other? And did you then notice that it also happens to be the same side on which you tend to sleep? If so, try switching your pillow cases more often. Our bodies can be a cesspool for bacteria and when you lay down in your bed, showered or straight from the streets, you’re tracking that dirt on your pillows and then sleeping in it. Even if you choose not to clean your face with oil, switching out your sheets more regularly will do wonders for your skin.

 

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Alba Botanica Sea Moss Moisturizer
Swap out: The SPF in your makeup
Find at: Flatbush Food Co-Op

That you should be wearing sunscreen should go without saying; if you happen to suffer from hyperpigmentation and you’re not using a form of sunscreen then you’re not living right. Nothing can do more long-term damage to your skin than sun exposure, which—in addition to sun burns—is responsible for premature signs of aging, dark spots, and, of course, skin cancer. And while it might seem like an annoying step to add to your routine, it’s really worth it. But before you get caught up in the SPF 100 hype, know that SPFs higher than 15 and 30 only protect the skin from the ultraviolet radiation by a slight margin, so there’s no need to get carried away. While there are plenty of good options on the market, Alba Botanica makes one of the few non-greasy ones that I feel secure about protecting my skin all day. Plus: Throughout the day I gets whiffs of the fresh, sea water-esque fragrance that really distinguishes this sunscreen moisturizer from the rest. And the fact that it hydrates while also protecting my skin from the sun just makes it that much better.

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