How to shop for skincare on the high street

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In need of new routine but overwhelmed by the options, Rebecca Schiller spoke to skincare expert Dr Anjali Mahto for her no-BS guide to the best moisturisers, cleansers and serums on a budget

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By Rebecca Schiller on

I am a recovering skincare dunce. I’ve survived until now thanks to a slather of random moisturisers, reasonable genes and not caring too much. But today, my skin is starting to look dry. I’m wearing more make-up to camouflage redness and, though I am trying to embrace the normal signs of heading towards 40, I’d quite like to plot a course towards Helen Mirren rather than Cruella de Vil.

I need to do something different, but the beauty world is littered with long words and acronyms that seem deliberately opaque. I just want no-bullshit advice I can understand on products that will work on my skin and don’t require a second mortgage.

Enter Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and author of The Skincare Bible – a no-nonsense guide to all things skin. Mahto writes from experience at both ends of the spectrum: as a doctor and as someone with severe acne who knows what it’s like to be drawn into a skincare industry that can,“prey on our vulnerabilities”.

In her expert opinion, many products and much-hyped ingredients are cleverly marketed nonsense, “there to impress, baffle and mislead in equal measures as you hand over your money”. While she knows there are plenty of trustworthy brands out there – she cites La Roche-Posay, Avene, The Ordinary, Simple, Kalme and Superfacialist as excellent examples – and that good quality products are available from high-street retailers like Boots, Superdrug and online (Mahto recommends, it can be hard to cut through the confusion to actually find them. This is where she comes in.

Mahto translates skincare jargon (What is the point of a serum? Is preservative-free a good thing? Is a humectant something out of a zombie movie?) and holds our hands through working out tailored skincare routines and finding solutions to common problems such as acne and scarring.

Thanks to her advice, as someone with rosacea-prone skin, I’ve now adopted a regime tailored to this: no fragrances, maximum use of SPFs and fewer products, not more. I’m a convert to The Ordinary’s Hyaluronic and Azeliac acid, the complete anti-redness range (including a genius concealer) from Kalme and La Roche-Posay’s Toleriane products, topped up with Superdrug’s Vitamin E Intense Moisture Cream – a steal at £2.99.

While Mahto recommends always getting an expert consultation with a dermatologist for serious skin problems or skin that you feel is impacting your mental health, she has shared her foolproof for tips for avoiding common skincare-shopping pitfalls and finding effective products on a high-street budget.

Dr Anjali Mahto’s Affordable Skincare Cheat Sheet:


Top up DRY skin up with vitamin E 

Avoid unnecessary exfoliation, instead cleansing gently with a cream cleanser such as La Roche-Posay Effaclar H Hydrating Cleansing Cream. Look for rich moisturisers with ingredients such as glycerin/glycerol and serums with vitamin E and hyaluronic acid such as The Ordinary's Hyaluronic Acid.


Avoid fragrance If your SKin is sensitive 

Stay away from fragrances, be suspicious of “natural” or “preservative-free” products as many use high concentrations of fragrances, search for products marked “non-comedogenic”, steer clear of AHAs, sodium and ammonium laurel sulphate, salicylic acid, and simplify your skincare regime. Simple is your go-to brand, try Simple Water Boost Skin Quench Sleeping Cream.


salicylic acid will help to clear spots

Avoid facial oils and rich creams, find “non-comedogenic” products, look for ingredients such as salicylic acid (try Boots, Super Facialist Salicylic Acid Purifying Cleansing Wash), zinc, tea tree oil and retinol. Consider serums with vitamin C and niacinamide like The Ordinary, Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%.


azelaic acid will help to calm redness

Follow the sensitive skin advice, use a mineral-based SPF every day of the year, look for products with azelaic acid (The Ordinary’s Azelaic Acid, £5.50) and consider adding fermented foods or probiotic supplements to your diet.


retinol is great for smoothing skin

Use SPF daily, as long-term sun damage is the most significant factor in skin ageing. To minimise pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles choose products with retinol (minimum 0.1% concentration), antioxidant serums (with vitamin C, ferulic acid and resveratrol) and botanicals. Try B. Nourished Advanced Serum.


Always use an SPF

Everyone needs a broad-spectrum facial SPF every day. It needs to be at least factor 15-30, depending on how fair you are, and do reapply at lunchtime if you are outside a lot. Try KALME Day Defence Cream+ SPF30.

Read the ingredients

As with foodstuffs, skincare ingredients are listed in descending order of concentration. Always check out the first three to five ingredients listed when investigating a new product as these will be of highest concentration.

Dodge miracle claims

Beware of faddy products claiming miracle results. The Facts About is a great source of factual and science-based information about skincare.


The Skincare Bible: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Great Skin by Dr Anjali Mahto is published by Penguin Life, £14.99

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