Here’s Why I’m Swapping Out Some of My Drugstore Makeup Products

When it comes to makeup, I’m always trying to find a good deal.

This has a lot to do with the fact that I really enjoy wearing and experimenting with makeup — and go through so much of it so quickly — but it’s also because, when it comes down to it, I’m a Penny Hoarder at heart.

As such, I can’t stand to splurge on makeup I’m going to wear while going about my day-to-day activities and wash off at the end of the night. You know that metaphor about “money down the drain?”

Yeah, I feel like there’s some truth to that here.

So for my everyday makeup look, I prefer to stick to the inexpensive brands I can find at just about any drugstore or big box store.

I have my favorite, go-to brands and products. I’ve tested and tried my way through Target’s beauty aisles. I’ve found a foundation that doesn’t make me look too orange or too oily and a mascara that doesn’t clump — and I’ve been pretty loyal to them for a while.

But recently, I’ve started to wonder if those products are the best thing for me, and I don’t just mean in the “will they make my eyes pop and my lips stand out” sense.

I mean I’ve started to wonder what ingredients are being used in my favorite drugstore makeup. Are they harming me? Helping me? Are they doing damage to my skin or to my body? Will there be long-term repercussions if I keep using a chemical-filled mascara so close to my already-not-great-at-being-eyeballs eyeballs?

So I did what any person with mildly obsessive tendencies would do: I marched into the store, whipped out my smartphone and used the Think Dirty app to learn more about the ingredients in those drugstore makeup products.

Here’s what I found out.

The Think Dirty App

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The Think Dirty app was created so consumers could better understand what ingredients are in their favorite beauty, skin-care and personal products. It focuses on the chemical components and the potential health risks caused by frequent use.

Once you download the app to your smartphone (iOS or Android), you can scan the barcode of a beauty product and receive simple, straightforward information on the product and the ingredients in it. Plus, you can find suggestions on cleaner, better-for-you products of the same type.

The app uses a numeric rating scale from 0 to 10. Zero means a product uses “clean” ingredients that don’t have possibly negative health effects. Ten means a product is chock-full of nasty chemicals or other ingredients that could potentially have negative, long-term effects on a person.

Some products fall somewhere in the middle — in the 4 to 7 range — which means that while they’re not great for you, they’re not as harmful as other products on the market.

When using the Think Dirty app on your own, just keep in mind that a lower score is generally better.

If a product you’ve scanned has a high (or “dirty”) rating, the app will give suggestions for different, cleaner products to try. Most of the app’s suggestions are for all-natural brands — ones that are sometimes a bit of a splurge. And that’s where your personal preferences come in.

Do What Works for You

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Listen, I’m not here to tell you that you have to pay through the nose for high-end, chemical-free beauty products. To be honest, after going through this exercise, I may end up permanently changing only a few of the products in my daily routine.

Do I wish I could toss my entire lineup and start fresh with natural, good-for-me products? Yep. Do I have the budget to make that my reality right now? Nope.

But that’s OK. For now, it’s enough for me to be aware of what’s in these products and what I’m wearing on my skin every day. I’ll try to make a few swaps to edge out the products rated highly dirty, and over time I’ll try to incorporate more products that rate a little lower on the dirty scale.

(Also, I know that not all beauty products — especially inexpensive drugstore brands — work for all skin types or colors. Some people don’t have the luxury of being picky, and that’s a frustrating reality of makeup — although brands are getting better about catering to a wider market these days. Thank goodness!)

As long as you’re doing what’s best for you and your budget, that’s what matters; everyone’s middle ground will look a little bit different.

To get the lowdown on the products I’ve been using, I decided to start at the base of my makeup routine and work my way up.

Face Lotion

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I use a pretty simple moisturizer: Olay Complete Daily Moisturizer. This one is listed for $8.89 right now at Target, and each bottle lasts quite some time even with daily use. I like the way it makes my skin feel quenched without making it greasy — plus, it has SPF 15 built in. I’ve tried more than a few drugstore moisturizers, and this was by far my favorite.

So imagine my disappointment when I scanned the bottle just to see a big ol’ yellow 7 pop up. (The colors correspond to the ratings like a stoplight: Red for 8 to 10, yellow for 4 to 7 and green for a rating of 0 to 3. Remember, a low rating is a good rating here.)

The app gave me a few suggestions to try, although they all cost a bit more than I’m used to paying for a single product. But since this is the product I wear closest to my skin and most often, I may look into purchasing a lotion from one of those more natural brands. In the meantime, I may try a more middle-of-the-road option.

Drugstore brand I’d try instead: Burt’s Bees Intense Hydration Day Lotion, $10.29 at Target.

Think Dirty rating: 5


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For a while now, I’ve been a big fan of Maybelline’s Instant Age Rewind Primer. (It rates a 3 on the app.) But it’s been discontinued (or so it seems), so I’ve been on the hunt for a new primer.

Because I started shopping for a new primer after downloading the Think Dirty app, I used it to help guide my decision and landed on the NYX Studio Perfect primer in clear. I picked it up at Ulta for $12.99, which is sneaking up toward the top of my budget for a single product.

But I was already a big fan of NYX products, and with this one coming in at a 3 on the app as well, I was pretty excited to try it out.

So far, I have no complaints, so this one feels like a win.

Drugstore brand I’d try instead: For now, I’ll stick to the NYX Studio Perfect Primer, $12.99 at Ulta.

Think Dirty rating: 3


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I usually alternate whether I wear a BB cream or a full-coverage foundation. When I opt for full coverage, I use Maybelline’s Fit Me! Matte + Poreless foundation. You can get a bottle at Target for just $5.99, and it lasts me months. It’s buildable, meaning you can apply layers without getting an artificial look, and it keeps my skin’s oily tendencies in check while not drying it out.

This foundation has a rating of 7 on the app — not the worst, but not great, either — so I may try out another brand.

Drugstore brand I’d try instead: L’Oreal Paris True Match Naturale foundation, $11.99 at Ulta.

Think Dirty rating: 3


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I’ve used Maybelline’s Face Studio Master Conceal for a while, but I’m not very attached to it.

So when I saw it rated a 6 on the Think Dirty app, I wasn’t overly upset at the thought of ditching it.

While I do like the price tag ($6.69 at Target right now), if I’m weighing the questionable ingredients against my love for the formula, I’m pretty positive there’s a better option out there for me — one that surely has cleaner ingredients.

Drugstore brand I’d try instead: NYX Professional Makeup HD Concealer, $3.99 at Target

Think Dirty rating: 5 (I know it’s not much better than the Maybelline concealer’s 6, but it’s a step).


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At this point, I was starting to get a little nervous about the number of harmful ingredients I was putting on my face every single day — even though my budget prefers it. So imagine my giant sigh of relief when I found out the blush I use most often (e.l.f. Studio Blush) scored a beautifully low 3 on the app.

The best part? It costs only $3. Yeah, that’s one I’ll be keeping in rotation.

Drugstore brand I’d try instead: I’d stick to the e.l.f. Studio Blush, $3 at Target.

Think Dirty rating: 3


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For the past two years, I’ve been a diehard fan of L’Oreal Paris Voluminous Original Mascara ($5.79 at Target).

It scored an 8, which was enough to make me glance toward my eye-makeup remover (my favorite micellar water, which scored a 3. I checked).

Of all the beauty products I’m thinking about replacing with a brand that uses cleaner ingredients, mascara is at the top of the list. I have pretty sensitive eyes, and I’m already struggling a bit when it comes to vision, so I’d really rather not take any chances on harmful chemicals being so close to my eyeballs.

Drugstore brand I’d try instead: Organic Wear Physicians Formula mascara, $9.99 at Ulta.

Think Dirty rating: 3

Lip Balm

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I’m not a lipstick wearer. Try as a might, I just can’t make it a part of my daily routine. Instead, I like to use a tinted balm.

I’ve been using Neutrogena Revitalizing Lip Balm ($6.29 at Target), but since it’s a newer product, it hasn’t been added to the Think Dirty app’s database yet. Another lip balm from Neutrogena is rated a 1, though, so that gives me a bit of confidence. (Still, ratings vary so much even within brands.)

However, I’ve been eyeing the Burt’s Bees tinted balms the last few times I’ve taken a turn through the makeup aisles. I checked it out on the app and was excited to see it’s rated a 3, so I may have to pick up a tube when my current balm runs out.

Drugstore brand I’d try instead: Burt’s Bees Tinted Lip Balm, $4.79 at Target.

Think Dirty rating: 3

Be a Smart Shopper

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As with most of life, there’s a healthy balance in both spending and skin care.

If you like to splurge a little to keep your skin in tip-top condition, you go ahead and do you.

If you’d rather hang on to your go-to drugstore products for the sake of your wallet, that’s fine, too.

Somewhere in the middle are a few brands that try to make better-for-you, natural ingredients accessible to all — but even those can have their downsides. (I didn’t even get into which brands are vegan or cruelty-free here.)

That’s why it’s so important to do your own research and make decisions based on the information you find.

Unfortunately, as was the case with my lip balm, not all of your products will be registered in the Think Dirty app database yet.

You can submit your favorite products to be rated and reviewed, though, so if you’re dying to know how your favorite product will rate, go ahead and scan it and send it in!

Grace Schweizer is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.