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Today, I thought I'd do something a little different and put 4 affordable active-ingredients focused skincare brands head-to-head in a number of categories to see who comes out on top! Most of these brands have basic products like cleansers and moisturisers, but today we're focusing on ingredients and products that give results, which is also why I've not included some of the other affordable skincare brands on the market in this post. I really wanted to hone in on which brand comes out on top when it comes to getting visible improvements in your skin on a budget. Let's get into it...


The categories I'm going to be scoring each brand against the following categories, giving the a number of stars out of 5:

1. Product range (this is weighted more heavily, so each star in this category will be converted to x2) - how extensive is their offering? Do they have an innovative or unique ingredients in the market?

2. Packaging - does the packaging do what it needs to do for the ingredients inside? Is it accessible and easy to use, or could it present problems for those with fine motor problems? Does it feel cheap or premium? Is it travel-friendly? Is it sustainable and recyclable?

3. Efficacy (this is weighted more heavily, so each star in this category will be converted to x4) - again: it's what it says on the tin. Did the products I tried from the brand in question deliver the benefits they promised?

4. Application and experience (this is weighted more heavily, so each star in this category will be converted to x2)  - how do the textures feel on the skin? Are they thick and heavy? Do they pill up? Or, are they nice to apply and do they sit well under makeup? 

5. Pricing - this is pretty self-explanatory; which product range offers the best value for money?

6. Education - what does the brand do to educate users about their products? How accessible are they for questions? 

7. Accessibility and customer service - are at least some of their products available in Boots and Superdrug or do I need to order online? If so, where do they ship to and from? Are they easy to deal with from a customer service perspective?

8. Controversies and social media - how does the brand conduct themselves online? Have they been embroiled in any controversies?


First up, we'll take on the OG Deciem brand: the Ordinary...

1. Product range

In all honesty; there's not much the Ordinary don't stock, so I have to give them full marks in this category. Any ingredient or type of ingredient you'd like to try is probably within the Ordinary's product range. I find myself more often than not specifying what they don't stock, as opposed to what they do stock.

The Ordinary product range: 

2. Packaging 

By and large; the packaging is simple but functional. The ingredients at risk of degradation if they come into contact with light have opaque or tinted packaging. By and large, the packaging is glass unless it can't be, due to the texture of the product, making it largely recyclable. My main negative is that it all looks so similar that it can be hard to know what you're grabbing for if you have a lot of products from the brand. However, I get it; it's their aesthetic and I'm not going to argue with that. My only proper gripes are that some of the products (namely their toner) leak, others seem to be in the wrong packaging for their consistency so I've had a couple of the oils leak out because their so fluid that the screw top doesn't seal them in properly. This is a minor issue, but one worth raising because it does make these specific products impossible to travel with.

The Ordinary packaging: 

3. Efficacy

Look, the Ordinary's product range is vast and I've tried a lot from it, so naturally there have been a few duds in the mix for me. However, most of those duds weren't really around whether the product worked or not; by and large they work, it's more whether they are nice to use (which we'll get on to) and around getting people to use them correctly. I've honestly only had one total fail in terms of the Ordinary and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out which product it was! It was one of their Vitamin C serums in a tinted bottle (not the formula suspended in Vitamin F, because I love that one, and I want to say it's the 8% Ascorbic Acid, but I can't say for sure) and it severely irritated my skin and caused a burning sensation. But, one total fail in terms of efficacy really isn't bad going given how many products I've tried from this brand.

The Ordinary efficacy: ☆ 

4. Application and experience

This is where your mileage may vary... there are actives from this range that work incredibly well and I use them to death because they're affordable and they're pleasant to apply. These include serums like their Ascorbyl Tetraisopalmitate Solution 20% in Vitamin F (though, do note: it's one of their most expensive products), the Argireline Solution 10%* and their oil-based products generally work really well. There are some in the 'I can live with it' category, like the Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%*; yes, there are better ones out there in terms of application but a tiny bit of tackiness isn't the end of the world and it's a great one to be able to recommend to those on a budget. I don't go for their Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5, because it's too filmy and at this point there are other options at a similar price I can reference (given the ubiquity of this ingredient) and I don't like most of their suspensions in the tubes because they feel either too thick or too matte. It really does feel like a bit of a lottery, so if application experience matters to you on any level; read lots of reviews before making a purchase.

The Ordinary application experience: 

5. Pricing

The Ordinary's pricing is, by and large, very low. There are a couple of more expensive products, but these formulas do feature superior ingredients and technologies, so it feels justified to me.

The Ordinary pricing: 

6. Education

This is a hard one; if you go into one of their stores, their staff are helpful and knowledgeable. But, do most of us shop like that these days, particularly under the current circumstances? It's very much providing the guidance when you ask for it but not necessarily taking the initiative of putting information out there for general consumption. I know they have a regimen guide, and that is helpful, but it's clearly not enough if people are still widely misusing their products on social media. I think more could be done to educate their audience on how to use these powerful actives in a way that's safe and will allow them to get the most out of the products.

The Ordinary education: 

7. Accessibility

The Ordinary is easily accessible online in the usual places like Look Fantastic, Cult Beauty and Feel Unique, but also in person, in Boots stores up and down the country as well as at Harvey Nics. The in-store range in Boots is obviously not the entire range, or it would take up most of the floorspace, but they stock the key products and even more online. They also have a couple of their own retail stores too. I appreciate this isn't the case in other parts of the world, but I can only speak from a UK perspective.

The Ordinary accessibility: 

8. Controversy and social media

The only controversy the Ordinary have had relates to their founder Brandon Truaxe, and I honestly felt and the time and, particularly now following his death, that this wasn't 'drama' or him being 'problematic', it was someone having real mental health issues who was in such a senior position that it was very hard for anyone around him to control the situation. I was a little puzzled when people 'cancelled' the Ordinary following this erratic behaviour, because it was clear to me that something a lot darker was going on. Besides that, and a bit of a shady comment towards Drunk Elephant regarding their pricing, there's really not a lot going on here.

The Ordinary controversy and social media: 

Final thoughts

The Ordinary is the original affordable actives-based brand. Their product range is extensive, their pricing is excellent and, on the whole, their products work. The only area in which things get a little ropey are the textures and finishes of some of their products, but doing your research into reviews will help you choose the right products. My only other criticism is that this brand can feel a bit opaque; the products have scientific names and there's not a lot of education work going on, which might lead people to feel like they need to buy everything they offer. However, it's also a great way to try an ingredient you've heard of and want to give a go, without breaking the bank.

You can check out my in-depth reviews of the Ordinary's products here.

Overall score: 48


Let's talk about US-based brand Good Molecules, which has been going for a little over a year now.

1. Product range

Let's start with the basics! I would say Good Molecules have the most 'capsule' collection out of all the brands we're looking at today. They have the basics I look for in an actives-driven skincare brand; the hyaluronic acid, a few different oil options, several exfoliation options, two serums to target hyperpigmentation, peptides and the basics (cleansing options and a moisturiser). I do like that there are lots of blends here; for example their Daily Brightening Serum contains hyaluronic acid, licorice extract and arbutin and their Discolouration Serum* contains tranexamic acid and niacinamide. I think on the one hand; it's easy to navigate and well thought-out, but if you're looking to really explore ingredients, the range is a little limited.

Good Molecules product range: ☆ 

2. Packaging 

Obviously, this is an affordable brand so the packaging is pretty basic, but I really like what Good Molecules did here. The products don't look like they cost £5-10 at all; the packaging is cute but it's also functional. Where it needs to be opaque; it's opaque. Nothing feels too fiddly and none of the products strike me as being in inappropriate packaging. The packaging is largely glass, with only one or two products in plastic packaging, meaning it can easily, and almost infinitely be recycled and they also offer cleansing bars, which are obviously more environmentally-friendly. 

Good Molecules packaging: ☆ 

3. Efficacy

This is ultimately the most important category which is why the numbers here get a x4 booster! And I have to say that Good Molecules have never really disappointed me in this respect. The products I've tried from them really work! Their Pineapple enzyme exfoliator* is a great gentle option for smoother skin, both of the brightening serums I've mentioned already did a really great job in helping my skin's overall tone and clarity, they do one of my favourite Hyaluronic Acid serums* and I really can't fault the Squalane* and Rosehip oils* I've tried from them. The only thing I've not been that fond of is the cleansing bar, but honestly; I was gifted it and wouldn't have chosen it if I was buying things with my own money. Overall: their products have delivered results to my skin.

Good Molecules efficacy: ☆ 

4. Application and experience

I don't give out 5 stars easily, as you'll see in this post, but I have to give Good Molecules the highest ranking in this respect. There are no sticky finishes, there are no thick or messy textures and these products layer perfectly within my skincare routine. When applied they feel like much more expensive formulas than they are. 

Good Molecules application experience: 

5. Pricing

The pricing of this range is really great for the products you're getting. The serums start at $6 and go up to $12, the oils will set you back $10 each and the most expensive product in the range is the powder exfoliant at $16. It's good value for money, despite not being the cheapest brand on my list.

Good Molecules pricing: ☆ 

6. Education

Unfortunately I don't really see Good Molecules do a lot of education; they really just describe their products. I appreciate that they don't have a vast and confusing range like some brands but some guides would be helpful and FAQs on their Instagram page would assist with the average consumer's understanding of what the products are, how to use them and who might benefit from them. What I do really like, however, is their full disclosure of the percentage of every ingredient in all of their products.

Good Molecules education: ☆ 

7. Accessibility

Unfortunately Good Molecules aren't available in the UK, so you need to order them from Beautylish. What's great is that if you spend $35 you get free shipping and all the taxes and duties are included at checkout, so that's good. However, it does take a while, unless you want to pay for expedited shipping. I personally don't mind it and I've never had issues when ordering, but I do like a little browse down the aisles for inspiration sometimes and obviously I can't do that with Good Molecules.

Good Molecules accessibility: ☆ 

8. Controversy and social media

The only real 'dirt' that seems to exist on Good Molecules is that they're owned by Beautylish who stock Jeffree Star Cosmetics. I personally do not buy Jeffree Star's products because of the racist comments he's made in the past (I know he's apologised, but I don't have to accept that apology and I don't because I see no character growth in him) and because he's just vile to people (including his own customers) on social media. That's my personal choice, but I also think it's a bit of a reach to cancel Good Molecules for this tenuous connection. However; you do what you want to with your money. Apart from that, I haven't seen any controversy or questionable use of social media with this brand.

Good Molecules controversy and social media: ☆ 

Final thoughts

Good Molecules is overall a solid brand; their product range isn't vast but it's easy to navigate, which can be viewed as a positive. I like their packaging, I like the look and feel of their products and the main negative is that they aren't readily available here in the UK and I think they could put more work into educating customers about their products and ingredients, but perhaps that will come as they expand their range.

You can check out my in-depth reviews of Good Molecules products here.

Overall score: 46 points


Moving onto a UK brand that's been around a while but has gathered some steam in the past year or two, it's Facetheory.

1. Product range

Facetheory have fewer products than the other brands I'm discussing (bar Good Molecules) but what I love is that within this range they still cram in all the active ingredients that excite me (like niacinamide, different forms of Vitamin C, retinoids, azelaic acid, tranexamic acid and more). They do this by creating blends of different ingredients, as opposed to lots of single-ingredient options. For this reason, I'm still giving them a good score!

Facetheory product range: ☆ 

2. Packaging 

I have no complaints about the packaging. Is it as cute as something like Good Molecules? No, but it does what it needs to do; it isn't clunky, it's travel-friendly and the opaque glass packaging preserves the integrity of the formulas. Pretty much everything is in glass packaging, making it easy to recycle. 

Facetheory packaging: ☆ 

3. Efficacy

I've tried around half of the treatment products Facetheory offer and I honestly don't have a bad word to say about any of their formulas. They deliver the benefits they claim to and I've never had a reaction or any irritation.

Facetheory efficacy: 

4. Application and experience

This is another strength of the brand; all of the products feel nice on my skin, they sit well underneath makeup, there's no pilling up or strange textures and I think these treatment serums are going to suit any skin type.

Facetheory application experience: 

5. Pricing

Whilst the pricing isn't bad for the quality of product you're getting, it's considerably higher than the likes of the Ordinary. You could definitely take a view on this that you're buying one serum blend as opposed to three different serums with a single active in them, but it's not as accessible and you can't take that same 'I'll give this a go' attitude with Facetheory (it's more of an investment). There's usually a discount code floating around, but either way you cut it; they're the most expensive brand in this post.

Facetheory pricing: 

6. Education

There's really not a lot going on in respect of education with Facetheory, besides them explaining what the ingredients are within the INCI list in plain English, which I think is great in terms of accessibility. You could argue that there's less need for education when it comes to blended actives, because you're not doing all the layering and combining, but I still think it's important.

Facetheory education: 

7. Accessibility

Facetheory are only available online, but they do ship worldwide. I can imagine the shipping cost / applicable duties could be a barrier in some countries though. Their products are all vegan, which I think is a big tick in the 'accessibility' box. Additionally, they offer a 30 day money back guarantee, which is very uncommon in UK and shows great customer service and belief in their products.

Facetheory accessibility: 

8. Controversy and social media

Let me know if I'm wrong, but I've not been made aware of any controversy or questionable social media usage by this brand. 

Facetheory controversy and social media: ☆ 

Final thoughts

All in all; I'm excited about Facetheory! Their products are effective, they apply nicely, they have a good range of complimentary products like cleansers and moisturisers and they cover off the bases I want them to in terms of actives. Whilst they're more expensive than the other brands in this post, I personally think it's sometimes a false economy to buy four single-ingredient products as opposed to one that does it all for you. 

Overall score: 53

You can check out my in-depth reviews of the Facetheory's products here.


Moving on to another one of the big players, which (can you believe) was only founded a couple of years ago, right here in the UK. It's the Inkey List.

1. Product range

The Inkey List exist in a nice little goldilocks zone, in my opinion. Their range isn't as dizzyingly intimidating as the Ordinary's but I can find most of what I'm looking for. I like how it's arranged on their website so everything is easy to navigate, despite there still being so many options. They also have some interesting ingredients and did a number of them before other brands really cottoned on. Although they do focus on single actives, if you dig a little deeper, you'll see their formulas are pretty well-rounded; for example, it might be called 'niacinamide' but it also contains hyaluronic acid, allantoin and lipids.

The Inkey List product range: 

2. Packaging 

This is where I have to downgrade Inkey a little. Yes, everything is functional, by and large; products that belong in pumps are in pumps and all their packaging is opaque but I've had one or two things leak on me when I travelled with them and the pumps aren't the most ergonomic things in the world to use. The packaging is all also plastic, which makes it hard to recycle, though I suppose it's lighter to transport if we're looking at carbon footprint. I'm going to discuss the information on the packaging under the 'education' section so I'm leaving that element out of my scoring here. My main gripe is that it just looks a bit cheap. I don't dislike the black and white packaging, it's more just the overwhelming plastic-ness of it all. I wouldn't mind, but it's more expensive than a brand like the Ordinary and the Ordinary's products look and feel more expensive.

The Inkey List packaging: 

3. Efficacy

I'm really struggling to think of a product I've tried from the Inkey List that I haven't liked, which is a testament to their formulas, especially given I've sampled a lot of their stuff. There's one product I didn't enjoy, but honestly it wasn't related to efficacy, and only one or two have been anything less than amazing (the Retinol* comes to mind; it's fine but not a patch on some other retinoids I've tried). I have seen fantastic results from their products and they're not 'good for the price'; they form a part of my routine and can hold their own against much more expensive options on the market.

The Inkey List efficacy: 

4. Application and experience

This, to me, is one of the things that set the Inkey List apart from the Ordinary when they first launched; the products are really well-formulated in terms of application and my overall experience. There's only one product I found pilled a little; their Multi-Biotic* moisturiser. But, by and large, there's no stickiness, tackiness or weird application stuff with the Inkey List's products.

The Inkey List application experience: 

5. Pricing

The pricing of the Inkey List is obviously affordable in the grand scheme of things but their products come with a more substantial price tag than the likes of the Ordinary and Good Molecules. Whilst the formulations are broadly fantastic, I do think the packaging feels a tad cheap for the price-point.

The Inkey List pricing: 

6. Education

This is where the Inkey List really shine; in their passion for educating customers. From their Instagram account to their recipe builder function to their live chat and even the packaging, which is crammed full of useful information on what the ingredient is, how it works and how to use it, they really break it down for the average consumer. So it's full marks in this category.

The Inkey List education: 

7. Accessibility

The Inkey List is pretty accessible now, and I believe it is internationally too. Here in the UK you can buy directly, from Boots (though the in-store range is just a selection of best-sellers) or through websites like Feel Unique, Look Fantastic and Cult Beauty.

The Inkey List accessibility: 

8. Controversy and social media

The only 'dirt' I've found on the Inkey List is that they're part of this whole 'Clean at Sephora' movement, presumably branding their products as 'clean' was part of the deal they entered into to be stocked at Sephora. I get that Sephora is a huge retailer in the US and it's a massive deal for a brand that's only been around for a couple of years to get in there, so I can sympathise to an extent. However, I also see how - as a brand that's always championed science and education - the Inkey List aligning themselves with a movement that's spread so much fear-mongering, pseudoscientific misinformation feels like a real betrayal to their core fanbase. I know it's not the biggest scandal ever, but it feels a little disappointing.

The Inkey List controversy and social media: 

Final thoughts

The Inkey List were definitely more than a little inspired by the Ordinary, but that certainly doesn't mean they're a copycat brand. Whilst they're a little more expensive than other options on the market and have a slightly smaller collection of products, they're easily the most accessible brand I've covered here and they're more than worth the investment with their fantastic formulations.

Overall score: 54

You can check out my in-depth reviews of the Inkey List's products here.


It's actually been a pretty close race, which is a real testament to how many fantastic affordable skincare options there are on the market these days. And, you really don't have to commit to one; all of these brands offer something different and interesting. The purpose of this post is really to help you decide, if you're looking at the four different affordable niacinamide serums, which one is most likely to offer the best option. The Inkey List has edged ahead in the race to be crowned the winner! They're officially my most trusted brand for affordable active skincare ingredients.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know your thoughts on these brands in the comments!

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Read more posts from this series here!

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