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It doesn't take long in a Sephora to realize that plenty of skincare is not affordable. Glossy tubs of La Mer go for $180, and there's an $85 Peter Thomas Roth mask with pure 24-karat gold inside of it.
But, if you know where to look, you can find skincare products that perform on par with luxury picks. Companies like Maelove, a startup founded by MIT grads (skincare obsessives, brain and cancer researchers, and chemical engineers), use many of the same ingredients and cosmetics labs as high-end brands but sell products for a fraction of the cost, like a skincare version of Italic.
Formulas are based more firmly in exhaustive research than the farm-to-face movement, and each product in the line is listed under $30, with the exception of the Love 31 face oil ($74.95).
What's better, though, is the quality for the price. I try a lot of skincare products — both luxury and drugstore — for my job at Insider Reviews, and if I could only recommend one skincare brand to my friends and family, this would probably be it. The products work well, they're not expensive, and the startup rarely disappoints. Like the loophole of buying Differin gel rather than Differin cream to save $200, Maelove is one way to save hundreds on the essentials without making any concessions when it comes to what goes into the products themselves.
How Maelove made good skincare cheap:
Maelove CEO and cofounder Jackie Kim wanted to cut prices on grooming products, and cofounders Brad Yim and Rishi Khaitan were looking for ways to apply artificial intelligence techniques to unexpected industries. Skincare — with its glamour, subterfuge, and markups — seemed like a natural fit.
As industry outsiders, Kim and company were able to pinpoint the norms that needed challenging. "The first oddity of the skincare industry that we noticed was that it's run like the fashion industry," Kim explained. "Marketers create trends and endless product varieties in an attempt to maximize sales. What you end up with is a ton of undifferentiated products hyped by overzealous marketers, which leads to confusion among shoppers."
To illustrate her point, Kim points me to the 428 results that pop up for a facial moisturizer on Sephora's site, with prices ranging from $385 to $10. With such variety, how is the average person ever supposed to narrow it down to the best? Not to mention the fact that each sector of skincare seems to have its own never-ending subsets: There's the eye cream, the face cream, the cream for your left elbow, and the cream for your right elbow.
But, while trends inherently change, the body doesn't from year to year. "How can there be a 'breakthrough' skincare ingredient every year?" Kim asks. "What worked well for our skin 10 years ago still works well today."
The team recruited friends from all disciplines — cancer and brain researchers, chemical engineers, lawyers, and medical doctors — to hone in on the research without the baggage of preconceived notions. In essence, Maelove is one huge — and very successful — science experiment. And it reads like one.
First, the team leverages decades of clinical research. "There are abundant and widely accepted published works that show which compounds work well for maintaining skin health. These are the tried-and-true ingredients recommended by every dermatologist and [which] are available in both over-the-counter and prescription strengths (the classic ingredients like retinol, AHA, certain vitamins and peptides, etc)." In short, these are the ingredients that should work.
Then, Maelove uses artificial intelligence to scan millions of self-reported product reviews — what Kim refers to as empirical real-world data — to determine which ingredients correlated with success, and which to avoid. These are the ingredients that, according to users (or, self-reported test outcomes, as Kim calls them), do work.
Finally, the company finds human volunteers to test the formula to verify that it's effective.
So, instead of building a business around variety for the sake of variety (remember: left elbow creams), Maelove focuses on making one line of stellar skincare that can work for all skin types.
What to buy:
The Glow Maker serum
The Glow Maker ($28) is a vitamin C serum that works to brighten your complexion, evens tone, and lightens dark spots. It's lightweight and sinks in quickly and completely without leaving any tacky residue. And while vitamin C serums can be drying, Maelove's iteration has a botanical blend and hyaluronic acid (which can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water) to prevent it.
Consumers have been quick to note the Glow Maker has a very similar ingredient list to the multi-award-winning C E Ferulic Serum ($166), despite being more than $130 cheaper.
The Night Renewer cream
The Night Renewer ($28), is one of my favorite products on the market. It uses 10% medical-grade AHA, a blend of soothing ingredients, and hyaluronic acid to gently resurface the skin for better texture and more even tone without being too harsh or drying. It took the company years of research to master something gentle and effective, and they've nailed it here. After one night of use, I notice an improvement to my skin's texture and tone and have noticed it fades dark spots over time. My pores also look a little smaller.
The One Cream daily moisturizer
The One Cream ($28) is an everyday moisturizer that will hydrate without clogging pores. It's good for all skin types, and it goes on lightweight and absorbs quickly and completely. When I'm not testing another cream, this is the budget-friendly one I prefer — there's never any irritation to my sensitive skin, and it deals with dry patches well.
The Eye Enhancer eye cream
The Eye Enhancer ($28) hydrates, tightens, and brightens the delicate skin around the eyes. A little goes a long way, and it absorbs into the skin for an all-day brightness and de-puffing boost. Cold-pressed Robusta Coffee seed extract, which is full of antioxidants and polyphenols, reduces water retention and puffiness, and a botanical complex soothes the thin, sensitive skin around your eyes. But if you're used to a thicker eye cream this may not be for you — it's very lightweight.
The Day Eraser makeup remover and cleanser
The Day Eraser ($19) is a thicker, more oily cousin to a great micellar water. Maelove went through over 90 product iterations before landing on this one. It's a two-in-one makeup remover and face cleanser that respects the skin's natural moisture barrier and doesn't leave it feeling stripped or dry. It can remove waterproof makeup and still leave skin feeling smooth and hydrated. I like using it as a makeup remover and first cleanser because it's gentle and silky, but grabs waterproof mascara off my eyelashes without rubbing them. But, sometimes I apply too much. And since I don't wear makeup often, I tend to favor Bioderma Micellar Water for its slightly easier application.
The Deep Exfoliator face polish
The Deep Exfoliator ($24) is a good, relatively gentle exfoliant. Its ingredients include BHA (salicylic acid) and pulverized clay to draw out impurities and absorb excess sebum, and niacinamide (Vitamin B3), glycerin, allantoin, and vitamin E to restore moisture. When used a few times a week, it helps resurface your skin for better tone and texture. It works best when combined with another AHA/BHA like the Night Renewer, but it's nice on its own — and especially for sensitive skin types. If you're looking for a stronger exfoliant and don't want to buy both, I recommend buying the Night Renewer.
The NIA 10 Calming Serum
The NIA 10 Calming Serum ($27.95) is designed for dry, inflamed, sensitive, acne-prone skin. Niacinamide (vitamin B3), zinc, and white tea extract work to calm the skin and improve redness and tone over time. I noticed it helped calm my blemishes and made my pores look noticeably smaller. In terms of redness, it's helped slightly with steady use, but the results have not been drastic. If redness is your main concern and your skin is too sensitive for vitamin C serums, this is worth checking out as an alternative. Otherwise, the Glow Maker may be better for overall tone correction.
The Refresher face wash
The Refresher ($18.95) is a gentle cleanser that helps clean the skin without disrupting its natural moisture barrier, but it can be slightly drying if you're used to other simple, gentle cleansers like Cetaphil. The Refresher uses a blend of AHAs (lactic, malic, and tartaric) to remove dead or dull skin cells, and without a moisturizer after, it can be drying. Personally, I like that the AHAs help calm my breakouts and remove dull skin, but if you're prone to dryness, you may want to stick with Cetaphil. The internal straw also doesn't reach all the way to the bottom of the bottle, so you may have to dig for the last bit of the face wash.
The bottom line:
This radically affordable luxury skincare line is the real deal. Maelove makes both some of the best and the cheapest skincare products that I've found. And while I don't often get to stick to my own skincare routine as a product reviewer, I've surprised myself by preferring to use the cheaper Maelove products over luxury skincare I often test for work because they're simple, gentle, and effective.
I recommend Maelove to everyone who asks me for recommendations for a new everyday go-to product because it works for all skin types and doesn't cost much, but skincare is also a notoriously subjective experience. What works for me may not work for you — even a skincare line built to cater to every skin type. Luckily, Maelove has a 100-day, 100% money-back guarantee, so you're not risking much if you want to give it a try yourself.