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How to Buy Skin Care That Works, Every Time

Face Wash

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Walk into any drugstore or department store and the sheer amount of tubes and bottles lining the shelves of the skin care section can be seriously overwhelming. To help make the shopping process painless, we asked top dermatologists what's most important to look for when buying eight different products.

When it comes to selecting a cleanser, "look for a formula that's both hydrating and soap-free," says Mona Gohara, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University. If the product isn't labeled 'soap-free,' check the ingredient list to steer clear of sodium lauryl sulfate, a common surfactant that can be irritating and drying on skin. For hydration, make sure you see either glycerin or natural oils on the ingredientl list.

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Exfoliator

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Chemical or physical? That's the question when choosing an exfoliator. (Reminder: Chemical options use acids to dissolve the bonds between dead skin cells, physical scrubs contain particles that mechanically slough off cells.) When in doubt, go with the former. "Chemical formulas, especially those with alpha hydroxy acids, exfoliate effectively, yet gently," says Gohara. Her favorite ingredient? Glycolic acid, which also delivers anti-aging benefits, unlike other exfoliants. Many glycolic acid products will note the percentage—anywhere from around 5% to 20% is available over the counter, says Christine Choi Kim, M.D., a dermatologist in Santa Monica, CA. But in this case, less is more: "It's better to opt for a lower concentration that you can use a few times per week, rather than a stronger version that your skin can only tolerate monthly," says Kim. Try: Glytone Mild Gel Wash ($32; dermstore.com), and check out our ultimate guide to exfoliation.

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Serum

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Highly concentrated and packed with powerful ingredients, serums address any and all of your skin care concerns. If you're only in the market for one, an antioxidant formula will give you the most bang for your buck. While all antioxidants help combat free radical damage, each one works slightly differently, so choose a serum that cocktails several. Vitamin C is one choice option; listed as ascorbic acid, try and find it in at least a 15% concentration, says Kim. And make sure it's housed in an opaque bottle: "Vitamin C is very unstable and breaks down when exposed to light," Kim adds. Other good antioxidants to look for include nourishing vitamin E and ferulic acid, which defend against the damaging effects of pollution, says Gohara. Both dermatologists like Skinceuticals C E Ferulic ($162; skinceuticals.com).

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Moisturizer

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Basic is best when it comes to moisturizer, so save your money and opt for a plain old drugstore variety. "Pricey department store brands are typically loaded with fragrance, which can irritate your skin. Look for a simple version that's fragrance-free, non-comedogenic, and contains moisturizing hyaluronic acid or skin-strengthening ceramides," says Kim. Her pick: CeraVe Facial Moisturizing Lotion PM ($10.99; drugstore.com). It works equally well morning and night! And don't forget to make the most of your moisturizer.

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Sunscreen

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Repeat after us: Broad-spectrum. SPF 30 or higher. Once those boxes are checked, it's time to decide whether you want a sunscreen with chemical or physical blockers. While it's a matter of personal preference (because really, the most important thing is that you like your sunscreen enough to actually use it), physical formulas do offer several advantages. "They're less likely to cause irritation, especially for sensitive skin types," says Gohara. "Plus, they protect from both UV light and visible light—the kind you're exposed to from your smartphone or desk lamp—that can also contribute to discoloration." Look for one with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, like Avene High Protection Tinted Compact SPF 50 ($34; drugstore.com).

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Eye Cream

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Yes, you do need to buy a separate eye cream. "The skin around the eye is much thinner than on the rest of the face and can react very differently," says Kim. Search for a formula with hyaluronic acid (to hydrate) and caffeine (to depuff), housed in a tube. Unlike eye creams in jars (which are constantly exposed to air and your fingers), products in a tube are more likely to stay germ-free, especially important for a product that's going near your eyes, says Gohara. Try the new L'Oréal Paris RevitaLift Volume Filler Eye Treatment ($24.99; lorealparisusa.com).

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Night Cream

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While you snooze, your skin goes into natural repair mode; choosing a night cream with tried-and-true anti-agers will help maximize these reparative effects, says Kim. A formula with growth factors or collagen-boosting peptides, like Nerium Age-Defying Night Cream ($110; nerium.com), is a great way to go. And of course, look for the ingredient on the next slide...

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Retinoids

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This class of vitamin-A derivatives is easily the gold standard in anti-aging beauty products, but not all versions are created equal. While you likely already know that there's a difference between prescription-strength retinoic acid and OTC retinols, there are also differences between the various options you'll find at the store. If you have fairly normal skin, Gohara recommends a retinol product, like SkinMedica Retinol Complex 1.0 ($90; skinmedica.com). But if you fall on the sensitive side of the spectrum, try a product that contains either retinaldehyde or retinyl palmitate (they'll be listed on the ingredient panel). Gohara says these slightly weaker versions are less likely to induce unsightly irritation and redness. Try Derma E Anti Wrinkle Vitamin A Retinyl Palmitate Crème ($12.71; ulta.com).

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