Today it is easy to get lost in the booming skincare market. Hundreds of new products are released every day. Of course, it is great to have a choice, but it gets overwhelming: What skincare products do I even need? How do I know if a product is worth the money? How do I know which product will work better? These 5 tips will help you look beyond pretty packaging and select great skincare products faster.
1. Go for one-purpose skincare products
Effective products, except for simple moisturizers, need to include solid active ingredients that are at least in theory able to do what the product promises. Most skincare ingredients that fall into this category are notoriously capricious. They are not easy to formulate with and always demand some kind of special treatment in the formula, packaging or both. Think about vitamin C (unstable), retinol (photosensitive), sunscreens (require very particular formulations to be stable and form an even protective layer on the skin). Because of this, the more “dedicated” a product is, the higher the chances for an appropriate concentration of active ingredients and that the formula is specifically designed to maximize the effectiveness of the actives. For example, a sunscreen that is formulated to be a sunscreen rather than an “x in 1” product (foundation, primer, moisturizer, antioxidant and sunscreen) is more likely to do the main active ingredient justice.
2. Look for well-preserved products
Despite the currently popular claims, preservatives are absolutely essential for safe products. Bacterial contamination is one of the main risks skincare products have. Over a third (!) of cosmetic products recalled from the market due to safety concerns, according to FDA reports , tend to be because of a suspected or confirmed bacterial contamination. Microorganisms living in beauty products can cause very serious, sometimes life-threatening illnesses. This is why it is crucial to use only well preserved skincare products.
One rule to remember is that all products that contain water MUST include a proper preservation system. If a brand claims to be “preservative free” but their products include water, two cases are possible.
The first case is when a preservative “hides” in another compound, typically a plant extract. For example, fruit and herbal extracts for skincare are commonly preserved with a broad spectrum preservative phenoxyethanol. When buying the extract from materials suppliers, cosmetics manufactures do not buy a pure extract, but a mixture that already includes a preservative - so that the extract can be safely stored until it gets into a formulation. Sometimes the concentration of the preservative in the extract can be quite high - potentially enough to preserve the whole product formulation when combined with other “less obvious” preservatives. Technically, skincare manufacturers are required to report preservatives even if bought as part of pre-made mixture, but not all companies adhere to the requirements.
In rare cases, a very well-manufactured and expensive air-tight packaging could allow a simple formulation without a broad-spectrum preservative. Still, even then a combination of less potent anti-microbial agents is most likely hidden in the formula, the manufacturers just find a loophole in the existing cosmetic product regulations not to list them as a “preservative”.
The second possible scenario for a “preservative free” product is that the product is simply not safe as it in fact does not contain preservatives. It is actually truly bizarre brands to choose “preservative free” as a marketing claim to start with. It is like advertising a car that is “free of annoying safety belts”. It also applies to the DIY products: if not preserved properly, they are likely to put your skin health in danger. If you choose to make your own products, make sure you know what you are doing, take the risk of bacterial contamination into account and do not store products but use them up as quickly as possible.
3. Look at what’s out
While preservatives are essential for safe cosmetics, not all of them are gentle on your skin. The same goes for other categories of ingredients. Skin irritation is another crucial risk that you need to minimize when selecting skincare.
What ingredients have a higher risk of irritation? Fragrance (both natural and synthetic; essential oils, organic or not, are one of the strongest and most frequent irritants), certain preservatives (formaldehyde releasers like diazolidinyl urea, quaternium-15, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate), drying alcohols in high concentration (denatured alcohol, isopropyl alcohol). Ideally look for products that do not have these ingredients in unless you are confident your skin tolerates them well.
4. Look at what’s in
Active ingredients - that’s where the key to effectiveness lies. A few tips here:
Look for products that are very clear on what key ingredients are doing the promised job in the product, ideally disclosing concentration (be careful though, more is not always better - for example, very high concentrations of hyaluronic acid (above 3%) are more likely to draw water out of your skin rather than out of air unless you are in a very humid climate).
The ingredients that product advertisers as “active” or “key” should have some evidence of effectiveness: does the science support the claim the manufacturer is making? Were there any clinical studies done to confirm that the ingredient can do what the product promises? Were the studies done in a proper, scientific way, or were they merely a consumer study where “95% of women said that their skin had more glow after using the product”?
5. Don't rely on your memory
Even if you are savvy when it comes to skincare ingredients, their INCI name is not the language that our brain can really speak. It is difficult to be able to "read" a skincare label in full. It is easy to miss a potential irritant, or forget to estimate an ingredient's concentration. The result of it is wasted money, or, even worse, a skin reaction. I have personally bought products I had to through in a bin after first use because I didn't notice an irritant after skimming a product label. No relying on memory for me any more - I always check the ingredient analysis on WIMJ.