Prior to doing this research, I had a deep bias in favor of boutique skin care companies. Their products seem more luxurious, have more appealing packaging, and create a sense of inclusion. However, the more important scientifically supported research and development breakthroughs usually come from the big companies who put more money into research. If you want science backed skin care, the larger brands provide a better bang for your buck. And, ironically, many of the boutique brands are actually owned by the giant cosmetic corporations.
Here is a list of big companies and some of the boutique brands they own: Estee Lauder owns Aveda, Clinique, Crème de la Mer, Dr. Jart+, Origins, Prescriptives, and is an investor in Deciem/The Ordinary. L’Oreal owns BioMedic, Biotherm, Kiehls, La Roche Posay, Lancome, Maybelline, Skinceuticals and Vichy. Johnson & Johnson owns Aveeno, Clean & Clear, Neutragena, and ROC. Shisedio owns Bare Minerals. Procter & Gamble owns SK-II and Murad. Unilever owns Kate Sommerville and Murad.
Some smaller companies are still privately owned. These include cult favorites such as Paula’s Choice, Drunk Elephant, Tata Harper, Thayers and Sunday Riley.
The products listed below are not necessarily products I endorse and I have not tried them all. These are the products that I most frequently encountered online and on podcasts and was most curious about. Paula Begoun, the cosmetic cop, has a book called Don’t Go To The Cosmetics Counter Without Me. The latest addition was written in 2012. It has an amazing directory of companies and products and hopefully the next addition will review many of the products listed here.
Remember the goal is to just clean your face for your next product application. Choose a cleansing oil if your skin is dry, choose a cleansing milk if your skin is sensitive. Avoid detergents.
- Bioderma Sensibio H20: A Micellar water cleanser meant to be left on rather than washed off. Good for makeup removal. $15/ 8.3 oz.
- Biologique Recherche Lait U: A cult favorite almond oil cleanser with vitamin E, zinc, potassium, and fatty acids. $33/ 8.4 oz.
- CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser: A simple serviceable mild cleanser. An excellent choice. $15/ 12 oz.
- Cetaphil: Contains sodium laurel sulfate, a harsh detergent, and parabens. Can be drying. $9/ 8 oz.
- CosRx Good Morning Cleanser: Contains exfoliating acids. $11/ 5 oz.
- Garden of Wisdom Cleansing Oil: GoW has several excellent cleansing oils for a fraction of the cost from other companies. The normal skin option contains olive oil, sweet almond oil, hazelnut oil and rosemary oil. $3.85/ 1 oz.
- Glossier Milky Jelly Cleanser: Contains rosewater (an anti-inflammatory) and panthenol (vitamin B5) $18/ 6 oz.
- Tata Harper Regenerating Cleanser: Gentle non-foaming sunflower seed oil cleanser. $82/ 4.1 oz.
Apply the AHA directly to dry clean skin and allow at least 20 minutes for full absorption.
- Biologique Recherche P50 Lotion: A combination of lactic acid and usnic acid, an anti-inflammatory. Everyone agrees it smells awful but it is effective. $62/ 5.1 oz.
- Pixie Glow Tonic: A 5% glycolic acid exfoliating toner with a low price point that makes it a favorite. $15/ 3.4 oz.
- Sunday Riley Good Genes: A 10% lactic acid product that the internet swears cannot be duped. Also contains arnica and licorice extracts which may or may not actually calm skin. A cult favorite. $105/ 1 oz.
- Dennis Gross Peel Pads: A well regarded mix of AHAs (glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid and citric acid). $88 for 30 pads.
- Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting Liquid BHA %2: Contains a high concentration of salicylic acid to clarify, moisturize, and detoxify the skin. It helps with the appearance of blackheads, enlarged pores, and rough skin. $29/ 4oz.
- The Ordinary AHA + BHA 2% Peeling Solution: Effective treatment for acne and fine lines. $7.20 / 1 oz.
Use a retinol serum one or more times per week depending on your age.
- Murad Retinol Youth Renewal Serum: Contains 1% retinol (hydroxypinacolone retinoate), peptides (including matrixyl) and hyaluronic acid in a time released formula. $88 1/oz.
- Sunday Riley Luna Sleeping Oil: Contains the best research supported form of retinol ester (retinyl retinoate) and avocado oil. Also contains blue dye which will be visible on your face and fragrance which some people find unpleasant. $105/ 1 oz.
- Paula’s Choice Clinical 1% Retinoid: Contains retinol, vitamin C, peptides, and skin calming ingredients in an airtight pump. $56 / 1 oz.
Look for a product that contains at least 10% vitamin C, in an opaque container, possibly combined with vitamin E since they work synergistically together.
- CosRx Triple C Lightning Liquid: 20.5% ascorbic acid. Comes in a dark vial dropper for product preservation. The most cost-effective choice. $27/ 1 oz.
- Drunk Elephant C Firma: 15% L-ascorbic acid with 1% vitamin E and 0.5% ferulic acid in a fast-absorbing base. $80/ 1 oz.
- IS Clinical Super Serum: 15% Vitamin C (l-ascorbic acid) and copper tripeptide. $88 .05 oz.
- Paula’s Choice C15 Super Booster: 15% ascorbic acid with vitamin E and ferulic acid. $49 /.67 oz
- Peter Thomas Roth Potent Serum: 20% THD Ascorbate (the fat-soluble form of vitamin C) in an airtight pump. $95/ 1 oz.
- Skinceuticals CE Ferulic Vitamin C Serum: A cult favorite. 15% L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and 1% alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E). $166/ 1 oz.
- Sunday Riley C.E.O. Rapid Flash Brightening Serum: 25% THD Ascorbate (the fat-soluble form of vitamin C) in an airtight pump. $85/ 1 oz.
- The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + 1% Zinc: Can reduce blemishes and supplement other acne treatments. $5.90 / 1 oz.
- Glossier Super Pure Serum: Niacinamide plus zinc also designed to calm skin. $28/ .5 oz.
- Olay Regenerist Regenerating Serum: Niacinamide plus vitamin E. $26/ 1.7 oz.
- Hylamide Sub-Q Anti Age: Hyaluronic acid, copper peptide, and matrixyl. $22/ 1 oz.
- Kate Somerville Wrinkle Warrior: Hyaluronic acid, amino acids, and glucosamine. $95 1.7 oz.
- Skinceuticals Resveratrol BE: 1% resveratrol and 1% vitamin E. $153 / 1 oz.
- Timeless Co-10 Serum: 2% concentration of co-enzyme 10, matrixyl, and hyaluronic acid. $25/ 1 oz.
- Vintner’s Daughter Active Botanical Serum: 22 different botanicals including some (such as rose and lavender) known to irritate the skin. $135/ 1 oz.
- Clinique Even Better Brighter Essence: Sodium hyaluronate, glucosamine, and licorice. $66 / 7 oz.
- SK-II Facial Treatment Essence: A cult favorite Asian style moisturizing toner that likely does not contain any known anti-aging ingredients, but has some exfoliating properties. $99 / 2.5 oz.
- Pyunkang Yul Essence Toner: An Asian style hydrating toner made from astragalus root extract. $18.88 / oz.
- CeraVe Facial Moisturizing Lotion PM: Contains ceramides, niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid. $15 / 3 oz.
- Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Lift and Firm Night Cream: Contains vitamin E, vitamin C, and ceramides. $78 1.7 oz.
- La Mer Crème de la Mer: This famously expensive cream contains lactic acid from seaweed algae, sea kelp (a water binding agent), lecithin, a natural moisture, sunflower oil and wheat germ. $175 / 1 oz.
- Estee Lauder Advanced Night Repair: Squalane, vitamin C, and hyaluronic acid. $98 1.7 oz.
It is not hard to find an inexpensive cold-pressed oil. Oils are a good category for less expensive products.
- Drunk Elephant Virgin Marula Luxury Face Oil. Marula oil is high in vitamin E, omega 6, and antioxidants. $40 /1 oz.
- Caudalie Vine[Activ] Overnight Detox Oil: Contains grape-seed oil and rose hip oil. $50 / 1 oz.
- The Ordinary Rose Hip Oil: Rose hip oil contains linoleic acid (omega 6). $9.80 / 1 oz.
- Benton Fermentation Eye Cream: Contains ceramides, hyaluronic acid, aloe, and vitamin B5. $27 / 1 oz.
- Mad Hippie Eye Cream: Contains the peptide matrixyl, vitamin C, vitamin E, ceramides, and other ingredients. $25/ .5 oz.
- Neutragena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Eye Cream: Contains retinol, vitamin C, and hyaluronic acid. Not dissimilar to full face moisturizers. $22 / .5 oz.
- Peter Thomas Roth Power K Eye Rescue: Vitamin K may be effective against dark circles. Also contains vitamin C, green tea, vitamin E, and arnica. $100 / .5 oz.
- Shiseido Benefiance WrinkleResist24 Intensive Eye Contour Cream: Contains chlorella extract (algae), mukurossi extract (a botanical), and gambir extract an astringent. $60 /.5 oz.
- Belif The True Cream Aqua Bomb: Comfrey leaf and macadamia nut seed oil. $38 / 1.7 oz.
- Kiehl’s Ultimate Strength Hand Salve: Avocado and sesame oil, squalene, and vitamin E. $28 / 7.8 oz.
- Aquaphor Lip Treatment: Castor oil and vitamin E. $4 / .35 oz.
- Burt’s Bees: Beeswax based with vitamin E. $3 / stick.
- Kiehls Lip Balm 1: Squalane, aloe, and vitamin E. $9.50 / .5 oz.
- Alba Botanica Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen: Titanium dioxide, zinc, oils, and vitamin E. $7.50 / 4 oz.
- It Cosmetics Full Coverage CC Cream: Zinc and Titanium dioxide, snail mucin, and 50 other antioxidant ingredients in small amounts. Available in many skin tones. $38 / 1 oz.
- Jane Iredale BB Cream: Mineral cream foundation in many skin tones. Titanium dioxide. Vegan. $48 / 1.7 oz.
- Olay Regenerist Regenerating Lotion with Broad Spectrum SPF 50: Avobenzone based. Also contains peptides. $27 / 1.7 oz.
- SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense: Broad mineral spectrum sunscreen with titanium dioxide, zinc, and plankton. $34 / 1.7 oz.
- Supergoop Everyday Sunscreen Broad SPF 50: A well regarded chemical sunscreen. $19 / 2.4 oz.
There are two very different types of masks: hydrating masks and drying masks. Both types produce immediate results but are not as beneficial as serums for long term facial rejuvenation. Masks tend to have ingredients (such as botanical extracts) that sound more beneficial than they really are.
Do not be fooled by masks claiming to "detox" your skin. Only your internal organs can remove toxins so these masks are not purifying and do not detoxify your pores.
A moisturizing face mask will add immediate hydration until it is rinsed off. They are great after an evening of over-indulgence or a poor night’s sleep.
Clay masks absorb oil. A mask with kaolin (a mineral-rich clay), sea mud, or charcoal will provide a gentle exfoliation. Kaolin is also called china clay or white clay. A clay mask can make your pores appear smaller (but it will not last). A clay mask may also be antibacterial and anti-inflammatory (but these effects also will not last). Bentonite clay (with volcanic ash) is very absorbent and works well on oily skin. Seaweed Masks may contain alginate. When the mask dries it forms a film that feels tightening. This may give the look and feel of lifting but the benefit goes away when you wash off the mask.
It is easy to make masks at home that can give your skin vitamins and antioxidants naturally. The following suggestions come from The Age Fix: An at-home apricot mask provides vitamin A. An at-home pineapple mask provides vitamin C. An at home orange juice and lemon juice mask will function as an AHA with vitamin C. An at-home mask made from coffee grounds and olive oil will provide antioxidants and exfoliation. When purchasing masks, avoid irritating ingredients such as lavender, fragrances, and mints, and remember that most botanical ingredients will do nothing for skin (although licorice is a known lightening agent).
- Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay: 100% calcium bentonite clay. $9 / 15.5 oz.
- Benton Snail Bee High Content Mask: Snail mucin, glycolic acid, and hyaluronic acid for hydration. $25 / pack of 10.
- Dr. Jart + Brightening Infusion Mask: Contains niacinamide, vitamin C, and licorice. $9 / 1 mask.
- PureDerm Collagen Eye Zone Mask: Contains collagen (which cannot penetrate the dermis), green tea extract, and vitamin E. $24/ 10 pack.
- SK-II Facial Treatment Mask: Like the essence, the active ingredient in this mask is the patented yeast (galactomyces ferment filtrate) as a source of peptides. A cult favorite. $95 / 1 mask.
- Summer Fridays Jet Lag Mask: Another cult favorite that includes vitamins, ceramides, and antioxidants. $48 / 2.25 oz.