It's easy to blow through your paycheck stocking up on the latest skin-care line you saw hyped on Instagram. But how do you know what's actually going to give you great skin—and which products just have great marketing? Should you go out of your way to find natural skin-care products or go with the best, scientifically proven, active ingredients?
"You can't just pick up a system and say, 'This looks good and smells good, it should work for me,'" says dermatologist Marie Jhin. Instead, you should consider what aspects of your skin you want to improve (say, brightness) and be aware of your issues (like sensitive skin), Jhin says. This way you'll find the right products to suit your needs.
As much as you may love to linger in those beauty aisles, knowing which ingredients experts (and science) swear by will help you narrow down your choices.
The Right Cleanser for Oily Skin
By now, you probably know what type of skin you have—oily, acne-prone, dry, sensitive, combination—so let that guide you.
For oily skin, dermatologist Karen Hammerman suggests cleansers with glycolic or salicylic acid. "Salicylic acid is lipophilic, meaning it likes oil, so it gets into the pore to the sebaceous follicle and sucks oil out," Hammerman says. (Is that not the most satisfying image?)
Toner isn't absolutely necessary for everyone, our dermatologists say, but those prone to acne might feel better about an extra step of cleaning using a glycolic acid toner. Hammerman also recommends using a clay mask made of kaolin or bentonite once per week to help absorb sebum from the pores.
Also, contrary to popular belief, oil cleansers can be effective for oily skin. If you think back to chemistry class, oil dissolves oil—so for some people, using a nongreasy, noncomedogenic product, such as an argan oil-based cleanser, can clean the pores while keeping your skin hydrated.
The Right Cleanser for Dry Skin
People with dry or extra-sensitive skin have to be extra careful with how they cleanse—but they still do need to do it.
"Cleansing is one of the most important steps in your antiaging beauty routines," says Doris Day, a dermatologist and clinical associate professor at the New York University Langone Medical Center. "Elements like pollution and makeup left on the skin can be toxic—and that accelerates aging."
The goal is to clean off dirt and makeup but leave the natural oils in place. For that, Hammerman suggests using hydrating cleansers with glycerin or essential oils. Micellar water is another good alternative.
Exfoliation Is for Everyone
People with all skin types need to exfoliate to remove dead skin cells, experts say.
"The exfoliator can be physical, like beads or a scrub, or it can be chemical, like salicylic or glycolic or other acids," Day says. "Exfoliators can come in pads and scrubs and brushes and all sorts of different things, and you can kind of play around with what works for you. Then you can go stronger or lighter in areas that are more or less sensitive—the forehead and nose can take a little bit more. On the cheeks, you can go a little bit lighter."
However, in the case of scrubs, less is often more. It's easy to overdo it, leading to irritation and inflammation, so keep exfoliation to two to three times per week. Gentle chemical exfoliators, such as products containing 5 percent glycolic acid, are a gentler way to achieve a healthy glow. Just be extra careful about applying sunscreen—these products will make you more sensitive to the sun.
Moisturizer Is for Everyone Too
"A lot of people with oily skin think, 'A moisturizer is going to make me look shiny, or it's going to make me break out,'" Hammerman says. "[But] if you don't moisturize, your skin loses its luster. You're more prone to wrinkles being visible, and you're not replenishing your skin's barrier."
Dry skin and dehydrated skin are also two separate issues. Oily skin can still become dehydrated, so it's important to not only drink a lot of water but also use hydrating products such as hyaluronic acid, which will help prevent the skin from looking dull and flaky.
Luckily, there are oil-free, lightweight options available. Look for moisturizers with dimethicone, hyaluronic acid, or niacinamide for oily skin.
"Niacinamide has been shown in studies to absorb sebum," Hammerman says. "It stimulates collagen production and supports the skin barrier, strengthening the outer layer. It's also beneficial because it reduces the appearance of hyperpigmentation and large pores."
During the day, use a mattifying moisturizer with SPF 30 sunscreen.
"Any SPF over 30 has a higher concentration of the sun-blocking ingredient, and that can make your skin feel really greasy, so SPF 30 is fine," Hammerman says.
For dry skin, Hammerman's go-to ingredients are glycerin, ceramides, and, again, hyaluronic acid.
"Ceramides are fats that are naturally found in the skin, and their whole job is to soak up water so the skin cells don't dry out," she says. This why the drugstore brand CeraVe is something she recommends to many patients (it has a great SPF 30 version too).
Celebrity aesthetician Ildi Pekar makes a moisturizer with something much more delicious: "I use raw honey in mine, because it's the most magical (and traditional) ingredient used on the skin," she says. "With enzymes, vitamins, and minerals, this liquid gold can soothe every skin type."
Retinol Is Important in Serums and Eye Creams
At the bare minimum, a skin-care routine should include a cleanser, an exfoliator, a moisturizer, and sun protection, Day says. What about all the other serums, masks, essences, and oils?
"All those other products are icing on the cake," she says. "When you're doing those basics and you're a little bit more motivated, you can add those in, and you'll see a level of difference that is really nice—but to do those things without doing the basics doesn't make sense."
"There are all sorts of retinols that are a slight variation of the molecules in the vitamin A family, but all break down to the same thing and bind to pretty much the same receptors," Day explains. "They have that effect of helping skin cells mature more normally and healthily, and they stimulate collagen production. They don't thin out the skin—they actually make the collagen layer thicker—but they make the skin sit smoother, which makes it look less wrinkled. I think that retinol is a really great ingredient, and now there are very few people who shouldn't be able to tolerate it because of the vast array of formulations available."
CBD Oil: the Holy Grail of Skin Care?
The research on cannabidiol is piling up too. The nonpsychoactive (a.k.a. won't-get-you-high) ingredient derived from cannabis plants has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, and scientists think it could help with everything from acne to psoriasis. Pekar is already singing CBD oil's praises—and using it in her serum.
"CBD is the holy grail for reducing inflammation and redness," Pekar says. "A lot of our skin and body concerns stem from inflammation. If we can take down inflammation in the body, we would not be experiencing the different types of concerns that we do."
Are Natural, Organic Products Better?
Dermatologists get a little itchy when you ask them about "all-natural products," particularly since there aren't any FDA regulations on the label.
"Words like natural, hypoallergenic, nontoxic—those get thrown around," Hammerman says. "They don't have a legal definition and end up being marketing terms."
There are rules about calling something "organic," but there is still little evidence about how pesticides affect people through exposure in cosmetics.
"There's no evidence that organic products are more effective than other skin-care products, but some people do prefer them because of their lack of potentially toxic chemical ingredients," Hammerman says. "And they want to support companies with ethical and environmentally sound production standards."
Ingredients to Avoid
Rather than gravitate toward natural labels, you could consider checking product labels for questionable ingredients. Parabens, for instance, have a controversial reputation because of the way they bind with estrogen-receptor cells and have been found in high concentration in women with breast cancer. The CDC says there still isn't a known causal link between parabens and cancer, but the European Union disagrees and heavily restricts their use. Hammerman also says to look out for the antimicrobial agent triclosan, a possible carcinogen.
If your skin is sensitive and you want to be extra vigilant about possibly harmful chemicals, look out for fragrance in products, even those labeled "unscented" or "fragrance-free."
"Fragrances are linked to a lot of issues, most commonly skin irritation and allergies," Hammerman says. Products with labeled or unlabeled fragrances may list the ingredients DHP, DEHP or DBP5, which are phthalates, the family of chemicals associated with harming children's development but which the FDA has determined are safe. "That's another argument for more natural products that have essential oils, which would be considered safer than chemical fragrances."
Pekar thinks plants and herbs a better bet because they allow you to avoid ingredients that could be harmful.
"There are so many toxins that we are already exposed to—if I can skip them in the products that I use, I will," she says.
Sabrina Rojas Weiss lives in Brooklyn, surrounded by her fellow freelance writers and competitive stroller-pushers. Follow her on Twitter @shalapitcher.