We’ve all been taught not to judge a book by its cover—doesn’t mean we don’t do it a lot anyway. Like, isn’t that exactly what’s happening when we walk into Sephora in search of a new product? We pick up the boxes, we run our fingers over the bottles, we take in the colors, the fonts, we read the labels and the ingredient lists and then… we make a decision. Without even trying it! It’s not our fault we’re attracted to pretty, shiny things. But sometimes what looks good on the shelf isn’t really the best thing for our skin. The beauty equivalent of counting cards is when you can walk into a store, take in the products, read the labels, and know (I mean, really know) which products are superior to their contemporaries. Not everyone can do it.
Of course, four people who can are aesthetician Sofie Pavitt, brand founder (and ITG columnist) Charlotte Palermino, and the chemist duo Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu. It turns out, there’s a lot you can tell about a product’s efficacy just by looking at it. Here are their best tips for shopping the skincare aisle like a pro.
Choose a brand you trust
Just like you’d look for red flags on a blind date, there are certain brand behaviors you should stop and question when you see ‘em. “What I look out for is whether a brand is trying to educate me or confuse me,” says Palermino. If you’re confused about a product, you’re more likely to misuse it and not see an effect. You also might buy the wrong thing for your skin—retinol and rosehip oil high in retinoic acid, for example, are often both marketed as retinol but have totally different functions in skincare. Additionally, be wary of branding that sounds like it’s trying to scare you into a purchase. It’s a problem particularly in clean beauty. “Essential oils can disrupt your skin so much, and they’re hailed as all-natural, clean ingredients,” explains Pavitt. And Palermino adds, “Lead, mercury, and poison ivy are all natural, but I don’t want them on my skin.”
Pick the right vehicle
Certain ingredients work best in certain types of formulations—so picking the right vehicle for them is another easy way to make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. “Vitamin C and acids are best used in a concentrated form, like a serum or toner,” says Pavitt. Choosing concentrated forms of actives also means you can save in other parts of your routine, like cleansers and toners.
Consider that potency starts with packaging
Certain ingredients can’t stand up to light and air for very long—exposure to the outside world is basically skincare kryptonite. “For something that degrades easily such as retinol, it’s important to have protective packaging to help the product retain efficacy,” says Fu. Exposure starts in the manufacturing step and ends on your bathroom counter, and while clear, open packaging may look great on your top shelf, they ultimately contribute to your products going bad faster. “If you are using products in clear jars or droppers,” Palermino adds, “make sure they have a good amount of preservatives to keep them from going bad.” Otherwise, look for opaque, airtight packaging.
And weigh your product’s environmental impact
If sustainability is important to you (which, in 2020, it should be!), you can use beauty as a way to shop with your values. Beyond safe, airtight packaging, look for products in glass, recycled, or recyclable materials. Then, consider the implications of the ingredients inside—are they sustainably and ethically farmed? Do you really need that essential oil fragrance? “Farms used to make things like rose oil have a huge carbon footprint, and the ingredient has better, lab-synthetized alternatives,” says Palermino. You can also look for vegan or cruelty-free certifications.
Understand how ingredients are ordered
“The general rule,” explains Pavitt, “is that the closer an ingredient is to the top of the list, the more of that ingredient there is in that product.” But if you want to get more specific, the cosmetic chemists recommend looking for preservatives like phenoxyethanol, which is always present at one-percent or less. “This is particularly useful for ingredients that require higher than one-percent to work,” says Lu. She notes that certain ingredients work well under that one-percent mark, including peptides and retinol, but for ingredients including niacinamide, AHAs, vitamin C, and hydrators like glycerin, you definitely want them present above one-percent.
Or stick to brands that list active percentages
Sometimes, the ingredient list order isn’t a foolproof-system. “I was floored to learn from cosmetic chemists I’ve worked with that brands will dilute their actives in water as a way to make it seem like it’s present in higher percentages,” reveals Palermino. “It’s incredibly deceiving, but it’s a common practice.” If you really want to be sure of what you’re getting, just stick to products that list their active percentages—lots of brands do it.
Look up its clinical trials
You know the phrase ‘show don’t tell?’ Well, clinical trials are the way a brand shows its product works, beyond user testimonials and clever copy. Not every brand does them for every product, because clinical trials are expensive and take a long time. (And also, they’re not required by the government before the product goes to market.) But if they have, you’ll get a lot of information about how efficacious that product actually is. “If I’m going to pay over $60 for a product, I want to see a clinical study,” says Palermino.
And when in doubt, just play it safe
“From a safety standpoint, you actually can’t go wrong with the big brands.” says Fu. “They are responsible for pushing for and setting industry safety standards.” Beyond the La Roche-Posays of the world, if you’ve already run through steps one through seven with a particular brand, and had good results with their product, the safest bet is to stick to what you know. “Product lines are designed to work well together,” says Pavitt, “and they’re usually thoughtful about what gets paired.” For example, a brand that makes strong actives probably has a creamy, gentle cleanser (Alpha-H is a good example of this). You don’t have to buy into an entire lifestyle, you always have the option to simplify. The worst decision is a paralyzed one.
Photo via ITG