We equate price with value, so when something is high priced, the assumption is that what we’re purchasing is of quality. Certainly, this is usually true of many things: If you buy the expensive salmon at the store, chances are it’s very fresh and wild-caught. If you opt for the more expensive airline seats, you’re expecting much more legroom and amenities than the budget option. But when it comes to skincare products, you can spend 450$ on less than 4 ounces of a well touted beauty product, only to discover when reading the ingredients the main ingredients are algae and petroleum (yes- we’re talking Vaseline and the readily available sea vegetable lining every beach in California). Even more confusing, is that thousands of user reviews rave about this pricey product, despite containing a rather simplistic ingredient list containing nothing that has any research to support it’s “miraculous” claims. Why? The answer is much more complex than simple ingredients.
While it may seem like I’m singling out one product, I simply highlight this type of cream, because it’s a perfect example of a fabulously marketed product that has successfully gathered a following, despite not having any active ingredients that effect skin’s health and cell structure. There are many other products sold at department stores and upscale boutiques that are well over 500$ with ingredients that are similar or even identical to a product from Olay or Neutrogena.
Though we would like to believe that we select products based on results first and foremost, the truth is that the psychology behind beauty product consumption is a fascinating and complicated world. It’s been well-studied by these big companies that we buy products because of how they make us feel emotionally, where they are sold, how they smell, (I don’t care what you say, we’ve all bought a hair product solely based on smell), how the bottle looks, what the font communicates, what the color of the product tells us, what the advertising imparts on us, how the bottle feels. We don’t just buy product because they work, we buy them because of the whole experience.
So how do I know what works and what doesn’t?
Though this may seem like an obvious “turn around the bottle and look at the ingredients” situation, skin’s chemistry varies person to person, and one well-studied ingredient may behave different in your skin compared to someone else’s, and the quality of those active ingredients can vary greatly. Much like culinary ingredients, there is a disparity in quality even if they are identical (canned tuna and wild caught sashimi tuna are technically the same thing, but there is clearly a difference). Still, the foundation of picking out a good product is finding ingredients you can recognize as valuable for your skin rather than inert (or even harmful).
The biggest mistakes when selecting a product:
Going based on reviews online. Though we’re all guilty of getting excited over a product based on glowing reviews online, this seemingly leveled playing field, isn’t. People tend to review things when they have an exceptional experience, rather than an uneventful one (when have you felt compelled to review that a-OK conditioner under your skin?). Another reason, and more obvious, is that companies work to get good reviews out there. Having interns write review on major websites, sending free products to bloggers, and editing their own company website to filter out negative reviews. You also do not know how long the person has used the product (the real results come about 4-6 weeks into using a product), and the initial excitement can come from the great feeling inert emollient ingredients (hello petroleum jelly) give their skin. Most people write reviews within the first 4 days of owning a product, and it’s physiologically impossible for a product to affect your skin’s cell structure in a visible way within that time frame.
Going to a department store without doing research. If you know me, you know I give department store products a hard time for being well-marketed, well-packaged, and well-presented without a lot of innovation or results behind them. I actually like plenty of products in luxury department stores, but I find that you are often sifting through the ultra-convincing sales associate’s enthusiasm for their latest product to figure out what really works, and leaving with something you’ve only tried on the back of your hand, along with an absolutely necessary toning lotion you has no idea you needed until you spoke to the sales associate. Do your research: If a product looks interesting to you, check out the 4 star reviews (not the 5 star), find the full ingredient list, and go in with the intention of getting samples first. Virtually all department stores can make you a custom sample, and if the product is high-priced, they should understand that you need to trial it first.
Trusting the professionals without question. Doctors, estheticians, hair stylists, nurses and beyond are all benefiting from your purchase in some way. You’d think I’d not bring this up as an esthetician myself, but there is truth to it. The difference here, is that professionals have more education than a sales associate, have the freedom (in some cases) to hand select the products they offer, and ideally want to form a relationship with you and have you see them again. This is our career, and we aim to have integrity and develop a clientele in part, based on this. However, in many spas and practices, relationships with skin care companies form based on factors other than quality. In destination type spas, that cater to the “special occasion” clients, (birthdays, gift certificates, bachelorette parties, and tourists) it’s rare the esthetician team will have much say in what products are used, and it’s also very common for their to be high-pressure sales quotas. Even in small spas, the products used may be based on a personal relationship the owner or manager has with a company. The same is true for medical practices. It’s perfectly fine to ask your facialist who selected the products for the spa, and to request samples. I love giving my clients samples, because it always means they will visit me again once they discover they like them, or if they don’t, we can figure out something else together. Though I personally select the products I carry, and have a long-standing relationship with the companies, I encourage my clients to start small on products and take samples.
How to research a product
Get the full ingredient list: Though you’ll find many companies don’t disclose their full list of ingredients on their websites, there are many sites dedicated to disclosing this. Not having a full list of ingredients is not a bad sign- it’s simply more exciting to most people to know about the key ingredients they can identify, and it’s better marketing. Keep in mind though, many own these websites dedicated to disclosing other companies full ingredient lists are owned skin care companies themselves, and will be quick to discredit other companies claims.
Evaluate the main ingredients, but don’t ignore the last ones. Though we know that the ingredients are listed in order of concentration, the final ingredients tend to clue us into the safety of a product. Fragrance, colorants, parabens, and a whole array of irritants make their appearance in small concentrations. A web search will give you lots of data on ingredients you don’t recognize. Though some people handle fragrance or dyes just fine, it’s ideal to avoid products that preserve with parabens: parabens are a powerful preservative that have been found to be in over 90% of malignant tumors. Beyond that, a product that is capable of sitting on a shelf unspoiled for years is not likely very bio-available for your skin (would you want to eat an orange that could appear fresh after 5 years?).
Don’t be afraid to ask for samples. Take it from someone who’s worked for a handful of luxury department stores and still shops at them: if you’re friendly, and let the sales associate know right out of the gate that you want to try samples of their recommendations, they appreciate your sincerity and will be happy to provide you with samples. Most department stores will create samples of products they do not have pre-packaged. Though eye cream samples are rare because of the small size of the product, no company should make you feel a product is “too valuable” to sample. On the contrary, if a product is very expensive, you should be expected to trial it before you invest in a bottle. Though a brief trial period won’t quite tell you everything about how a product works with your skin, it will tell you if you’re allergic and if you generally like the direction it’s taking your skin. In cases of spas and doctor’s offices, samples are rare because you aren’t going directly to the company and the product companies aren’t set up for a mass market, but it never hurts to ask nicely. It also helps to do this in the middle of a week day, when they have fewer customers to consult and you can make a personal connection to them.
Understand the market When you’re going through skin care products at a health food store, the skin care products are marketed towards an ingredient conscious consumer. When you enter a luxurious department store, the products are marketed towards providing a luxurious experience. When you enter a dermatology practice, the products are marketed towards a results oriented experience. The truth is, we enjoy all 3, so there is a lot of overlap and there is no guarantee that if you go to Whole Foods for your products, your guaranteed something truly holistic, nor is it a guarantee what your dermatologist sells is seriously clinical. Marketing works, because we enjoy it. We are highly visual by our nature as humans, and the whole sensory experience of purchasing product is enticing because of this. Enjoy it. But be smart in the process, and evaluate whether what’s in that pretty jar is really working for you.