At the department store, you'll encounter trained sales associates ready to help you choose; at the drugstore, you're on your own, facing lengthy rows of pump bottles and squeeze tubes that all claim to moisturize, balance, tighten skin or erase wrinkles. How do you know what will work?
"The biggest difference in skin care is between prescription and nonprescription," says Dr. Jessica Wu, a dermatologist based in Westwood, California. "So without a doubt, prescription products will penetrate deeper and give a bigger result. But there are so many high-quality drugstore products that I recommend to my patients every day.
"It used to be just Phisoderm and Noxema," Wu says. "But formulations are now much more sophisticated and cater to people who want the lower price tag with a luxury feel."
Cheryl Mahoney, vice president of beauty for CVS/Pharmacy, says innovation is what drives the skin-care market. "We continue to find that new item innovation, and particularly the introduction of new technology, is driving the skin-care category," she said. "In particular, we've seen success within the anti-aging skin-care segment with products like Olay Pro-X and new item launches from Garnier."
With this wider array of options, the prices of many drugstore brands have increased, climbing above $20 in some cases. But for the most part, they remain lower than prestige items from specialty and department stores, which can cost at least twice as much. "Some of what you're paying for at department stores is the packaging, advertising and sales force," says Wu, who has her own skin-care line and has experienced the process of pricing firsthand.
To select skin-care products, start by assessing your skin type and any issues you want to address. Wu cites three common concerns:
"If you have breakouts, that means your pores are more susceptible to getting clogged," she says. She recommends that people with this skin type avoid heavy, oil-based products that can clog pores and even lead to milia cysts, which are hard, kernel-like bumps of oil and dead skin around the eye.
Very Dry Skin
"You can have very dry skin but still have breakouts," Wu says. "You'll want to look for non-oil ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid, which is a sugar molecule that holds moisture and is found in injectable fillers such as Juvederm, and glycerin, which also has strong moisturizing properties."
"The first signs of aging happen around the eyes, because the skin is thinner and we tend to be more expressive around that area," Wu says. Retinol and vitamin A derivatives known for combating the aging process are what Wu recommends most to patients, but she warns that the retinol in drugstore products is not regulated, as it is in prescription products. "Not all companies will list the exact ingredient or concentration," she says. "But I've found that the retinol in Olay products tends to be more gentle and less irritating on skin." Wu says she also has found the retinol concentration in RoC anti-aging products to be gentle but effective.
After assessing what kind of products might work for you, figuring out how many to use could be another puzzle. With toners, gels, scrubs and serums to choose from, it's difficult to determine what you really need. Wu says an effective skin-care regimen can be simplified to just one or two steps.
"Unless you wear makeup to bed or have very oily skin, washing your face with just water in the morning should be enough," she says. "For a lot of people, their skin's natural oils are a good way to moisturize the skin."
Wu recommends finding products that do double or triple duty, such as moisturizers with sunscreen and tint to even out skin tones. A spot treatment for blemishes is key for acne-prone skin and can be worn under the tinted moisturizer. For nighttime, she recommends a cleanser suited to your skin type, which you should use even if you don't wear makeup, to remove the dirt, grime and pollution that can settle onto skin during the day. A cream cleanser is best for dry, normal or sensitive skin because it's gentle and doesn't strip away natural oils. For oily or acne-prone skin, a gel or foaming cleanser works best, since foam helps break up the oils for a cleaner feeling.
Slather on a treatment product before sleeping. This can be a cream or a serum, but there's no real need to do both.
"Serums tend to have more concentrated ingredients, and they are lighter in feel, which is good if you don't like the heavy feel of a cream," Wu says. "But if your skin is dry, then a cream is better. You don't need both. After the first one or two products, any other products probably aren't doing anything."