There's no denying the allure of a beautiful complexion - or of an illuminated department store beauty counter, filled with elegant frosted jars and sleek glass bottles that promise a dewy glow and taut skin. But there's also no denying the appeal of lower price tags, found on similar products at your local drugstore.
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?
Not to worry. There might not be too many differences.
"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."
In an effort to see for ourselves how drugstore products stack up, we took on the daunting task of checking out an array of cleansers, eye creams, wrinkle fillers and body lotions. All our selections were formulated in keeping with Wu's recommendations, and we asked an assortment of women ages 22 to 62 to give us their opinions after trying those suitable for their skin types for a week. What they told us in this admittedly subjective test is on the next page.
Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Redness Soothing Facial Cleanser, $7.99, 6 ounces
On the plus side: It made skin feel clean and soft (thanks to the aloe in the formula); took care of the oily parts without clogging pores, or making the skin feel dry, as cleansers often can. What we're not so sure about: The very strong aroma is almost like that of cologne.
Skin Effects by Dr. Jeffrey Dover Cleansing Effects Gentle Foaming Cleanser for Sensitive Skin, $6.99, 6.6 ounces
Thumbs up: A little bit seemed to go a long way, and the foamy lather felt good and nondrying as it cleaned. Thumbs down: It didn't seem to remove makeup, though it did clean the skin once makeup had already been removed.
Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer SPF 15, $11.99, 4 ounces
This felt too thick and kind of chalky as it went on but absorbed to end up feeling light and lasting all day. The sunscreen is a plus.
Aveeno Ultra-Calming SPF 15 Day Lotion, $16.99, 4 ounces
Smelled great; lightweight and smoothed on nicely, making skin feel as if it was getting more moisture, compared with some other products.
Lumene Sensitive Touch Cleansing Wipes Face and Eye Makeup Remover, $2.99 for 10 wipes
On the plus side: extremely gentle, with no parabens, colors or harsh ingredients; very good for taking off light facial makeup. Not so good: It took two to remove eye makeup.
Normal and Combination Skin
Pond's Clean Sweep Micro Dermabrasion Wet Cleansing Towelettes, $7.29 for 30 wipes
This is a great idea: One side cleanses, one exfoliates, and you can also use it to remove waterproof makeup. Not a plus: It took some rubbing to remove eye makeup -- and rubbing the eye area is a no-no.
Burt's Bees Radiance Day Creme with royal jelly, $17.99, 2 ounces
It's a heavier cream, good for dryer skin, and our tester said it made her skin glow so that even her husband noticed. If only it had sunscreen, it would be her go-to day cream.
Neutrogena Oil-Free Moisture for Combination Skin, $10.79, 4 ounces
Very light in texture, it felt good on the skin and didn't cause problems in the oily T-zone area. The downside: It has no sunscreen.
Basis Cleaner Clean Face Wash, $5.99, 6 ounces
This is a definite keeper. It cleans thoroughly, taking off makeup and stubborn mascara. It felt nice on the skin and smelled like a refreshing cucumber wash. A bonus: It's free of oils and soap.
CVS Oil-Free Eye Makeup Remover, $5.49, 4 ounces
Another keeper: It removed all eyeliner and mascara in one clean sweep without leaving oily residue or stinging the eyes. Smelled appealingly of rose water.
L'Oreal Eye Makeup Remover, $6.99, 4 ounces
Light, not heavy like a cream, and it did remove all eye makeup, including mascara. A plus: The kelly-green color looks kind of cool.
Neutrogena Extra Gentle Cleanser, $7.99, 6.7 ounces
On the plus side: This was very gentle and the pump bottle easy to use. The downside: If you're looking for a cleanser that has some kind of "extra" -- an exfoliating agent, a wake-up-and-tingle feel or citrus-pop scent -- this isn't it.
Neutrogena Ageless Essentials Continuous Hydration Cream Cleanser, $7.99, 5.1 ounces
Soft texture and scent, easy to wash off, and, impressively, worked better than a more expensive exfoliating cleanser.
Garnier Skin Renew Radiance Moisture Cream, $12.99, 1.7 ounces
The positives: It smelled great and would probably work well for someone with moderately dry skin. The negatives: It didn't feel creamy enough for really dry skin. And the bright packaging won't suit everyone's taste.
Purpose Gentle Cleansing Wash, $6.99, 6 ounces
An old fave that still trumps some department store brands. Makes the face feel clean, but not tight and dry, and does a good job removing tons of eye makeup. It even smells clean, and not too perfumey. The clear bottle is a nice touch, because you can see exactly how much is left.
CVS All Day Moisture Lotion SPF 15 for Sensitive Skin, $6.99, 4 ounces
Nice, light and supple. Absorbed quickly and left skin feeling young and dewy. The pump bottle makes it quick and easy to use.
Pond's Dry Skin Cream, $4.99, 3.9 ounces
This feels heavy enough to be a body butter. It didn't absorb readily, leaving an oily residue. It seemed too heavy for all but the driest skin, though a little dab around the dry eye area was soothing and worth repeating daily.
Aveeno Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser, $7.99, 6 ounces
It lived up to its billing. The foam means you don't need to use much to instantly feel fresh, clean and smooth. And it wasn't as harsh as some products can be.
Aveeno Clear Complexion Daily Moisturizer, $16.49, 4 ounces
The pluses: It moisturized without creating an oily T-zone and meshed well with mineral makeup. The negative: no sunscreen.
Burt's Bees Natural Acne Solutions Purifying Gel Cleanser, $9.99, 4 ounces
It cleaned but made the skin feel a bit too dry. And the aroma resembles orange-flavored cough syrup -- kind of off-putting.
Burt's Bees Natural Acne Solutions Pore Refining Scrub, $9.99, 5 ounces
Gentler than some exfoliants we've tried. It seemed to leave a bit of residue on the skin, so it might be best for night use only.
Clean & Clear Oil-Free Dual Action Moisturizer, $6.49, 4 ounces
The salicylic acid in the formula was a plus. After using this moisturizer along with a wash appropriate for her skin type, the tester said that her pores cleared up and that she experienced no breakouts. Another plus: It seemed less drying than some other products. On the downside: no sunscreen.
Olay Total Effects 7-in-1 Anti-aging Salicylic Acid Acne Cream Cleanser Plus Blemish Control, $12.94, 5 ounces
An all-around hit: It left skin feeling smooth, with a refined texture and a nice glow. The flip-cap made it easy to use.
Neutrogena Healthy Skin Anti-Wrinkle / Anti-Blemish Cream, $14.99, 1 ounce
Great texture, and it immediately softened skin. Makeup glided on smoothly over it. This could be a good product for someone with mild acne also looking to prevent wrinkles.
Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash, $7.99, 6 ounces
Aloe made skin feel pleasingly soft, and this wash worked well on combination skin, cleansing the oily parts without clogging pores and without drying out other areas of the face. The smell was notably strong, which could be a plus or minus depending on the user's preferences.
Olay Regenerist DNA Superstructure UV Cream, $24.99, 1.7 ounces
It went on smoothly and wasn't greasy. But proceed with caution if you're sensitive: One tester reported itchy eyes and couldn't continue using the product.
Lumene Premium BeautyRejuvenating Cream Cleanser for Mature Skin, $15.99, 5 ounces
This feels more like a cream than a cleanser and could be good for someone with very dry skin. For those with less dry skin, it didn't feel as if it was doing much cleaning. And it didn't remove eye makeup.
RoC Age Diminishing Day Cream, $14.99, 3 ounces
The rich texture seems meant for mature skin; a younger tester liked it on her neck and hands. But it was too heavy for combination skin. Kudos: This one does have sunscreen.
L'Oreal Age Perfect Rich RestorativeCream Cleanser for Mature Skin, $6.99, 5 ounces
Very creamy, but skin didn't feel clean after rinsing, and it didn't remove eye makeup. One tester also reported an allergic reaction when she used it around her eyes.
Aveeno Positively Ageless Daily Moisturizer SPF 30, $16.49, 4 ounces
A very good cream; it left skin feeling completely moisturized because the lotion absorbed so well. The SPF of 30 was a big plus.
Burt's Bees Naturally Ageless With Pomegranate and White Birch Bark Skin Firming Night Creme, $24.99, 2 ounces
Felt nice and silky, and the all-natural ingredients are a plus. The scent was somewhat off-putting, though.
RoC Retinol Correxion Deep Wrinkle Filler, $21.99, 1 ounce
Score! Applied before moisturizer, it made the area around the eyes look softer and more radiant.
RoC Retinol Correxion Eye Cream, $21.99, 0.5 ounce
No score. It seemed runny, and we didn't notice any difference in the puffiness or dark circles it's supposed to reduce.
Olay Regenerist Filling and Sealing Wrinkle Treatment, $21.99, 1 ounce
It went on satiny smooth and felt good on the skin. But there was no noticeable difference in the look of the fine lines at the corners of the eyes.
Boots No 7 Protect & Perfect Intense Beauty Serum, $22.99, 1 ounce
This has a cult following in Britain. We found that the light, easily absorbed formula made skin softer and smoother. But we didn't see any difference in skin tone or fine wrinkles.
L'Oreal Collagen Moisture Filler Daytime, $16.99, 2 ounces
Light but moisturizing, this worked well under makeup. The mild fragrance was appealing.
L'Oreal Collagen Remodeler Night Lotion, $19, 1.7 ounces
We found this to be effective for mature skin: After it was used for seven days, wrinkles on the forehead looked notably better.
Neutrogena Ageless Intensives Deep Wrinkle Moisture Night, $14.99, 1.4 ounces
Skin looked softer and tones were more even after we used this product, but the one-week trial wasn't long enough to work on wrinkles.
Lumene Time Freeze FirmingNight Cream, $21.99, 1.7 ounces
If you're a sucker for a rich night cream, this one doesn't disappoint. It hydrates, and after we used it for a week, skin glowed.
Olay Definity Night Restorative SleepCream, $29.99, 1.7 ounces
Another winning product, this one imparted smooth, soft skin and made the skin tones look even.
Olay Age Defying Revitalizing Eye Gel, $9.99, 0.5 ounce
It helped relieve puffiness, and it was non-irritating, even on very sensitive eyes.
Garnier Skin Renew Anti-Puff Eye Roller Gel, $12.99, 0.5 ounce
The little metal roller looked promising for delivering a cool, refreshing eye-calming serum. But the gel is thin and didn't seem to make a difference on stubborn eye bags. Still, it could be an option for people who don't like the feel of heavy eye cream.
Olay Quench Ultra Moisture Body Lotion, $9.99, 20.2 ounces
No dramatic results, but this seemed to be a fine everyday lotion that smelled and felt good on the skin. It absorbed quickly without leaving any residue.
Eucerin Plus Smoothing Essentials Fast Absorbing Lotion, $11.99, 16.9 ounces
Goes on smoothly, is odorless and doesn't leave a greasy film. Doctors recommend it for sensitive skin conditions, such as eczema.
Johnson's Body Care 24-hour Body Lotion, $5.99, 14 ounces
Skin felt much softer, though not for the full 24 hours. But it absorbed quickly and didn't leave a sticky residue, so jeans and tights pulled on smoothly right after application -- something we appreciate on those rushed mornings.
Nivea Body Skin Firming Moisturizer, $10.49, 13.5 ounces
We saw an immediate improvement in skin tone and texture. Use in conjunction with a more emollient lotion for dryer areas (hands, feet, elbows) and you'll be set.
Jergens Naturals Ultra Hydrating Daily Moisturizer, $7.49, 16.8 ounces
Moisturizing but nongreasy, it did the job and has a nice light scent.
Dove Cream Oil Shea Butter Body Lotion for Extra Dry Skin, $7.99, 13.5 ounces
Lighter than it sounds like it will be, and we found that using it just once a day made skin softer and more supple. But users have to like the fragrance of shea butter or this is a nonstarter.
Vaseline Cocoa Butter Vitalizing Gel Body Oil, $7.49, 6.8 ounces
Definitely a good moisturizer, and it imparts a natural glow, but perhaps it's a little too heavy for Los Angeles' mild climate.
Palmer's Cocoa Butter Formula with Vitamin E, $5.99, 8.5 ounces
It soothes, moisturizes, evens skin tone and helps prevent stretch marks, said our tester, who had used it before, when she was pregnant. Arms and legs felt moist all day, even in cold weather. Icing on the cake: It smells a little like chocolate.
Vaseline Sheer Infusion Mineral Renewal Body Lotion, $7.99, 6.8 ounces
This worked remarkably well on dry skin. It's thick but not goopy and lasted all day. This new line from Vaseline contains an ingredient called urea, which is generally prescribed for patients with eczema and not something common in over-the-counter products.