How to Choose the Skincare Products Best Suited for Your Skin, According to Dermatologists
Cut back on the guesswork and follow this dermatologist-backed advice.
Unless you have a background in Latin or a degree in chemistry, reading the ingredients list on skincare products can be like reading a foreign language. That language actually has a name—it's the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. If you remember back to early science classes where you learned about the scientific method, it's a bit like that. The INCI exists to help create a standardized language of ingredient names to be used on labels around the world. Unfortunately, it's not super consumer friendly.
Sometimes manufacturers will throw the everyday consumer a bone, putting the more common name in parentheses next to the scientific name, like this: Tocopherol (Vitamin E). But without that little nudge, the ingredients list often just looks like a string of long unfamiliar words separated by commas.
Instead of doing detective work on our skincare products, it's a lot easier to follow the popularity vote and opt for products with a cult following, especially in the age of beauty influencers. But that's not always the best route. As simple as it would be, there's no one-size-fits-all skincare solution. As Jennifer David, MD, a dermatologist specializing in cosmetic dermatology and skin of color dermatology, explains, "What works for your best friend may not work for you."
An individualized approach is crucial to finding the right skincare products with the right ingredients for your skin. This takes a little extra time, and yes, it involves reading the ingredients list, but it's worth it.
Luckily for you, we talked to dermatologists to make the whole process a little less intimidating. With some of this information in your back pocket, you can be a more confident consumer, and hopefully avoid reactive skin disasters when trying out new products in the future.
Know your skin type
According to cosmetic dermatologist Michele Green, MD, skin type is the most important factor in determining what skincare products will work best for you. "There are no bad products necessarily, but sometimes people with different skin types use the wrong product for their type of skin," Dr. Green says.
You might have guessed it already, but those with acne-prone and sensitive skin need to be the most cautious with different ingredients in their skincare products. To all the oily skin types out there, you're actually the winners here: Oily skin can handle a wider range of ingredients that can sometimes trigger breakouts or irritation to other skin types.
These are the ingredients Dr. Green suggests for different skin types:
For oily skin: Look for products containing alpha hydroxy acids (glycolic acid or salicylic acid), benzoyl peroxide, and hyaluronic acid. "These ingredients are effective at controlling excess sebum production while hyaluronic acid will produce hydration only in areas needed," Dr. Green says.
For dry skin: Look for products containing shea butter and lactic acid. "These ingredients provide hydration and mild exfoliation to keep dry skin looking radiant," Dr. Green says.
For sensitive skin: Look for products containing aloe vera, oatmeal, and shea butter. "They're good moisturizers and they usually don't break anyone out," Dr. Green says.
If you're not 100 percent sure what skin type you have, it's worth a trip to the dermatologist to confirm. Once you understand your skin type, you can start selecting your products with a little more precision.
Don't buy into the hype
"Packaging and popularity are sometimes easy traps that we fall into and shouldn't hold too much weight or value into what we select for what's good for our skin," Dr. David says. If you're going to buy a product based off a friend or influencer's recommendation, you shouldn't just pay attention to how good their skin looks now, but instead what type of skin they were dealing with to start out. That will give you a more reliable indicator for how well the product will work for you.
In the past few years, cult-favorites like the St. Ives Apricot Scrub and multiple Mario Badescu creams have faced lawsuits from consumers who experienced some pretty serious adverse reactions. No need to panic if some of these products are sitting in your cosmetics drawer at home—this doesn't mean they're bad for everyone. But the backlash around some of these popular skincare brands and products can serve as a reminder that just because something gets the popularity vote doesn't mean that it's popular for the right reasons, or that it's the right product for you.
Checking the ingredients list is still the best way to go, no matter how many positive reviews or stars the product has online.
Ingredients to seek out
Dr. David calls this ingredient the backbone of moisturizing products.
Ceramides and hyaluronic acid
Both ingredients are important moisturizing agents that are naturally found in the skin. Dr. David says she prefers hyaluronic acid in the serum form, while she looks for glycerins and ceramides in lotions and creams.
L-Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)
Vitamin C, specifically the l-ascorbic acid form, is an antioxidant that works to reverse damage from UV radiation and stimulate collagen production.
Tocopherol (Vitamin E)
Vitamin E offers similar properties as Vitamin C and works best when the two are combined as a skincare power duo.
Retinol is a key ingredient to seek out in products for your nighttime routine. It works to turnover skin cells and stimulate collagen.
Niacinamide (Vitamin B3)
This ingredient is great for controlling oil while also hydrating the skin and evening out skin tone.
Ingredients to avoid
Added fragrances have a high prevalence of causing skin allergies and irritation, and it's especially important to avoid them if you have sensitive skin.
Sulfates are cleansing agents often found in body washes and shampoo. They strip the hair and skin of its natural oil and can, in turn, cause irritation.
Parabens are commonly placed in products as a chemical preservative to prevent bacterial growth. They're known to be what Dr. David and other industry experts call estrogen mimickers, and they can have a harmful effect over time by throwing off hormonal balance. Dr. David and Dr. Green both caution that this can be especially problematic for young children and those at risk of breast cancer.
Formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers
It's rare to see formaldehyde in an ingredient list anymore since it's classified as a known carcinogen. But Dr. David explains that it's often replaced with differently named chemicals (quanterium-15, DMDM hydantoin, diazolinge urea, imidazolidinge urea) that release formaldehyde over time to act as preservatives. Dr. David says it's not confirmed whether or not these ingredients are harmful in this capacity, but it's worth looking out for them as potential allergens.
Natural doesn't always mean better
Familiar words in the ingredients list can be comforting to see, but it doesn't always indicate the safest route to take. For example, Dr. David explains that poison ivy is a natural oil, but it's not one that you would want to rub all over your skin. "I have patients come in pretty frequently with reactions to natural essential oils, so again, it's one of those things where everyone is unique and you need to do what's best for yourself uniquely," Dr. David says.
She also warns that seeing the terms natural and organic on a product label is sometimes more of a marketing trick than anything else. Because those terms aren't regulated and there aren't specific industry standards for them, they can offer empty promises. Additionally, sometimes a product will be labeled as natural in reference to only one or two of the ingredients on the list.
Pay attention to the order of ingredients
Once you know what primary ingredients you're looking to avoid or go after, you'll want to pay attention to where they fall on the ingredients list. As a good rule of thumb, Dr. David recommends looking at the first five ingredients, since that will often account for about 80 percent of the product's makeup.
Ingredients will be listed in order of highest to lowest concentration, so if there's a problematic or potentially irritating ingredient among the first five listed, you'll want to steer clear of that product. Similarly, if you're seeking out a product for specific ingredients, but those ingredients are listed at the end, then that product isn't worth your money. With such a small percentage in the overall product, you won't experience the benefits of the ingredients at the end of the list.
Don't fear the long ingredients list
When it comes to the food we put in our body, we're often taught to look for a shorter, more familiar ingredients list. While a more abbreviated list can be easier to decipher, it won't always cut it in terms of what you're looking to get out of your skincare products.
When you're looking for anti-aging properties or investing in medical-grade skincare products, the ingredients list will naturally get a bit longer. And Dr. David says that shouldn't deter you. Instead, call in for a little bit of backup—either from a dermatologist or technology—to help determine if the product is a good choice for you.
Use your resources
You don't have to be a walking dictionary in order to pick out skincare products with the right ingredients. Make things a little easier on yourself by taking advantage of online resources. Dr. David suggests two online databases for ingredient and product research: EWG's Skin Deep database and CosDNA.
The EWG Skin Deep database is just one sector of their online services. The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit organization geared toward research and education surrounding environmental and human health issues. In the Skin Deep database, skincare products are rated and scored by a number of factors, from manufacturing practices to potential health hazards.
CosDNA is more of a no-frills database, but it dives even deeper into the ingredients in a product, detailing their individual functions and safety score.
Always do a patch test
A patch test is smart practice in your process of product elimination. (Plus, it's a great excuse to make a trip to Ulta or Sephora without spending a bunch of money.) Time to take advantage of those tester products
A patch test can help determine if certain products or ingredients will cause allergic reactions, irritate your skin, or clog your pores. "I think the take-home message is: If it's making your skin worse or irritating your skin in any way, stop using it, it's not the right product for you," Dr. Green says
Testing all your ingredients before committing to them takes a little more time at first, but it can save you a whole lot of money and grief in the end.