Most women and almost half of men invest in skincare products, but knowing what to choose when pacing the cosmetics aisle can be complicated.
Buzzwords and ingredients that take a degree to understand mean we often end up putting our faith in marketing or recommendations from Instagram.
We asked the experts about differentiating “hope in a bottle” from products that will actually give you the results you desire, and what red flags to watch out for.
Understand the ingredients
Big words and long lists
If your eyes go a bit fuzzy when trying to decipher the ingredients on the label of face cream, you’re not alone.
“Most creams have so many ingredients with complicated names that it is impossible to know what they all are,” dermatologist Cara McDonald says.
But concentrating on the first five to seven is most important, says dermatology expert Yousuf Mohammed from the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute Faculty of Medicine.
That’s because they are generally listed in order of concentration.
“Break it down into what ingredients are helpful and what is harmful [for your particular skin]. If you find anything that will hurt in the top five, then that’s cause for alarm,” Dr Mohammed says.Streamline your skincare routineLet’s get back to the basics of good skincare.Read more
Items that work to increase moisture in the skin, such as glycerol, should feature in the top three or four ingredients, Dr Mohammed says.
You could also expect to see water, glycerin, PEG (polyethylene glycol) and natural oils in the highest concentrations, he says.
“The only way to moisturise skin is maintain the water that would otherwise escape — glycerol, for example, does that.
Irritants and allergic reactions
People with sensitive skin or allergies need to pay particular attention to ingredients.
“If you have sensitive or allergic skin, then look for products that are specifically formulated for this,” Dr McDonald says.
“In general, they will have much shorter ingredient lists. They should specifically be paraben — a preservative — and fragrance free.”Do you really need to moisturise?Sun exposure, hot showers and dry soaps can dry out our skin. But does moisturiser really help? And are expensive options really any better than basic supermarket brands?Read more
But be aware: fragrance-free and hypoallergenic products are marketed as better for sensitive skin, but many of those products do in fact contain “fragrance cross-reactor or botanical ingredients“.
And not all irritation means you need to stop using the product, Dr McDonald explains.
“Some irritation early on in medical-grade products is expected. But the results will follow if you push past this point slowly.”
She says slight stinging that settles in a few minutes, mild redness, a tight feeling and/or “very mild” peeling are common as the skin adapts to new active ingredients.
“I advise patients to drop the application to every second day until irritation settles, then return to daily application.
“If the irritation worsens or is characterised by significant itch or severe redness, then the product should be ceased altogether.”
Don’t fall for marketing techniques
The beauty industry is drowning in empty promises and misleading marketing, but these home truths might help you avoid the traps.
Manage anti-ageing expectations
The world of face creams is a “minefield”, explains Catherine Reid from the Australasian College of Dermatologists. She says it’s particularly tricky when it comes to anti-ageing creams.
She says tretinoin is the only chemical scientifically proven to increase collagen in the skin — and is a classified drug rather than a cosmetic.
“Medical-strength tretinoin is the best chemical in anti-ageing products and requires a prescription. Many products contain retinol, which is not the same thing,” Dr Reid says.
“Retinol is found in many products that don’t require a prescription and is much weaker than tretinoin.
“Retinol has lower efficacy as it needs to be converted by enzymes in the skin to retinoic acid.”Sunscreen is just as important for people with darker skin tonesA common and pervasive misconception is that dark-skinned people don’t need sunscreen. Here’s why that’s not true.Read more
Dr McDonald echoes this, adding niacinamide also has shown to “provide a broad array of improvements in the appearance of ageing facial skin”.
But she says even when these ingredients are included in creams, they are not in “active concentrations or formulations”.
“Most ingredients in cream do not penetrate the skin and therefore they have no real activity in terms of anti-ageing.”
Expensive doesn’t mean better
Most moisturisers contain a large percentage of water, and you’re “often just paying for the perfume and the packaging”, Dr Reid says.
“Expensive products are not necessarily better for you and cheap moisturisers will do the same for your skin.”
Dr Mohammed agrees, saying “more money doesn’t mean better product”.
New and improved is ‘a bummer’
Products advertising they are world-firsts or “new and improved” isn’t necessarily a good thing, Dr Mohammed warns.
“In that industry you don’t really need proved clinical trials before something becomes available.”
He says if a favourite product of yours changes, that’s “a bummer”, because you’re essentially starting from scratch in terms of trialling its effectiveness.
Trends and “what’s popular on Instagram” can also often lead people to buy the wrong products for their skin type, Dr Mohammed warns.
“Always do a patch test to make sure it’s working for you,” he says, recommending using tester products on the neck or back of the hand.
‘Natural’ and ‘organic’ are marketing terms
Watch out for ‘natural’ and ‘organic’.
The biggest misconception about face creams is natural or organic products are better, Dr McDonald says.
“Unfortunately these are usually simply marketing terms and don’t mean anything in terms of reduced risk or improved benefits,” she says.
Don’t let it be all for nothing
If you’re not applying sunscreen daily, other “lotions and potions are just hope in a container,” warns Dr Reid.
“I often ask people, if you are stranded on a desert island, what one product would you take to look after your face? They all say moisturiser,” she says.
“Unless you are using a sunscreen, you are wasting your time buying products that claim to have anti-ageing properties, because UV radiation is the main cause of ageing Australia.”
Use face creams correctly
Proper application of your face cream is all about the amount and timing, explains Dr Mohammed.
“Fifteen milligrams per 1 centimetre square of skin, or a pea-sized droplet for a palm-sized area,” is what he recommends, with the exception of high-potency products like serums which require less.
He says collagen-boosting products are best used at night, when the body is already trying to do that anyway.
Dr McDonald says consistency is key, rather than “switching all the time” to try new products.
“Stick with a regime that will see long-term benefits.”
This article contains general information only. It should not be relied on as advice in relation to your particular circumstances and issues, for which you should obtain specific, independent professional advice.