Ever wonder why certain skin care products — especially ones that tout revolutionary anti-aging capabilities — can sometimes cost an arm and a leg? In most cases, when you purchase one of these high-end products, you’re simply paying for the packaging and the branding. But there are other reasons skin care products can be so pricey — some small companies have high production and marketing costs, plus expensive ingredients.
But it’s important to remember that expensive does not mean better. “Do not be fooled into purchasing expensive products in a specialty store or department store counter without carefully examining the ingredient list,” Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D., a Beverly Hills-based dermatologist, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. To help you navigate the pricey waters of the skin care industry, we talked to top dermatologists to find out exactly how you can tell if a product’s worth your hard-earned money.
1. It contains retinol
Retinol, also known as vitamin A, is a potent skin care ingredient that has many benefits. “It’s great for acne breakouts, great for dark spots, and it’s powerfully anti-aging,” Alan J. Parks, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of DermWarehouse, told us. “It helps renew skin cells and rejuvenates skin to give you that coveted glow.”
For first-time retinol users, Parks recommends SkinMedica Retinol Complex. “This nighttime, 0.5% retinol-based treatment really does renew the skin and diminish the appearance of fine lines,” he said.
2. It contains hyaluronic acid
“This ingredient can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water, so it’s extremely hydrating and greatly helps to reduce dryness, which are key factors in reducing the appearance of aging,” explained Parks. In his expert opinion, it’s worth spending more to get a product that has this ingredient in it, or better yet, one that’s predominantly made of hyaluronic acid. He recommends PCA Skin Hyaluronic Acid Boosting Serum, a product that plumps and firms skin through increased hydration.
3. It’s mostly made of high-quality ingredients
If you’re purchasing a product because it contains a particular active ingredient that you would like to include in your skin care regimen, be sure there is a sufficient quantity and that it’s stable within that formulation. “If a product boasts that it contains a specific ingredient, that ingredient should be among the first three ingredients in the list,” Shainhouse explained. “Ingredients are supposed to be listed in order of quantity and concentration, so if your ingredients of interest is down at number seven or 10, don’t expect it to have a significant clinical effect.”
4. It’s a serum
Because skin serums contain very concentrated levels of ingredients, they are meant to target very specific skin concerns. “Serums are lighter than creams or lotions, which allows your skin to better absorb their nutrients,” Parks noted. “When it absorbs the product more easily, your skin looks younger and healthier.” A favorite of Parks’ is Glytone Age-Defying Vitamin C&E Serum. “It’s a rejuvenating serum you can use both day and night and it really works to prevent premature signs of aging,” he said.
5. It has sunscreen in it
You probably already know the vast majority of aging is from sun damage, which occurs over time. “If you only make efforts to correct the sun damage, without further protection in the form of SPF, you’re never going to see any improvement,” Parks said. “Sunscreen should be worn every day of the year regardless of the weather outside.” His favorite SPF-containing anti-aging products include DCL Skin Renewal Complex SPF 30 and La Roche Posay Anthelios AOX Daily Antioxidant Serum With Sunscreen.
6. It contains a high concentration of the active ingredient
“The concentration or version of a particular active ingredient may be more effective in achieving a specific skin care goal when used in a prescription strength,” Shainhouse explained. For example, over-the-counter retinols are less potent, plant-based versions that may be less irritating to sensitive or mature skin. However, it may take much longer to demonstrate a clinical effect. “Prescription tretinoin, adapalene and tazarotene are stronger, and may be more irritating at first, but will produce quicker and better effects than over-the-counter options,” Shainhouse added.
7. It enhances the other products you’re using
There are countless products on the market that claim to make the cleansers, creams, and lotions you’re using work even harder for your skin. Such products include deep-cleaning and exfoliating devices, and even wrinkle-reducing ingredients. “Some of these are really worth it at the end of the day,” Parks said. “For example, the Mira-Skin Ultrasound device gently pushes products deep into the skin tissues, allowing them to reach their maximum potential.” In this case, it’s worth the splurge.
8. The product fits your skin type and skin concerns
You not only need to find products that will concentrate on the specific concerns you have, but they also need to be appropriate for your skin type. For example, if you have really oily skin, you should not be using a heavy lotion. “Make sure you look at what skin type the products you’re purchasing are best suited for,” Parks said. “If they don’t match yours, you should find something else, as using products that aren’t meant for your skin type won’t work in the way that they should or may even have adverse reactions.”
9. The product has a high-quality texture
Expensive anti-aging products may have a better texture and skin feel than impostors. “If this texture is enough to make you actually apply the product every day, paying a little more may be worth it for you,” Shainhouse said. “It’s not worth it to purchase a cheaper product that you feel ‘guilted’ into using regularly.”
10. The company has conducted studies on their products
Your face is certainly not the best playing field for trying out unproven ingredients. That’s why it’s important to make sure you’re using products that have been given the green light after some testing. “Look to see if the product you’re thinking of purchasing has clinical trials behind it,” Parks said. “These trials will actually prove whether or not a product works.” Instead of listening to the claims of the brand, you can base your decision off actual data from the study. It’s worth spending your money on a product that has some numbers behind it.
11. It has great customer reviews
While not all brands, especially small start-ups, have enough money to conduct clinical trials, that doesn’t mean the product can’t be proven by other means. Spend some time reading customer reviews and gaining an understanding of what their experience with the product was like before you make your purchase. If reviews are mixed, you may want to look elsewhere. If everyone is having a great experience with a product, chances are you will too.
12. You’ll be able to afford buying it on a regular basis
Improvement is not going to happen overnight and it may take months to see positive changes. That’s why it’s important to make sure you can afford to buy the pricey cream or serum again and again. “If you won’t be able to afford buying the product more than once, it’s probably not worth investing in in the first place,” Parks said.
[Editor’s note: This article was originally published April 2017]