Like traveling to foreign lands, shopping for skin care can be disorienting. The landscape is strange. The people are pushy. And you don’t speak the language (hyaluronawha?). Here’s how to shop the aisles like a native.
TIME IT RIGHT
AT THE DEPARTMENT STORE:
Rooting out the latest anti-aging serums takes concentration, so don’t try it on Saks Double Points days. Department store skin-care floors are most peaceful in the early morning and mid-afternoon (2 p.m. to 4 p.m.) on Mondays and Tuesdays, when most of the world is at work. If you can’t shop then, hit the stores in the evening, early in the week—Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are quietest—or as soon as the doors open on weekends, suggests Barbara Zinn Moore, general merchandise manager of cosmetics and fragrances at Lord & Taylor.
AT THE DRUGSTORE: Expect the skin-care aisles to be more jammed than usual on Fridays and Saturdays.
ASK FOR HELP
Wherever you shop, ask the right questions: Is it safe for sensitive skin? How much should I apply, and how often? How long before I see results?
Even a top-notch scientist like Jeannette Graf, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, appreciates the insight salespeople at department stores have offered over the years. “They can be quite helpful in navigating the multitude of skin-care products at the counter,” she says. Still, be discerning. “Some salespeople stretch the truth,” says Elizabeth Tanzi, codirector of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery in Washington, D.C. (That goes for facialists, too.) So a little skepticism probably won’t hurt. And drugstores including Duane Reade, Walgreens, and CVS/Pharmacy now have salespeople trained in skin care and armed with testing devices—such as hydrometers, which measure skin’s moisture levels—so “they can give personalized advice based on specific needs,” says Boston dermatologist Ranella Hirsch, who consults for Vichy and helped test some of the diagnostic tools for CVS/Pharmacy’s Healthy Skincare Centers, where Vichy, Lierac, and La Roche-Posay are sold.
TRY BEFORE YOU BUY
Don’t underestimate the value of testing (especially if you have sensitive skin or allergies). “For some women, skin care has to feel and smell good—be a pleasure to apply—for them to use it every day,” says Graf. Skip the communal tester, and ask to take some home. At some stores, like Lord & Taylor and Nordstrom, salespeople keep mini pots on hand so they can make freebies if they run out of prepackaged samples. Drugstores including CVS/Pharmacy, Duane Reade, and Walgreens are also generous.
For those with eczema or skin allergies, Audrey Kunin, a clinical instructor of dermatology at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, recommends avoiding dyes, fragrances, and essential oils. Botanical ingredients can also cause allergic reactions, says Mary Lupo, a clinical professor of dermatology at Tulane University in New Orleans. Exfoliating products—grainy scrubs, glycolic acid cleansers, retinol creams—can also inflame the skin. They’re not necessarily off-limits, but it’s safest to ease in with the mildest ones, like a creamy scrub with soft, synthetic beads; a low-strength, buffered glycolic wash (meaning its pH is higher and less likely to cause burning and irritation); or a less intense form or concentration of a retinoid that’s geared toward sensitive skin.
Always test products first on your inner forearm—the skin there is similar in thickness to that of the face.
Big skin-care companies tend to have strong research-and-development departments that produce proven formulas. Another reason to go with a name you know: Many crucial facts about formulations are not revealed on most ingredient labels—type of delivery system, quality of raw materials, even the concentration of some of the most important ingredients. For instance, peptides, the tiny amino acids that trigger collagen production in the skin, are usually present in mysterious quantities. “You’ll never know the percentage of peptides in a product,” says Graf. “But a good, reliable company will ensure its delivery system is viable.”
DECIDE WHEN TO SPEND
If you’re going to buy an expensive skin-care product, make it sunscreen or retinol. Many dermatologists prefer sunscreens with physical filters, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, because they aren’t irritating and don’t break down quickly. But here’s the catch: They have to be formulated well to blend in easily and invisibly on the skin, and feel so light and silky that you’ll actually use the product. (La Roche-Posay Anthelios 50 Mineral Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid and Chanel Précision UV Essentiel Multi-Protection Daily UV Care SPF 50 meet the criteria.) In its purest, most effective form, retinol (which improves fine lines and dark spots, stimulates collagen production, clears minor blemishes, and even reduces pore size) is an expensive ingredient, one that has to be carefully formulated to maintain stability and minimize irritation. These factors contribute to its cost. If you need to skimp on something, make it cleanser, the product that gets the least amount of face time.
LOOK FOR PRACTICAL PACKAGING
Skin-care packaging should serve one main purpose—and it’s not to beautify your bathroom. It has to protect delicate ingredients, like retinoids and antioxidants, from light and air, which can cause them to destabilize and lose potency. “Generic tubes used for pharmaceutical products are generally aluminum with tiny openings,” says cosmetic chemist Jim Hammer. Opaque, airtight pump bottles can also safeguard sensitive ingredients.
LEARN ABOUT RETURNS
Every department store has a different policy, but according to Lord & Taylor’s Zinn Moore, if you keep the original box and receipt, you shouldn’t have a problem returning skin-care products to a department store within 30 or 90 days (depending on the specific store). Barneys New York and Nordstrom take a similar approach, determining the fate of returns on a case-by-case basis. For drugstores, CVS/Pharmacy takes back any beauty product, opened or not, with a receipt. At other stores, like Walgreens, managers usually decide whether or not to give a refund for cosmetics—and, if granted, it often comes in the form of store credit. Always inquire about returns before buying.
You need to use most products consistently, for at least eight weeks, to see what they can do. (Acne spot treatments work faster, clearing minor blemishes in as little as a day or two.) Some women have to wait even longer. “No truer words have ever been spoken in beauty than ‘Individual results may vary,’ ” says Lupo. How your skin responds to a product depends on your physiology, metabolism, and underlying issues, she explains. But if you’ve done your homework and chosen a smart product, give it time. “Beautiful skin is a lifelong process,” says Kunin. “But you’ll get there.”