Right now, I feel like I have a degree in WTF and an inbox that resembles a chemistry lab. Polyhydroxy acids! Astaxanthin! Tranexamic acid! It’s hard to keep up as a journalist, let alone a beauty shopper, especially when you throw in the oceans of online advice.
“The skincare landscape today is absolutely saturated,” confirms Kristy Cimesa, founder of healing skincare brand Botánico Vida. “It can be extremely confusing for consumers to make an informed choice.” Sure, we did ask for this new landscape: we wanted transparency and in-depth information about our products, and we sought out accessible platforms beyond GPs, clinics or on-counter (and on-commission) sales staff. But as a new Mintel report claims that 54% of UK women aged 20 to 29 have simplified their skincare routines, has this competitive flood of science, expertise and variety backfired into intimidating overkill?
Skincare has become an overwhelming landscape – from thousands of brands to baffling ingredients jargon and confusing claims. Alice du Parcq cuts through the BS*
*That’s beauty speak
“Soliberine is the new superhero antioxidant to commute-proof your skin!” Sorry, soli-what-now? This is the opening line of the ninth email I’ve received this week pushing a new ingredient, which, to be honest, I can’t even pronounce. I should, because I’ve been a beauty writer for 18 years, quizzed hundreds of derms – plus I have a degree in anatomy and physiology.
Unpronounceable names aside, this skincare noise starts with the overwhelming choice on offer. At Feelunique, there are currently almost 4,000 skincare products from more than 300 brands. Then there’s the colossal pool of online influencers, YouTube tutorials and blogs owning skincare; but with the added uncertainty of hidden #Spon agendas and paid-for opinions, making it impossible to know who to trust.
And the product rituals are baffling, too: can you layer powerful serums? Which moisturisers should you use with them to avoid the dreaded ‘pilling’? And what’s with the insane pricing structure? In this super-lucrative market, where UK consumers spend £2.2billion a year on skincare, it feels like we’re being hoodwinked when, say, a high-grade hyaluronic acid serum can cost under £10 from one brand, but is sold for over £200 by another.
Plus, “It’s confusing when two respected experts give me contradicting statements,” says beauty blogger Emma Hoareau. “For example, a doctor-led brand believes in daily chemical exfoliation, while a natural brand suggests exfoliation should happen, well, naturally. I learn as much as I can and form my own opinion through trial and error, but it can be daunting, and I often feel lost on what my opinion should be.”
So, I’m not alone then – because it was starting to get seriously awks. At a luxury moisturiser launch recently, I literally had to put my hand up in front of a dozen big-time beauty directors to ask the brand’s dermatologist to repeat the ‘science bit’. #Dies. But after we all left, over half the directors DM’d me to say, “I’m so glad you asked, they lost me at ‘hello’.”
And even for someone as clued up as beauty blogger Elle McNamara of @bambidoesbeauty – who curates a feed packed with relatable and info-rich content – the pressure is real. “My I’m-in-way-over-my-head moment was when I was filming YouTube videos for a major beauty retailer on decoding [skincare brand] The Ordinary,” says Elle. “I left feeling a big dose of imposter syndrome for not knowing my azelaic from my alpha arbutin.”
For the record, I didn’t know the difference either, but a search on Paula’s Choice (my go-to for ingredients intel compiled by professionals), tells me azelaic is an exfoliating acid, and alpha arbutin is a sugar derivative that prevents hyper-pigmentation.
Only a qualified aesthetician or dermatologist should prescribe a bespoke routine, however self-education brings empowerment and confidence in an industry that has made consumers feel the opposite. For years, we’ve been bedazzled by sales tactics, empty promises and obscure product names that mean eff-all – and millennials were the first to call it out.
It started with cult brands such as The Ordinary, SkinCeuticals and Paula’s Choice offering science-led products and lab-level insights. Then, like a small army of beauty Robin Hoods, niche brands such as The Inkey List, Revolution Skincare, Allies Of Skin, Beauty Pie and Likami galloped in behind them, tearing through the marketing BS for good.
“We realised the industry had hit peak crazy when we were discussing a large company that was betting against the laws of physics with ‘anti-gravity’ skincare that could reverse ‘vertical’ wrinkles!” says Mark Curry, co-founder of The Inkey List.
“At that moment, the essence of The Inkey List was born: an affordable line that offered knowledge and power to help consumers improve their skin against the backdrop of rubbish marketing claims.”
Like many of the new low-cost, high-efficiency brands, The Inkey List (an industry term for ‘ingredients list’) offers individual ingredients delivered in basic textures (such as in its Hyaluronic Acid Serum and Vitamin C Serum) and spells out on its packaging precisely what it does – and how to use it within your routine. The prices are low since they go direct to the raw-ingredients manufacturers and skip any unnecessary costs, such as excess packaging and advertising.
This desire for no-faff face solutions is written all over the ’gram too: “Skin-fluent followers want science and hard evidence, with ethical practices in an industry that’s often been seen as wasteful,” says Elle. “That’s what’s parting consumers with their cash and getting products coveted spots on Instagram shelfies.”
So despite this chemistry master’s level of complexity, the outcome is positive if all the noise makes us put our fingers in our ears and listen to our sensible inner voice: we all need to be responsible for our own skincare fluency. As for seeking out advice, “Misinformation is rife, particularly online,” warns Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson. “Taking advice from trusted sources, experts in their field, and reputable websites is key in making better choices.”
Personally, I find ‘trusted sources’ a contentious area. Many of my peers who are now Instagram or YouTube influencers do flag it up when they do paid-for content, but when every post is an #Ad or #Spon, it’s easy to miss the very few unbiased and authentic reviews. Also, their opinion of a brand often blurs with objective intel. “You have to determine what is fact and what is just someone’s preference,” suggests Elle.
“One of my favourite ways to educate myself is by listening to podcast interviews with qualified doctors who know their stuff. I also love watching YouTube videos of the OG skincare gurus, such as Nadine Baggott and Sali Hughes; their experience and knowledge is a trustworthy source for me. I use Paula’s Choice’s for reference, too. Not all information out there is impartial. I try to take the facts and form my own opinions.”
The skin-sensible plan
As for what to use – and when – firstly, edit out any unnecessary steps in your routine. “The problem is not the ingredients, it’s the combination of using different brands without following a specific regime,” says Linda Blahr, national head of education and training at SkinCeuticals. “The mixture of products can overwhelm the skin and cause inflammatory breakouts.”
Secondly, be cautious of gimmicks, warns the oracle of beauty, Paula Begoun, founder of Paula’s Choice. “For example, jade rollers don’t deliver on the promise to help ingredients penetrate better. They pull skin, which can increase sagging. Daily use of derma rollers repeatedly wounds skin, eventually causing collagen to become brittle.”
Sheet masks don’t get her vote, either: “There’s no research that shows they work better than a well-formulated moisturiser,” she says, adding we should also avoid essential oils as they cause inflammation: your skin’s No1 enemy. Next, it’s about creating a simple plan to cleanse, hydrate, prevent and protect your skin depending on your own needs. Use the glossary (see right) as a starting point – and if you have problematic skin, consult your GP for guidance.
Oh, and as for that soliberine? I did my homework: it’s an antioxidant that reduces damage caused by high-energy visible (HEV) blue light emitted from digital screens. But it’s not as efficient as vitamin C, which is so highly regarded it’s taken centre stage in every R&D lab developing skincare formulations. Given that I’ve accumulated a billion hours of blue-light exposure while researching this piece, it’s a no-brainer: *adds vitamin C to cart*.
THE GLOW GLOSSARY
We’ve decoded the skin science spiel – no degree necessary
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) + beta hydroxy acids (BHAs)
Both are topical acids that help ‘unglue’ dead skin cells that accumulate on your skin. AHAs (eg lactic acid or glycolic acid) are water-soluble and only work on the skin’s surface, so better suit dry or sensitive skin. BHAs (eg salicylic acid) are oil soluble and penetrate deep inside the pores, so are more effective on oilier complexions. “Most people benefit from gentle leave-on AHAs or BHAs,” says Paula Begoun.
“These make a remarkable – almost overnight – improvement in clogged pores, breakouts and texture, and they can significantly improve hydration. Helping skin shed dead surface cells is a gamechanger.”
Use Swiped over your skin after cleansing, before your serum.
We love… Ready, Steady, Glow Daily AHA Tonic, £25, Ren and 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, £28, Paula’s Choice.
…is an antioxidant. Antioxidants interrupt and prevent cell oxidation – damage caused by free radicals produced by toxins such as UV rays, pollution, HEV blue light, alcohol, sugar and stress. Oral vitamin C won’t protect your skin as efficiently as a cream or serum.
“A topical antioxidant containing vitamin C has brightening benefits that can help fade scarring and pigmentation,” says Linda Blahr. “The earlier you start, the better.”
Use As a morning serum. For problematic skin, use a higher percentage (20%). For fragile skin, go lower (around 5%).
We love… C E Ferulic, £135, SkinCeuticals and Biolumin-C Serum, £81.50, Dermalogica.
NB: low-cost formulas often have a ‘tacky’ texture, so we’ve suggested ones that won’t interfere with make-up application.
A (non-prescription) form of vitamin A, retinol supercharges collagen production, meaning fewer lines, faded pigmentation and a fresher, smoother complexion. “It is the gold standard of skin renewal,” says Mark Curry. Much like vitamin C, this is an essential ingredient to cope with the external and internal aggressors that damage our skin. It’s potent, so, “Start with a slow-release version,” he adds. Try a low percentage or gentle formula (around 0.3%) every other night, increasing gradually to 1%.
Use In a serum or mask at night, as UV radiation in the day breaks most retinols down, making them ineffective. It can cause irritation, so add a facial oil or moisturiser on top if you need extra comfort.
We love… Low dose: Regenerist Retinol24 Night Serum, £34.99, Olay, and medium-to-high dose: Retinol Youth Renewal Serum, £75, Murad.
This is naturally produced by our bodies to keep our connective tissues and organs lubricated. In skincare products, it is derived from sugar cane and works by clinging onto water in and around cells. “Hyaluronic acid is essential for keeping skin moisturised,” says Alicia Schweiger, co-founder of Elixseri. “Dehydration is the primary cause of skin concerns in younger consumers. Use on damp skin to amplify the effects.”
Use In a serum, every morning and evening, immediately after cleansing while skin is still slightly wet, before moisturiser. You can apply vitamin C or retinol serums on top of hyaluronic acid.
We love… Rescue Diver Multi-Level Hydration Cell Plumping Infusion, £85, Elixseri and Hyaluronic Acid Serum, £5.99, The Inkey List.
These are the building blocks of healthy cell membranes. If your skin is particularly dry and sensitive, a fatty acid-based moisturiser can provide quenching comfort and help to reinforce your skin’s protective barrier. “Look out for natural omega oils – oleic or linoleic fatty acids, or any oils originating from jojoba, argan, sunflower, almond and sacha inchi,” says Alicia. “These are wonderful as they’re light and don’t block pores, but provide great nourishment and leave a silky skin feel.”
Use Within an oil or lotion, directly after serum, before SPF.
We love… Omega Oil, £11.50, Botánico Vida and Essential Hydration Cream, £21, Alpha H.
Sunscreen comes in two options: mineral and chemical. We champion mineral (zinc oxide and titanium oxide) since the overwhelming evidence indicates that chemical sunscreen ingredients (such as oxybenzone and octinoxate), irreparably damage ocean coral by disrupting its growth cycle. Plus, mineral sunscreens won’t irritate your skin. Why use SPF? “You can’t have the skin you want if you don’t protect it from the sun,” says Paula, who recommends sunscreen. Every. Single. Day, “without fail”.
Use In a cream as your final step before make-up. If you have very dry skin, apply after moisturiser (see fatty acids).
We love… Mineral Sun Care Fluid Face SPF30, £20, Clarins and Anti-Wrinkle Face Suncare SPF50, £19, Caudalie.