Skincare Products Our Lab Team Doesn’t Buy
We might work for a skincare brand, but that doesn’t mean we don’t shop around.
There are thousands of great products out there, some of which we truly adore. We like to call it “research” but honestly, it’s also our hobby and we can’t help ourselves!
There are a lot of skincare products, though, that we don’t buy. Ever.
Some products we avoid like the plague, while others are just a simple waste of time and money.
We’re industry insiders. We know what it takes to formulate great products, and we know that these days, the results are very easy to measure and prove. We also know how much ingredients cost, what’s a reasonable price to charge, and, most importantly, we’ve looked at the research, and it’s pretty clear what works and what doesn’t.
To a lot of shoppers - even ones who understand skincare really well - it can be overwhelming and confusing to navigate the skincare industry. More often than not, and regardless of price tag, products don’t provide results.
To a certain extent, the people in charge want it to be that way. It’s not because you aren't doing your research. Companies know that they can make a lot more money by investing in hyperbolic or misleading marketing rather than in research.
So if you want the inside scoop on which products are pure marketing hype, this post will help. We’ll cover all of the product categories and ingredients that we don’t buy, and why.
Products we avoid, at a glance:
Scrubs are the worst offenders. We don’t just think they’re useless - they’re downright harmful.
We can see why the idea of taking a coarse material from nature and using it as an exfoliating agent is appealing. But unfortunately, on the cellular level, it is nothing short of pure violence to your skin.
The particles in scrubs are hundreds of times larger than the size of the dead cells that need exfoliating, yes, even when it comes to microfine powders. Physical exfoliants essentially just scratch your skin barrier randomly, exfoliating too much in some places, and not enough in others. The result is that they leave some dead cells behind, while potentially damaging healthy new cells in other areas of the face. This can lead to dryness, tenderness, and even breakouts from irritation.
Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) exfoliants, on the other hand, are molecularly attracted ONLY to the material that keeps old dead cells connected to the skin. AHAs then target and remove those dead skin cells with perfect precision, while leaving healthy new cells alone.
Counterintuitively, when you use an AHA to remove just the excess dead cells, you allow the healthy youthful cells beneath to flourish, which can actually increase dermal thickness and improve your skin’s ability to retain water. In this way, exfoliating with AHAs (like our AHA cleanser) BOOSTS hydration, while scrubs do just the opposite.
Anything over $100
If a brand has a product under 60mL that costs over $100, we think it’s a pretty reliable sign that deception is afoot and we should stop our shopping process right then and there.
With modern technology, almost any skincare ingredient can be isolated in its purest molecular form, efficiently and inexpensively. We know this because we use one of the most expensive ingredients in existence: Vegan, cashew-derived hyaluronic acid. It’s by far the most difficult and time-intensive skincare ingredient to manufacture. Yet, we are able to produce it in the US for under $50 per LITER.
While on the topic of hyaluronic acid, the maximum clinically-recommended concentration of it in a skincare product is only 2%. The most expensive HA Serum on the market costs $320 for 30mL while containing (at most) only $0.015 of hyaluronic acid.
There are plenty of more expensive materials that can be put into skincare, like caviar, gold powder, diamond particles, and orchid cellulose. But these materials only serve to justify an astronomical price point. They don’t lead to measured improvements in skin appearance and function.
Simply put, eye creams are a cash grab for skincare companies, invented in a marketing department, not a research lab.
The skin around your eyes is unlike any other part of your face. It’s thin, delicate, and reactive to almost any active ingredient. Because of this, most eye creams are just repurposed moisturizers. They’re often no different than the same brand’s face cream, just packaged in a smaller container for a significantly higher markup. Other times, they may have some nice-sounding but completely ineffective eye-focused ingredients sprinkled in.
If they do advertise containing certain eye-specific “actives,” these ingredients are usually pretty inert (which is why they’re gentle enough to put around your eye in the first place) and unlikely to do anything beyond basic moisturizing.
Common ingredients you may spot in an eye cream include caffeine or deactivated forms of Vitamin C. Caffeine is included because of its reputation for making eyes less “tired” or “puffy,” but as it turns out, the basic moisturizer it’s mixed with can work just as well simply by cooling and hydrating the skin. Admittedly, caffeine does have some mild antioxidant properties but it’s only a fraction of what vitamin C can do.
Most people will find that using a regular, gentle ($10 drugstore) moisturizer around the eyes works just as well as any “eye cream.” For skin-rejuvenating or anti-aging effects, many members of our Lab Team apply to the eye area the same proven superstar ingredients you would apply to the rest of your face: Vitamin C in its active ascorbic acid form, retinoids, and niacinamide.
In our experience, easing into the application (i.e. using every other day) and diluting with a moisturizer allows the eyes to acclimate to these genuinely effective ingredients. That said - your mileage may vary. You may want to speak to a dermatologist before using powerful ingredients around the eyes.
If you do experience irritation, the good news is that the best clinically-proven moisturizing elements, like glycerin, dimethicone, and ceramides, are very inexpensive. You can find them from drugstore brands in ideal clinical concentrations! Applying one of these will give you similar results to a $100 eye cream at a fraction of the price. Isn’t it exciting to know you can rub the one cheap lotion all over your face, and your eyes will still thrive?
Collagen is what we’re all looking for at the end of the day. It’s the material that makes our skin full, firm, and youthful. But does that mean we should apply it TO our skin? Nope.
The analogy our Lab Team uses for this is: Putting collagen ON your skin is like putting gasoline ON your car. It just doesn’t work that way.
According to dermatologist Dr. Leslie Baumann, collagen has a molecular size of 15,000 to 50,000 daltons. Only substances with a molecular size of 5000 daltons or less can penetrate the skin’s outer layer.
In other words, collagen molecules can’t reach the layer of the skin where new collagen and elastin are formed. There are other ingredients that can get there, though, and have been proven to boost the skin’s own collagen-production mechanisms: Vitamin C and retinoids.
Not to say that collagen is totally useless. Collagen is a decent moisturizer that can help keep the very top layer of the skin hydrated in a manner not too different from glycerin or hyaluronic acid. We don’t look for it in skincare products, but if it’s there, we don’t necessarily avoid it.
Beyond that, though, some members of our Lab Team do like oral collagen supplements! These can have a significant impact on the appearance of the skin since once eaten the body actually can make use of the collagen. Just note that most collagen in supplements and cosmetics is derived from animals like fish or cows, so vegans and vegetarians may want to avoid it.
In our minds, peptides are in a similar category to collagen. Peptides are broken-down pieces of proteins like collagen, e.g., created through a synthetic process called hydrolysis, usually sold under registered trademarks, like Matrixyl and Argireline. Even though they’re broken down, most peptides are still larger than 500 daltons, which is the maximum molecular weight for penetration through the stratum corneum.
There is a little bit of research showing that peptides can have a positive effect on the skin’s appearance, but these are usually manufacturer studies done in vitro (i.e. in a petri dish) or conducted with small sample sizes without much information about the full formula or the formulation of the placebo.
Perhaps the most egregious example we’ve seen is when manufacturers rely on medical research that’s entirely inapplicable to skincare situations. For example, Augustinus Bader’s TFC8 blend (an undisclosed combination of peptides and amino acids) is marketed and patened as a cosmetic, even though the research on it was done in circumstances where the stratum corneum isn’t intact: Namely, wounds and burns. While this peptide complex seems to have a beneficial impact on wound healing, there’s no evidence it’s useful in regular skincare since it’ll just sit on the surface of the skin, unable to penetrate.
The real reason we don’t spend our money on them is that the cost is often exorbitant, and they don’t come close to having the same level of evidence as proven actives like retinol or vitamin C. In fact, we suspect there’d be a lot more evidence out there if they were actually as effective.
The idea of applying stem cells to your skin like a biomolecular experiment sounds like it’s straight out of a sci-fi movie, but it’s largely a fantasy. A fantasy used to sell some eye-wateringly expensive products.
One problem with stem cells is that they can’t survive outside of a controlled, laboratory environment. They’re living organisms that need more nurturing than what a shelf-stable skincare formula can provide. So even if topical stem cells did have a valuable function for your skin, they are dead long before they reach your face and therefore completely ineffective.
But even if this wasn’t the case, it’s not like brands are using human stem cells (that would be weird and kinda scary). Stem cell products you will find on the market mostly use fruit stem cells. Non-mammalian stem cells (from apples and grapes, for example) are unable to interact with human skin cells.
In a lab, human stem cells injected into specific tissues can provide profound healing and repair. It’s one of the most easily observable phenomena in a laboratory setting. It’s also equally observable how human cells and non-human cells do not interact, even in ideal scenarios! If apple stem cells made an impact on human cells, it would be universally known in dermatology.
Exotic plant extracts
Don’t get us wrong - we love a few, key science-backed plant extracts. Green tea extract is one of our obsessions, since it’s one of the best sources of antioxidant protection (second only to vitamin C), and research shows that it does work when applied to the skin.
Our main issue is with plant extracts that are included in skincare products solely because they sound exotic. Much like stem cells, expensive brands like to find the rarest, most unusual-sounding plant, and then claim that it does magical things to the skin…
Rarely do these exotic plant substances offer anything particularly useful, especially when compared to the pure forms of the nutrients they’re said to include. While they might contain some antioxidants and nutrients, they’re rarely in a format that the skin can use or metabolize in a meaningful way.
They might be useful when ingested, but they do nothing when you rub them on your skin (aside from potentially being a source of irritation).
If it was as simple as crushing up some goji berries or alfalfa sprouts and rubbing them on your skin, we wouldn’t need skincare at all. Instead, it’s always better to stick to the tried-and-tested pure forms of vitamins and antioxidants, which are bioavailable to the skin when bottled and formulated properly.
Retinol alternative? Only in skincare marketing departments’ dreams.
Bakuchiol is a meroterpene, which is actually an interesting type of chemical compound that can be isolated from plants. As with many other plant compounds, it’s a very cool antioxidant, a type of ingredient that neutralizes the damaging impact of external aggressors like pollution and sun exposure. The problem is that, for some reason, the industry has decided it’s the next coming of retinol.
There are a few issues with this. First of all, as much as we love retinol, the reality is that this form of vitamin A is actually not nearly as bioactive as other retinoids, like prescription retinoic acid or retinal (i.e. the enzyme-activated form of retinol that we use in our Enzyme-Active Retinol Serum). So what brands are doing is comparing bakuchiol to a skincare ingredient that’s not very powerful in the first place.
Second is the fact that the way bakuchiol works is nothing like retinol. Yes, it’s an antioxidant, and with twice daily use, it can help with the appearance of wrinkles over a long period of time. But this can be said for many other gentle, moisturizing, antioxidant skincare ingredients.
Bakuchiol could have just as easily been compared to other meroterpenoids like Ubiquinone (aka CoQ10) or tocopherol (aka vitamin E). These ingredients are already skincare staples, and you can find them in all sorts of products for very little money.
So once again, this isn’t an ingredient that we feel the need to avoid, but we’re not searching for it, and we sure as heck won’t overspend on it.
Bottom line: Your wallet, your choice
As a rule, we think the only skincare products worth splurging on are ones made with potent, stable forms of evidence-backed ingredients like vitamin C and retinoids. Even then, there’s never a reason to spend more than $100. Otherwise, mild, staple products under $15 can be had easily - you can find them at any drugstore.
If you’re still developing your routine, our guide to basic skincare routine steps will help you identify which products ARE worth buying, and why.
That said, most of the products we avoid aren’t harmful. If you have the cash to spend and you fall in love with the packaging or texture of a product that’s scientifically not very impressive, that’s perfectly fine!
The important thing is that now, you’ll have realistic expectations. Maybe there’s even a sense of relief, knowing that effective skincare is actually pretty simple. We think it’s freeing to know that you don't have to spend ludicrous amounts of money to have THE BEST care for your skin.
And you know that TLC was right when they said No Scrubs.