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Charcoal masks and eye creams star in testimonials by dewy-faced Instagram influencers. One-ounce jars of serums sell for three-digit prices on the shelves of Sephora, Bluemercury and Ulta.
But in a dermatologist’s office, you may hear a far less glamorous truth about these products: Many have little or no evidence of working.
So, to save money on skin care, purchase only products proven to be effective.
“It’s better long-term to be using something that we know works rather than putting on 40 things,” says Jennifer Janiga, dermatologist at Janiga MDs in Reno, Nevada.
Rather than buy what Janiga calls an “army of products,” focus on the following items.
Buy these 3 products
The dermatologist-recommended products below are sold in a range of prices. Keep in mind that “just because it’s expensive does not mean it’s amazing,” says Adam Friedman, professor and interim chair of dermatology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
That said, he adds: “I don’t discount the value of feeling fancy and pampering oneself.” So let your personal budget determine whether you want the scented, luxurious $200 moisturizer or the $10 version from the drugstore.
Of course, you can’t make it through a skin care article without a plug for sunscreen. It helps protect you from the ultraviolet rays that can cause skin cancer, as well as wrinkles, leathery skin and other signs of premature aging.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends sunscreen that’s SPF 30 or higher, broad spectrum and water resistant. You can find options that check those boxes for cheap online or in a drugstore. Apply sunscreen to your face, as well as your neck, chest, arms and hands.
These hydrating products can prevent and treat dry skin and help reduce the appearance of fine lines. They work best when applied to damp skin in the morning and evening.
When choosing a moisturizer, Friedman typically recommends larger name brands, because they have the resources to study their products and “actually back up the marketing claims.”
Name brands you can buy for under $30 in drugstores and online include Olay, Neutrogena, CeraVe, Cetaphil, Aveeno, Eucerin, L’Oreal and Aquaphor. To further simplify your skin care routine, opt for a moisturizer with sunscreen.
This vitamin-A based ingredient has been shown to help reduce the appearance of fine lines and lighten dark spots. “We have the most evidence of any anti-aging product that retinoids will definitely make a difference,” Friedman says.
Janiga, who is also the author of “Clearing Up Skin Care,” has been using retinoids for about 20 years and says every female dermatologist she knows over the age of 30 uses them. (That’s excluding those who are pregnant or nursing, she says, for whom this ingredient is not recommended.)
There are two routes for buying products with retinoids. Like Janiga, you can get a prescription for tretinoin, tazarotene or adapalene, which are retinoids in their active form. Or, at a drugstore or online, you can buy a product with another form of retinoids, such as retinol, that is inactive until it’s absorbed in your skin. A prescription is more potent and expensive than over-the-counter moisturizer, cream or other retinol products, many of which go for under $30.
When in doubt, ask a dermatologist
Consult a board-certified dermatologist for more in-depth product information, tailored skin care advice and prescriptions. (They also diagnose and treat disease and conditions.) While the appointment costs money upfront, you may save in the long run by getting the right product for your specific skin or problem.
Deirdre Hooper, dermatologist and co-founder of Audubon Dermatology in New Orleans, says patients often bring her their “beauty graveyard” of 15 to 20 products that didn’t work for them. “People waste so much money trying to solve a problem that you need a physician to solve,” she says.
Whatever you use, use it correctly
Whether you get a prescription through a dermatologist, a $10 drugstore product or something in between, mind the directions on the label.
“It’s not just what you’re using but how you use it,” Friedman says. Repetition is crucial, so shop around for products you’ll love. “If you only use it periodically because you don’t really like it, it’s a waste of money,” he says.
Start using these products regularly now, and you’ll likely see better skin in the future. That may mean you’re less likely to spend money on laser treatments, injections and surgical procedures, Janiga says.
“It’s really about prevention and making you look your best at 65,” she adds.