On a trip into downtown Toronto, I found myself standing in the middle of beauty retailer Sephora having a mini breakdown.
Posh tubes, shiny bottles and swanky vials promised to hydrate, protect and oomph-ify my skin. (My word, not theirs.) One offered to “mega-inject” me with antioxidants, while another contained moisture-boosting ingredients that would brighten winter-weary skin and de-puff tired eyes. My eyes were tired all right—from reading long lists of indecipherable ingredients. (And for the record, “aqua” is just water, my friends.)
Nevertheless, I was still willing to spend money to slow my skin’s aging process.
It seems I’m in good company. According to market researcher Euromonitor International, skincare is expected to post record-breaking sales and growth in the coming years—an estimated $2.6 billion dollars by 2020. But while skincare products certainly make us feel more polished and pretty, are they worth the hefty price tag that sometimes goes with them?
To find out, I rang Dr. Julia Carroll, a board certified dermatologist, owner of Compass Dermatology and a lecturer at the University of Toronto. With a busy practice and years of experience, she separates the helpful from the hype with ease.
Here’s her breakdown for what actually makes a difference, no matter your budget.
Skincare for free
That’s right, you can pay absolutely nothing and still give yourself nicer-looking skin. To start, stay out of the sun. “It’s the number one controllable cause of skin aging,” Dr. Carroll says. So wear that hat. But don’t bother swigging litres of water hoping the hydration will plump up your skin. There’s actually scant evidence it works.
Skincare on the cheap
If you’re on a budget and can spend only $20 or less on skincare, Dr. Carroll has a super product for you: Vaseline. At only 98 cents per 100 grams at Walmart, the petroleum jelly product is great for dry patches, the under eye area and even doubles as a lip gloss. It doesn’t irritate the skin or make you break out, either. “It’s one of the most inert products that we have,” she says. “Vaseline is sort of the gold standard that other things are tested against.”
Buy inexpensive cleanser too. They hardly touch your skin before being washed off anyway. Save your money for something that actually stays put.
And if you want something strong to help eradicate acne and wrinkles, a prescription for Retin-A, a retinol medication, means you pay very little (or nothing if you’re under 25) with good company or government insurance.
How much should you spend on skincare if you’re willing to pay more?
Now say you have $20 to $75 to spend. Look for dermatologist-tested skincare products that offer active ingredients such as vitamin C (look for L-ascorbic acid), retinol and alpha-hydroxy acids. Just remember, these are not quick fixes and need to be used for weeks or even months before you see any real results. (And yes, by then you’re probably on your second or third tube or bottle.)
And don’t forget sunscreen. Great ones can be had in the $20–$25 range.
If money’s no object…
Forget forking over big money on fancy-sounding elixirs and serums, cautions Dr. Carroll. Sure, they’re going to feel lighter and more elegant on your skin, but at what cost? “At some point, there is a law of diminishing returns,” she says. “For someone to spend over $500 on a product, I can’t even imagine what would be in something to be worth that.”
In fact, if you’re willing to spend that kind of cash on your face anyway, you may want to consider lasers, chemical peels and injectable fillers instead.
“There’s science behind [skin care products], but we’re talking about ‘diminishing the appearance of,’ right?” she says. “With injectables, I can obliterate that fine line.”
Bonus: An easy formula
If you’ve got $100 to spend on skincare, here’s how you should divide that money:
–10 percent on cleanser
–20 percent on sunscreen
–50 percent on skincare products with active ingredients like retinol or vitamin C.
Originally published April 2018; Updated May 2019.