After more than 20 years experience of scouring ingredients' lists, beauty editor Ingeborg van Lotringen knows how to tell a good product from an average one. She lets us in on the secrets to avoid being ripped off

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Judging from the questions I get, most people assume the price of skincare is a main indicator of how good it is. What price guarantees a product that works? Is cheap skincare inevitably rubbish? How can two seemingly identical products come at vastly different price points? Why should you pay a fortune when the doctor says a pot of cold cream is going to do as much for you as the expensive serum you just bought? Etc.

The fact is, price is no guide for quality in skincare, only your knowledge of ingredients and how your skin reacts to them is. You may, but your skin really doesn’t, care how pretty the packaging is. Once you know the ingredients you’re looking for and you spot them high up your ingredients' list (known as the INCI list) as opposed to tucked somewhere near the bottom behind an endless line-up of '-glycols' and '-cones' [alcohols and silicone types] you know you’re onto a good candidate. And after the revolution that was The Ordinary , the skincare brand that blew up the industry by revealing what established actives really cost to produce (i.e. next to nothing) and selling them in simple formulas for a pittance, all bets are off. Good skincare is available at any price.

The fact is, price is no guide for quality in skincare, only your knowledge of ingredients and how your skin reacts to them is. You may, but your skin really doesn’t, care how pretty the packaging is.

Aside from knowing what you want in your product, you need to recognise the rubbish you don’t want. Or at least, need only in small amounts, that is, preferably not in the first half of your INCI list. These are not ‘toxic’ or ‘dangerous’ ingredients: all cosmetic ingredients are carefully controlled and anything used will be at levels that are proven safe. I’m talking fillers such as petrolatum, silicones, alcohol , and isopropyl myristate.

MORE GLOSS: Alcohol in skincare: should your products be teetotal?

They all have a function in cosmetic formulas, but you don’t want to see them making up the bulk of your facial products (in serums especially), with actives and plant oils bringing up the rear. At least not if you’re going to pay big money, as is the case with a number of very famous, and famously expensive, brands. High levels of ‘extracts’ and Latin names (which refer to botanicals) give a good indication that your product is nourishing and active, as opposed to an inert layer on your skin that will merely temporarily prevent water loss.

Look for actives high in the ingredients list

A good trick for gauging whether you’re getting a decent amount of actives is to look where they sit on the list in relation to preservatives (such as the very popular phenoxyethanol) and fragrance (‘parfum’ on the INCI list). The former is approved at concentrations up to 1 per cent, while fragrance is found in skincare at levels between 0.01 and 0.5 per cent. That means that many skincare actives you find behind fragrance in particular can only be present in minute concentrations that are unlikely to benefit you. As for phenoxyethanol: having that halfway up the list can be justified in certain cases (we’ve seen, for example, that retinol is active at 0.1%, and so are quite a few botanicals, antioxidants, and other actives). But overall, when you see a significant number of ingredients you actually want for your skin, like plant oils, humectants, vitamin c and niacinamide, languishing behind this and other preservatives, you can be pretty sure you can do much better.

MORE GLOSS: How to read an INCI list for sensitive skin

Ignore luxury packaging

What you don’t want to pay for either is packaging – not, at least, in the context of finding the best skincare at a decent price. You might adore the luxury experience, and find a cream in a gorgeous pot lifts your spirits because it is such a joy to use. And that’s great, but if all that money spent on packaging and advertising had been spent on the contents of said (hopefully airless) pot, you’d have a spectacular formula instead of a half-decent moisturiser. So instead of packaging bells and whistles (and crystals and little spoons and metal-clad lids that weigh a tonne, which are environmentally not on), concentrate on packaging functionality: opaque, airless, hermetically seal-able, ie primarily directed at keeping active products fresh.

Why 'melting texture' means nothing

Other red flags: products (or their sales consultants) that go on about their ‘iconic scent’ or ‘delicious melting texture’ which are ‘so important for the skincare experience’. No, they’re not. They don’t add anything to the effectiveness of the product (in the case of fragrance, they hamper it) and are an excuse to whack the price up (again, you might adore these things and happily pay for them—but this book is about learning to find out what your skin needs rather than what you like to look at). Oh, and when you get an undeniable whiff of alcohol when you apply a product (you’ll know), think twice about buying it. It’ll make up most of the product (check the INCI list for ‘alcohol denat’ or SD alcohol’ and it’s likely first or second) and that is never good for your skin. Alcohol is a cheap solvent and ‘penetrating agent’ for actives—but there are alternative methods for this without the drawbacks.

Don't take consumer trials too seriously

As for positives, independent clinical studies on the actives and formulas are always great, but really, they should be ‘randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled and peer-reviewed’. I won’t get into what all that means, but that’s the gold standard for findings that actually prove something and can’t be spun and massaged by brands (and unsurprisingly, they’re quite rare). Lesser ‘scientific studies’, in vitro studies (meaning done in a petri dish and not on living skin) and consumer trials—‘91 pet cent of participants said their skin looked smoother’ revealing in the fine-print that comprised only eleven participants—tend to be used for this rather enthusiastically and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. As do brands that heavily rely on lab coats, pipettes and science chatter in their marketing without citing robust scientific evidence. A science-y message is no guarantee decent science found its way into the product.

Transparency and a brand’s willingness to answer any questions openly, however, is always a great sign. It tends to mean a brand has nothing to hide, whether it presents itself as science-based, green, or simply as offering decent products at a fair price. All my favourite products are from brands with owners and formulators who are completely unfazed by my inexhaustible, detailed questions and will answer anything, even if they don’t have the answer (which they will then set out to unearth). Of course, I’m lucky to have this kind of ‘in’ but I find that this type of transparency translates to the consumer ‘experience’ as well, especially for the smaller, digital-era brands, with loads of proper information online and social media access to the people with the real answers. In short, as with packaging, you’re not looking for bells and whistles; you’re looking for an up-front, open attitude that’s focused on making an honest product that will make your skin radiate.

The bottom line: Price is a very unreliable guide for quality in skincare

Great products can be expensive – but shouldn’t be extortionate

Nevertheless, I hear you ask, what should good skincare cost? Well, the higher in active and healthy ingredients and the more advanced the formula, the more you should be prepared to pay for it. If the feel of silicone or the richness of liquid paraffin works for your skin, that is great—I just don’t want you to pay more than a fiver for your face cream (try a chemist’s own brand or original Nivea in the blue pot), and not fifteen times that price for the equivalent by a prestige brand. When it comes to long-established actives like hyaluronic acid , salicylic acid, niacinamide , and rosehip oil , presented in simple formulas that need no tinkering on the part of the cosmetic chemist, you can get them all well under a tenner each, thanks to The Ordinary  and copycat (but great) brands such as Garden of Wisdom  and The Inkey List . You’ll have to do your own mixing, matching and layering, which can sometimes be quite tricky.

But there are also well-formulated budget brands out there that take out the guesswork without charging a lot, especially if you’re not blinded by what ‘all-natural’ or ‘organic’ credentials promise to do for you. Boots , Superdrug and Primark  all have great proprietary ranges with anything you need for healthy-skin maintenance under a tenner. For someone in their 20s, this should be enough. As for the big-name high street brands such as Olay, Garnier and l’Oreal, there’s good, well-researched stuff to be found. But here, you will pay more for the brand names and marketing. To me, the ‘French-pharmacy brands’ such as La Roche Posay, Bioderma and Avène are more straightforward and better at leaving out potential irritants.

Boots, Superdrug and Primark all have great own-brand ranges with anything you need for healthy-skin maintenance under a tenner. For someone in their 20s, this should be enough

Once you venture into more corrective or antiageing serums and creams that are careful to leave out unnecessary stuff and have sophisticated formulas that tackle issues with a number of well-chosen actives and delivery systems, I think you shouldn’t expect much from anything under £30. At the same time, you shouldn’t be prepared to pay much more than £80, either—and anything far over £100 is you being taken for a ride, with only a few exceptions. Breakthrough formulas and delivery systems, new (but proven) ingredients and potent blends that replace cheap fillers with nourishing alternatives cost money—but silly prices pay for silly packaging and celebrity ambassadors. My preference, always, is for products that don’t bother with glossy marketing or ‘beautiful’ packaging, because I just don’t want to pay for that. I’d rather see lots of lovely, skin-loving ingredients on the back of a simple box created by a thoughtful brand that only does skincare, and takes it seriously.

The bottom line: Try to spend your money on what's in the bottle, not what the bottle looks like

Ingeborg van Lotringen is author of  Great Skin: Secrets the Beauty Industry Doesn’t Tell You £9.51  (Gibson Square).

Extract © 2020 Ingeborg van Lotringen. Available in Ireland from Easons, O’Mahonie’s, Dubrays, and all other good bookshops.