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Lost in the Skincare Jungle

By Amalah

Dear Amy,
I have recently decided that:
A – I am getting old
B – My skin has always sucked
C – Well, I want better skin now – that’s all.
I’ve never had much of a “skin care routine.” I have been using random drug-store, cheap-as-can-be-because-it’s-there-in-front-of-me cleanser and moisturizer, never the same stuff twice and certainly never anything from the same line of products. But now I am looking to get serious about this stuff – moving on to even more than just the two basics. Mostly because I have been way too flaky with the moisturizer part. (Read: hardly ever and yes, I am paying for it.) I want to get the whole gamut of garb – the cleanser, the moisturizer, the toner, the eye cream, the this, the that and yes, please, some of the other.
So, seriously – What is the difference between the $20 bottle of Olay, the $80 bottle of Estee Lauder and the $120 bottle of Dr. Perricone and all the eight million things in between? Is there a real reason someone would use one over the other? Is it just personal preference? Is it best to mix and match based on individual skin and not going the route of using the same line? If I were to choose to go with Olay since, you know – it’s affordable, am I robbing myself of extremely valuable ingredients that will make a world of difference? And if I do spend my mortgage worth on skin care products, how do I know where to spend it the most wisely? Or do I just go to every stinking makeup counter and see which one I hate the least? Obviously, I have no idea. Are there really that many significant differences? I guess, obviously I just don’t want to spend a fortune and then find out that maybe I don’t like it so much or that maybe I didn’t need to. Everyone touts their products as the best on the market… but um… well someone’s gotta be lying. What’s your take on this?
Overwhelmed by Too Many Options that are “The Very Best Out There”

I wish there was an easy answer to this, but the honest truth is that everybody’s skin is different, and all those products out there really ARE the very best out there…for a certain number of people.
I’ve shared my own personal skincare testimony here more times than I can count, but here it is again. I have used every drugstore skincare line out there. Olay, Neutrogena, Ponds, Dove, Clean & Clear and every possible mix-n-match combination in between. I had consistently horrible skin with all of them, well into my 20s.
Then my mother’s Mary Kay rep convinced her to buy me the complete Mary Kay line (cleanser, toner, moisturizer, spot treatment, eye cream) one birthday. And ta-da! Less zits!
But then I changed my birth control, and started to get zits again. So I upgraded to Clinique’s line, since it was the only “upscale” line I could hope to afford with my stupid lame job. Bar soap, toner, moisturizer, spot treatment, etc. And once again, I was happy.
But while it took care of zits, my pores were still really bad and prone to blackheads. So I switched again, this time to Ahava, which included a clay mask. Then Ahava reformulated and I once again was set adrift and tried mixing and matching various products and brands without a real set routine and OH DEAR GOD, my skin regressed back to high school levels of crappiness.
And you all should know the ending, since I yap on about it enough around here: I picked up a starter kit of Philosophy and have been using it ever since, with only minor (and usually seasonal) adjustments. I realized that I was over-treating the oily area of my face and that toners were actually making my skin worse. And finally, I have reached skincare nirvana.
(An aside about toners: Toners are supposed to achieve Ph balance in your skin, but too many of them add acne-fighting ingredients that overstrip your skin of oil, thus making your skin produce MORE oil. So if you do use a toner, make sure it’s a GENTLE one. I know we’re all used to toners that sting and tingle, but seriously: those are not for grown-up skin.)
(All that said, if you must use a toner, I love Yves Saint Laurent Instant Pur Toning Water.)
(I actually love that entire line, if that’s a price tag you’re comfortable with.)
So I know that isn’t super encouraging stuff to hear when you’re just starting to look for What Works Best FOR YOU, but unfortunately there IS going to be some trial and error involved. From my experience, I see definite benefits to using one complete line of products as your foundation — they are designed to work together, yanno? I’ve always gotten the best results when I at least use the core cleansing and moisturizing components from the same line.
I also have no problem with you starting at the bottom of the price scale. A minimum investment in a few Oil of Olay products can’t hurt, because sure! They might work for you! But…they might not, and buying stuff because it’s cheap and not because it’s really the best choice for your skin doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Still, you aren’t going to HURT your skin by trying it, especially since it sounds like you’ve got nowhere to go but up when it comes to your skin.
We all have different price points we’re willing to spend: Philosophy products are about the top of my tolerance level. Thanks to samples and this column, I have dabbled in products that cost much, much more than that. And they are GREAT. They rarely disappoint. They work. But I won’t spend $80 on moisturizer, or $110 on a wrinkle cream. At least not right now, when I’ve found something cheaper that I think works just as well. A lot of women feel the same way about moving from Dove to Philosophy, and that’s fine.
More than anything, I’m DONE spending money on stuff that doesn’t work, whether it costs $55 or $7.99.
(I’ve completely lost my grip on the point of this column, I’m sorry.)
So sure. Try Olay. I’m not going to promise that it’s the Best Thing Out There, but it might be Good Enough? For now?
philosphy.jpgIf you find that your skin isn’t any better after a few weeks on the Olay line, then consider moving up, with guidance. Another reason I love Sephora and Ulta and the like: the salespeople aren’t there to push just one line or brand, like the women at the department store counters. Ask for help. Ask for someone to look at your skin and recommend something. I mean, they aren’t dermatologists or anything, but they do know a thing or two about the stuff they sell. Look for starter kits and small sizes. And for samples. Look at it as a fun science experiment instead of a Daunting Task. You will attain perfect skin, or at least vastly improved skin, eventually, and even if it takes awhile it WILL be worth it in the end.
(And when in doubt, the Philosophy Make-Up Optional set is a terrific buy for a terrific line of products that work for a ton of different skin types, and no, I get no money from the Philosophy people.)

Published August 6, 2007. Last updated August 6, 2007.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Lori MacBlogger

    August 6, 2007 at 7:38 pm

    “How do I know where to spend my money most wisely?” – A good rule of thumb is to always spend more on the moisturizer, less on the face wash. Reason being that you are just washing the cleanser off anyway, whereas moisturizers are penetrating into your skin. I personally can never justify spending a lot of money on a face wash that just goes down the drain. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should use a bar of soap, but there are plenty of drugstore cleansers (Cetaphil, etc.) that work without stripping your skin.
    I would recommend seeing a derm for a skin evaluation first, or even just getting a facial. I wouldn’t suggest buying the products they recommend, necessarily, but it’s a good starting point to make sure you are at least buying the right types of products.

  • Suzy Q

    August 6, 2007 at 8:52 pm

    I was all Oil of Olay in my 20s, too. Then, I tried other stuff, some pricey and some not.
    I bought the Philosphy kit, at Amalah’s behest, about two months ago and I mostly like it. The cleanser is especially great, as is the Hope in a Tube eye and lip cream. The Hope in a Bottle stuff I’m not nuts about. Estee Lauder’s Idealist Skin Refinisher (now with pore minimizing!) is much better for my mature skin (yes, it’s a bit pricey but a little goes a long way). The Philosphy moisurizer I STILL can’t seem to make up my mind about. Some days I’m very meh about it, but I still use it since I don’t actively hate it. I also did really like the exfoliating mask treatment, which came with the congested skin kit.
    But still…I REALLY want to splurge on that Chanel cream that Amy tried and loved. Skin like a baby’s butt? Wah! I want it!

  • Stephanie

    August 6, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    I personally switch up between Cetaphil cleanser and moisturizer in the summer and the Philosophy in the winter. Now that I am in my late 30’s, I get really dry in the winter and Philosophy works really well for me. I use the Cetaphil in the summer because I need to switch it up or I become an oil slick. I have crazy skin and that is what seems to work for me. Both cleansers are really good about cleaning without stripping your skin of all its oils. The Philosophy moisturizer is a little heavier than the Cetaphil. That’s why I stick to the Cetaphil in the summer, I need something a little lighter weight.

  • jasmineN

    August 6, 2007 at 11:56 pm

    Two syllables: e – bay.
    I bought the philosophy face wash on ebay in a small size for a very minimal amount of money. Granted, you may not be getting the freshest possible product but I have never found it to be subpar (it helps having no idea what par would be). I have continued to buy it on ebay with no ill effects. Last time, I got three 2oz bottles for $11 including shipping.

  • Imanitsud

    August 7, 2007 at 10:04 am

    Your question sounds very similar to my own situation about 4 months ago. About a year ago, I discovered a hormone-related health issue that meant I had to go off birth control pills and my face started breaking out like mad, and my Aveeno cleanser once a day wasn’t cutting it anymore. So, thanks to Amy’s columns and my own experimentation, I came up with the following: Mary Kay Timewise Cleanser, Hope in a Bottle moisturizer, regenerist eye cream from Beauticontrol, and Neutrogena makeup. I also got a small bottle of Purity, but I don’t like the smell very much, and I like the way my skin feels after the Mary Kay stuff. I will add this rather relevant fact: I went from washing my face only in the morning to twice a day, with moisturizer once or twice a day, depending. I also bought a $6 face brush (to help with exfoliating) that I use every other day. The biggest difference in my skin comes not from any particular product, it comes from actually taking care of it on a regular twice-daily basis. Good luck.

  • OneSmartCookie

    August 7, 2007 at 6:07 pm

    Can I ask a question that is somewhat but not entirely related to this post? I think I am probably supposed to e-mail… but… but… well I am lazy and this question would likely not be worthy of a column anyway. Here goes:
    What is the deal with the sunscreen?
    I get it. I mean, really, I get it. I am about as fair as you can get and I have no desire to get skin cancer and about 15 minutes in the sun will turn in me into a crispy red mess. So yes. I wear my damn sunscreen. But I am constantly perplexed as to how to wear it on my face.
    I used to use a moisturizer that had SPF built in (Aveeno Daily Radiance). And that was… OK. But then! Then I discovered Philosophy and lo, it was good.
    But! Philosophy has no SPF! And this is where I get lost. Do I put on the sunscreen after the moisturizer? Do I only wear it on days when I plan to be outside for a while? How do I prevent myself from becoming an oil slick with moisturizer AND sunscreen, because, call me dumb, but isn’t that A LOT of moisture?
    Please? Help?

  • Magpie

    August 7, 2007 at 6:12 pm

    One anecdote about Sephora: a couple of months ago, they were having some kind of event promoting one very pricey line that they carry, and the saleswoman at my local store did a REALLY hard sell on that particular line’s products.
    Which brings us to the real advantage of Sephora/Ulta, besides USUALLY-more-objective-than-department-stores advice: *samples*. If there are a couple of products your salesperson recommends for you and you’re not sure about them for whatever reason, ask for a sample to try at home. (If not for the free samples, I might well have ended up buying that $80 moisturizer which probably works great for some people, but made my skin burn on contact…)

  • Stephanie

    August 8, 2007 at 10:12 am

    Oh, yes… please someone help out OneSmartCookie… I have the very same problem. I was sort of hoping there was some magical SPF powder I could mix in with my lotion, but I doubt that’s the case. My problem is that if I put any sort of sunscreen on my face other than some “sport” sunscreen, it totally melts off after .5 seconds, leaving me with NO moisturizer and NO sunscreen. (Even the Neutrogena one that Amalah recommended, which I find works well in most everyday situations, but once the temp hits 85, it’s a gonner. Also, it still feels heavy like a sunblock, which makes me feel even hotter since my skin can’t breathe as well, so I only apply it when I plan to be in the sun for a long time and need super protection.)

  • OneSmartCookie

    August 8, 2007 at 10:37 am

    Stephanie – I was too afraid to mention my hope for an SPF powder (because I thought people would laugh and think I was crazy) but seriously, wouldn’t that be SO MUCH EASIER? Also, if Philosophy would just put some damn SPF in their moisturizer that would be great too. GET ON THE BALL, PHILOSOPHY!

  • Stephanie

    August 8, 2007 at 11:28 am

    OneSmartCookie — I actually just checked out Philosophy’s website and found something called “Shelter.” It’s basically a moisturizer with SPF. I don’t know if it’s any good though. Seems like more than I like to spend on sunblock (I think it was something like $25-30 for 4 oz.), but I’m considering getting it, since I’d only use it on my face anyway and use regular sunblock elsewhere.

  • Lori12309

    August 8, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    Girls, you ought ro read Amy’s archives. She did a sunscreen smackdown earlier this summer and recommended the Neutrogena SPF55 stuff vs. other pricey brands. I took a tube of it to Aruba and it saved my family’s vacation. I washed with Purity every morning, moisturized with Hope in a Bottle and applied the Neutrogena sunscreen.
    Damn, I look GOOD!
    This may sound obvious, but when I want Amy Advice, I do an advance Google search first. She usually has covered the topic for which I want her opinion.
    Hope that didn’t sound bossy or beeyotchy.

  • Sara

    August 8, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    Philosophy has been wonderful to me; I cannot recommend it more. It does cost a bit more, but I use less (especially the wash) so I think it’s worth it. I’ve tried a lot of products — even more expensive ‘natural’ lines like Kiss My Face — and I’ve never been this pleased. I don’t wear foundation and Philosophy has this product called “The Present” that works great over moisturizer (they market it as clear makeup). The eye firming cream also rocks.

  • Kimmy

    August 8, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    OneSmartCookie — et al…
    Dermalogica has an “SPF booster” which you add to your regular moisturizer, thus giving you the sun protection. So you don’t have to change moisturizers… you just add this to the stuff you’re using, and voila, you have SPF.
    As for the Neutrogina SPF55… if you have even remotely sensitive skin, I would not advise using that on your face. Obviously it worked for Lori12309… but it didn’t for me. I don’t have sensitive skin but it GAVE me sensitive skin. (Actually, it burned.) I don’t believe this stuff is formulated for facial use — not that you can’t use it there, but I don’t believe that was the original purpose of it. (And it definitely doesn’t have optimal ingredients for moisturizing… so obviously you have to use that as WELL as your other stuff. Which Lori did, obviously to very good results.)

  • the ass editor

    August 8, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    Like Amy and Lori, I looooove the Neutrogena SPF 55 Ultra Sheer Sunblock. I actually discovered it on my own a few weeks before Amy cage matched it, so seeing it slam the competition was downright thrilling. But Stephanie, since you haven’t had the same great results, I would recommend switching moisturizers. I bought the Purity face wash but decided to skip the Philosophy moisturizer and eye cream because of the lack of sunscreen. Personally, even though I love the Neutrogena sunscreen, I don’t like the idea of putting on a separate sunscreen underneath my moisturizer. With all the makeup I use on my face, it’s just too much. Philosophy may be great, but I think SPF is my highest priority in a daily moisturizer. I don’t have a particular moisturizer to recommend since I tend to switch what I buy from the drugstore every time, but I really like the Neutrogena Healthy Defense eye cream with SPF 30:
    I bought it after Amy recommended using a separate eye cream but since I’m only 25 and don’t have lines yet, I didn’t want to spend a lot of money. I like this one because it’s one of the very few inexpensive eye creams that includes sunscreen and it feels great and doesn’t sting. I guess I might never really know if it makes a difference or not, but I’m willing to invest $11.99 a tube to play it safe!

  • the ass editor

    August 8, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    Oh and OneSmartCookie, if you’re using a separate sunscreen, it should always be the first thing you put on your face. But again, if you are worried about turning into a product-slick grease face, I’d consider finding a moisturizer that does double duty. Especially since you have fair skin, you don’t want to give yourself any excuse for not wearing sunscreen every single day. I know Olay makes a moisturizer with SPF 30. If you find something with sunscreen that you like as much as Philosophy, let me know!

  • Stephanie

    August 8, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    Lori — If you notice, I said that I did try the Neutrogena Amy suggested, but that it is too heavy and slides off my face, rendering it unaffective, in 85+ degree heat. I do use it on my arms and neck that are exposed, or if I am just going to be outside all day and have given up any hope of wearing makeup, but it really doesn’t cut it for me for walking to and from work because I don’t feel like it stays on. But since it worked for Amy (and some others, like you), that’s why I wasn’t addressing my question to her specifically, but throwing it out there to others who also might not have had such great luck using that Neutrogena sunscreen on their face. Not every product works for every person.
    A.E. (sorry, it seems rude to just say “Ass Editor,” although I guess I just did anyway!) — I actually just did a little more research on the Neutrogena products and saw that they have that Healthy Defense line now. Before my Philosophy revelation, I mostly used Neutrogena moisturizers (and still use some of their makeup). It certainly never did anything bad to my skin, but it just didn’t look as good as it does now. But I think the SPF is totally worth trying it out for daytime use, and keeping my fancy stuff for at night. Thanks to your recommendation, I think I will go try that.

  • OneSmartCookie

    August 8, 2007 at 2:57 pm

    Oh god, now I feel like I have gone and caused Conflict. Over SPF. Yeesh.
    Anyway, thanks for the advice, ladies. I think I am going to march my pasty, combination skinned self into Sephora and request a professional opinion – because right now I feel like my options are ‘skin cancer’ or ‘oil slick’.
    Every Neutrogena product that I have ever tried has made my skin BURN with the fire of a thousand suns, so I think that one’s out – although, thanks to the ass editor (yeah, that’s right, I said it) for pointing out that sunscreen should go on BEFORE moisturizer as I have totally been doing it wrong.
    Anyway, it’s off to Sephora I go, where my hope is that they will present me with a moisturizer that includes SPF, makes my skin not too greasy yet not too dry, doesn’t create burning/redness/zits, and makes rainbows and lollipops fall from the sky.

  • Alaina

    August 8, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    My sister and I have similar skin types (genetics might have something to do with it) and usually end up using the same skin care line. We were so excited to try out the philosophy line because we were both experiencing some major early summer breakouts. Within days, my breakout was worse. I am one of the few that just couldn’t use the philosophy wash or moisturizer. My chin was covered with cystic zits. So I stopped and went back to my harsh detergent prescription face wash that dries me out. Better dry and moisturize than red shiny bumpy and HURTING.
    So about a month and a half ago, my sister went back to Sephora to see what might happen and she ran into the Skyn Iceland line. She got samples for me, too. Within a week, my cystic zits were no longer inflamed and going away. And I wasn’t dried out.
    The items cost about $5-10 more than the philosophy products, but that is worth it to me. I currently use it all (wash, day moisturizer, acne gel, eye cream, and night moisturizer). I love them all. My sister really likes it, too. And I haven’t had a cystic zit in over a month.
    Here endth my gospel on skyn iceland.

  • kt

    August 9, 2007 at 10:02 am

    I also came to the skincare game late (in my mid 30s to be precise). Before that, the only thing that would not make my skin react was straight oil. lovely. I have very reactive, very dry skin and my sister has problems with adult acne. She is the skincare maven and got a sample pack for me to try. We now both use MyChelle products religiously and our skin thanks us. She can’t use the products with shea butter because they aggravate the acne but everything else is verrrry nice. Including the sunscreen. For simplicity, i use just that line. I have never used Philosophy products so i can’t compare (as i mentioned, i use whatever my more knowing sister tells me to – like having an amalah in the family) but i think that the mychelle may be a little cheaper. I also live in DC but spend portions of the winter in Vermont and can attest to how my skincare routine holds up equally well under cold dry temps and lots of hot humidity. Mychelle has a lovely tester pack for either dry/mature skin (including her very mild toner which my toddler son likes to spray in his hair for HIS hairspray), oily, or normal skin. She provides testers for her various scrubs, peels, and masks. Definitely worth springing for the 25 bucks (check out amazon) if you want to try a full line with instructions. Took me a little while to get the hang of what order to put everything on in but works wonders. If i feel lazy, i just slather on the moisturizer and am done.
    don’t do as i did and order the full sizes after testing them out and then try to carry them on a plane the very DAY the flight restrictions on liquids changed. I had to throw them all out, weeping, in the security line after smearing most of my new eye cream all over my arms. My sister’s words of comfort on that occasion? “be glad it wasn’t la mer – imagine how those women were crying.” now i just pack the sample sizes in my ziploc and it is perfect.