Have you ever stood in the skin-care aisle of your favorite beauty store and felt enthralled and yet…totally bewildered? We’re living in the glory days of skin care, with more options than ever before, with a growing number of influences and innovations, be it a hybrid formula or a new moisturizing technique (really). But even so, some classics remain untouchable—think household names like Cetaphil Daily Facial Cleanser ($6) and Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion ($28). So where does skin care go from here? And is it time for you to switch things up? We decided to scope things out.
Let’s start with the familiar. Many old-school products—including those mentioned above, as well as Pond’s Cold Cream, Dove Beauty Bar, and Olay Beauty Fluid—have achieved their status as skin-care classics in part because of their gentle formulations. Were they to have a group motto, it would be: “First, do no harm.”
“Their chosen ingredients are gentle for nearly all skin types and can calm and improve skin on a very basic level, improving moisture and hydration,” explains Rachel Nazarian, MD, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology in New York City. “Hydrated skin may not seem dramatic, but it can make a very drastic difference in the quality of skin.”
Instead of being tricked out with actives or making near-unbelievable product claims, the majority of these formulas simply give skin what it needs on a more fundamental level than, say, your average serum. “The basics never go out of style,” agrees cosmetic chemist Ni’Kita Wilson. They’re the reliable workhorses of the average skin-care routine. (It doesn’t hurt that they tend to be available at mass retailers, too.)
The power of actives
Still, newer ingredients inevitably come to the forefront—particularly when they contain a cocktail of active ingredients. Some of the most popular actives, such as vitamin C, retinol, and vitamin E, will never go out of style, says Wilson. “Brands may not call them out, but because they are so efficacious—tried-and-true, [with] decades of studies—they will always have a home,” she explains. Many brands can and do highlight them, though, in accordance with the level of consumer education. The more you hear about the brightening benefits of vitamin C, for example, the more likely you’ll see L-ascorbic acid highlighted as a star ingredient in a product.
The upside here is that there’s not much overlap between these super-effective actives and gentle staples. As Dr. Nazarian mentioned, the classics are rooted in more basic tasks. As long as you’re satisfied, there’s no reason to ditch your moisturizer if you’re simply adding a vitamin C serum to your routine. And some ingredients that have only recently become buzzy, like hyaluronic acid, have low-key been around for decades.
However, that doesn’t mean they’re without room for improvement. Take vitamin C, which is notoriously unstable. Formulators are now exploring equally effective yet more stable forms of it, such as tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate (THD ascorbate). “This allows for high efficacy and stability without additional supporters and boosters needed,” says Dr. Nazarian. That sort of flexibility will give an ingredient more staying power.
In other cases, however, the drawbacks lead to entire categories being replaced. “Products that remove surface hydration, disrupt the natural moisturizers of the skin, or threaten the microbiome of our skin are [becoming less popular and] being replaced by gentler, smarter alternatives that support our natural skin state,” says Dr. Nazarian. That makes sense, seeing as the rise of probiotics and subsequent chatter about the microbiome has made everyone much more conscious of their skin barrier.
For that reason, notes Dr.Nazarian, both scrubs and harsh alcohol-based toners are out—leaving the door wide open for acids. Glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids, among many others, are the new guard of exfoliants. Though acid exfoliation is popular right now, “years of research and proven efficacy make these ingredients reliable,” says Wilson.
How clean beauty contributes
Among the big trends in skin care over the last decade, clean beauty stands out. It’s what Wilson believes will challenge the skin-care industry for years to come—as well as stringent formulation rules set by clean-beauty retailers like Credo Beauty, Follain, and NakedPoppy. “We no longer can use ingredients that we have relied on forever to create stable, texturally interesting formulas that are effective,” Wilson explains. “Ingredient stories come and go, but getting the actual formulas right pose the biggest issues.”
Already, clean beauty has assumed the role of gatekeeper for what makes it into new products. For instance, “hydroquinone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone are ingredients that have fallen out of favor due to safety concerns,” says Wilson.
Hydroquinone, a skin-brightening ingredient popular among dermatologists, has already been banned by the EU, Japan, and Australia, although the FDA still permits it in certain concentrations here in the United States. Meanwhile, “octinoxate and oxybenzone are sunscreen actives that are on many brands’ banned lists because of safety and environmental concerns,” says Wilson.
And that’s just the beginning—there are microplastics, artificial colorants, and other harmful ingredients to consider. Even if the powers-that-be (i.e. the government) are slow to adjust their standards, many beauty brands are doing the work for them based on pressure from informed consumers.
The influence of social media
Another factor in the future of skin care is the social media conversation. Whether it’s a debate about whether certain molecular sizes of hyaluronic acid cause dryness or the safety of ingredients like polyethylene glycol, the comment section is something to which people—and brands—pay attention.
While that can be a good thing in terms of education, with consumers having greater knowledge of what they put on their skin, there’s no fact-checking system for the dialogue. The same goes for influencers, which is especially worrisome to Dr. Nazarian. “Influencers—with no formal training or understanding of dermatology and skin function—are able to spotlight specific products and brands often based on sponsorship alone,” she says. “This makes it more challenging for good, science-backed, effective products to gain attention.”
That’s a big deal when you’re talking about skin care versus makeup. “Skin is an organ, no less important than our eyes, our lungs, our heart,” says Dr. Nazarian. “It’s important to let facts and science determine what deserves our attention, energy, and, of course, our financial support.” The upside, however, is that these conversations still serve as a direct line to brands, informing and influencing formulations to come.
Where skin care goes next
The nice thing about skin care is that there’s always room for improvement, be it in terms of speed, experience, or simplicity. The next frontier will be to satisfy the budding demand for clean formulations amid the onset of new challenges to skin health, like exposure to blue light. That’s one skin concern that Wilson is particularly excited to tackle as she creates new cosmetic formulas. “There are a couple of ingredients surrounding blue light that got me very excited because the story was more than just an antioxidant play,” she explains. “It actually showed how blue light affects the skin.”
Nazarian, on the other hand, is bullish about ingredients for mature skin—namely, peptides. “These small-chain amino acid proteins are able to effectively send messages to our cells and alter how it behaves,” she says. “They have the capacity to soften wrinkles and expression lines and boost collagen production.”
No matter what exciting ingredients or formulations are in store, it’s still comforting to know that we can always count on the classics while testing out the next big thing. And there might be an even better version coming sooner than you think.
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