How To Shop For Skincare
Welcome, welcome, one and all to the definitive (total lie, there are other excellent guides and information out there) guide on how to shop for skincare! Like all my skincare posts, this started off as a germ of an idea that wouldn’t have needed a long post, and has grown and developed into quite the resource. Alternative title: Cordelia has to justify all the time she spends researching and buying skincare somehow.
Anyway. How to shop for skincare. Sounds easy, is actually daunting if you’re not well versed on different ingredients and how they can help you, have no idea what to do for your skin type, and the thought of having to go into Boots/Superdrug/shop of your choice here and weed your way through hundreds of different products makes you want to throw things. You’re not alone. It’s taken me a good year to be comfortable at shopping well for skincare, and that year has involved more research and trial and error than I would like to admit to.
Without further ado, on with the show!
FIRST: DETERMINE YOUR SKIN TYPE
Dry, oily, combination, normal, sensitive, dehydrated, mature, or you just don’t know?
Don’t panic! It’s easier than you think to determine what your skin is like right now - always bear in mind that it can change throughout the year or because of your hormones etc - and knowing what your skin is doing is the first step in helping it look it’s best. No point slathering heavy creams onto oily skin, it’ll just make the situation worse. No point using more drying products on dry skin, you’ll end up flaky.
It’s also not unheard of for your skin to be multiple things all at once, even if that doesn’t make sense, and for you to be even more lost as to what to treat first, what to use, what to avoid, etc etc. That’s half of the fun of skincare shopping! I spend more time than I should up close and personal with my face skin, musing over what it seems to be doing and what I need to add or take out of my routine.
You probably know by now if your skin is oily or dry. That’s pretty easy to determine. It can get confusing when working out if you’re dry or dehydrated - but honestly, the majority of people are dehydrated. I for sure had no idea my skin was dehydrated for the longest time because I assumed it was just oily. Spoiler alert - if you’re dehydrated, it’s going to exacerbate almost every other issue. I only started getting my oily skin under control when I introduced hydrating products into my routine.
Things like sensitivity and rosacea can be a touch harder to determine. There’s a difference between sensitive (your skin reacts to pretty much everything and you have to have a really stripped back routine all the time) and sensitised skin (you’ve had a reaction to something and your skin is momentarily sensitive, but usually responds well to most products) - and therefore different ways of treating them. Don’t panic. We’ll get through all of that by the end of this. However, if you have sensitive skin or rosacea, this is what you want to be tackling first because they have the most potential to damage your skin long term.
So. Skin type. Hold in mind what you are right now as we hurtle through this guide, and come back if/when your skin changes.
FACTOR IN THE TIME OF YEAR AND WHAT THE WEATHER IS DOING
High chances are, it’ll be the weather that determines what your skin is doing throughout the year. Winter weather and going from the cold outdoors to artificially heated indoors can make your skin feel dry and tight in a way it doesn’t in the summer. Eating more junk food with high levels of sugars and fats around Christmas (and the amount of alcohol consumed…) compared to lighter foods like salads in the summer can cause more oiliness and more breakouts.
It’s just one more thing to bear in mind as you’re perusing the aisles - whether they be in person or online - and to factor into your skincare wardrobe and what you reach for.
BATCH BUYING DURING SALES VS RESPONDING TO WHAT YOUR SKIN NEEDS
Ahh, the age old question. Do I stock up on what I know my skin likes during the sales and make sure I have enough for the year, or do I buy one thing at a time based on what my skin needs right then and there?
Honestly, there’s an argument for both.
I personally respond to my skins needs at the time, but I do always make sure I have backups of products that don’t irritate my skin and that I love using. Things like niacinamide, lactic acid toners, and hyaluronic acid I will always keep in my stash. Things like cleansers and moisturisers I tend to buy one of at a time, and when it’s gone or my skin isn’t loving it I’ll go out and buy another. This also works for me because I spend the least on my cleanser and moisturiser (the bread, if you will), and a lot more on the bits in the middle (the filling).
This might just be, for you, a case of trial and error until you find a system that works, that you’re comfortable with, and doesn’t end up in an abundance of product and not enough face to use it all on. Being mindful of the expiry dates on things is also important in figuring this out. I would advise, however, if you do go batch buying to not stock up more than six months in advance because your skin can change so quickly.
BUILDING A STASH
Ahhh, my absolute favourite activity in all the world: building a skincare stash. There’s nothing more soothing to my soul than taking a trip into town and hitting all my favourite shops to nosey around for good skincare: Boots, Superdrug, M&S, Debenhams - you name it, I will have probably wiled away an entire Saturday afternoon in their blessed aisles, and then come back home to browse ASOS and BeautyBay for the skincare I can’t easily access in a shop. And then proceeded to throw it all in a drawer and forget about half of it until six months later when I’m looking for something else.
All joking aside, building a stash is as unique as you are. Everyone’s will look different, everyone will have different preferences for storage, some people will want a minimal routine, some people will want to have all different products for all eventualities in their stash. I definitely fall into the latter category. I like to be secure in the knowledge that no matter what my skin throws at me on a daily basis, I will have the product at hand to deal with it.
But remember - the stash doesn’t happen overnight. You might start with the basics - cleanser, acid toner, hydrating product, moisturiser - and then slowly add to it a product at a time when you see something you’ve got your eye on when you’re out and about. Or you might be a fan of the big haul and order nearly everything your heart desires at once. Or you might already have a stash, and you just need to add targeted skincare solutions to it.
Whatever you do, your stash is your stash and you need to be happy with it.
SHOPPING AROUND - FINDING THE BEST DEALS
Sometimes you will have to buy skincare full price, and it will hurt, and you will want to cry. That is just le fact.
But. If you have patience, and you can wait, there are very many times throughout the year when retailers will have sales on, or personalised discount codes around birthdays etc, or will have some kind of deal that will sweeten the pricetag (like a gift with purchase - GWP - or some kind of loyalty card points dealie ala Boots). This is when you want to do your serious skincare shopping and invest in the bits with the hefty price tags. Of course, if you don’t want to ever spend more than a tenner on skincare, you don’t have to. There are low cost products with good ingredients in them enough these days. But sometimes it’s nice to splurge, and when formula is king, the more the product costs the more that will have gone into the formula.
What I am really trying to get at in this post is that skincare is a totally specialised and individual event, and you never have to do what the media and influencers are telling you to do. Get out there, arm yourself with knowledge and information, and make your own decisions as to what you want to do and what makes you happy.
I’m a big fan of ASOS and BeautyBay because they always seem to have some kind of deal on, or some form of discount. They both also stock really good brands that you don’t tend to find so easily on the Great British High Street, and their delivery times and customer service are also v good. Highly recommend. BeautyBay for Alpha H, The Ordinary and K Beauty, ASOS for Dr Jart, Elemis, Clinique, and PIXI. Excellent.
Boots and Superdrug are my go tos for picking up cleansers and moisturisers - again, I don’t tend to spend much on them but Boots do stock some higher end brands like Clarins and Liz Earle if that’s more up your streets. And I do love a Clarins cleanser, and Liz Earle’s Cleanse and Polish will forever be a holy grail item for me. Both have good loyalty schemes, both are available in pretty much every town and city up and down the country, and both often have deals on where you get 3 for 2, or BOGOF, or spend X amount and receive Y amount of points. Charming.
Supermarkets. Perhaps a bit out of left field, but the big ones like Tesco Extra do carry some of the more popular ranges. Olay, Superfacialist, Neutrogena etc - if you’re running out of cleanser, it won’t do much harm to pop one of those in your basket. And bonus, they tend to be cheaper in the supermarkets than they do anywhere else, and you can get your points. Just make sure to glance over the ingredients. More on that later.
Really, shopping around is a matter of personal preference and trial and error. Sometimes you might get a really good deal on CultBeauty, but you’ll never shop there again and that’s fine! You might have a Sparks or Debs card, and want to do your skincare shopping exclusively there for the points. Again, no biggy. Debs carry some of the best higher end brands, Marks’ is great for REN, Emma Hardie, their own range, and Alpha H. Keep an eye out for sales, browse a few websites, have fun with it!
READING THE INGREDIENTS
Without a doubt the hardest part of the whole skincare saga.
It’s so easy to just go by the claims that brands put on the bottles in plain english that are easy to understand. And that’s not always a bad thing to do. However. Having some basic knowledge of what to look out for in ingredients lists and what to avoid can do you the world of good, because a product could be marketed fantastically but be hiding a multitude of sins in the ingredients list. Alternatively, a product could look like not all that much but contain some really good ingredients without shouting about them. Knowledge is power, arm yourselves before you go shopping.
But it’s a process that will take time, and it might be a case of writing down the ingredients you want to look out for on your phone. It took me the better part of last year to start getting to grips with inci lists, and I’m still no expert. But I do feel confident at this point that I can pick up pretty much any skincare product, scan the ingredients, and know whether or not it’s going to be good for my skin. So with knowing that it’s almost learning an entirely new language, here’s a list of some of the most common ingredients and what you need to know about them.
Phenoxyethanol: sounds awful, actually one of the most useful ingredients to know about. You see, phenoxyethanol can only be used in skincare products up to 1%, so anything listed after it in the inci list will be in a concentration of less than 1%. If you are armed with this knowledge, you will be able to gauge the potency of most products.
Acids (Lactic, Glycolic, Salicylic): the higher up the inci list these are, the higher the percentage in the product. If they’re before phenoxyethanol, they’ll be in at 1% or higher. If below phenoxyethanol, they’ll be in at less than 1%. If they appear nearly at the bottom of the inci list, and there’s nothing else really in the product, it’s not worth your time.
Glycerin: Excellent for hydration. Should appear close to the top of the inci list. Definitely worth your time.
Vitamin A/Retinol: Excellent. Should do a whole post on retinols, actually. Good for anti-aging. Generally appears in concentrations of 0.3% and around that, so will be below phenoxyethanol. V potent.
Ascorbic Acid/L-Ascorbic Acid/Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate (Vitamin C): V good. Brightening, antioxidant, all good things. Remind me to do a post on Vit C. Until then, Clinique Fresh Pressed.
Hyaluronic Acid/Sodium Hyaluronate: Excellent. Hydrating. Always have a product on hand with this in it. Highly recommend Indeed Labs Hydraluron.
Niacinamide: Otherwise known as Vitamin B3, excellent for controlling sebum production and calming breakouts. I swear by this stuff. If I don’t have any in some capacity, I start panicking.
Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES): Fine for skin, not to be confused with SLS - see below
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS): cheap foaming ingredient. Stripping. Your skin deserves better. Try and avoid product with SLS in it.
Pure alcohol (often listed as Alcohol Denat): Stripping and drying. If it’s listed high on the inci list, just stay away. If it’s close to the bottom, not so bad if the other ingredients make up for it.
Mineral Oil: Potential to be irritating for a lot of skin types. Often listed as petrolatum, paraffinum liquidum, or just mineral oil. If it works for you, great. If you don’t know or it doesn’t, just steer clear.
Palm Oil: not ethical, don’t do it
Essential Oils: Some people love them, some people just don’t get on with them. I love a balm cleanser loaded with them, it’s a right luxurious experience but it’s not always necessary. Dabble in products with essential oils, keep an eye on your skin, you’ll work out if you can use them or not
Silicones: Essentially anything ending in -cone. Often used in primers and foundations, and in skincare products to give that nice smooth feel and slip to it. Not necessary, doesn’t play well in layers, will pill up if given half a chance. If it’s in your moisturiser, I wouldn’t worry about it. If it’s in your treatment layers, be careful about what you put it with and how all your products play together. Not good, not bad. Has potential to break people out.
That is by no means a comprehensive list, just the things that I immediately look out for when scanning the back of any product. If you want to know more about the ingredients that go into your skincare, then Paula’s Choice ingredients dictionary is your best friend. Or google. Fill your boots with that knowledge, pretend you’re in the most fun chemistry lesson in the world. Or just stick to what’s above. It’s up to you, in all honesty.
THANK GOD THAT’S OVER
And so you have it: how to shop for skincare. Not as daunting as it sounds, can be a lot of fun, gets easier the more you do it and the more you try. If you want to continue your skincare learning journey, I learnt almost everything I know from queen Caroline Hirons. If you want good, in depth, not as all biased skincare reviews, check out my darling Kate’s blog. If you have any questions, feel free to pop them my way. For further reading from yours truly, check out my top tips for winter skincare here, and the four steps you should never skip here. Good.
Did I forget anything? I don’t think so.