By Hana Hong
Thanks to social media, it’s easy to spot the skincare products beauty lovers are obsessing over. They rack up likes, explode in shares, and go viral. But do these serums, essences, and lotions deserve their cult status? Meaning: Do they actually work—or are they just buzzy because of a clever marketing campaign and our jump-on-the-bandwagon mentality?
To find out, five Marie Claire staffers tested popular skincare products: Skinceuticals C-E Ferulic serum, Barbara Sturm Molecular Cosmetics Hyaluronic Serum, Dr. Jart Tiger Grass Cream, Olay’s new retinol line, and SK-II Facial Treatment Essence. This wasn’t just a one-and-done experiment; each tester used her assigned product(s) for 30 days, as directed. Why an entire month? “To be effective, your skincare routine needs to be consistent,” says NYC-based dermatologist Joshua Zeichner. “It typically takes several weeks for active ingredients to exert their effects.”
In order to measure results, each editor used the YouCam Makeup app, which has a Skin Score Tool and accompanying Skin Diary feature. Here’s how it works: After a quick selfie, the program analyzes your face for wrinkles, spots, texture, and dark circles, then spits back a “skin score” (out of 100) for each concern, as well as overall. (The app relies on facial recognition software and AR technology to adjust for changes in lighting, environment, and expression between photos.) Finally, the program assigns a “skin age” based on how your complexion compares to others in your demographic.
We only had one woman test each product, so this isn’t a scientific study by any means. Your results with these products could be totally different! Our advice: If you’re excited to try a cult-favorite product, go for it. But why not keep track of your progress to see if it’s actually working for you? That way you’ll know for sure that you’re getting your money’s worth.
Kayla's Skin Issues:
“At 4 pm every day, I look in the mirror and just feel like I look, well, dead. I’m pretty sure my dry skin and haggard appearance near the end of the work day are because I consistently wake up in the middle of the night, but if a product can help improve my complexion, I figure, why not?!”
“I used the serum every day and it felt nice. A little tingly. Definitely moisturizing. The consistency was a lot thinner than other serums I’ve tried—almost like water—and it left my fingertips a little sticky after applying, but otherwise using it was an enjoyable experience.
My skin felt dewier during the days, but the serum didn’t necessarily make me look less drained by the late afternoon. By the end of testing, my skin was improved overall, but that could have been because I was consistent about using it. I’ve seen similar results when I’ve applied other products religiously. And some of the products I’ve seen results with are a lot cheaper (this full-size serum is $300!). Personally, I can’t justify paying so much for a serum that’s fine but not life-changing. That said, Dr. Sturm’s products seem to work miracles for others, so maybe this just goes to show you shouldn’t ask a politics editor to write about beauty.”
Hana's Skin Issues:
“I was born with severe head-to-toe eczema, and my angry skin is in a near-constant state of irritation. I bounce around between dermatologists and slather on the countless creams they suggest, but the scaly rashes prevail.”
“After trying Dr. Jart’s Cicapair Tiger Grass Cream for a month, I can confirm that it’s so worth the purchase. I used it every night as the last step in my skincare routine, and it quenched my parched complexion without leaving a greasy residue. Over time, it assuaged the red inflammation I typically have. Basically, it was the panacea to all my skin problems. And, honestly, I wasn’t surprised. When I was younger, my mother used to apply a potent-smelling ointment with the same key ingredient—tiger grass—whenever I had an eczema flare-ups. This cream has similar skin-soothing effects, plus a proprietary microbiome-boosting complex. And, unlike the old-school ointment, it doesn’t reek of metallic antiseptic, which I greatly appreciate.”
Danielle's Skin Issues:
“I have what I consider bad skin generally (white heads, black heads, and cystic acne), but my biggest skin gripe are the scars left behind as a result of picking all those pimples. After years of being too lazy to do much about my skin, I have finally gotten my acne issues under control; my new goal is to erase the damage I did to myself.”
“I was very excited—though a bit skeptical—to test out Skinceuticals C-E Ferulic and see if it could correct my pigmentation (I also suffer from a bit of melasma). Honestly…it lived up to the hype! Within a week, I started to notice my dark spots lightening and my skin tone overall evening out. After a month, I still have some discoloration, but it’s much less obvious. I kept using the serum until it ran out—and I will definitely be splurging on another bottle.”
Joyce's Skin Issues:
“I’ve always had freckles, but as I’ve gotten older, they’ve gotten larger and started to look more like age spots. They’re even more noticeable if I’m tan, which happens every summer despite my religious use of sunscreen.”
“I was hoping this new nightly regimen would even out my skin tone. For three weeks, I dutifully applied the night moisturizer and serum and documented my progress. My skin felt soft and smooth after using it. I don’t really have a nighttime routine (only a morning one), and it was kind of fun to take a few minutes for myself before bed.
But, by the end of my trial run, my “skin age”—though still 9 years younger than my actual age—went up. My spots improved, but only by one point, and, weirdly, my overall my “skin health” score went down. Honestly, I chalk that up to my inconsistent sleep schedule during the testing period. And maybe I would have seen better results if I continued using it even longer? At the very least, I now realize how important sleep is to health skin.”
Sara's Skin Issues:
“I have combination skin and it tends to look less glowy in the winter. I have a good regimen in place, but I’ve never used an essence and I was hoping this would make my skin look more luminous.”
“I’m new to essences, which are supposed to go on right after toner and before moisturizer or serum. I followed the directions and gently patted the essence into my skin with my fingertips every day after I applied my usual exfoliating toner. The consistency is thin and watery, so I think it would be easier to apply with a cotton pad or from a mister, but it did feel soothing and hydrating. After four weeks, I’m not sure that my skin benefited from the extra step in my daily routine—at least according to the skin scores. But the essence definitely feels refreshing and hydrating, and a little goes a long way so the product really lasts.”
For more stories like this, including celebrity news, beauty and fashion advice, savvy political commentary, and fascinating features, sign up for the Marie Claire newsletter.
Hana Hong is the beauty assistant at Marie Claire, where she covers skincare, makeup, and haircare, and is identifiable by her signature cateye.
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