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Maybe you’re a cleanser-moisturizer-sunscreen kind of girl. Maybe you’re a complicated, 10-step skincare routine kind of girl. Maybe you fall somewhere in the middle. Regardless, it boils down to not only the number of products but the quality, too. But given that these days you can spend anywhere from $10 to $500 on a moisturizer, how do you determine what’s actually worth putting on your skin? Enter this handy cheat sheet, a complication of the cream of the crop (pun intended), ranging from drugstore staples to indie newbies to luxurious cult favorites, plus the must-have product from each.
Here’s your complete guide to the absolute best skincare brands.
The brand: For over two decades, SkinCeuticals has been a go-to, dermatologist-recommended brand. They’re all about science-backed skincare (which is why it’s such a hit in the medical community), and have a wide array of products that can both prevent, protect, and correct signs of aging.
The hero product: Dermatologists love it. Beauty editors are obsessed. In short, C E Ferulic serum is legit. It’s pricey, but worth every penny, thanks to the scientifically-proven combo of antioxidants—vitamins C, E, and ferulic acid—that shield skin from free radical damage caused by exposure to things such as sun as pollution. TBH, it does smell a little bit like hot dog water, but you quickly get used to it, especially once you see for yourself just how skin-changing this serum is.
The brand: The name is cute and the packaging adorable, but make no mistake about it—Drunk Elephant offers some seriously legit skincare products. What started as a way for founder Tiffany Masterson to try and make some money during the recession turned into a hugely popular brand, creating all kinds of serums, masks, and more that beauty editors and consumers alike adore.
The hero product: Despite the fact that T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial packs a hefty 25% concentration of alpha-hydroxy acids, plus a 2% concentration of beta-hydroxy acid, it magically doesn’t irritate skin, even sensitive skin. (Credit the fact that it’s especially pH balanced.) You’re left with a radiant, clear, even complexion, no redness in sight.
The brand: There’s no denying that your diet can affect your skin, which is why this brand focuses on superfoods that you can both eat and apply topically. Think latte blends packed with ingredients such as turmeric and cacao and face masks packed with equally yummy ingredients.
The hero product: There are only four ingredients in Clean Greens Superfood Face Mask, which essentially functions as a green juice for your skin. (Incidentally, they’re all edible so you could technically eat this, though we don’t recommend it.) It helps purify, brighten, and hydrate, in a cool powder-to-gel formula that’s activated when mixed with water.
The brand: You don’t need to spend tons of money for effective products that derms love; Neutrogena is touted as the number one dermatologist-recommend skincare product and you can find it at the drugstore. They’re all about using scientifically-backed ingredients in formulas made to address any and every complexion concern, from acne to aging. Oh, and they kill the sunscreen game, too.
The hero product: Meet your new summer moisturizer. Packed with lightweight hyaluronic acid, Hydro Boost Water Gel hydrates without ever feeling greasy or heavy. Instead, it’s fresh and cooling (even more so if you stash it in the fridge), a must for hot, humid days, or for anyone whose skin is perpetually slick.
The brand: Founder Lesley Thorton spent nearly a decade working as an aesthetician and creating custom products for her devoted clientele. That was the base for Klur, which remains a curated collection of seven SKUs focused on addressing a diverse range of skin issues. The products define eco-luxe— clean and botanically-driven, though still insanely chic, with sophisticated minimalist packaging you’ll want to display.
The hero product: A universally fool-proof cleanser, this formula is especially ideal for the sensitive skin set. The non-foaming gel takes off dirt and impurities, simultaneously hydrating your complexion rather than stripping it. Credit calming green and white tea, coupled with moisturizing superheroes such as aloe and jojoba oil.
The brand: A longtime beauty industry veteran, Kenda Kolb Butler founded Alpyn Beauty after moving from New York City to Jackson Hole. Working in a skincare spa, she realized a need for products that actually delivered, and was inspired to use the incredible plant-based ingredients in her local environment in creating the line. As such, the brand focuses on, “wildcrafted active,” all sustainably harvested in Wyoming. It’s also a clean brand, a repeated Eco Beauty Award-winner.
The hero product: Byrdie Editorial Director Faith Xue recommends PlantGenius Creamy Bubbling Cleanser to everyone, thanks to its ability to both effectively remove makeup and actually cleanse your skin. It exfoliates ever-so-gently with a blend of AHAs and fruit enzymes, though also contains hyaluronic acid so your complexion never feels stripped. Bonus points for the subtle floral-citrus scent and fun-to-use frothy formula.
The brand: This brand shook-up the industry in big way when it hit the market in 2017. The premise: Offering proven, big-time ingredients at jaw-droppingly low prices. (We’re talking a hyaluronic acid serum for $7.) You need to know your ingredients for sure; there are no cutesy product names, just ingredients and concentrations listed on the labels, but it’s one of the best affordable lines we’ve seen to date.
The hero product: Retinol is a tried-and-true powerhouse, with the ability to do everything from stimulate collagen production to clear up breakouts, but it’s notoriously irritating. That’s why we appreciate that The Ordinary offers it in several different concentrations to help your skin gradually acclimate, all coupled with hydrating squalane. Retinol 0.2% in Squalane is the lowest, a top choice for retinol newbies.
Dr. Barbara Sturm
The brand: The eponymous line from one of Germany’s most renowned aesthetic doctors is chock full of youth-boosting that products that actually work. Sturm started in orthopedics, where she developed unique anti-inflammatory treatments using patients’ own blood. This then translated to skincare; her bespoke M61 cream, which contains your own plasma, is a favorite among celebs like Hailey Bieber and Cher . Her full skincare line launched in 2014, with simple—yet highly effective—products.
The hero product: Byrdie Senior Editor Hallie Gould calls Face Cream Rich her, “most treasured moisturizer,” while Dr. Sturm refers to it as, “your cell spa while you sleep.” It delivers an intensely regenerating effect, thanks to the addition of several different herbs. So much so that Gould says your skin will look more youthful come morning.
The brand: The Black female founders of this standout skincare brand are all about creating products that help women, particularly women of color, embrace their natural beauty. The products are responsibly-sourced and carefully-crafted, resulting in a minimal yet complete line-up that addresses a wide range of complexion concerns.
The product: For anyone dealing with hyperpigmentation issues, no matter their skin color, this brightening glycolic acid toner is a true problem-solver. Regardless of whether the dark marks are a result of sun damage or acne scarring, the formula goes to town, exfoliating and evening out skin tone, with an assist from brightening licorice extract and protective antioxidants. There’s also soothing niacinamide in the mix to minimize the likelihood of any irritation.
The brand: Celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau has not only spent 30 years taking care of her client’s skin, she’s also a true treasure trove of skincare info, a go-to resource for beauty editors. It’s that combo of hands-on experience and encyclopedic knowledge that makes her line of products so great. And rather than just offering options for the standard dry, normal, oily skin-types, she has picks for nine different kinds of skin, including an emphasis on safe and effective choices for the sensitive set.
The hero product: Another “ride-or-die” product for Gould, she says you’ll notice a difference in your skin after just one 10-minute application of Triple Berry Smoothing Peel. At work, a combo of exfoliating AHA and BHAs, antioxidant-rich berries (hence the name, and yummy, jam-like scent) and enzymes. The result is a formula that quickly fades discoloration, purifies pores, and generally leaves your complexion bright and glowing.
The brand: Another one of those brands you’ve likely seen at the derm’s office, Alastin creates both the products you need for an everyday skincare routine and ones specially formulated to support in-office procedures. As the name hints, there’s a strong focus on supporting your skin’s own elastin (and collagen), making for a highly efficacious line-up of anti-agers.
The hero product: If we were forced to pick one sunscreen we had to use for the rest of our lives, HydraTint Pro Mineral Sunscreen SPF 36 would easily be it. Hands down our favorite face formula, ever, it marries the perfect blend of hydration, subtle color, and a glowy finish that’s so good we often use it in lieu of any kind of foundation. Of course, it also delivers that oh-so-important broad-spectrum SPF, in an all-mineral formula that’s also oil- and fragrance-free, so it won’t clog pores or irritate sensitive skin.
The brand: Ever wondered how celebs such as Chrissy Teigen, Jessica Alba, and Rosie Huntington-Whitley achieve that coveted glow? Sure, genetics help, but they’re also all clients of A-list esthetician Shani Darden. Since a Hollywood facial probably isn’t in the cards for most of us, Darden’s eponymous skincare line is the next best thing.
The hero product: Retinol is the undisputed king of the anti-aging world, so it makes sense that Retinol Reform is the brand’s undisputed superstar. Celebs and Byrdie editors alike rave about its complexion-transforming effects (and how quickly you can see them), thanks to a combo of 2.2% retinol plus 2% lactic acid. And if your skin shudders at the mere word “retinol,” don’t worry; the Texture Reform serum uses a gentler type of retinoid, yet also yields impressive results.
The brand: A tried-and-true staple, Cetaphil is known for creating gentle, sensitive-skin safe formulas that dermatologists love. Fun fact: It’s available in over 70 countries across the world.
The hero product: The brand's Gentle Skin Cleanser first hit the market back in 1947 and still features the same formula—talk about an oldie but a goodie. Consider it a universally foolproof wash, a crazy gentle pick that dermatologists recommend for everyone over and over (and over) again. Not to mention that it’s super affordable, and doesn’t even have to be rinsed off.
The brand: Created by a dermatologist over 20 years ago, SkinMedica focuses on the science behind all of their formulas, constantly seeking ways to help skin heal and regenerate itself.
The hero product: Derms go ga-ga for TNS Essential Serum; it’s one of the anti-aging products they even use themselves. Yes, it does contain human-derived growth factors, but that’s what makes for the impressive youth-boosting results. We’re talking improved tone, texture, and fewer fine lines in as quickly as a few months. FYI, this is another product where the smell is, shall we say, distinct, though the efficacy is well-worth it.
The brand: When a line is co-founded by a beauty chemist, you know that the formulations and products are going to be top notch, and indeed that’s the case here. Created in 2019, the line doesn’t feature a ton of products (yet), but the ones they do offer are next level great, and all utilize vitamin C, a choice ingredient for the litany of benefits it delivers.
The hero product: Speaking of, the vitamin C in Universal C Eye Perfector is a 5% concentration of pure and potent l-ascorbic acid (the most effective form of vitamin C), coupled with CBD, hyaluronic acid, and EGCG, an antioxidant-rich compound derived from green tea. We love it for both the amazing results—one Byrdie contributor noticed a reduction in puffiness and dark circles after just three weeks—and the lightweight gel-to-cream texture.
The brand: This line holds a unique space in the market, offering high-end, active formulas at the drugstore. It’s a cult-fave French pharmacy brand and brings that same European pharmacy vibe to the States. It’s an especially good brand to seek out if you’re battling conditions such as rosacea, eczema, acne, or sensitive skin in general, as they offer unique lines for each.
The hero product: Whether it’s full-on rosacea or pesky redness from another source, Rosaliac AR Intense serum is the fix. A botanical component, ambophenol, quickly tamps down flushing and it’s also crazy hydrating.
The brand: This French-based brand has been around since the 1970s; it first began as an R&D lab, focused on active skincare ingredients. Biologist and founder Yvan Allouche started creating products for his wife to use, and the rest is history.
The hero product: Our in-house skincare aficionado Gould sings the praises of this cult-classic toner over and over. It’s an iconic product in the beauty industry, equally as well-known for its pore-shrinking, skin-balancing effects as it is its notorious smell. Along with standard ingredients such as lactic, salicylic, and citric acids, P50 Original also contains horseradish, sulfur, and vinegar.
The brand: Arguably one of the better-known clean beauty brands out there—as well as one of the first—this line not only focuses on using natural ingredients, they also do it all themselves. We’re talking growing said ingredients on their own farm, and developing all the standout formulas with an in-house chemist.
The hero product: Battling breakouts? Consider washing with the brand's Purifying Cleanser. The gel-to-oil formula touts 17 different natural actives (think purple clay, papaya enzymes, and more) to deeply cleanse and purify your complexion, without leaving it dry or stripped.
The brand: K-beauty may get all the attention, but there’s a plethora of skincare inspo to be gleaned from Japanese beauty as well. It’s the mainstay for this brand, which is steeped in Japanese tradition, both when it comes to the ingredients they use and in creating products that make for a relaxing and luxurious skincare ritual.
The hero product: Anyone who loves a double cleanse, is looking for a gentle makeup remover, and/or just loves cleansing oils will appreciate Pure One Step Camellia Cleansing Oil. On the oil front, it boasts rice brand and camellia seed oils (both non-pore clogging) to quickly and effectively break down makeup. Plus, it also contains an antioxidant complex based on the diet of Japanese geishas—algae, green tea, and rice—to soothe and calm skin, too.
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare
The brand: While this brand isn’t super new, nor does it have the buzzy social media hype of some others, it’s a mainstay for skincare enthusiasts everywhere. Founded by dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross (shocker), it was one of the first lines that offered clinical-inspired formulas and products. For example, his cult-favorite daily peel pads took a cue from the in-office peels he’s known for.
The hero product: While those peel pads are great, it’s one of his newest launches that has truly transformed our skin. A lifesaver when breakouts streak, DRx Blemish Solutions Acne Eliminating Gel clears up blemishes fast; the brand says within three days, but we noticed results even after just one day. Like many other treatments, it contains salicylic acid, but what’s more noteworthy is the use of monk’s pepper to control oil production.
The brand: Formerly known as Oil of Olay, this has been an undeniable drugstore mainstay since 1952; we’re willing to bet you have memories of your mom or even grandmother using the OG iconic pink lotion. These days, they still have tried-and-true favorites, but also continue to innovate across every category of skincare.
The hero product: Twenty jars of Micro-Sculpting Cream are sold every minute worldwide. We’re no math whizzes, but that’s a lot of moisturizers. It’s not surprising given that it claims to hydrate the skin and minimize fine lines and wrinkles in just 28 days. Credit a peptide complex, along with skincare stalwarts such as hyaluronic acid and niacinamide. Also nice: It’s available in a fragrance-free variant as well.
The brand: Got sensitive skin? This one’s for you. The French-brand is all about products that help calm and soothe (along with delivering results), without ever triggering irritation. At the core of many of its SKUs is the brand’s mineral-rich spring water, straight from France.
The hero product: Choice when your complexion is already stressed, and/or when you want to give it an extra layer of protection (think in the dead of winter), Cicalfate+ Restorative Protective Cream is equal parts hydrating and soothing. It restores the skin barrier and also contains copper and zinc to maintain a healthy skin environment. It tamps down itching too and is so gentle it can even be used on kids and infants.
The brand: Despite the fact that Sunday Riley has been around for over a decade, it was always more of an under-the-radar brand. That is, until the past few years when it quickly became a cult-favorite in the industry, thanks to their curated collection of products that tout high-tech formula, and fast, effective results.
The hero product: Good Genes is largely regarded as Team Byrdie’s fave chemical exfoliant, a lactic-acid based serum that exfoliates, brightens, smooths, and plumps. And no, even if you have sensitive skin it’s highly unlikely to cause irritation, given the gentle nature of lactic acid and the addition of calming and soothing ingredients, such as aloe vera.
The brand: Dr. Augustinus Bader is a German doctor responsible for creating the moisturizer that launched both Hollywood celebs (Victoria Beckham) and every beauty editor we know into a skincare frenzy. At works is his patented TFC-8 complex, a combo of 40 ingredients that essentially help your skin heal and regenerate itself.
The hero product: The OG cream that started it all, The Cream lives up to the hype, truly. The high-tech formula is so good that Dr. Bader says it can replace every other product in your routine (except cleanser) and promises results in 27 days. In our experience, the texture is impeccable and the formula highly effective.
The brand: There’s no denying that retinol holds a prime spot in the skincare world, and when it comes to brands that focus on retinol RoC is tops. The drugstore staple is known for its use of the proven anti-aging ingredient, incorporating it into a wide array of products for the face and eyes.
The hero product: Given that signs of aging can show up around the eyes first, retinol is a choice ingredient to seek out in an eye cream, and Retinol Correxion Anti-Aging Eye Cream Treatment gets it right. Despite its efficacy (AKA ability to smooth out those pesky crow’s feet), it’s still gentle and hypoallergenic, and also addresses other peeper problems, think dark circles and puffiness.
The brand: We’re not quite sure what we like most about this brand: the effective and innovative products, the squeaky clean formulas (they ban over 1300 ingredients), or the super affordable price point. Happily, there’s no need to choose, because you get all of the above. They take a simple and straightforward approach to skincare and have an undeniably ‘cool girl’ vibe. Oh, and possibly the best part is that most of the line is sold at Target.
The hero product: Baby Cheeks All In One Hydrating Milk somehow manages to combine the best attributes of a cleansing milk, makeup remover, and moisturizing toner, all in one bottle. You can use it in place of a face wash, for sure, or apply afterward for an extra hit of hydration and totally refreshing feel. (We also like to reach for it post-workout whenever a full-on face cleansing isn’t an option.)
The brand: Danish skin cosmetician Ole Henriksen has been a staple on the skincare scene since the early ‘80s, when he opened a skin spa in West Hollywood and launched his product line so that people could enjoy spa-like results at home. For Henriksen, it’s all about creating healthy, glowing skin (fans refer to it as te Ole Glow), and the products all speak to that mission.
The hero product: Banana Bright Eye Cream was inspired by color-correcting banana powder, a yellow powder makeup artists often rely on to counteract dark circles. As such, it has a subtle yellow tint to do exactly that, along with vitamin C and collagen for anti-aging effects. Plus, it also layers beautifully under makeup, a must for any eye cream you’re going to be applying in the AM.
The brand: Arguably one of the most iconic beauty brands of all time, Estée Lauder has been a go-to for generations of women. Started in 1946 with just four skincare products, it’s now one of the biggest beauty companies out there, consistently innovating while still remaining true to the brand’s heritage.
The hero product: Advanced Night Repair Eye Supercharged Complex is a must-have, addressing any and every eye concern. Its formula is designed to hydrate for up to 24 hours, brighten dark circles in three weeks, and tamp down puffiness and lines. Plus, it has a lightweight texture that absorbs lightning-fast.
What to Look For in Skincare Brands
When choosing a skincare brand to purchase from, look for those that commit to using science-backed ingredients. While new and trending ingredients have their place, there’s something to be said about sticking to formulas created with bodies of evidence to support their use and effectiveness.
Look for ingredients such as AHAs, BHAs, hyaluronic acid, ceramides, vitamin C, retinol, vitamin E, niacinamide, aloe, jojoba, enzymes, and of course, SPF.
It’s one thing for a brand to tout impressive and effective ingredients, but if those ingredients are not appropriately formulated and quality is sacrificed, your results will be too. Look for brands that proudly label the ingredients and amounts and compare them to your desired needs and preferences.
More is not always better, especially in terms of retinol and strong acids, but the proper dose and formulation can save your skin, especially if it is sensitive. Going with brands that use clinical testing and are backed or created by dermatologists and estheticians is wise. Reading reviews from customers and beauty editors who’ve tried products from the brand is extremely valuable for informing your skincare brand decision-making.
Budget is a concern when it comes to the best skincare brands. It is often true that you get what you pay for since effective, adequately dosed ingredients can be pricey. However, several affordable skincare brand options are available that have stood the test of time and are backed by scientific research and excellent reviews.
Look for well-known and loved brands that are recommended by skincare experts.
How do I start a skincare routine?
Start a skincare routine with the basics: cleanser, toner, moisturizer, and sunscreen. It’s best to choose mild and gentle brands to start with. Begin cleansing your skin each night before bed, followed by toner and moisturizer. Repeat this routine in the morning with the addition of sunscreen. Once you have this habit in place, you could consider adding exfoliants, weekly skin masks, serums, spot treatments, and other products to your preference. Adjust your skincare product choices to how your skin reacts and what type of skin you have.
What is a proper skincare routine?
A proper skincare routine consists of cleansing your skin to wash away makeup, pollutants, dirt, and sweat each night before bed and again in the morning. Follow this with toner and moisturizer, and add sunscreen in the daytime.
What are the 10 steps of skincare?
The 10 steps of skincare are oil cleanse or micellar water, foam or gel cleanse, exfoliate, tone, treatment essence, serum or ampoule, sheet mask, eye cream, moisturizer or night cream, and SPF (daytime only).
What serums do I need?
If you want to add serum to your skincare routine, choose one targeted for your specific skin type or concern (or both). If you have dry, thin, or aging skin, choose a serum packed with ingredients that boost moisture and address fine lines. Serums that work to counteract sun damage or prevent breakouts are also worth considering, depending on your needs. For an essential choice that everyone can benefit from, try a vitamin C serum.