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Why I Stopped Buying Expensive Skin Care & What I’m Doing Instead

Updated: Aug 12, 2022

This is a hot take and you can hold me to it.

OK, I'll say it: Expensive skin care, especially expensive anti-aging skin care, is a scam.

Like, Dr. Barbara Sturm gets $300 for a serum that boasts hyaluronic acid and purslane, the salad leaf, as the actives? How exactly does Dr. Barbara roam free while Anna Delvey is on house arrest?

No dermatologist worth their salt will tell you that a $300 hyaluronic serum is necessary for good skin. It’s not even a nice-to-have, really. It’s just a “have.”

Don’t get me started on $50 face cleansers… Why are we paying this much money for a product we wash off? A product that doesn’t absorb into the skin whatsoever?

As I settle into my fourth decade of life, beautiful skin care bottles and covetable brand names don’t amuse me or even bring me joy. Most of them just piss me off.

There’s nothing you can buy at Sephora that will reverse fine lines and wrinkles. And that’s what all the most expensive products hook you with.

Once they’ve hooked you with fear-based buzzwords, they dig their claws in with ~claims~.

“Clinically proven to reduce fine lines and wrinkles”

(In the brand’s own clinical trial.)

“86% of women saw a reduction of fine lines”

(Key word: “saw,” not “showed” or “had,” which puts the onus on the brand, but “saw...” which puts the onus on the woman who had time in her day to participate in this study (aka, your retired aunt Susan). She used the free product and said, “I saw a difference,” and that’s your proof. Aunt Susan saw it, and that’s all you need to know. Also, in the tiniest font ever, “based on a study of 34 aunt Susans.”)

Working in lifestyle journalism and product marketing made me wise to shady claims language and luxury snake oil — but if not that, what?

I can only speak for myself, and as a 41-year-old woman, here’s what I think:

My philosophy on skin care is whatever my dermatologist says.

Topically, for wrinkles and fine lines, she says:

  • SPF 30 or greater, every day, rain or shine

  • Vitamin C (ethyl ascorbic at 20% or greater)

  • Prescription retinoid (the only proven fine line topical, according to most derms)

  • Botox when I’m ready (idk I'll get back to you/her on that)

Apart from that, it’s just basic moisturizer, cleanser, and whatever I want to add on. Currently that is:

  • The Ordinary Moisturizing Factors because it has simple, good ingredients that keep my skin hydrated overnight.

  • Klavuu Pure Pearlsation cleanser because it cleanses my skin without stripping moisture.

  • Aquaphor to slug my under-eye area and lock in hydration, because I don’t use under-eye cream because under-eye cream is not actually necessary if you use a good moisturizer. (Pick up your jaw and ask your derm if they agree. Spoiler: They do.)

  • Glycolic acid pads from my dermatologist to deal with the gift of hormonal birth control acne.

None of the over-the-counter skin care I buy is above $25 or $30. It doesn’t need to be, and I’d rather spend my money on other products that have more immediate and efficacious results.

Instead of spending money on *expensive anti-aging skin care, here’s what I throw my money and attention at to feel and look my best.

1. Brow and lash growth products

Full brows and lashes make all the difference! Imagine your makeup routine without mascara or brow pencil. Sad, right? Brows frame your face and add symmetry. Lashes are just divine and there’s nothing else that needs to be said.

I’ve always been obsessed with mascara and brow products, but this year I got greedy and wanted 24/7 lushness. So I got into brow and lash growth products. I bought Latisse but never used it because it can darken your eyelid skin and cause other side effects. I bought and used GrandeLash… until I learned about the ingredient prostaglandin, which has been linked to periorbital skin sagging.

However, GrandeLash and GrandeBrow did grow my lashes and brows to a point, and now I’m using the prostaglandin-free The Ordinary Lash & Brow Serum to further and maintain growth. It’s working and my lashes and brows have never been fuller. I get compliments all the time from girls, gays, theys, and least important but still mentionable, straight men.

TL;DR, brow and lash products, whether we’re talking makeup or serums, produce VISIBLE RESULTS and are a good bang for my buck as I age.

2. Self-tanning products

This is not an everyone thing. This is an April thing. I’m from Florida and I always had a good tan when I was younger. That makes tan skin a sign of youth and beauty for me. Simple as that.

Self-tanning products have been a godsend to bypass sun damage and best the gloomy New York winters. In the winter, when I have zero tan, I use Isle of Paradise Self-Tanning Mousse in the deepest shade. That has to be applied with a mitt but it goes on clear, is transfer-free, and does not need to be washed off like many other tanners.

For the face, I like the St. Tropez Purity Face Mist a little better than the Isle of Paradise Day Dew mist, but I alternate between the two. Both are easy to apply and streak-free. Just mist, massage, done. Wash your hands, of course! This is also a great option if you just want light color on your face and decollete without those areas being a starkly different shade from the rest of your un-tanned body.

This summer, and while I was traveling earlier this winter, I’ve been getting into gradual self-tanners. They’re so easy… You literally put the tanner on with your hands, like lotion, and that’s it. No mitt, no fuss. I used Jergens Natural Glow in medium to deep for a long time. I also tried the Bondi Sands one. My current fixation is a European beauty find that you can only get on Amazon, Garnier Summer Body ($29, pack of 2). It gives the deepest, bronziest tan of all three.

Again, instant results. Compliments. Bang for buck. No scam to be found!

3. Hair supplements

Hair is a big deal for women, myself included. I’ve dealt with hair loss and it is not fun. On top of better wellness and nutrition, supplements have helped me get my hair to a better place than it’s been in the last 10 years, at least, maybe ever.

The supplements I use are Ouai. I chose them because they have extremely similar ingredients to other dermatologist-recommended hair supplements and the ingredients are standardized, which is important for efficacy. I’ve been taking these supplements for almost a year now and they’ve exceeded the results of any other hair supplement I’ve taken. Thickness, shine, length, softness…. gang’s all here.

I also saw a boost in my hair when I transitioned away from a low-carb diet and just focused on eating as many whole foods as possible while limiting processed stuff. Basically an anti-inflammatory food mindset, but not overkill because we’re on a floating rock and I love chicken nuggets. It makes sense because elimination diets like low-carb limit the amount of nutrients your body gets and nutrition is a big part of hair health. High quality lean protein is very important for hair and I prioritize that as well. You do not have to consult a “foods for hair growth” list. I did not do that. Eat the rainbow and get your protein.

Shampoos and conditioners wash out of your hair… They do not improve hair growth. Ones that are full of endocrine-disrupting chemicals like sulfates and parabens can negatively impact hair growth for some people. I don’t think too much about shampoo and conditioner in relation to hair growth. I use what I like, which is Olaplex conditioner and a rotating cast of paraben- and sulfate-free shampoos.

4. Evolving my look

This is a big one and it’s expensive because it costs you time. But think about it: If you feel old, it might be because your look is stuck in 2008.

Sure, a lot of things are timeless and trends are cyclical, but that’s the game, love. You have to keep your eyes and ears open and be willing to take risks.

I like trends that have meaning or stir up nostalgia. Right now I’m into merch from my favorite artists, vintage and heirloom jewelry, big, dark brows like my beauty icon Monica Bellucci, long hair like I had when I was a teenager, and "look at me"colors, prints, and silhouettes like the ones I was too timid to wear as a teenager.

I don’t care that it was the Kardashians who brought waist-length hair back into the mainstream (I like it), and I don’t care that Gen Zs are trying to make skinny '90s brows happen (I hate it so much). The point is: have a point of view. You'll feel like a baddie.

That’s literally it. That’s where my head’s at on aging without getting scammed. More to come, I’m sure!

*I know I bought the very expensive NuFace, which is not necessary, but an investment I made because I’m concerned about jowls and skin sagging and, apart from cosmetic procedures, there are literally no other at-home solutions for those concerns.

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