6 Tried-and-True Beauty Ingredients That Really Work

I’ll fess up: I’m 40, but I feel like I’m 27. So when I notice blotches and crow’s feet (which shouldn’t appear on a person this young, right?), my first response is to spend a vacation-budget’s worth of cash on fancy skin creams with “patented” technical-sounding ingredients (“Youthavive”! “Dewrinkletrol”!), which simply don’t work. I fell victim to runaway skin care capitalism: companies that try to take hold of your well-earned cash by promising amazing results from the latest trendy ingredients (looking at you: snake venom, 24K gold and snail slime).

But then I discovered there are plenty of smart, tested solutions for keeping your skin clear, smooth and radiant, and they actually have the clinical results to back up their claims. If, like me, your skin needs a little boost, look for products (often available at the drugstore!) that contain the ingredients featured here. You’ll not only look better, but also feel good about these budget-friendly picks.

The Basics of Skin Care

The Basics of Skin Care

I’ll fess up: I’m 40, but I feel like I’m 27. So when I notice blotches and crow’s feet (which shouldn’t appear on a person this young, right?), my first response is to spend a vacation-budget’s worth of cash on fancy skin creams with “patented” technical-sounding ingredients (“Youthavive”! “Dewrinkletrol”!), which simply don’t work. I fell victim to runaway skin care capitalism: companies that try to take hold of your well-earned cash by promising amazing results from the latest trendy ingredients (looking at you: snake venom24K gold and snail slime).

But then I discovered there are plenty of smart, tested solutions for keeping your skin clear, smooth and radiant, and they actually have the clinical results to back up their claims. If, like me, your skin needs a little boost, look for products (often available at the drugstore!) that contain the ingredients featured here. You’ll not only look better, but also feel good about these budget-friendly picks.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A

You may know vitamin A by different names — the over-the-counter ingredient is called retinol, or you may recognize prescription creams like Retin-A and tretinoin — but they all pack a punch by reducing the appearance of wrinkles and improving skin tone. The effectiveness of Vitamin A can break down quickly when exposed to light and air, so always opt for pump or tube packing over a jar. To avoid unnecessary dryness and irritation, apply these treatments to dry — not damp — skin.

Budget-friendly buy: RoC RETINOL CORREXION Deep Wrinkle Serum, $22.99 RoC was the first company to patent a retinol formula in the United States, and their shelf-stable, potent treatments are an effective and affordable way to conquer skin discoloration and fine lines. Just remember that this is a treatment, not a moisturizer, and may cause some initial irritation; to optimize application, wash your face, wait 15 minutes, apply the retinol and then follow with your favorite moisturizer.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C

Just like the endless health benefits foods rich in vitamin C provide, this ingredient can also make your skin more resilient to aging and everyday environmental concerns. It can also fight the effects of existing damage, whether from the sun or age. Skin treatments with forms of vitamin C like ascorbic acid can both reduce sun damage and inflammation and increase collagen, which acts as the underlying support structure for your skin. One study noted “a clinically visible and statistically significant improvement in wrinkling when used topically for 12 weeks.” Another study found the topical application of a 5-percent vitamin C cream for six months resulted in a “decrease of deep furrows,” as well as other “significant” improvements compared to untreated skin. Like vitamin A, vitamin C products can be unstable and should be packaged in a way to reduce exposure to light and air.

Budget-friendly buy: Avalon Organics Vitamin C Vitality Facial Serum, $24.95 This affordable serum is pH-balanced to maximize the benefits of vitamin C and also contains a large percentage of organic ingredients. It will give you a good dose of the ingredient but that’s about it, so wear moisturizer or sunscreen, especially if your skin tends to be dry.

Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids

Alpha and Beta Hydroxy Acids

Alpha Hydroxy Acids, or AHAs, work by exfoliating dull, rough top layers of skin and letting your fresh face shine through. If you’re new to AHAs such as glycolic acid, start with a low percentage, like 5 percent, and always protect your skin with sunscreen during the day.

Like alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, or BHAs, exfoliate your skin. Unlike AHAs, BHAs penetrate deep into your pores, which make them ideal for treating blackheads and blemishes. BHAs like salicylic acid are also gentler than AHAs and can be a smart choice for more sensitive skin.

Budget-friendly buy: Alpha Hydrox AHA Enhanced Cream, $10.69 With 10-percent AHA, this cream is effective at removing dead skin cells and giving your face a healthy glow. Added Vitamin E helps moisturize your skin at the same time.

Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Stress Control Triple-Action Toner, $5.99 This toner offers a great combination of pore-cleansing salicylic acid and soothing cucumber and green tea extracts — a great product for older skin that’s still blemish-prone.

Niacinamide

Niacinamide

Niacinamide, or topical vitamin B3, is an amazing anti-aging ingredient that not many people are familiar with. Studies show that niacinamide protects skin and helps it retain moisture and improve elasticity, while reducing any inflammation or discoloration.

Budget-friendly buy: Olay Total Effects 7-in-1 Anti-Aging Moisturizer, $17.99 Niacinamide frequently makes an appearance in Olay products, and here it teams up with vitamin C, vitamin E, green tea extract and more to improve the tone and texture of your skin. Plus, the pump packaging ensures the active ingredients stay active (since they’re not being exposed regularly to air).

Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic Acid

When you hear “acid” you may think exfoliation, but hyaluronic acid is actually a potent moisturizer that can hold up to a thousand times its weight in water. Because hyaluronic acid occurs naturally in the body, it’s a popular choice for cosmetic injectables (think Restylane) and studies have found it to be an effective ingredient for keeping skin plumped and hydrated (think your rosy-faced 2-year-old niece) — and even as a treatment to counteract the effects of radiation therapy in patients.

Budget-friendly buy: Reviva Labs High Potency Hyaluronic Acid Serum, $13.19 Boost your favorite moisturizer by adding a pump of this affordable serum before applying. Because hyaluronic acid is non-greasy, it’s an especially good option for refreshing blemished skin.

You Might Also Like:
Your Guide to Makeup Bag Maintenance
How Much Is Beauty Worth to You?
Can Expensive Beauty Treatments Save You in the Long Run?

Join the Discussion