Is Your Skin Cream Right For You?

Illustrated by Tida Tep.
When you pick up a beauty product that touts a wonder ingredient that's supposed to be great for your skin, you expect it to completely change your life. But, let’s get one thing straight: Not everyone has the same skin, so all those lofty promises stamped on the outside of a tube or bottle just might not come true for you.
That said, just because something was an epic fail in your own skin-care regimen doesn’t mean certain ingredients are all-around terrible — they just might not be right for your skin type. “What makes something ‘bad’ depends on the individual,” says Francesca Fusco, MD, a dermatologist in Manhattan. “Retinoids would be ‘bad’ for individuals in the sun a lot (like lifeguards). Fragrances would be ‘bad’ for highly allergic individuals; straight alcohol as an astringent would be ‘bad’ for dry-skinned individuals.” You get the drift.
The trick lies in knowing which ingredients work (or don’t) for different complexion concerns. To get that intel, we spoke to expert dermatologists for their take on those ingredients that are ideal for almost every skin type and those that come with caveats.
Of course, it’s important to remember that for any ingredient (natural or synthetic), there’s bound to be someone out there in the big, wide world who is allergic to it. So, when we say certain things are pretty much universally great, pay attention to your skin and discontinue use if you see signs of trouble.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, click through to check out our list of good and sometimes-bad common skin-care ingredients, so you can customize your beauty routine accordingly.
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Illustrated by Tida Tep.
If you have dry, itchy, and/or cracked skin, this antioxidant-rich berry (often found in your post-workout smoothie) will help smooth things over. When the world shoots damaging sunshine your way or you’re coughing in a cloud of bus exhaust on your daily commute, cells are damaged, which can lead to disease or signs of aging. Antioxidants, like those found in this rain-forest rescuer, jump to your defense, as the dark-purple berry is chock-full of vitamins and minerals.

Açai is a superhero because its ORAC score (which measures levels of antioxidants) is higher than just about every other ingredient's. Ever. It also contains anthocyanin, the antioxidant found in dark-colored fruits like grapes and berries. “As a fairly newfound skin-care ingredient, açai contains one of the highest antioxidant properties of all fruits and helps to fight free-radical damage and inhibit skin damage,” says David E. Bank, MD, director of The Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic & Laser Surgery in Mt. Kisco, NY.

He points out that the luscious fruit also contains omega-6 and omega-9 oils, essential fatty acids your skin needs to look and feel its healthiest. So, even if you don’t have wrinkles now, açai can help if you want to avoid them in the future.
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Photo: Via 100% Pure.
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Illustrated by Tida Tep.
Got sun? Antioxidants like vitamin E (a.k.a. tocopherol) help counter the damage from environmental stressors. “This vitamin helps to prevent cellular damage due to its free-radical-inhibiting properties,” says Dr. Bank. It’s also an anti-inflammatory, reducing swelling and redness (especially after sun exposure). Other benefits: “It promotes wound healing, tissue reparation, and anti-aging,” says Dr. Bank.
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Photo: Via Jack Black.
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Illustrated by Tida Tep.
This one-size-fits-all moisturizing ingredient works as a hydrator for pretty much any skin type. It’s a carbohydrate that occurs naturally in the human body and nestles between skin cells. Says Dr. Fusco, “It’s my favorite humectant to plump, moisturize, and retain moisture.”

Unlike occlusive moisturizers that merely trap existing hydration in the skin, this one pulls water from the atmosphere and hangs on to it for dear life. The results? The hands of time seem to spin backward, and your skin is supple and moisturized (think: baby cheeks, either end).

And, scientists agree: Women who slathered on an HA cream showed significant improvements in skin hydration and elasticity, according to a study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology in 2011. Fun fact: Plastic surgeons inject it here and there via the fillers Juvéderm and Restylane to (temporarily) do away with wrinkles.
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Photo: Via Kiehl's.
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Illustrated by Tida Tep.
You may have grown up pinching off a piece from this spiky plant every time you got a mild burn (from sun or stove), but this great green is also good for soothing an itch and repairing stretch marks. “It’s a beneficial skin-care remedy that accelerates skin-cell growth,” says Dr. Bank. It can also be used as a moisturizer and works its healing magic thanks to antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, he adds.
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Photo: Via Hampton Sun.
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Illustrated by Tida Tep.
This extract from the seed of the jojoba tree is a long-used moisturizer, especially in its native Southwest. It’s actually not a true oil, but rather a wax ester — a substance that’s remarkably similar to the sebum in your skin.

The acne-prone often turn to it as a moisturizer because it’s thought to mimic skin’s natural oils, helping to regulate oil production. It helps keep pores from clogging and also has hypoallergenic properties, according to Dr. Bank.
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Photo: Via Lush.
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Illustrated by Tida Tep.
This is the key ingredient in diaper-rash ointments, and it works just as well for grown-up skin irritations, too. It’s also an effective barrier-block sunscreen, meaning it stops rays from reaching — and burning — your skin.

People used to hate this ingredient because its big particles would look white and pasty on your skin (think: the smear of white on a lifeguard’s nose). But, now, zinc oxide comes in nanoparticles that have a sheer look. “This natural UV block is now so cosmetically elegant it can be present in makeup, powders, sunscreen, lotions, BB creams — you name it!” says Dr. Fusco.
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Photo: Via Skinceuticals.
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Illustrated by Tida Tep.
The clear liquid from inside green coconuts, coconut water has gone from super trendy to almost a household staple. It’s nature’s sports drink that you guzzle down post-hot yoga — a delicious way to get those electrolytes (like potassium and sodium) that keep your body functioning. But, it’s also a powerhouse in skin care, where it has a similar restorative, hydrating effect.

“Coconut water contains electrolytes and moisturizers as well as plant hormones called cytokinins,” says Dr. Bank. “Cytokinins can slow down aging, maintain skin elasticity, and also repair dry skin.”
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Photo: Via Josie Maran.
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Illustrated by Tida Tep.
Also known as retinol, vitamin A falls into the retinoid category, the go-to anti-ager so many derms recommend (its stronger, prescription relative is Retin-A or Renova). You may use it to help boost skin elasticity, fill in lines, and even out spots and skin tone. The downside? To get its great results, it speeds up cell turnover, which can cause redness and irritation.

“Retinoids can smooth out wrinkles and diminish sunspots,” says Dr. Bank. “However, they can also lead to thinning of the skin and, in sensitive skin, cause increased skin inflammation — both [of which] can cause premature aging.”
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Illustrated by Tida Tep.
This vitamin, a.k.a. ascorbic acid, is key for collagen production (which keeps your skin strong yet soft) and helps repair skin. It’s found there naturally but starts to decline as you age. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant that slows the dryness and signs of aging that happen when pollutants and UV rays attack your complexion. “It’s an excellent antioxidant,” says Dr. Fusco. “I recommend it in the morning under sunscreen.”

But, why shouldn’t everyone use it? Products containing vitamin C are acidic and can irritate the sensitive-skinned among us. “If it’s too potent, it can sting skin,” she says.
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Illustrated by Tida Tep.
This is the most common pimple medicine, and it’s found in lotions, gels, washes, and cleansers. It works by killing the bacteria that fester in your pores and cause breakouts; it also helps get rid of some of the clogging oil and dead skin cells.

However, some users do get contact dermatitis (that is, a rash). “Benzoyl peroxide is great for some people who have acne, but 5% of the population is actually allergic to the ingredient,” says Dr. Bank.
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Illustrated by Tida Tep.
The substance that can make you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the a.m. can do the same for your skin. It’s used in products that claim to “get rid” of cellulite (which we know isn’t possible) or erase dark circles. It is a diuretic and can help flush out water, which just might make your thighs look temporarily more toned. It has also been shown to shrink blood vessels, which can lead to a lightening effect in thin under-eye skin. Additionally, caffeine is an antioxidant and, in studies, has been shown to protect skin cells from cancer caused by UV rays.

The downside: Effects, if any, are temporary, and some even question whether it really works at all. So, don’t go java-crazy in your skin care because, according to Dr. Bank, it may also irritate those with sensitive skin.
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Illustrated by Tida Tep.
These days, olive, argan, sunflower, almond, and avocado oil are used to smooth out frizzies, wash and salve our dry skin, and give a subtle glow. Yes, natural oils are currently having their 15 minutes, but moderation is key. While their benefits are myriad, some of them can clog pores and ultimately cause breakouts. And, with botanicals, there is a danger of allergy — remember, poison ivy is also “natural.”

Plus, if you go overboard, you can end up causing issues with the rest of your beauty routine. “With botanical oils, if too much is applied it can look too shiny and allow makeup to slide or smear off,” says Dr. Fusco. So, if you do like oils and they don't cause an adverse reaction in your skin, feel free to use them, but maybe take it easy with how much you slather on.
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