You’ve heard all about the hype surrounding The Ordinary, and we’re not just getting at the behind-the-scenes drama that dominated headlines this year: We’re talking about the lineup of products itself, a full range of minimalist dropper bottles with expensive-looking packaging that’s actually sold at too-good-to-be-true prices.
Let's not forget that, before the restraining orders and alt-right conspiracy theories, The Ordinary was garnering crazy waitlists 25,000 people deep, and effectively introduced the world to the possibility of research-based, active ingredient-driven products sold for less than $15 a pop. Blessedly, The Ordinary’s parent company, Deciem, recently re-installed long-time co-CEO Nicola Kilner, who's bringing stability back into the fold under her new leadership.
One of Kilner's latest moves? Relaunching The Ordinary's products at Sephora next month — and our skin (and wallets) couldn’t be happier. So, to reacquaint ourselves with the efficacious but trickily-named products that started it all, we’ve created this handy guide — with the input of cosmetic chemist and The Beauty Brains co-founder Randy Schueller and Miami-based dermatologist S. Manjula Jegasothy, MD — that breaks down what’s inside those cute little bottles and squatty tubes, ahead.
At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.
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Derms love toners because they can help serums better absorb. This one, which carries a faint yet pleasant smell of peaches, leaves an equally mild tingling sensation after application, thanks to the glycolic acid inside. The vegan solution is also oil-, silicone-, and alcohol-free.
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Use this transparent gel under moisturizer to add a shot of hydration, compliments of hyaluronic acid. Also inside: plenty of peptides, designed to help address fine lines. A little goes a long way, and any more than a few drops can leave skin feeling tacky, so ration your applications accordingly.
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Stable vitamin C is notoriously tough to formulate in skin-care products, which is why a vitamin C derivative may give you more bang for your buck. This oil-serum hybrid uses just that to help brighten skin, and it’s housed in an amber bottle to help ward of oxidation. But what we love most is that it left our skin with a dewy — not shiny — finish, despite its oil base.
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Some research indicates that the star ingredient in this serum — a proprietary and synthetic peptide — can reduce crow’s feet, though other studies question its safety when used in high quantities or for a long period of time, citing toxicity to fibroblast cells (which help skin with healing and regenerating connective tissue). The brand suggest applying this lightweight serum to other popular Botox hot spots, like the forehead and around and in between eyes, before applying traditional eye cream or moisturizers. The oil-free serum is not only water-based, it’s crystal-clear and odorless… like H2O itself.
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The “but first, coffee” strategy may work wonders for mental fatigue, but when it comes to your eyes, the best caffeine pick-me-up may come from green tea. This liquid-gel serum, which smells faintly of tea leaves, taps epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), the antioxidant-rich micronutrient in green tea, to deliver caffeine to the skin. Hyaluronic acid helps hydrate, while lactic acid helps reduce dark spots without irritation.
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Salicylic acid is quite the workhorse when it comes to acne prevention: The beta-hydroxy acid not only penetrates down the follicle and into the sebaceous glands, where it helps clear bacteria and oil, but it can also be used as a spot treatment for zits in progress and work as an overall skin smoother. This clear liquid gel goes on smooth and smells a bit like vinegar.
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Consider this buffet the furthest thing from Vegas’s most gluttonous offerings — it’s more like a multivitamin for the skin. This gel carries a true smorgasbord of peptides, amino acids, probiotics, and hyaluronic acid complexes, which comprise 25% of the formula’s molecular weight. Just a few drops on each side of our face gets the job done, though it left our skin slightly tacky, making it a best bet for PM skincare routines.
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This baby is billed as a “surface hydration formula,” so weren't sure what to expect — maybe a thin lotion or serum? Boy, were we off base. Inside is an ultrarich cream that rivals in thickness to those found in fancy jars and that cost a hundred times more. We love that it comes in an easy-to-use squeeze tube, that a little goes a long way to hydrate skin, and that the formula plays well under liquid makeup and powder.
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This blood-red liquid will make a perfect twofer for those staying home and handing out candy this Halloween: It taps a cocktail of alpha- (glycolic, lactic, tartaric, citric) and beta-hydroxy acids (salicylic acid), along with antioxidants, to smooth skin in just ten minutes time… and makes you look like Kim Kardashian after a vampire facial. Pro tip: Don’t apply over zits — it burned like hell when we smoothed it over a few blemishes. That aside, the solution left our skin impossibly soft in just 10 minutes’ time.
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Hate the feel of facial oils, but suffer from dry skin? Squalane may be your new BFF. OK, so technically squalane is an oil — but this stuff doesn’t feel greasy upon application. It’s also odorless, antibacterial, doesn’t clog pores, and can be used on sensitive skin. What’s more, this version sails through the vegan litmus test: Though squalane can be derived from animals, this plant-sourced version carries Ecocert approval, and is USDA-certified as a biobased product.
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Like your daily green juice, this facial oil is cold-pressed, organic, and costs about 10 bucks. One major difference? This bottle will last a hell of a lot longer: Just five drops sufficiently hydrated our face and neck before bed.
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Because the vitamin C source (L-ascorbic acid) inside this milky lotion is actually in powder form, it carries a slightly gritty texture going on, as if a pinch of fine-grain sand somehow found its way into the tube. But the feeling is temporary: a few minutes post-absorption, any leftover texture dissipates.
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This colorless gel serum carries a slight seafood-y scent, which fades minutes after application. Any hint of fish is worth the benefits offered by the ingredients inside: In studies, niacinamide has been shown to calm inflammation, enhance the skin barrier and help control oil production, along with zinc.
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For oily skin types, this clear gel primer is a time-saving godsend. It doesn’t feel greasy or heavy going on and it helped foundation glide onto skin without the use of our trusty makeup sponge. The big win? Instead of spending minutes beating our face with an egg-shaped applicator, we simply smoothed makeup on with our fingers and ran out the door. Hours later, our makeup looked invisible and pill-free — which is exactly how we like it.
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Straight up: Some will find the scent of this serum repellant. And for those folks, the brand offers a Lactic Acid 5% + HA 2%, which is far less fragrant. For those who don’t mind this formula’s au naturel scent, it offers all the benefits of an AHA (reduced inflammation, scarring, and exfoliation) without the tingling.
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Yes, there are much pricier organic, cold-pressed argan oils on the market. But this one perked up our dull skin just as well as all the others. Because the formula is fragrance-free, its nutty, almost bacon-y scent isn’t covered, though it fades within minutes after application.
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This clear, odorless liquid serum taps a vitamin C derivative to brighten skin. As Dr. Jegasothy points out, “Vitamin C derivatives such as vitamin C esters and different saturated-fat vitamin C derivatives have been found not to penetrate the skin as well as pH-balanced L-ascorbic acid.“ However, what we may lose in potency we gain in cosmetic elegance: This formula’s smooth consistency is not only pleasant to use, but it played well under makeup, too.
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If your skin is on the deeper side of the spectrum and you’re looking to break up spots of hyperpigmentation, according to Dr. Jegasothy, this 10% dose of azelaic acid might just be your best bet. “Dermatologists widely use 10% azelaic acid in prescription creams with fantastic results in darker skin patients,” she says. “Even though these ingredients have not been studied in a head-to-head fashion, it is widely recognized that 10% azelaic acid has clinical benefits that have been FDA-approved as a prescription agent.” This rich cream not only absorbs quickly to a demi-matte finish, but it’s also nearly odor-free.
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We know: Some of the names of these active ingredients can be intimidating, and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate is one that can draw a big ol’ blank for most. So, in layman’s terms, this light cream aims to brighten skin via a vitamin C derivative which is stable in water (unlike ascorbic acid, a form of vitamin C) and may be less irritating than products with pure ascorbic acid (which is more potent). “Theoretically, people with sensitive skin may be better off using an alternate form of ascorbic acid,” says Schueller.
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Schueller has already praised this formulation for disclosing exactly how much retinol is inside and for being water-free (which helps stabilize the ingredient). We like the way this clear, emollient gel glided onto our skin — which is no stranger to retinoids — without irritation. It took a few minutes for the formula to totally absorb into our skin, so there was no slapping it on right before we hit the pillow, but after a two-minute whirl with our Sonicare and a quick flossing of the teeth, our skin was ready to hit the sheets without mucking them up.
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Those new to retinoids may want to start with this formula, which taps retinoid esters instead of retinol to help clear and smooth the skin with lesser irritation. But don’t think that a 2% retinoid solution is twice as strong as one with a 1% retinol: our bodies have to convert esters into retinol before it can work — and that conversion process reduces the strength of the dose. This pale yellow, milky serum absorbs quickly and is odorless, to boot.
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