Here’s my list of “recommended” products — but bear in mind that “recommended” is a term I use VERY loosely so please also read the previous post that explains how/why this list came about…
You’ll see me coming back to a lot of the same brands again and again. That’s because disappointingly few brands sell products containing active ingredients (at the percentage that they need to be at to be effective) at under £20.
Like I said, these just have to get the gunk of the day off your face so that whatever you put on next can be effective. I don’t get on with balm cleansers so I don’t use them, but if you’re using one make sure you follow it with something that will dissolve the oily film it leaves behind, otherwise the products you use afterwards are going to be less effective.
I like really simple, inexpensive gel cleansers like Cetaphil (£8.99, superdrug.com) and La Roche Posay’s Toleriane Softening Foaming Gel (£8.75, feelunique.com).
These are the retinoids. They have a number of mechanisms for improving skin quality — among other things they increase cell turnover (so fresh, new cells get to the surface quicker, improving skin texture and evening skin tone), and boost levels of skin-plumping collagen.
The top dog is tretinoin aka retinoic acid but that’s prescription only. The stuff you can get over the counter — retinol — has to be converted by the body into retinoic acid before the body can use it. You should get the same effect using retinol, but you’ll get the results over a longer period of time. Try The Ordinary Advanced Retinoid 2% (£8, theordinary.com), Indeed Labs Retinol Reface (£14.99, boots.com)
Niacinamide is the supreme B vit — it can make pores look better, improve skin tone, fine lines, and dullness, as well as protecting skin from environmental damage — and there are few beauty brands who have done quite as much research into it as P&G, the people who own Olay. It’s at the heart of most of their formulations.Try their Olay Regenerist 3 Point Super Firming Serum (£19.99, superdrug.com) and CeraVe Facial Moisturizing Lotion PM (£11.93, amazon.co.uk) — worth keeping an eye out for CeraVe, inexpensive, simple, effective formulations, although not widely available in the UK.
Brilliant for repairing sun damage, tackling pigmentation, and just generally boosting skin, vitamin C is water soluble so if your vitamin C preparation contains water, it’s probably not going to be that effective. Use to repair at night, or under SPF in the mornings to boost protection against pollution and UV-induced free radicals, which can accelerate the ageing process.
For the latter, The Ordinary Vitamin C 23% + HA (£4.90, theordinary.com) is excellent, as is DCL’s C-Scape High Potency Night Booster 30 (£108 — I KNOW!, spacenk.co.uk) albeit at a much higher price. For the former, try Paula’s Choice Resist Anti-Aging Serum (£7 for the trial size, paulaschoice.co.uk), or if you want to spank the cash, C E Ferulic from Skinceuticals (£79.89, the cheapest I could find it online at skinoracle.com), which is vitamin C with vitamin E and ferulic acid — a combination of potent antioxidants) — one of those products that is almost unanimously recommended by dermatologists.
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) — glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, citric acid; these break down the “glue” that holds dead skin cells to the surface of the skin so many people think they are a better, more predictable and more uniform way of exfoliating the skin than old-fashioned scrubs. Try The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution (£6.80, theordinary.com), Derma E Overnight Peel with AHAs (£14.63, amazon.co.uk)
I LOVE DCL’s Multi-Action Penta Peel pads (£58, spacenk.co.uk) with mandelic, lactic, and phytic acids, as well as salicylic (but if you’re using them, read the bloody instructions and rinse after three to five minutes — I didn’t and my face almost fell off.)
Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) — people always refer to BHAs in the plural but I only ever hear about one, salicylic acid. Essential if you’re prone to spotty skin as it cuts through the oil, or sebum, that clogs pores and also has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
Some of my favourite salicylic acid products are Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant (the trial size is £8, paulaschoice.co.uk), Skyn Iceland Blemish Dots (£17.50, M&S) — these are stickers with concentrated salicylic in and I sleep in them and they really seem to help. I’ve used Johnson & Johnson’s Clean & Clear Treatment Gel (£4.35, superdrug.com) for years.
P.S. I’m going to stick azelaic acid down here too (even though it’s not technically a BHA, or an AHA for that matter) because it’s great for acne prone skin (it’s antibacterial) but also good for rosacea (it’s a great anti-inflammatory) and pigmentation (it inhibits melanin production). For 15% and 20% you need a prescription but you can get Azelaic Acid Suspension 10% from The Ordinary (£5.50, theordinary.com).
This is a really tricky one because it can be hard to identify what peptides you need to get a specific effect, and which peptides have a really good body of evidence behind them. Also, like all these ingredients they’re not a silver bullet, they’re part of the solution.
Basically a peptide is a building block of protein and in skin kind of works as a signalling molecule instructing the body to do things like making more collagen.
One that does stand out is one called Matrixyl which, in a study at the University of Reading was proven to almost double the amount of collagen that cells can produce. You’ll find it in The Ordinary’s Matrixyl + HA (£9.60, the ordinary.com) and another that Olay have done work on is PAL-KTTKS which they say has been clinically shown to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles which you’ll find in almost all their products. If you want to hedge your bets, The Ordinary’s Buffet (£12.70, theordinary.com) has a bunch of the most popular peptides in it.
They have a REALLY simple job to do — moisturise i.e. help attract water to your skin and help keep it in. You may not need one. I often find that my sun protection and night serums are usually moisturising enough, and some brands — such as ZO Skin Health — actively believe that if your skin is healthy you shouldn’t need a moisturiser. When I do need one, I like Cetaphil Moisturising Cream (£9.99, superdrug.com, but I buy massive tubs from Amazon and it lasts forever) — it’s about as basic as they get but does everything you need it to.
I’m pretty non-picky about the sun protection I use but I wear broad spectrum factor 50 every day underneath my makeup. (If you want to know why I use 50 and why I use a separate suncream, read one of my favourite ever features here.)
I know a lot of people, especially those with sensitive skin, prefer physical blocks (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) to chemical filters (Mexoryl, avobenzone, homosalate) — but I also know it’s hard to get an affordable purely physical factor 50 without it looking white and heavy, or being very expensive.
Ultimately the best sun protection is the one that you like enough to use every day. I think almost everyone should be able to find a formulation that they like from La Roche Posay. I’m a big fan of their Ultra Light Tinted Fluid (£12.75, lookfantastic.com) and, when my skin is feeling dry, the Comfort Cream (£12.38, lookfantastic.com). Other ones I love and use are Murad’s City Skin Broad Spectrum SPF 50 (£45, murad.co.uk) and Skinceuticals Sheer Mineral UV Defense (£20.89, skinoracle.com)