Remember the heyday of high-end miracle moisturizers? Creams could promise beautiful skin via proprietary elixirs and secret blends.
For a long time, luxury skin care put a big price on mystery — ingredients that spurred hope and wonder in a pretty jar.
Well, the meaning of luxury is broader now. Products are changing because we have changed.
Victoria Fu and Gloria Lu used to be product formulators for big beauty conglomerates. In 2017, they founded Chemist Confessions, a blog and now a podcast sharing their insider view on the industry, with a focus on how ingredients work.
“We want people to think about those fancy extracts,” Lu said. “Brands don’t have to tell you how much of them is in a product, and some companies abuse that.”
Chemist Confessions and its much more contentious counterpart, the Instagram account Estée Laundry, which is known for calling out brands on dubious claims and environmental carelessness, have increased the beauty enthusiast’s understanding of the industry.
And that, in turn, has increased the value consumers place on brand transparency.
“There’s still a lot of misrepresentation out there,” Lu said. “But people are looking for a deeper understanding of their products and how they work for them, personally.”
Whether the new luxury is characterized by rigorous efficacy, transparency when it comes to ingredients and environmental impact, or a cute social-media-friendly aesthetic, it is about choice. It is about consumers making those choices based on their own values. And, what’s more, it needn’t be expensive.
Here are some brands leading the way:
The Inkey List Tranexamic Acid Hyperpigmentation Treatment
The Inkey List, a company in Britain, makes trying out trending ingredients accessible. Tranexamic acid has long been used to promote blood clotting and has only recently bubbled up as a topical treatment for hyperpigmentation.
The Inkey List version is $15; other formulas featuring the acid can cost as much as $100. “I love the idea of taking something that’s new and only really available at the high-end, then offering it quicker than anyone else to the masses,” said Mark Curry, a founder of Inkey List.
Graffiti Collective Mixtape Mask Set
This mask set makes masking fun and customizable. Each color is a different formula — blue exfoliates, pink soothes irritation, gold hydrates and green deep cleans — so you can, say, treat an oily T zone while moisturizing drier areas.
The masks, $20 for four, go on bright and opaque, and they are selfie-perfect.
Face Rx Skin Regeneration Treatment
Prescription-strength retinoids are still the gold standard for an at-home treatment to boost cell turnover, which reduces fine lines. Yet because of their high cost, along with requiring a visit to the doctor, they’re inaccessible for many of us.
Face Rx makes the process easier. You meet with a doctor online, then receive a retinoid at a strength that suits your needs. The initial setup will cost $102, and after that, refills are $82.
Versed Vacation Eyes Brightening Eye Gel
The vitamin C and niacinamide in this $18 eye gel are known skin lighteners that help reduce excess under-eye pigment. Ginseng root extract, which can help treat photo-aging rounds out the active ingredients.
The well-designed collection is worthy of a bathroom shelfie, but you can find it at your local Target.
Cocokind Golden Elixir
Face oils often reach cult-favorite status, and with that cachet comes stubbornly expensive pricing. Cocokind Golden Elixir, at $25 for four ounces, is a multipurpose organic oil for all skin types.
The main ingredient, plukenetia volubilis seed oil, is high in antioxidants and fatty acid, which aid in skin barrier repair and reduce inflammation.
Kinship Super Mello and Insta Swipe
Kinship, a company with a Gen Z focus, combines care for skin and care for the planet. Alpha hydroxy acid powers the Insta Swipe peel pads, $22, which are compostable and biodegradable.
The pads and Super Mello, a vanilla-scented moisturizer, $22, are packaged in recycled plastic jars. Half of that plastic comes from oceans; it’s recycled trash collected by fishermen in waters around Indonesia.
You can scan a QR code on the bottom of each jar to find out the plastic’s precise origin.
Beauty Pie Jeju AM/PM Moisture Superinfusion
Industry watchdogs like Estée Laundry have alerted us to the high markups (your $150 serum may have cost $20 to make), and this knowledge is foundational to Beauty Pie, which is based on a membership structure.
For a monthly fee ($10 to $30, depending on how much you want to buy each month), you get to shop for cleverly formulated, prettily packaged skin care (and makeup too) at drugstore prices.
The Jeju moisturizer, $9.52 (member price), delivers hydration without excessive shine thanks to oil-absorbing volcanic micro-sand from Jeju, an island off mainland South Korea.
Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask
This translucent hybrid gel-cream, $22 for 30 milliliters, is a sleeping mask, which amounts to a moisturizer used as nighttime skin care.
Some of its appeal is sensory — the watermelon scent is delightful as is its cool gel texture — but you will wake up with hydrated skin because of its hyaluronic acid and glycerin.
Chemist Confessions Aquafix
In 2018, Chemist Confessions introduced a collection of skin-care basics: hydrators, an exfoliator, a cleanser and an oil. You won’t find any hot new extracts in their formulations, just time-tested ingredients at high concentrations.
And the percentage of each of the actives is listed on the packaging. Aquafix, $35, contains glycerin and provitamin B5, a skin soother and humectant.
The Ordinary Buffet and EUK 134 0.1%
Beauty buffs get an undeniable feeling of delight from finding, trying and witnessing the effect of a new product with cool ingredients. The Ordinary delivers that hit with inexpensive products that have a generically clinical feel.
Buffet, $14.80, is one of its staples, a serum with peptides, antioxidants and amino acids that even out skin tone and hydrate the skin. EUK 134 0.1%, $8.80, is made with just one active ingredient: a potent, and virtually unknown, antioxidant (ethylbisiminomethylguaiacol manganese chloride).
Dermatologists caution against fawning over the next big thing, but with the Ordinary’s low prices, it’s hard to suppress the urge to try it.