The guidelines and standards the Paula's Choice Research Team and I use to analyze products make our reviews distinctly different from every other cosmetic product review site, and that's to your advantage!
Our criteria is primarily based on published medical and scientific research to help ensure you find the best products for your skin whether it's our Paula's Choice products or someone else's.
Every product we review is assigned a color-coded rating of either
, , , or . Not surprisingly, products rated "BEST" and "GOOD" are recommended, while products rated "AVERAGE" are not as compelling and those rated "POOR" are not recommended.
Here are the most important factors we consider before reviewing a product:
- Given the ingredient list and based on published research can the product live up to any of its claims?
- How does the product differ from similar types of products, including those that cost less or more?
- If a special ingredient (or ingredients) are showcased, how much is actually in the product, and is there independent research verifying the claims for it?
- Does the product contain problematic ingredients such as fragrances (natural or synthetic), problematic plants, topical irritants, or other questionable ingredients that could cause problems for your skin?
- How farfetched are the product's claims? Even if the product is well formulated, lies don't make for good skin care.
- Based on what's known about the ingredients it contains, is the product safe? Are there risks such as allergic reactions, increased sun sensitivity, insufficient sun protection, or potentially toxic ingredients?
- Does the product have what it takes to become an important, beneficial part of your skin-care routine, with the goal being to take the best possible care of your skin?
Evaluating Skin-Care Products
The criteria we use to evaluate the quality of the products in each of the different categories of skin-care products are explained below. All are evaluated on the basis of what we know to be true from published, substantiated scientific research.
Cleansers: When reviewing any facial cleanser, the primary considerations of quality were based on how genuinely water-soluble it was, how gentle, how well it cleaned the face, and whether or not it was appropriate for the skin type indicated on the label. We do not recommend cold cream-type cleansers as they require tugging and pulling on skin which over time can make sagging worse.
We generally do not recommend cleansers when they contain active ingredients such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHA), beta hydroxy acid (BHA), or topical disinfectants such as benzoyl peroxide. These ingredients can be very helpful in other skin-care products, but in a cleanser they are rinsed off your face before they have much chance to affect your skin. Another concern is that these ingredients can inadvertently get into your eye when rinsing the cleanser off your face.
Eye-Makeup Removers: Should either contain gentle standard cleansing agents, plant oils, or silicones. Oil- and silicone-based makeup removers are the ones to choose for long-wearing or waterproof makeup and the ones containing gentle water-soluble cleansing agents are for general makeup-removing. Eye makeup removers rated as BEST were assigned that distinction because of their exceptionally gentle, fragrance-free, and dye-free formulas that remain effective for their intended purpose.
Scrubs: Many scrubs contain abrasive particles that tear into skin harming its protective outer barrier. This negatively affects the skin's ability to heal or protect itself from environmental assault. The major consideration for any topical scrub is that it must be gentle on the skin and not rough or overly abrasive (no walnut shells or other irregularly-shaped, hard-edged particles). It is also important for it to rinse off easily without leaving any residue or greasy feel on the skin.
Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) and Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) Exfoliants: When it comes to AHAs and BHA, the crucial criteria is the type of ingredient used, its concentration in the product, and the pH of the formula. The most well-researched AHAs are glycolic or lactic acid. These work best at concentrations of 5% to 10% in a formula with a pH of 3 to 4. As the pH goes up, their effectiveness goes down. Other, less researched and infrequently used forms of AHA include tartaric, malic, citric, and mandelic acids.
BHA in the form of salicylic acid works best at concentrations of between 1% and 2% at an optimal pH of 3 to 3.5, diminishing in effectiveness as the pH increases beyond 4. (Source: Cosmetic Dermatology, October 2001, pages 15-18).
Products that contain AHA sound-alikes, including sugarcane extract, mixed fruit acids, fruit or citrus extracts, milk extract, and BHA sound-alikes, such as wintergreen extract or willow bark extract have no published research showing they can work as exfoliants. You might think these are better because they appear to be a more natural form of AHA or BHA when you see these less technical, more familiar plant names on the label, but that perception is not reality.
Facial masks: Masks are rated based on compatibility for each skin type the product is recommended for and on whether or not they contain irritants. For dry skin the mask must have emollient properties and for oily skin it must have absorbent ingredients. Masks rated as BEST exceeded those criteria by including antioxidants, skin-repairing ingredients, anti-inflammatory ingredients and no fragrance.
Toners: Toners, astringents, fresheners, tonics, and other liquids meant to refresh the skin or remove the last traces of makeup after a cleanser is rinsed off should not contain any irritants whatsoever but must contain an assortment of beneficial ingredients. Unfortunately most toners contain irritating ingredients and little else which is why so few earn good ratings.
The best toners contain an assortment of state-of-the-art ingredients (cell-communicating ingredients, hydrating ingredients, anti-irritants, antioxidants, and skin-repairing ingredients) that work to rebuild and replenish skin so it can look and act younger.
Moisturizers: What constitutes a state-of-the-art product in this category is well established in scientific literature. Moisturizers must contain ingredients that can smooth and soothe dry skin, keep moisture in the skin cell, help maintain or reinforce the skin's protective barrier, protect skin from free-radical damage, reduce inflammation or irritation, and contain cell-communicating ingredients to optimize healthy cell production, all in an elegant, silky base appropriate for a specific skin type.
Almost all claims for this immense group of products are exaggerated and misleading, not to mention never-ending and we challenge these in the reviews for these products.
Moisturizers for Oily Skin: Even when skin is oily it can greatly benefit from the application of products that contain the same ingredients as any other state-of-the-art moisturizer such as water-binding agents, antioxidants, anti-irritants, skin-repairing ingredients, and cell-communicating ingredients. What someone with oily skin or oily areas doesn't need are the emollient ingredients found in "moisturizers" for normal to dry skin. A thicker, creamy formulation is more likely to contain ingredients problematic for oily skin; therefore, a moisturizer for oily skin needs to be in a gel, liquid, serum, or lightweight lotion to receive a BEST rating.
Day Creams versus Night Creams: There is no research showing skin needs different beneficial ingredients during the day versus what it needs at night, except for sunscreen.
Eye, Throat, Chest, Neck, and Other Specialty Creams, Serums, or Gels: Buying a separate product for a special area of the face or body, whether it is in the form of a cream, gel, lotion, or serum, is almost always unnecessary as there is no research showing the skin on the face, versus the eye area, chest, or neck need special ingredients. That doesn't mean there aren't some great specialty products out there for different skin types, but why buy a second moisturizer or serum for the eye area when the one you are already using on the rest of your face is virtually identical?
Sunscreens: Valid scientific research abounds demonstrating that wrinkles, skin damage, many skin discolorations, and many skin cancers are primarily a result of unprotected sun exposure. It is well established that the only true, first-line-of-defense anti-wrinkle product is a well-formulated and liberally applied sunscreen. The main criterion for a well-formulated sunscreen is the SPF rating, with SPF 15 being the standard but greater is more often recommended. However, the SPF number only tells you how long you can stay in the sun without getting sunburned, which is caused by the sun's UVB rays. While that is helpful, it is only part of the protection you need. It is now known that most wrinkling, and possibly skin cancer, is a result of unprotected exposure to the sun's UVA rays. Because of the difference between UVA damage and UVB damage, to ensure you are getting adequate UVA protection your sunscreen must contain one of the five UVA-protecting ingredients, and they must be listed as an active ingredient on the label. These active ingredients are avobenzone (also called Parsol 1789 or butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane), titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, Tinosorb, and Mexoryl SX (ecamsule) (Sources: Free Radical Research, April 2007, pages 461-468; Mutation Research, April 2007, pages 71-78; International Journal of Radiation Biology, November 2006, pages 781-792; Photodermatology, Photoimmunology, & Photomedicine, December 2000, pages 250-255; and Photochemistry and Photobiology, March 2000, pages 314-320).
No sunscreen receives a positive rating unless one of those UVA-protecting ingredients is listed on the active ingredient part of the ingredient list and it has an SPF of 15 or greater. Also, with few exceptions, we did not rate sunscreens that contain a high amount of alcohol highly, as these can irritate skin and there are gentler alternatives (including those in spray form) that omit alcohol.
Sunscreens rated BEST not only provide sufficient UVA protection but also contain several beneficial extras for sun-exposed skin, including potent antioxidants that help boost skin's defenses in the presence of sunlight.
Water-Resistant Sunscreens: No sunscreen can really be "waterproof" because it must be reapplied if you have been sweating or immersed in water for a period of time. The only terms approved for use on sunscreens are "water-resistant" and "very water-resistant." To determine a product's water resistance, the SPF value is measured directly after application and then again after a period of immersion in water. A "water-resistant" product means that its labeled SPF value measured directly after application and then again after 40 minutes of immersion is the same; that is, it maintains its SPF value over the entire 40 minutes of immersion. A "very water-resistant" product means that the SPF value on the label remained the same after 80 minutes of water immersion (Source: www.fda.gov).
If you are swimming or sweating outdoors, you absolutely should use a sunscreen that's labeled water-resistant or very water-resistant, and reapply it frequently. These sunscreens are formulated differently from regular sunscreens, using special technology which helps them hold up remarkably well under water and during perspiration. But again, even water-resistant sunscreens must be reapplied to maintain their protection.
Self-Tanners: All self-tanning products contain the same ingredient dihydroxyacetone to turn the surface layer of skin brown. This ingredient acts on the skin cells and their amino acid content, causing a chemical reaction that temporarily gives the skin a darker color. These products are safer by far than getting a tan from the sun.
Your personal preference as to how self-tanners make your skin appear actually has less to do with the product itself than with the nature of your own skin cells. The interaction between the active ingredient and your skin is controlled more by your body's chemistry than anything else. That's why your friend or sister may have brilliant results with a self-tanner that made your skin look rust-colored or unnaturally orange. The self-tanners we rated BEST contained beneficial ingredients for all skin types and have smooth textures that make application easier.
Acne Products: Extensive research has conclusively shown that acne products need to deliver in four categories of performance to deal with breakouts: (1) gentle cleansing (to remove excess oil and reduce inflammation), (2) effective exfoliation to unblock pores and reshape the pore lining, (3) disinfection to kill acne-causing bacteria, and (4) absorption of excess oil.
We base our reviews for these types of products according to how they measure up to these four important skin-care needs when acne is the concern. Anti-acne products that contain needless irritants (like witch hazel, alcohol, and menthol) are rated poorly because the last thing someone struggling with acne needs is irritation as that only makes matters worse.
Exfoliating: See the section above on "Scrubs" and "Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) and Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) Products."
Skin-Lightening Products: Need to contain ingredients research has shown can inhibit melanin production. Those ingredients typically are hydroquinone, arbutin, niacinamide, acetyl glucosamine, various forms of vitamin C, mulberry root extract, various form of licorice extract, and skullcap extract, among others. Each potential skin lightening ingredient is discussed in the specific product's review.
Rosacea/Sensitive Skin Products: Skin-care products can help mitigate rosacea symptoms. Because redness, irritation, and skin sensitivities are part and parcel of rosacea itself, anything that makes these worse will cause more problems. In this regard, according to the National Rosacea Society (www.rosacea.org), gentle, non-irritating skin-care products are essential. Of course, we concur; and any skin-care products claiming to be helpful for rosacea must be completely irritant-free to receive a favorable rating. This same tenet applies to sensitive skin. If products for sensitive skin contain plant ingredients, there must be research affirming their benefit for soothing skin or being anti-inflammatory. If plant extracts known to be allergenic or irritating were included in a formula for any skin type (but especially for sensitive skin) then they were rated poorly.
Note: For all other skin-care categories, you'll find a succinct list of our criteria for reviewing each in the Best Products section.
Makeup products are evaluated in person and more subjectively than skin-care products with regard to the following traits:
- Texture and finish
- Color selection (range of shades and their suitability for various skin tones)
- How the product compares to similar products from other lines
- Formulation is also a consideration for makeup products, such as foundations with sunscreen
- How accessible the products are in store, such as testers and sensible color organization
Evaluation of Makeup Products
We developed a list of specific criteria and guidelines for each makeup category, along with other factors, to determine a product's performance, reliability, or value to skin. All makeup products are tested in person, using either purchased products or testers available in stores. Here are the guidelines we use to evaluate each category of makeup product.
Primers: Whether labeled foundation primer, eyelid primer, or something similar, primers aren't essential to a beautiful makeup application but depending on the product, they can enhance application and longevity to a certain extent. The primers we recommend are those that apply beautifully and contain ingredients that benefit all skin types, similar to what many serums we recommend contain (and in many cases, primers and serums are interchangeable).
Eyelid primers (sometimes described as eyeshadow base) must make eyeshadow application smoother, prevent creasing, and help eyeshadow last longer. If they don't, we consider them a 'why bother?' product. Lip primers must help keep lipstick in place so it doesn't bleed into lines around the mouth. And no primer should contain irritating ingredients of any kind.
Foundations: Our fundamental expectation for any foundation, regardless of type (liquid, pressed powder, loose powder, cream-to-powder, or any of the various mineral makeups), is that the colors not be any shade or tone of orange, peach, pink, rose, green, or ash-because there are no people with skin that color. Consistency, coverage, and feel are important. All foundations, regardless of texture, must go on smoothly and evenly, not separate or turn color, and be easy to blend. Foundations that claim to be matte must be truly matte, meaning no shine or dewy finish, and they must have the potential to last most of the day. Foundations that claim to moisturize must contain ingredients that can do that yet without being so slick that blending was difficult and coverage was spotty. Powder foundations must apply smoothly and not make skin look chalky, flat, or dry.
Foundations with Sunscreens: Foundations with sunscreens are held to the same standards as all other sunscreens, which means they must have at least an SPF 15 or greater and greater is better and must list a UVA-protecting ingredient as one of the active ingredients on the label. The only acceptable UVA-protecting ingredients are titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, avobenzone (also called Parsol 1789 or its technical name butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane), Tinosorb (technical name bis-ethylhexyloxyphenol methoxyphenyl triazine), and Mexoryl SX (technical name terephthalylidene dicamphor sulfonic acid; also known as ecamsule).
Mineral Makeup: This category of makeup is made out to be revolutionary when it's nothing of the sort. Mineral makeup is just another way to describe powder makeup, as almost all of the ingredients used to create a loose or pressed powder are, in fact, minerals. This category of makeup is not better for sensitive skin nor is it a slam-dunk for breakout prone skin. However, it's a trend that's here to stay and many women remain curious about it. All mineral makeup is evaluated on the basis of its texture, application, finish (including level of shine) and overall formula.
Concealers: Concealers should never be any shade of orange, peach, pink, rose, green, or ash. We look for smooth textures that go on easily without pulling the skin, don't look dry and pasty, provide sufficient coverage, and, perhaps most important, do not crease into lines anywhere on the face.
Color Correctors: Color correctors are usually applied before you blend your foundation and generally come in shades of yellow, mauve, pink, peach, or mint green. Color correctors are marketed as a way to change skin color, so that if your skin has pink undertones, a yellow color corrector is supposed to even that out. More often than not, all these products do is give the skin a strange hue which is why these products tend to come and go. A well-chosen foundation color and blush can easily provide the color balance you are looking for without adding another layer of strange makeup colors to your skin.
Face Powders (including Bronzing Powders): Face powders come in two basic forms: pressed and loose. We evaluate them on the basis of whether they go on sheer, shiny, chalky, or heavy, and whether they are too pink, peach, ash, or rose. We consistently give higher marks to powders that go on sheer and have a silky-soft texture and a natural beige, tan, or rich brown finish with no overtones of red, peach, orange, yellow, or green. It is getting more and more difficult to find a bad powder in any format. Thanks to improved milling processes and pigment technology, today's best powders are capable of making all skin types look polished while helping to set makeup and prolong its wear.
Face Powders with Sunscreen: There are a few pressed powders available that have a reliable SPF 15 or greater and that contain UVA-protecting ingredients. While we don't doubt the validity of the SPF numbers on these products, we worry that most women won't apply pressed powders with sunscreen liberally enough to get the amount of protection indicated on the label. If you lightly dust the powder over your skin, you will not be getting the SPF protection indicated on the label. You must be sure you apply the pressed powder in a manner that liberally, completely, and evenly covers your face. Because of this requirement, pressed powders with sunscreen are an iffy choice if they are the only product used for sun protection; however, they are a great way to touch up your makeup during the day and reapply more sunscreen at the same time.
Blushes: We consider it essential for blushes to have a smooth texture, to blend on easily, and to have a silky feel on the skin. We also commented when a powder blush's pigmentation was strong, which means less is needed per application (and you may in fact prefer a sheer blush instead).
Cream blushes, cream-to-powder blushes, and liquid or gel blushes are rated on their blendability, whether they streak, how greasy or dry they feel, how fast they set, and how well they last. We also describe which cream blushes tend to work better over foundation and which ones perform better if applied directly on the skin. As a general rule, liquid blushes are best used on bare skin and are not recommended for anyone with large pores in the cheek area.
Eyeshadows: All eyeshadows are rated on the basis of texture and ease of application. We point out which colors have heavy or grainy textures because they can be hard to blend and can easily crease or flake. Eyeshadows that are too sheer or too powdery can also be a problem because the color tends to fade as the day wears on; they can also be difficult to apply, flaking all over the place. We also warn about eyeshadow sets that include difficult-to-use color combinations. Many lines offer duo, trio, and quad sets of eyeshadows with the most bizarre color combinations imaginable.
Specialty eyeshadow products such as liquids, creams, powdery or creamy pencils, and loose-powder eyeshadows are evaluated on ease of use, blendability, staying power, and how well they work over and with other eye makeup.
Eye and Brow Shapers: Eye pencils that smudge and smear and eyebrow pencils that go on like a crayon-meaning thick and greasy-are always rated poorly, because they can get very messy as the day goes by and tend to look artificial. Keep in mind that whether an eye pencil smears along the lower eyelashes depends to a large extent on the number of lines around your eye, how much moisturizer you use around the eye area, the type of under-eye concealer you use, and how greasy the pencil is. The greasier the moisturizer or the under-eye concealer, the more likely any pencil will smear, and in all fairness you can't blame that on the pencil.
Liquid eyeliners are rated on how easy they are to apply, the type of brush they have, how quickly they dry, and their potential to last all day. The way these types of liners last throughout the day is also a consideration because many liquid liners tend to flake and peel. Another bothersome issue with several liquid liners is that the color fades as you apply it along the lash line, meaning you need to do successive coats-and that increases the chance of smearing.
The long-wearing gel eyeliners are reviewed based on their formula (they must contain ingredients capable of contributing to long wear), application, dry time, color intensity, and wearability. For the most part, this type of eyeliner performs well from every brand, and is worth strong consideration if you like the look of liquid liner but aren't fond of (or good at) applying it.
Lipsticks, Lip Gloss, and Lip Liner: Every woman has her own needs and preferences when it comes to lipstick. Some women like sheer applications; others prefer glossy or matte finishes. Colors are also difficult to recommend because of the wide variation in taste. Given those limitations, we primarily review the range of colors and textures available, only commenting on texture rather than critiquing it, because personal preference is vital to a final decision. We also comment whenever a lipstick or lip gloss has a noticeably strong fragrance or flavor, as these can be a source of irritation (not to mention flavored lipstick only encourages you to lick your lips, which means you'll be reapplying your lipstick frequently).
We evaluate lip pencils according to whether they go on smoothly without being greasy or dry and how well they stay in place once paired with a lipstick. We also comment on the shade range relative to the number of lipstick shades a company offers. We downgrade pencils if they need to be sharpened because of the inconvenience and tendency for breakage which results in the pencil being used up faster.
Lip glosses were primarily evaluated based on their texture, application, and finish (particularly level of stickiness). Those that went on smoothly, provided a suitably glossy finish and came in a beautiful range of colors of varying intensity were rated highest. When a lip gloss has greater pigmentation (some go on as intensely as a lipstick), this was mentioned in the review. We also screen for irritants often seen in "plumping" lip glosses. Those include peppermint, pepper extracts, ginger, and menthol and its derivatives.
Mascaras: Mascaras should go on easily and quickly while building length and at least some thickness. A mascara claiming to be waterproof should stay on when it gets wet. When applicable, we comment on a mascara's brush and how it helps or hinders application. Mascara should never smudge, smear or flake during application or after it has dried. Mascaras were held to their claims: if a formula claims to thicken lashes but does so minimally (or not at all) we'll tell you!
Face and Body Illuminating/Shimmer Products: Whether in liquid, cream, or powder format, shimmer products were rated on texture, application, finish (was it greasy or silky), level of shine, and the ability of the shine to cling to skin rather than flake off on you and your clothing. Any shimmer product that gave skin a soft, radiant, lit-from-within look was considered superior to those clearly designed for maximum glitter (which usually meant maximum mess, too!)
Brushes: Brushes are rated on overall shape and function as well as on the softness and density of the bristles. We comment on whether a brush's hair is natural or synthetic, but don't have a strong preference for one over the other; both can work beautifully. We routinely check brushes for signs of poor craftsmanship or shedding, and these are typically rated poorly.
Note: For all other makeup categories, you'll find a succinct list of our criteria for reviewing each in the Best Products section.
Throughout this site, my team and I make the final determination for each individual product rating based on specific criteria established for each product category. Each category has specific standards that the products must meet to garner one of four ratings: BEST, GOOD, AVERAGE, or POOR. Among those ratings, we have assigned a "$$$" to products rated BEST, GOOD, or AVERAGE that are expensive given their size or when compared to similar products that work as well but cost less.