Skin Care Products You Shouldn't Waste Money On, According To Dermatologists

Expensive stuff isn’t necessarily better — and some items can even harm your skin.
Before you buy an expensive hyaluronic acid serum, check the ingredients of your moisturiser. Hyaluronic acid is likely already in it.
Iryna Veklich via Getty Images
Before you buy an expensive hyaluronic acid serum, check the ingredients of your moisturiser. Hyaluronic acid is likely already in it.

Miracle cures. Wonder elixirs. Creams that cost as much as a fancy night on the town. We’re all susceptible to the lofty claims of the next big thing in skin care. But if your bathroom cabinet is overflowing with costly products, you might want to reconsider and curate your collection — which can not only help your budget but also contribute to the overall health of your skin.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we use more skin care products than ever before and yet, collectively, complexion issues seem to be at an all-time high,” said Dr. Rachel Westbay, a board-certified dermatologist at Marmur Medical. “There’s a very strong possibility using more cosmetic chemicals can damage the skin barrier and microbiome. Those chemicals can remove essential nutrients needed to function properly, leading to the exacerbation of inflammatory conditions like acne, rosacea and eczema. Then, we reach for more products to fix those problems, and the cycle repeats itself endlessly and viciously.”

“Less is often more when it comes to skin care,” agreed board-certified dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick. “For many people, a simple routine that can be used consistently will often yield greater results than a complicated routine that may lead to dryness or irritation of the skin.”

Be a smarter shopper.

If all you’re reading is the price tag on those costly jars and bottles, you’re on the wrong track. Dr. Brendan Camp is a dermatologist and clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College. He has this advice: Be a savvy shopper and learn how to read ingredient lists.

“The higher up an ingredient appears on the list, the higher its concentration in the product,” he said. “If an active ingredient that is featured in the product name falls toward the middle or end of the list, you may want to find an alternative that has more of the ingredient you’re looking for.”

Save money at the drugstore.

And if you think the best products only come from an expensive store, think again. Even your local drugstore has lots of great stuff. “While the packaging and advertising of products sold in pharmacies may not be as flashy as those sold elsewhere, they can accomplish the basics of any skin care regimen — and save you money,” Camp said.

What are some best bets at drugstores? “There are many great drugstore cleansers and moisturisers, which definitely makes them a good place to save,” Garshick said. “If you’re looking to simplify your [routine], check out drugstore multitasking products or products containing multiple key ingredients.”

Here’s what to keep.

What do you need, and what can you skip? “The absolute basic necessities of any skin care regimen are cleanser, moisturiser and sunscreen,” Westbay said.

Want to try just a couple more things? Retinol is always a good idea, she said. “Most of us consider it to be the holy grail anti-aging ingredient, but it’s also the backbone of any effective routine for other skin care concerns, from acne to hyperpigmentation,” she added. “For my patients, I also recommend an antioxidant serum used in the mornings, like vitamin C.”

Here’s what to avoid.

Very expensive moisturisers: “There’s no need to spend thousands of dollars on moisturising creams,” Garshick said. “The ingredients are more important than the price. Look for key ingredients like ceramides or hyaluronic acid to help nourish and moisturise the skin.”

Cleansing wipes leave a residue behind on your skin.
RunPhoto via Getty Images
Cleansing wipes leave a residue behind on your skin.

Cleansing wipes: Sure they’re convenient, but at what cost to you — and the environment? “It’s not just the one wipe that ends up in a landfill,” Westbay said. “You need to consider the entire manufacturing, transport and emission impact of this segment of industry. Plus, even the most gentle face wipes can irritate and strip the skin barrier, leaving your skin red and wrinkled. And, to be honest, they really aren’t effective as cleansers. They leave a lot of residue that may not be seen to the naked eye, but trust me, it’s there, and it’s going to wreak havoc.”

Topical collagen: “It’s not going to be effective, as the molecule is too large to penetrate the skin,” Garshick said. “For this reason, it’s better to spend money on products that are designed to help boost collagen production, such as retinol or peptides.”

Astringent toners: If you don’t have oily skin, and even if you have acne with combination, dry or sensitive skin, toners are one purchase you don’t need to make. “They were initially created as alcohol-based solutions meant to balance your skin’s pH and remove residue from traditional facial lye-based soaps,” Westbay explained.

“Now most cleansers are pH-balanced, and astringents that are alcohol-based are rarely recommended,” Westbay continued. “That’s because they have the potential to cause significant irritation, owing to their tendency to strip the skin of excessive moisture and deplete its lipid barrier. And excessively drying out the skin will cause a paradoxical increase in the amount of oil produced, which can trigger more acne.”

Facial oils: “These aren’t bad, but they’re definitely not a skin care necessity,” Westbay said. “Oils are not hydrating in and of themselves and so cannot be a substitute for moisturiser. Rather, they lock in ingredients applied in prior steps of a routine, so should be applied in addition to and after moisturiser.”

Beaded exfoliants: “The temptation of a vigorous scrub comes at a cost of compromising the skin barrier and predisposing you to dryness, acne breakouts, redness and irritation,” Westbay said. “The beads strip your skin of its natural moisturising factor and increase water loss, causing dehydration. I recommend sticking to your gentle moisturising cleanser for a more balanced approach.”

Use less of these products and do your skin a favour.

Hyaluronic acid: The more you use a product, the sooner you’re going to have to buy more, so slowing your roll on applications may be a smart money-saving idea — and it might be better for your skin, too. Westbay pointed to hyaluronic acid as an example.

“Many of my patients use hyaluronic acid serums morning and evening, plus other serums, and that’s not necessary for most people,” she said. “Hyaluronic acid became all the rage and then, somehow, everyone got in their heads that they need to be applying it separately from moisturiser twice daily. But it’s already found in nearly every moisturiser on the market, and for most people, that’s sufficient, unless they’re struggling with very dry skin or tolerating a nighttime retinol.”

Facial cleanser: Once is usually enough, Westbay said. “Double cleansing is usually not necessary, despite its hype these days. For most people, washing your face thoroughly with a gentle cleanser, just one time, is more than adequate. A myriad of skin woes can stem from excessively stripping the skin of its natural oils and acid mantle,” she added.

Finally, don’t give up too soon.

“One reason that people tend to accumulate many skin care products is that they cycle through them too quickly,” Camp said. “You need to use them long enough to decide if they’re helpful. In general, a skin care product should be used for at least two to three months before you decide if it’s effective.”