Q&A: What to Look for in a Facial Cream

Find the right face cream for you
Older woman looking at skin condition in mirror

If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed when faced (pun intended) with picking out a facial cream, you’re not alone. There are so many products out there today that it can be hard to decipher what your skin actually needs – and what it really doesn’t.

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Dermatologist Melissa Piliang, MD, answers your questions and gives some simple advice on what to look for and avoid.

Q: When should you start using a facial cream and why?

A: Get in the habit of using face creams in your mid to late 20s. It’s a good idea to use one cream during the day and another at night. You’ll also want to be sure that you choose the right product for your skin type. If you’re not sure what your skin type is, start by asking your dermatologist.

Using a face cream is important because it keeps the moisture and elasticity in your skin, which can help reduce wrinkles, age spots and other fine lines. Face creams also act as a protective barrier for your skin. Look for products that say noncomedogenic, which means that it won’t block your pores and cause you to breakout.

Day and night creams differ in what they are supposed to do for your skin. At night, you’re looking for a cream to penetrate deeper into your skin to help repair it. And with day creams, you’re looking for something to help protect your skin from the outside elements.

Q: What ingredients do you need in a day cream?

A: Day cream should be lighter and include:

  • Sunscreen. Look for a cream with long-acting sunscreen. This means a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher.
  • Vitamin C. It brightens skin, evens pigmentation and increases cell melanin to protect from the sun.

Pro tip: Use a day cream with SPF year-round. You don’t realize how much sun exposure you get through windows or even getting in and out of the car.

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Don’t let fancy packaging or a high price tag fool you. Household name brands often contain good ingredients too.

Q: What ingredients do you need in a night cream?

A: Night creams moisturize, sooth and repair your skin while you sleep.

Look for products that include:

  • Retinols. This vitamin A derivative is anti-aging and helps with fine lines, wrinkles and brown spots. It can even out and brighten your skin tone. But beware, this over-the-counter agent is powerful and can cause irritation. Start with a very small amount three times a week and increase as tolerated. If you have sensitive skin, be especially careful.
  • Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAS) and beta-hydroxy acids. These common facial acids are comprised of citric and other fruit acids and are good for dull or ashy-looking skin. They gently exfoliate and soften skin and help the cream to penetrate your skin.
  • Hyaluronic acid (HA). This ingredient absorbs moisture to plump your skin and helps with fine lines, wrinkles and skin pigment issues.
  • Vitamin E. This antioxidant moisturizes skin and brightens complexion.
  • Resveratrol. An antioxidant that helps with stress.

Q: If you have dry or sensitive skin, what ingredients should you look for in a face cream?

A: It can be a struggle to find a product for skin that’s easily irritated or prone to dryness.

Read the product labels and look for the following ingredients:

  • Ceramides. These are natural proteins in the outer layers of the skin that keep moisture in and protect skin from environmental toxins. Older and sensitive skin tends to have less ceramides.
  • Glycerin. A natural humectant (moisturizer) that repairs skin.
  • Lactic acid. An exfoliant that removes the outer layer of dead skin cells, allowing moisturizers to better penetrate the skin.

Q: What ingredients should you avoid in a face cream?  

A: If you have oily or acne-prone skin, then avoid oils, waxes and petrolatum. They’re too heavy and can plug pores and make acne worse (remember to look for the word noncomedogenic on the bottle).

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Other ingredients to avoid include:

  • Fragrances and perfumes. They can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions.
  • Retinoic acid. This anti-aging ingredient that can irritate your skin.
  • Methylparabens/parabens. These cosmetic preservatives can cause allergic reactions and block your pores.
  • Salicylic acid. This exfoliant can irritate sensitive skin.

All-natural ingredients can be good, but plants, nuts and berries can cause allergic reactions for some people. Pay attention to these ingredients and what your reaction is.

Q: Do you need to be using a facial serum too?

A: Serums are lighter than moisturizers and are more concentrated with active ingredients. You can wear them during the day or at night. Serums are usually worn under a moisturizer and come as gels, lotions or liquids.

Because serums are typically very potent (and can be pricey), it’s recommended to speak with your dermatologist or consult your skin care specialist before trying one. Based on your skin type and goals, they can let you know if you’d benefit from a serum.

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