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Confused About the Best Skincare Products? Start With These Ingredients

Man choosing hair product in department store.

If you’re a guy who cares about what he puts on his skin, you already know what you don’t want to see on the label of your products. Stuff like synthetic preservatives (parabens), plastic-based solvents (phthalates), and petroleum-based fragrances. Not only are they bad for your skin, but they’ve been shown to have longterm health implications. (Guess that’s why the EU banned them. Wonder if anybody over here has thought of that.)

But once you know what you want to avoid, that leaves you with the question of what ingredients you do want to see. Premium skincare brands build their marketing around a litany of responsibly-sourced, highly-prized natural ingredients. But how do you know what these ingredients are individually accomplishing? For that matter, how do you know it’s the right choice for your skin type?

To solve the mystery, we spoke with grooming experts to find out what ingredients guys should look for in their skincare products.

Sea Buckthorn

Sea buckthorn, a neon orange berry that grows in boreal climates, is rich in the antioxidant molecules vitamins A and E, plus a high level of beta-carotene (the source of that intense color). It also has a high concentration of fatty acids.

What it does

Along with repairing damaged skin tissue after sun or heat exposure, sea buckthorn will reduce inflammation in the skin, prevent flare ups, and help fade scars.

What to look for: a face oil or serum that contains third-party certified organic sea buckthorn. Beware of claims that the oil is “cold pressed,” since sea buckthorn seeds and berries can’t actually be processed this way.

How long does it take to work

Sea buckthorn is super fast-acting—just a few hours (sometimes even minutes) after applying a product, you’ll notice an improvement in dry or inflamed skin. Several weeks of use will show visible reduction of sun damage and overall improvement in skin health.

Marula Oil

Made from a South African superfruit, not only is marula oil full of important vitamins and fatty acids, but it also has natural UV protection, a critical factor for guys who spend a lot of time outside.

What it does

Like sea buckthorn, marula oil restores skin after long days in the sun and elements. In addition, its antimicrobial properties help soothe inflammation and reduce blackheads and acne. (Pretty cool that a plant can do that.)

What to look for

A face oil or serum that contains unrefined, third-party certified organic marula oil.

How long does it take to work

You can feel these ingredients restoring skin as soon as you put them on, but you’ll notice a reduction in acne and inflammation after several weeks of use.

Our pick: Bathing Culture Outer Being Face and Body Oil

Bathing Culture Face and Body Oil
These premium ingredients — sea buckthorn and marula oil — are blended together with a sensuous blend of plant essences for an all-over oil that smells as good as it feels.

Glycolic Acid

This hydroxy acid is derived from sugarcane, and works by dissolving the bonds between dead skin cells. Plus, because the acid molecule is so small, it can reach directly into the skin’s hair follicles to loosen built-up sebum and proteins that lead to breakouts.

What it does

As a chemical exfoliator, glycolic acid gently removes dead skin cells (and the pore-clogging bacteria and oil attached to them) with no physical scrubbing or scraping needed. Along with encouraging healthy cell turnover without tearing the skin, chemical exfoliation is especially effective for oilier skin types, as it helps unclog pores and control acne without stimulating further oil production.

What to look for

Glycolic acid may appear in everything from cleansers to moisturizers. For regular use, look for products that contain glycolic acid in doses of 5% or less, unless a dermatologist has advised you otherwise. Anything higher can be too strong, especially for aging, dry or sensitive skin.

How long it takes to work

After using glycolic acid every day for about month, you’ll notice your skin looking brighter and more even, as well as feeling more soft and supple.

Our pick: Alder New York Everyday Face Cleanser

Alder New York Face Cleanser

A safe-for-daily-use dose glycolic acid in a smooth serum-like base of collagen-boosting sea botanicals.

Hyaluronic acid

Another sugar-based acid, this one helps your skin retain water within its tissues so it stays well hydrated. Made with bacteria-fermented plants, hyaluronic acid works by attracting moisture to the skin, providing deep and long-lasting hydration and elasticity without any oils.

What it does

Thanks to its moisture-retention powers, hyaluronic acid is the “magic” ingredient that restores youth to your skin, visibly reducing wrinkles and bringing out a radiant glow. And because it’s not oil-based, even acne-prone skin can benefit from its hydrating powers.

What to look for

Hyaluronic acid shows up a lot in serums, moisturizers, and hydrating masks. Look for a mix of different molecular weights, as they enhance the ingredient’s hydrating and plumping benefits. Since the molecule is fairly large, look for products that offer either micronized hyaluronic acid, or pair it with other ingredients that can easily penetrate the skin.

How long it takes to work

3-4 weeks of using hyaluronic acid every day results in a revitalized outer layer of skin, making it not only feel softer and smoother, but improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Our pick: Alder New York Everyday Face Serum

Alder New York Everyday Face Serum

Layer this with Alder’s Everyday Face Moisturizer for optimal results.

Niacinamide

Also known as vitamin B3, niacinamide is a powerhouse ingredient that offers numerous skin benefits. Its chameleon-like quality makes it a wonderful choice to address almost any skin concern, and it can be used day or night, in combination with just about any other ingredients.

What it does

This workhorse ingredient does everything but the dishes: minimizing the appearance of enlarged pores, evening out skin tone, erasing fine lines, and overall hydration by strengthening the skin’s natural barrier.

What to look for

Niacinamide should always be sourced from a quality supplier who ensures low nicotinic acid to prevent a “niacinamide flush,” a red irritating effect that can occur with overuse.

How long it takes to work

You’ll notice a reduction in pore size, as well as overall improved texture and tone, after just a few days; it takes about three months for total transformation.

Our pick: Naturium Niacinamide Serum

Naturium Serum

This serum utilizes a specialized non-flushing niacinamide that works for all skin types, including those with sensitive skin.

Retinol

If you’re not using retinol already, you’ve probably at least heard about it. This ingredient is a standby of premium skincare, with powerful cellular regeneration properties.

What it does

By stimulating collagen production, retinol is an industry mainstay for improving the look of fine lines and wrinkles. Note that retinol is best used at night, to protect those fragile new skin cells from contact with damaging UV rays. (Some skincare experts recommend wearing SPF the day after using retinol as well.)

What to look for

Retinol is very prone to degradation, so look for products with retinol made with microencapsulation technology, a chemical coating that extends its shelf life.

How long it takes

Just a few days of using retinol will even out wrinkles and fine lines. Three months in, your friends will be asking what your secret is.

Our pick: Naturium Retinol Serum

Naturium offers both a serum and a cream made from a specialized encapsulated retinol; both products include bakuchiol, which prevents the drying, peeling and flaking effect that can be a side effect of retinol products.

Naturium Serum

Seaweed

Also referred to as “algae” on product labels, seaweed is already a part of your daily life — it’s found in toothpaste, candy, ice cream, even beer and wine. Along with its binding and emulsifying properties, this marine plant is packed with a vibrant array of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

What it does

What doesn’t it do? Seaweed has myriad benefits depending on the specific species. Gigartina seaweed stimulates collagen production, reducing wrinkles while protecting your skin from environmental pollution. Another species, Undaria Pinnatifida, contains fucoidan, which keeps your skin firm and younger looking, as well as a plethora of vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids.

What to look for

Seaweed is unique in that it absorbs the good (nutrients and minerals) and the bad (toxins and pollution) from any environment it grows in. In other words, source is everything. Therefore, it’s vital to look for products that contain seaweed harvested from pristinely clean coastal environments.

How long it takes

Results largely depend on your individual skin, but some people will see an immediate improvement within minutes of using a marine-based product.

Our pick: Osea Ocean Cleansing Mudd

Ocean Cleansing Mudd

There’s nothing not to love about Osea’s Ocean Cleansing Mudd, a fast-acting daily cleanser with three types of seaweed and no actual mud. It helps clear clogged pores and even reduces ingrown hairs.

Peptides

These amino acid chains act as building blocks of collagen, elastin and keratin. When we’re young, we naturally produce peptides at a high rate, but production slows down from 25 to age 40 when it nearly stops. For this reason, adding peptides to your skincare is key to reversing the signs of aging.

What it does

Along with improving your skin’s texture and resilience, peptides help repair protein loss and generate collagen. In addition, using peptides topically is believed to increase your body’s natural peptide production.

What to look for

Many skin care products use synthetic peptides, so look for plant-based peptides derived from sources like oat kernels, apple peels, or algae. Since you don’t want to wash peptides off your skin, but rather have them sink in and go to work, seek out a peptide-based product in the form of a serum and/or moisturizer.

How long it takes

For best results, peptides should be incorporated into both the morning and evening routine. You’ll likely see improved hydration the very next day, but it will start to get truly noticeable after just a week of consistent use.

Our pick: Cyan Skincare Pacific Moisturizer

Cyan Pacific Moisturizer

This silky moisturizer combines peptides with ceramides (a lipid that holds surface skin cells together) and a powerful blend of vitamins for a luscious hydration boost that serves all skin types.

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