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How to Choose a Better Facial Moisturizer

Determine the results you want before picking the product


Is your face cream doing enough? Is it doing anything? Applying moisturizer used to be a feel-good experience for complexion and psyche. Now, thanks to social media hype and puffed-up brand marketing, it’s a stress-maker causing 50-plus women to peer into their mirrors expecting dermatological miracles. ​​I’m a beauty editor with 40 years of experience testing and reporting on moisturizers of every price and formula, from Olay to La Mer. Here are my tips to finding your next best thing.

spinner image M.A.C. Hyper Real SkinCanvas Balm Moisturizing Cream; Kiehl’s Since 1851 Ultra Facial Cream; Innisfree Green Tea Hyaluronic Acid Hydrating Moisturizer
(Clockwise from top left) M.A.C. Hyper Real SkinCanvas Balm Moisturizing Cream ($49, maccosmetics.com); Kiehl’s Since 1851 Ultra Facial Cream ($67, nordstrom.com); Innisfree Green Tea Hyaluronic Acid Hydrating Moisturizer ($29, sephora.com)
MAC; Nordstrom; Sephora

1. Ignore the hype and grapevine gossip

Sorry, but your best friend, your sister-in-law and TikTok influencers don’t share your personal skin care history or issues. Their skin may look amazing, but that doesn’t mean their moisturizer will have the same affect on you. Stay informed about new creams, of course, but don’t fall for them too fast or rule out high-performance oldies that target dry, mature skin. Pay attention to your face. The way it reacts to your current moisturizer will tell you when to move on, what to avoid and what to look for next. For example, your skin may respond better to peptides than retinol, prefer a gel cream to a super-rich one, or just react better to a fragrance-free drugstore brand better than a scented fancy one.

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spinner image A woman applying face cream in a bathroom
Westend61/Getty Images

2. Recognize the red flags of a bad moisturizer

Too often women toss a perfectly good moisturizer due to impatience. It can take six to eight weeks to see visible results from a new face cream. However, there are very good reasons to stop using your current moisturizer (new or old) and choose another. If you’re breaking out or your skin stings, feels itchy or shows signs of increased redness or sensitivity, move on! If your complexion isn’t responding anymore and looks drier, duller, splotchier or bumpier than ever, don’t hesitate to make a change.

spinner image woman looking into a circular bathroom mirror holding a bottle of skin serum

A Guide to Better Skin After 50

Have healthy looking skin at any age  

Tips, advice and resources

spinner image Clinique Smart Clinical Repair Wrinkle Correcting Rich Cream; Neutrogena Hydro-Boost Gel-Cream Extra Dry; e.l.f. Holy Hydration! Face Cream Fragrance-Free
(Left to right) Clinique Smart Clinical Repair Wrinkle Correcting Rich Cream ($68, bloomingdales.com); Neutrogena Hydro-Boost Gel-Cream Extra Dry ($26, walgreens.com); e.l.f. Holy Hydration! Face Cream Fragrance-Free ($13, target.com)
Bloomingdale's; Walgreens; Target

3. Stick with proven ingredients for soft, dewy skin

It’s easy to get sidetracked by buzz and dramatic claims. No moisturizer will deliver facelift-like firming and lifting or filler-like plumping. Instead, focus on finding a cream with the realistic goal of smoother, fresher, dewier skin via proven ingredients. Look for humectants like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, urea and aloe vera that pull in water to plump up lines; emollients like ceramides, omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, squalane, shea and cocoa butter, and other plant oils and butters to soften, smooth and repair the skin’s barrier and seal all in; and peptides to boost collagen renewal. Everything else is gravy. PS: You don’t need a chemistry degree to find these ingredients; they are listed in order of quantity and potency, so check top-of-listers first.

spinner image Vanicream Daily Facial Moisturizer for Sensitive Skin; Vichy Aqualia Thermal Rich Cream Moisturizer; La Roche-Posay Hydraphase HA Rich Hyaluronic Acid Face Moisturizer
(Left to right) Vanicream Daily Facial Moisturizer for Sensitive Skin; Vichy Aqualia Thermal Rich Cream Moisturizer; La Roche-Posay Hydraphase HA Rich Hyaluronic Acid Face Moisturizer
Target; Walgreens (2)

4. Consider going drama-free with one day/night formula

Minimalists, those with sensitivity issues like rosacea and eczema, or anyone wanting an escape from complicated regimens can opt for one do-all facial moisturizer that works for both a.m. and p.m. use. Effective and low-cost, they may lack the glamour, bells and whistles of trendier creams, but they do keep dryness, dullness and dehydration at bay. Three not-to-miss quenchers: Vanicream Daily Facial Moisturizer for Sensitive Skin ($16, target.com) fragrance free with hyaluronic acid and ceramides; La Roche-Posay Hydraphase HA Rich Hyaluronic Acid Face Moisturizer ($39, walgreens.com) with glycerin and shea butter; and Vichy Aqualia Thermal Rich Cream Moisturizer ($31, walgreens.com) with hyaluronic acid, glycerin and shea butter.

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spinner image Olay Regenerist Hyaluronic + Peptide 24 Fragrance-Free Face Moisturizer SPF 30; ​Cetaphil Daily Face Moisturizer SPF 35; No7 Protect & Perfect Intense Advanced Fragrance-Free Night Cream; L’Oréal Paris Age Perfect Cell Renewal Midnight Cream; CeraVe Skin-Renewing Night Cream Peptide Complex
(Left to right) Olay Regenerist Hyaluronic + Peptide 24 Fragrance-Free Face Moisturizer SPF 30 ($30, target.com); Cetaphil Daily Face Moisturizer SPF 35 ($15, target.com); No7 Protect & Perfect Intense Advanced Fragrance-Free Night Cream ($21, target.com); L’Oréal Paris Age Perfect Cell Renewal Midnight Cream ($37, cvs.com); CeraVe Skin-Renewing Night Cream Peptide Complex ($22, cvs.com)
Target (3); CVS (2)

5. Let separate day and night moisturizers solve problems

Sometimes one face cream can’t meet all your expectations. There are two good yet very different reasons to use two moisturizers. The first is if you prefer a light cream for day, especially one that’s compatible with sunscreen and makeup, but want a richer, soothing moisturizer at night. (FYI: That “rich” cream may not necessarily be labeled as a “night cream” either!) The second is when and if you’re ready to tackle sun damage and wrinkles with a separate night moisturizer that deeply nourishes but emphasizes power ingredients like retinol, glycolic acid, peptides and antioxidants. Know your needs.

spinner image A closeup of a woman dipping her finger in jar of moisturizer
JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

6. Be sure you’re using moisturizer the right way

The bad news is that no moisturizer (even a seemingly ideal one) is going to deliver five-star performance unless you do your part. This means keeping skin exfoliated, to remove dead cell buildup so the moisturizer can penetrate; applying moisturizer to freshly washed, damp skin for better absorption; patting the cream on and gently massaging it in instead of rubbing; and using the moisturizer on a consistent basis. And of course, pay attention to the open jar symbol on the label that indicates how long the product is effective once it’s been opened. Expired moisturizer — no matter how costly or how much is left in the jar — is not skin-friendly.

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