[Ed. note: This post was originally published December 19, 2017; it has since been updated to reflect new discoveries, and republished on April 27, 2018, October 11, 2018, and March 20, 2019.] Continuing in my best of everything round-up series, I’m sharing today my absolute favorite beauty products. I’ve featured most of these on the blog dozens of times, but thought it’d be easier to share in one post. I’m leaving some categories blank — like, for example, concealer, because I don’t think I’ve found the ideal concealer yet, despite a valiant effort — and will attempt to update periodically!
Also — don’t forget to check out my Best of Everything: Affordable Beauty Products post, where all beauty products are under $50. The reader comments are a gold mine of additional discoveries!
The Best Skincare Products
Eye Cream: La Mer. I know. It costs a freaking fortune. But, truthfully, it’s the only eye cream I’ve ever used that has actually yielded significant results. My undereye area looked so moisturized and brightened, and I swear the fine wrinkles disappeared. One of these tubs also lasts a very long time — I’d say mine lasted six months? Worth the investment. Just give it a try once and see. I will alternate between La Mer and Origins Ginzing, which is a VERY good eye cream at a good price. I don’t see the long-term results that I get from LaMer, but it’s very cooling and hydrating; it goes on like a dream and sort of glides into your skin. (Gross.)
Facial/Peel: m61 Power Glow Peel. OMG OMG OMG THIS STUFF. I literally could not believe my eyes after I tried a sample — I felt like it shaved off a few years of life and restored a youthful glow. OBSESSED. Do yourself a favor and try this, and then immediately buy for all of your girlfriends. (I love it so much I added it to my list of gifts I would actually give.)
Moisturizer: I sound like a broken record, but La Mer Soft Cream is the ultimate in hydration. I seriously feel guilty about using it because it is so expensive and I go through it fairly quickly (unlike the eye cream, which lasts awhile). I will indulge every now and then, but I’m also a huge fan of L’Occitane’s Peony Perfecting Cream and Ole Henriksen’s C-Rush Brightening Creme when I don’t want to spend a fortune. Both of the latter two are light, non-greasy, and blend very easily, but leave my skin moisturized and dewy. For winter/very dry skin, I can’t sing the praises of Belif’s The True Cream Aqua Bomb enough. It’s a heavily hydrating gel and it’s the only thing that saw me through those ultra-dry winter months. I’d often supplement La Mer with it!
Makeup Removing Pads: Arcona Triad Pads. These are absolutely a desert island beauty product for me. They remove every last dot and smear of makeup, and tone the skin without drying it out. They have a good skinfeel, if that’s a word — they leave your face feeling squeaky clean but not sucked dry. I had listed a First Aid Beauty runner up here because they cost less, but, after trying them for a few months and returning to Arcona there simply is no comparison.
Serum: Vintner’s Daughter Active Botanical Serum. I was a huge fan of Ole Henriksen’s Truth Serum for months and months — so much so that I think I might have come off as a weird evangelist — and I still believe it’s an exceptional product because: Holy cow. This magic tincture completely changed my skin. Next to those m61 power peel pads, these are my holy grail product. What is it? “A powerful antiaging serum formulated with vitamin C and collagen for brightening and all-day hydration.” What does it do? It instantly plumps and revives the skin — you can actually see the difference before and after. Your skin looks fuller, brighter, younger IMMEDIATELY. I have bought bottles of this for several of my friends — I’m an evangelist now!
BUT. As of February 2019, I have ben testing Vintner’s Daughter’s heavily-touted active botanical serum and I have to say I have switched teams. It is extremely expensive and heavily perfumed — two factors worth considering and contending with — but it somehow completely cleared up the sporadic breakouts I’ve been struggling with for the last two years (basically, since around the time I got pregnant). My skin is brighter, more even in complexion, younger-looking. And, most importantly to me: it is blemish-free. I still think Ole Henriksen’s formula delivers more of an instant fix; you apply it and your skin is plump, refreshed, bright. Vintner’s Daughter is more of a slow transition. Both are excellent depending on what you are looking for.
Skin Cleanser: Tata Harper Regenerating Cleanser. For years, I tried dozens of skincare products but always returned to my unsexy Proactiv Cleanser, which I’d used since I was about 14 — I liked it because my skin was always blemish-free while using it, but it’s super harsh and drying. Then I discovered Tata Harper’s cleanser and my life changed. This stuff is AMAZING. The secret is to exfoliate with it for 1-2 minutes every morning; your skin is gleaming and clean as can be, but without dryness or irritation. It’s somehow powerful and gentle at the same time! I absolutely love it. Prior to applying the cleanser, I use micellar water to remove makeup — I like Dior’s LIFE Micellar Water, Bioderma, and Garnier. Dior’s formula smells lovely, but is not worth the exorbitant cost in that it achieves the exact same result as Bioderma and Garnier.
Acne Solution: Mario Badescu Drying Lotion. Any time I have a big presentation or a formal event to attend, WITHOUT FAIL, a blemish appears on the eve of said event. My mom turned me onto Mario Badescu’s drying lotion, a watery-clay-like substance you apply directly to the blemish. It dries and shrinks the situation within hours. Let’s be clear: it doesn’t make the problem go away, but it makes it more manageable and less noticeable in an SOS-situation.
Mask: Tata Harper Skin Resurfacing Mask. Every 2-3 days, I turn in early, slather this on my face, and sit in bed reading with a glass of wine while it does its magic. This stuff is gentle but effective — it leaves your skin smoother and more radiant than you can imagine. Runner up: Origins Original Skin Retexturizing Mask with Rose Clay. I love the way it feels — it tightens your skin while it dries, but without leaving you immobile or in pain or anything, and then washes right off to reveal the softest, rosiest, happiest skin.
Face Oil: Chantecaille Rose Oil. This stuff is truly magical for dehydrated skin in the dead of winter. I loved it while living in Chicago, where the winters last approximately nine months (two years ago, it snowed at the end of May.) It smells wonderful; has a wonderful, lightweight texture; and leaves the skin more supple and elastic, if that makes sense
Face Spray: Chantecaille Rosewater or Caudalie’s Beauty Elixir. Yes, Chantecaille’s formula is stupidly expensive for rose-scented water, but I’ve tried less expensive varieties/dupes, and I find that this stuff does a better job hydrating/softening the skin AND the bottle has a much better spray, emitting a lovely spritz that moistens the face all over. Other bottles just sort of feel like a Windex spray to the face. This is sort of a nice-to-have, to be honest — but I love misting some on after I’ve applied my makeup to sort of “soften the edges” and “set” things, and then spritzing it all over my face after the shower, or when I need a midday pickup. A few months ago, I started using Caudalie’s Beauty Elixir as a less-expensive substitute and I was really impressed with the results. It’s weirdly addictive — I often keep it in my handbag and spray it throughout the day as a way to refresh my face. I also love to use it when setting my makeup and applying foundation/concealer with a sponge or beauty brush.
Night Cream: Korres Sleeping Facial. This thick beauty cream feels like heaven going on — like a velvet layer of hydration that smells of fresh laundry and rose petals — and looks like heaven when you wake up. You’ll have such gorgeously hydrated skin in the morning! When I’m acne-prone, I switch to Origins’ Night-a-Mins High-Potency Mineral Enriched Renewal Cream, which smells like an orange peel, deeply hydrates, and also treats blemishes!
The Best Cosmetics
Mascara: DiorShow. I am something of a mascara junkie and will try any and every new entrant onto the mascara scene because I love thick, black, goopy, dramatic lashes. However. I will always return to my first love, DiorShow. It’s, simply, the best. It’s dark and dramatic but does not clump. I am currently smitten with YSL’s The Shock mascara, but it’s tough on my lashes — I’ve broken a lot because of it. DiorShow is far gentler on the lashline.
Blush: Bobbi Brown in Pale Pink. I know what you’re going to think when you look at this — it looks WAY TOO BRIGHT. But it’s not! It’s the perfect shade of every day pink and I’ve worn this for maybe a decade. It also lasts a LONG time. I know you’re supposed to replace your makeup every six months or something to prevent germs, etc., but I’ve had mine for maybe two years? No joke! And I wear it daily!
Bronzer: Guerlain Terracotta. The best. I had been a Nars Laguna devotee, but I found that I went through a palette of it every few months, and it was prone to crumbling. Guerlain’s goes on very naturally, and lasts for a long time (without crumbling!)
Eye Primer: Laura Mercier Eye Basics in Linen. Most days, I don’t wear eye shadow, but I nearly always use Laura Mercier’s eye basics. It evens out skintone and leaves the whole eye area looking a little brighter — but looks very natural and “undone.” I love this stuff.
Eyebrows: ELF cosmetics clear eyebrow gel. For years I used Glossier’s Boy Brow. In general, I didn’t know I needed a brow gel until I tested the Glossier stuff — it’s wonderful. It adds a level of finish and polish and definition to your everyday look, and no one will ever guess you’re wearing it. It makes your natural brows look more groomed, fills in blank spots, and evens out color. However, I often griped that the tube was VERY small. I don’t get why they don’t produce it in a normal size and charge twice as much for it. I’d be much happier that way! I find that within a week or two (no joke), it feels as though the tube is empty and I’m scraping the sides for the next few weeks before I begrudgingly renew my supply. A reader recommended ELF’s $3 clear eyebrow gel and I immediately ran around the corner to Duane Reade to test it. I’m never going back. It’s inexpensive, it keeps brows in place, and it doesn’t leave them crispy. It does mean that you need to use a pencil/second product to fill in with color if you need to even things out, but on most mornings, it’s a quick swipe of ELF and I’m done.
Tinted Lip Balm: Fresh. I am obsessed with pretty much every flavor/color of this product. If you’ve never tried it before, start with “Rose,” which imparts the most beautiful natural pink tint on your lips.
Highlighter: RMS Beauty Living Luminizer or Nars Illuminator in Copacobana. The first is an everyday hero — I wear it daily over my makeup for a little gloss and sheen, but it’s not metallic or flashy; it has no color. It legitimately just adds “dewiness” to your skin. I apply it to my cheekbones, the tip of my nose, and my cupid’s bow area. For evenings out, I favor Nars. It’s much bolder and should be applied with caution — but it’s great for that dramatic Kardashian face glow.
Tinted Moisturizer: Chantecaille’s Just Skin Tinted Moisturizer. I switched to this product after using Laura Mercier Tinted Moisturizer for a decade. Both are really solid products but I prefer the way Chantecaille’s formula glides into the skin and leaves a more natural finish. I like the feel of it, and it offers a touch more coverage than LM. That said, LM is still a solid bet for less: it smooths, evens out skintone, moisturizes, and blocks out sun — but without adding bulk or cakiness or any of that stuff. If you’re having a serious bout of redness or acne, I would up the ante and graduate to an actual foundation, but I wear this about 90% of the time. When I need it, I like Too Faced’s Born This Way foundation. A makeup artist used it on me and I could not believe the results — it was the most natural, radiant foundation application I’d ever seen! I immediately bought my own jar. I apply it using this foundation brush, which is super inexpensive, but my favorite brush for the job — it applies just enough product, is the right length (I hate when brushes are too long!), and blends easily.
Powder: Laura Mercier Secret Brightening Powder and Kevyn Aucoin Celestial Highlighting Powder. I don’t usually wear powder because I don’t like the cakey look they leave, but Laura Mercier’s secreting brightening powder is a must for setting undereye concealer, IMO. It’s superfine and actually reflects light well. I’m obsessed with it. On the occasion where I want to wear powder elsewhere — especially at night — Kevyn Aucoin’s celestial powder is NO JOKE. It truly illuminates the face.
Daytime Lipstick: Nars Satin Finish. For everyday wear, I love the satin finish lipsticks by Nars. They go on super light — almost like chapstick — and don’t need to be applied with a mirror. I wear Roman Holiday nearly every day, and the other days, I wear tinted lip balm by Fresh (see above).
Nighttime Lipstick: Mac Matte Lipstick. Should be applied with a heavy coat of balm / 8 Hour Cream (see below), but it actually stays and doesn’t dry out the lips as much as others. I will also line my lips with Nars Velvet Lipliner to prolong its staying power.
Eyeliner: Smashbox Always Sharp Eyeliner. Extremely easy to apply — it glides on like a dream — but the key selling point is that the tip is literally always sharpened owing to a brilliant design (the cap serves as a sharpener and will automatically sharpen the liner pen any time you screw it on/off). I love the colors this comes in, too; I often wear brown.
The Best Haircare Products
Round Brush: Spornette 3″. This is THE BOMB for getting that supermodel blowout. I have been hooked on it for years after a hair stylist I trusted raved about it. It’s inexpensive, easy to manage, lightweight, and apparently Gisele’s stylist uses it on her. If it’s good enough for Gisele…
Paddle Brush: The Body Shop. OK, this is going to sound super odd, but I’ve had a fantastic wood paddle brush from The Body Shop that I’ve used since my mom gave it to me at the age of maybe 8 or 9. It’s wonderful. Great at detangling, sturdy, and a nice width. I hope they haven’t changed the model since I got it 20 years ago (meeep), but if it’s the same one I have (it looks identical!), you’ll thank me.
Mini Brush: DryBar Mini Lemondrop Detangler. I’ve talked y’all’s ear off about this one, but I’m obsessed with this mini detangling brush, which I carry with me EVERYWHERE. It’s the perfect size and it works beautifully. So much better than those cheap plastic fold and flip brushes that I used to carry with me.
Curling Iron: Hot Tools. These last forever, conduct heat very well, and heat up instantly. I have a few different barrel sizes, but currently use the 1″ one daily. Don’t mess with the ones with ceramic/colored barrels — those don’t work as well. The classic won’t do you wrong.
Hairdryer: Conair Infiniti Pro. Guys, I’ve tried maybe half a dozen hairdryers in my lifetime, including $200+ ones, and I am happiest with my inexpensive Conair Infiniti Pro. Let me explain: I have fine hair, but A LOT OF IT. The number of times I’ve gone to have my hair blown out and had the stylist say, about 30 minutes later, “God, you DO have a lot of hair” — well, it’s nearly 100% of the time. AKA, it takes me an eon to blowdry my hair and is my most hated task of life. I stand there, hot and angry and wanting it to end and contemplating shaving my head. (Which is partly why my new wavy hair do is my favorite thing EVER — I let it air dry and just curl it. HAHAHAHA. #Beatthesystem.) But, there are of course times where I need to blowdry my hair or want it straight, and that’s where the Conair comes in. The Conair is like a jet engine. It blows intense fast hot heat that might blow a small child or pet dog right out of the room. It’s intense. But it WORKS. The more expensive models I tried emit a fine funnel of air that does nothing for me — I basically feel like they breathe warm air onto your scalp in a soft and dainty wisp. Anyway, Conair is where it’s at for those of us with similar thick/full heads of hair. Don’t waste your money on anything else!
Hairspray: Drybar Money Maker. Keeps its hold, but without the crunchiness.
Hair primer: Bumble + Bumble Don’t Blow It Fine Hair Styler. This changed the game when I started blow-drying my hair every 2-3 days. It protects your hair and makes it so much easier to manage/work with — I find that my hair looks shinier and sleeker, and that it also “behaves” (i.e., holds a bend in the right way) when I use it. I also apply this thickening spray to the roots around the crown of my head since I need a little extra volume there or my hair looks flat.
Shampoo/Conditioner for Treated Hair: Oribe’s Bright Blonde series. It’s very pricey, but it does majorly hydrate your hair and leave it looking brighter/fresher for longer.
Hair Mask: Oribe Mask for Beautiful Color. In the winter months, I use this instead of conditioner. It is SO good at hydrating dry, color-treated hair! It leaves my hair soft, pliable, shiny.
Hair Ties for Exercise: EmiJay. I still use cheap drugstore Goody brand hair ties during the day (ugly, but get the job done), but these are fantastic for exercise. They hold hair in place without breaking them, and, since you’re working out, the fact that they’re ugly doesn’t matter.
Styling Clips: Drybar. I use these daily and am obsessed with them; I keep two spare ones in my suitcase so I never travel without them. I much prefer these to a hair tie when washing my face in the morning — they feel so much less fussy and prevent the awkward ponytail indent in your hair — and they’re a must when sectioning hair for my beachy wave thang.
The Best Body Products
Lotion: Fresh, in the Life or Hesperides Scents. Could not live without this beautiful, thick, stunningly-scented body lotion. Like heaven. I always stock up on these during Sephora’s 20% off promotion period.
Balm: Tata Harper Body Balm. My bestie gave me this after mini was born, having read that it was good for massaging into post-birth skin. It is a wunderproduct — I love using it after a shower and apply it almost nightly to my feet. You really need to work with it to blend it into your skin (it’s super thick and pasty), but it works wonders.
Body Scrub: Kate Somerville’s Exfolikate. GUYS. I think she’s stopped producing Exfolikate, which I’m slightly traumatized about, because I can’t find it anywhere online and now I’m rationing out my current tube with the miserliness of Ebenezer Scrooge. AHHHH! This is the only body product I’ve used that truly banishes back breakouts, which used to be something of a problem for me because I ran so frequently. The only other product that comes close is Neutrogena’s Graprefruit Scrub, but it’s still not as good as Exfolikate, which totally eradicated the problem. I think I’ll probably use Exfolikate for the Face — it must be a similar formula? — when I next run out. WAHHH.
Bar Soap: Fresh Oval Soap. I love (LOVE!) the prettily-packaged oval soaps from Fresh. They’re well-scented and a great size — some body soaps are too thin and dinky. You need a nice size to really work up a lather. But I will say these soaps are not long for this world — they dissolve fairly quickly. Most of the time, we buy enormous cases of Dove Beauty Bars at Costco or — now — via Amazon Prime. They smell good, clean well, and are inexpensive.
Maternity: Clarins Tonic Body Treatment Oil. I applied this every day of my pregnancy and have zero stretch marks. Just saying.
The Best Nail Products
Nail Polish: Essie Gel Couture. The name is misleading, as this isn’t actually gel/no-chip polish — but this is a GREAT formula. It lasts a solid week, which is a miracle for me. With this polish, you don’t apply a base coat; you apply the color to the nail and use a special top coat.
Nail Polish Remover: Sephora Quick Wipes. My mom gifted me a box of these in my stocking a few years ago and I am obsessed. Such an easier way to remove nail polish than using cotton balls and liquid solution. You just swipe and toss.
Nail Strengthener: Duri Juvacote. This stuff is great when my nails are brittle or overly thin — apply a coat a night and you’ll see much stronger nails in no time.
Hand Cream: Codi. It’s not ritzy, but this stuff actually works when you have cracked/dry hands, and the scent is gender-neutral enough for the man in your life, too. My old manicurist in Chicago swore by it and gifted me a tube once.
The All-Around MVP: Elizabeth Arden 8-Hour Cream
My mother and sisters and I go nowhere without a tube of Elizabeth Arden 8-Hour Cream, which is the answer to nearly any issue you encounter: softening cuticles, dry skin, chapped lips, mild burns and abrasions, even smoothing flyaways or adding a little gloss to your cheekbones if you’re looking drab. You must have this.
The Beauty Tools
Tweezers: Tweezerman Stainless Steel Slant Tweezers. I’m sure everyone already owns a pair, but if, by chance, you don’t — do yourself a favor and upgrade. (And don’t mess around with those needle-point ones — how do those work?) These are wonderful for grabbing tiny eyebrow hairs, and they remain sharp and aligned for a very long time — but if they don’t, I have it on good authority that you can send them to Tweezerman and they’ll sharpen them/re-align them for you!
Mini Scissors: Fiskars. The brand is less important than the fact that you have them. I use my beauty cabinet scissors CONSTANTLY — to trim eyebrows, to cut tags, to remove threads, to take care of a random overlong bang, etc, etc.
Storage: See my storage section here.
Makeup Applicator: BeautyBlender. The best. I like using the broader side for tinted moisturizer and the slender side for undereye concealer. I usually wet it with a little rose water beforehand.
Face Brush: Laura Mercier Finishing Brush. Oh God how I love this brush. I use it for bronzer, which I’m probably not supposed to do, but I find it has the most perfect application for the cheek and forehead area, and it deposits just the right amount of product. It also has the perfect handle length — I’ve had other brushes that feel too long/unwieldy, or too stubby. This is perfect. (I think it’s meant to be for face powder, which I typically don’t use.)
Blush Brush: Laura Mercier Blush Brush. I don’t know why this is called a “travel” brush, because I use it daily when I am definitely not traveling. It’s straight-forward, but it’s the right size and heft for blush.
Undereye Brush: Bobbi Brown Full Coverage. Apparently this can be used for concealer, but I prefer to apply that with my beautyblender. I love this brush for dotting on my secret brightening powder around the eye area, though!
Foundation Brush: Boots No7 Foundation Brush. Inexpensive but extremely effective — as noted above, it applies just enough product, is the right length (I hate when brushes are too long!), and blends easily.
P.P.S. What are your unsung heroes?