Every year at SELF we celebrate the best new skin-care, hair-care, and makeup products out there with our Healthy Beauty Awards. These products are things like the gentle cleansers you reach for every morning, the sunscreens you rely on to protect yourself, and the deep conditioners you repair your hair with. Whatever your skin or hair needs, we’re here to help.
This year we sorted our winners by product type and noted within each list which products are recommended for people with specific skin types, skin concerns, and hair types. The products that won made it through a selection process involving expert-informed criteria as well as an intense weeks-long testing process, and were stacked up against the best of the best in the industry.
To find our winners, we first narrowed down the 1,580 submissions we received to about 1,200 products under consideration that were launched within the last year. Then, based on the criteria we received from a panel of experts and our own editorial judgment, we further narrowed that down to 540 products to be sent out to our 70 testers. After going through the testers’ feedback, 139 products emerged as winners. In all, the process took about six months—and continued despite a global pandemic.
Here, learn more about how we selected the submissions to test, the guidelines our experts helped us create, and how we ultimately landed on the winning products.
But first, a quick note from SELF Editor in Chief Carolyn Kylstra, before we continue:
We were planning to publish these awards a few weeks ago. But days before the awards were supposed to go live, SELF’s interim special projects director Rozalynn Frazier raised the issue that we had just a handful of winners from Black-owned brands and businesses. Brand ownership wasn’t something that we’d even considered as part of our testing process. But amidst the global protests against systemic racism and police brutality, we’ve been having a lot of conversations internally about how we can better use SELF’s massive reach and influence to advance the cause of racial justice and equality. Supporting and promoting Black-owned businesses is just one of many ways we can do that.
So we pushed the awards back a few weeks to better understand how our selection process led to the end result of so few Black-owned brands winning awards. We did a comprehensive audit of all brands that submitted products for approval. We found that a tiny percent of the brands that submitted products in the first place were owned by Black people or non-Black people of color. We tested the same percentage of BIPOC-owned brands; and the same percentage won awards. What this told us is that an important first step to improve these numbers is to do more meaningful and intentional outreach to BIPOC-owned brands at the very beginning of the process. That’s something we’ll be doing next year. Meanwhile, as part of the awards this year, our associate market editor Tiffany Dodson compiled a Hall of Fame roundup of 26 of our favorite Black-owned beauty brands you should know about.
How We Chose the Winners
To start, we conducted extensive interviews with four experts in dermatology about general guidelines for people with different skin types and hair types. We went over the advice they give to patients who have dry, oily, acne-prone, sensitive, and combination skin as well as those who are looking to manage skin concerns, particularly hyperpigmentation and signs of aging (such as wrinkles, fine lines, and dark spots). We also asked them about the advice they give to those with different hair types, including fine or thinning hair, dry hair, oily hair, natural hair, and sensitive scalp.
We then combined all of their guidelines—including overall advice as well as specific ingredients to look for or avoid—into one set of criteria, which we used to narrow down the list of products we wanted to test. The criteria were also helpful in selecting which products to give to which testers based on their hair and skin type.
But the over-the-counter beauty world is subjective and there’s little regulation over what brands can and can’t claim about their products. So, in working with the experts to formulate our criteria, we did our best to stay away from absolutes.
Simultaneously, we recruited 70 testers with different hair types, skin types, skin tones, and skin concerns, as well as people with skin conditions including rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis to test the products we selected for them. Over the course of a month, testers tried out the products they were sent and wrote reviews, which included a detailed description of their experience with the product and an overall rating from 0 (the worst) to 5 (the best).
Then we took a look at the reviews. In many cases, reviewers agreed on the best and most effective products in a particular category (like moisturizers for oily skin or shampoos for dry hair). But not always. When the winner wasn’t clear, we drew from the experts’ criteria to help make our decision, giving extra points to products that contained more of the things they like to see in products for a particular skin or hair type and fewer of the things they don’t want to see. That’s reflected in each product write-up, where we give “bonus points” when a product contains an ingredient the experts tell us is beneficial. We also note where a product contains something the experts may not recommend for a particular skin type but our reviewers liked anyway.
What the Experts Said
We consulted with four top experts in skin care and hair care to get their science-backed advice on what people with different skin types, skin concerns, and hair types should look for in their products. The insights they gave us were extensive, so what follows is a general summary of the information we used to select products for each group of testers and some of their really helpful tips for taking care of your hair and skin.
Know that, ultimately, there are a lot of individual differences when it comes to skin care. And over-the-counter products can only do so much. So, if you’re reading these guidelines and thinking, Hey, I did all of that already, why do I still have acne?, then you probably want to check in with an dermatologist who can give your unique skin the attention it deserves.
But if you’re just delving into skin care for the first time or you’re on the hunt for some new products, check out the experts’ recommendations below.
Skin Care and Makeup for Dry Skin
Dry skin is skin that is not getting enough moisture or not able to keep hydration in the skin. That means that you want to gravitate towards skin-care and makeup products that can both hydrate and seal that hydration in and avoid using anything that could further dry out or aggravate your skin. Our experts say that dry skin may benefit from using a gentle, creamy cleanser (rather than a foamy one) and a moisturizer on the thicker side. But, because dry skin can also be acne-prone, make sure those thick moisturizers aren’t also comedogenic.
LOOK FOR: Hydrating and moisturizing ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid, glycerin, ceramides, dimethicone, shea butter, squalane, aloe, petrolatum, mineral oil, and argan oil. If you’re interested in exfoliating, opt for gentler polyhydroxy acids (PHAs). If you want to use retinoids like retinol and adapalene but find that they are too harsh, try bakuchiol, an alternative that is gentler but doesn’t have as much conclusive research behind it. Soothing ingredients like aloe and oatmeal may be helpful when your dry skin is irritated.
AVOID: Dry skin is also often sensitive, so it’s important to avoid ingredients that may be drying or irritating, such as salicylic acid, harsh physical exfoliants (like scrubs and brushes), and sulfates. Although these may be okay for some once in a while, they may be too much when used at the same time. If your dry skin is also on the very sensitive side, you may also want to avoid fragrances.
Skin Care and Makeup for Combination Skin
Combination skin is, admittedly, a little bit tricky. Those with combination skin have patches of skin that tends toward oily (usually around the T-zone) and parts of their skin that tend toward dry (often the cheeks). So the key here is to balance your management of one area without aggravating an adjacent one, our experts say. Generally, that means using a combination—get it?—of products that are good for oily skin and dry skin, perhaps alternating them based on the steps in your routine. Like, for instance, using drying chemical exfoliants at night followed by a creamy, hydrating cleanser in the morning.
LOOK FOR: Light hydrating ingredients, like hyaluronic acid and glycerin, as well as chemical exfoliants and retinoids.
AVOID: Moisturizers that are too thick or occlusive and may include comedogenic ingredients like coconut oil.
Skin Care and Makeup for Sensitive Skin
Sensitive skin isn’t really a technical term, but it’s used to refer to skin that is prone to reactions to skin-care and makeup products. People with skin conditions like rosacea, psoriasis, and eczema also usually have sensitive skin and may find that their conditions are triggered by certain ingredients in products, like dyes and fragrances. If you find that your skin is frequently irritated by products, it’s worth checking in with a board-certified dermatologist for guidance. They may steer you toward certain types of products, prescribe treatments for skin conditions, or do a patch test to check for potential allergies.
For those with sensitive skin, our experts recommend sticking with simple, gentle cleansers and moisturizers. If you want to use more active treatments, know that there are often gentler alternatives and certain precautions you can take to make those products less irritating.
LOOK FOR: Hydrating and calming ingredients, including hyaluronic acid, glycerin, niacinamide, and ceramides. Acne-fighting exfoliants like azelaic acid and PHAs are good options for sensitive skin when other ingredients—like AHAs and BHAs—are too irritating. Depending on your sensitivities, you might find soothing ingredients like aloe, oatmeal, chamomile, centella asiatica, and green tea helpful when your skin is inflamed. In general, our panel also recommended that those with sensitive skin opt for mineral sunscreen ingredients over chemical ones because chemical sunscreen ingredients are also common irritants.
AVOID: If your skin is sensitive, it’s important to avoid fragrances, chemical sunscreen ingredients, and essential oils if possible, which our experts say are some of the most common irritants in skin-care and makeup products.
Skin Care and Makeup for Oily or Acne-Prone Skin
If your skin produces an excess of oil (sebum), it leaves a greasy feeling on the skin. That extra sebum also frequently contributes to the formation of acne, so oily skin is also often acne-prone. However, that oil also provides a bit of a helpful buffer, making it easier to withstand more intense exfoliating and retinoid products. According to our experts, those with oily skin should look for a cleanser containing acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, or benzoyl peroxide. They should also opt for lighter moisturizers that are less likely to contain pore-clogging ingredients.
LOOK FOR: Chemical exfoliating ingredients such as glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid, as well as physical exfoliants. Acne-fighting ingredients including benzoyl peroxide, azelaic acid, and retinoids. People with oily skin may also find that chemical sunscreen ingredients are easier to apply and leave their face feeling less greasy than physical sunscreens. If your acne leaves behind dark spots, look for brightening ingredients like vitamin C, kojic acid, and azelaic acid. And if your acne is also inflamed, you might find calming ingredients like green tea and (diluted!) tea tree oil help soothe those pimples.
AVOID: Ingredients that may be comedogenic (meaning they can clog pores). Our system for rating the comedogenicity of ingredients isn’t perfect, but in general our experts recommend avoiding vitamin E and oils, including coconut oil, as well as any product that feels too occlusive on the skin.
Skin Care and Makeup for Aging/Mature Skin
As we age, our skin naturally goes through changes. It usually becomes drier and loses some elasticity. That, plus years of sun exposure, often leads to visible signs of aging like fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots. So, whether you’re trying to reduce the appearance of those things or just trying to keep your skin as healthy as possible now, you should look for a combination of hydrating products and those with proven antiaging benefits, namely sunscreen, retinoids, and antioxidants.
LOOK FOR: Humectant ingredients (like hyaluronic acid and glycerin), ceramides, peptides, antioxidants (like vitamin C and resveratrol), retinoids, and, obviously, sunscreen.
Skin Care and Makeup for Scars and Discoloration/Hyperpigmentation
To tackle scars and hyperpigmentation on the skin (including age spots and post-acne marks), our experts recommend a combination of exfoliating ingredients and brightening ingredients. But they also stress the importance of wearing sunscreen every single day to prevent the spots from getting darker.
LOOK FOR: Chemical exfoliants including alpha-hydroxy-acids (glycolic acid, lactic acid) and beta-hydroxy-acids (salicylic acid). Brightening ingredients like retinoids, vitamin C, hydroquinone, kojic acid, and tranexamic acid. Above all, use sunscreen, especially one that contains iron oxides that will block blue light in addition to UVA- and UVB-blocking ingredients.
Hair Care for Fine or Thinning Hair
Fine and thinning hair needs a little help to look fuller, which often comes in the form of silicones, like dimethicone. These ingredients hug the hair to prevent moisture loss, giving it a plumper look. But your hairstyling behaviors can play a huge role here as well, our experts explain. In particular, you want to avoid too much heat styling and tight hair styles that may pull on the scalp.
Sometimes, thinning hair can be more complex, and your genetics, hormones, and underlying health issues can play a role. In these cases, it’s important to see a board-certified dermatologist, who might prescribe more effective treatments, which are often used together for the best results.
LOOK FOR: Silicones (such as silica), hydrolized keratin, minoxidil. The label may say words like volumizing, thickening, and sulfate-free.
AVOID: Sulfates, which can be drying, especially if you’re trying to emphasize curls or waves. Note that oils like argan oil, coconut oil, and olive oil are super popular, but not the best for those with fine hair.
Hair Care for Natural Hair
Natural hair refers to Afro-textured hair, which is generally curly or coiled. This type of hair tends to be prone to dryness, breakage, and damage as well as some unique types of hair loss. So it’s crucial for those with natural hair to take care of their hair and scalp by both opting for certain styling behaviors and looking for specific products.
LOOK FOR: If you have natural hair, the name of the game is hydration. You want to make sure you’re adequately hydrating your hair with deep conditioners containing ingredients like coconut oil or jojoba oil. But remember that this is individualized—looser curls may not need as much moisture while tighter or kinkier curls will need more.
To keep the hair strong and give kinkier hair more structure, look for products containing whey protein or other hydrolyzed proteins.
Some moisturizing products will also contain silicones, which give the hair some extra sheen. However, silicones can also weigh down the hair and cause scalp irritation, so you may want to use products containing these ingredients sparingly.
Also, because all those moisturizing ingredients can contribute to buildup and irritation, scalp care is especially important for those with natural hair. Look for scalp cleansers, conditioners, and oils that can both soothe and exfoliate. They may contain ingredients such as shea butter, argan oil, and aloe vera. If your scalp is itchy as well as dry, you may want to use something containing pyrithione zinc, which can help fight dandruff.
AVOID: Washing too frequently, which can dry out the hair and cause damage. So just once a week is enough for many. Also avoid aggressive manipulation of your hair if you can, because, depending on the kinkiness of your curls, this may cause damage.
If you wear your hair in styles like braids or cornrows, make sure they’re not too tight as this can cause traction alopecia, which causes hair loss around the temples, central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia (CCCA), a type of hair loss that starts in the center of the scalp and causes pain, tenderness, and itching. If you start to notice small bumps along your hairline, those are likely to be traction folliculitis—inflammation of the follicle—and are a sign that your hairstyle is too tight and you may be on track for hair loss. Of course, if you experience any pain after having braids, weaves, or cornrows installed, that’s also a sign they are too tight.
Some research suggests that hair-care products for natural hair are more likely to contain ingredients like parabens or phthalates, which have been linked to hormone issues and asthma. But, as SELF explained previously, the research isn’t conclusive at this point on whether or not these ingredients actually directly cause health problems. So there isn’t enough data for our experts to specifically recommend avoiding products containing those ingredients. Still, they generally recommend looking for products with shorter, simpler ingredients lists. And if a product works well without those potentially worrying ingredients, that’s great!
Hair Care for Oily Hair
Having oily hair or a greasy scalp often goes hand in hand with dandruff, our experts say. So you’ll want to look out for products that can gently cut down on oil but also moisturize to avoid drying you out. There’s also often a temptation to wash or scrub the hair frequently when you have oilier hair, but our experts caution against this as it can actually cause an increase in oil production in some people.
LOOK FOR: A product with exfoliating ingredients, like salicylic acid or glycolic acid. If you have dandruff, you may want to look for products containing ketoconazole, zinc pyrithione, selenium sulfide, coal tar, tea tree oil, or (for some people) coconut oil, which can help control the yeast that causes flakes.
AVOID: Products with excess oils, especially in leave-on products. But lighter moisturizing oils, like argan and jojoba oil, may be okay for some people—especially those with thick hair.
Hair Care for Dry Hair
When your hair is dry you want to add moisture back in and avoid using products or styling methods that could dry the hair out. That includes frequent heat styling (especially flat ironing), using harsh chemical relaxers, getting tight braids, extensions, weaves, or perms. If you have natural hair, our experts say a hair oil may come in especially handy here.
LOOK FOR: Silicones (including dimethicone) to plump the hair, hydrolized keratin (especially if your hair is also thinning), and moisturizing ingredients like argan oil, jojoba oil, avocado oil, shea butter, and (for some) olive oil.
AVOID: Sulfates, which may dry out the hair. Most alcohols in hair products are also drying and should be avoided (but cetearyl and stearyl alcohol can actually be moisturizing and are okay to use). Other chemicals, like hair dyes and chemicals used in perms, can also be drying, irritating, and allergens, so if you find that you’re getting bad reactions, talk to a dermatologist.
Meet the Experts
To create our guidelines, we spoke with four experts in dermatology and skin care. We are so grateful that they gave us their time and expertise as we consulted with them multiple times over the course of a few months while putting this project together. We asked them to cut through the trendy nonsense and tell us what to look for in our beauty products—with advice based in actual science.
Michelle Henry, M.D. (@drmichellehenry) is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. She is currently a clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College. She attended medical school at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and completed her residency in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, where she served as chief resident. Following residency, she completed a fellowship in cutaneous oncology, Mohs micrographic and reconstructive surgery with the Harvard Medical School Department of Dermatology at the Lahey Clinic in Boston. She specializes in high-risk skin cancer treatments, aesthetic surgery, and skin of color.
Fatima Fahs, M.D. (@dermy_doctor) just completed her final year of dermatology residency in Detroit, serving as chief resident. She graduated from Wayne State University with a BS in biology and a minor in art. Dr. Fahs attended Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine in Rochester Hills, Michigan, and graduated with her M.D. in 2016. Her interests include general, cosmetic, and surgical dermatology. Dr. Fahs has a particular interest in skin care and product formulation, researching the efficacy of over-the-counter cosmeceuticals. She regularly decodes skin-care ingredients and explains common dermatological concerns on her Instagram account.
Joyce Park, M.D. (@teawithmd) is a board-certified dermatologist practicing in California and a skin-care and beauty blogger at teawithMD.com. She attended college and medical school at Stanford University, and completed her dermatology residency at NYU. During medical school, she discovered her interest in medical journalism, and completed one year as the Stanford-NBC News Global Health Media Fellowship, working in the communications office of the World Health Organization in Switzerland and as part of the medical team at NBC News. Dr. Park created Tea With MD and its associated social media channels as a lifestyle brand with a focus on medicine, science-based skin care, and beauty from a dermatologist’s perspective.
Shari Marchbein, M.D. (@drsharimarchbein) is a board-certified dermatologist and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. Her academic and clinical interests include the treatment of acne, in particular adult acne in women, acne scarring, and rosacea. She also specializes in various aesthetic procedures and laser surgery. She has been sought out as a leader in her field for the treatment of acne and rosacea and has published multiple articles on acne pathogenesis and treatment.
Originally Appeared on SELF