How to Test Your Next Beauty Product to See If it Really Makes a Difference

If you’re looking to amp up your skin care (and open your wallet), there is no shortage of high-tech devices and products that claim to help enhance the look and condition of your skin. Advertisements tout everything from makeup that claims to deliver an airbrush effect to specialized serums that promise to work at the cellular level.

Even ignoring paid ads, I’ll make a rough guess that a quick scan of popular magazines near your next checkout aisle turns up an overwhelming number of celebrity beauty tips that just so happen to list a particular cosmetics brand or two. At any given moment, there are probably hundreds of skin and makeup-related recommendations sitting on the average magazine stand. (And that’s just in print!)

The one thing that many products have in common? In our experience, quite a few suggestions and advertisements are devoid of any reference to credible evidence—skin care advice is a science-free zone where almost anything goes.

Consumers aren’t the only ones who are befuddled, either. In our research, we work hard to find experts who can provide reasonably independent views of the many beauty products and services available—and it’s much more difficult than expected. We’re not inferring that medical professional deliberately manipulate information, but even dermatologists benefit from sales.

Plus, there just isn’t a whole lot of research out there to verify any given product’s claims. This is pretty understandable, since research organizations have little interest in funding big double-blind studies on the effectiveness of, for example, the leech facial used by Demi Moore. Basically, you can understand why there isn’t a lot of good science to draw on when we have bigger fish to fry.

So, what’s your average shopper to do? It’s simple, test a product for yourself!

Hold up—we’re not suggesting that you purchase products willy nilly. (In fact, I’d recommend checking out our reviews before swiping your card.) But when you do decide to buy, you can trust these steps to logically investigate whether or not a repeat purchase is worth the money.

First, Here’s How Not to Test Whether Skincare Products Make a Difference

Not long ago, I happened across a beauty blog article that promised to test a foundation primer that claims to make skin noticeably more radiant. The beauty blogger began by applying said primer, then applying the rest of her cosmetics before snapping a selfie to share the results.

To her credit, there was an attempt to compare the resulting radiance with a primer-free face. To do so, she applied the same makeup and took another selfie at the same time of day in front of the same background, I assume to try and make things as consistent as possible.

Her conclusion? She liked the product. However, if there was a difference with and without it, it was slight.

Why Snapping a Selfie Isn’t a Thorough Check of a Beauty Product

Unfortunately, there are a few problems with that beauty blogger’s method of investigating whether or not her product worked as claimed.

The first being that readers were told which picture included the primer—meaning that our expectations for smoother skin were already in place. Not to mention that a single application isn’t much of an investigation, is it?

While we’re not insisting that you perform a peer-reviewed, double-blind study, we do have a few easy-to-execute tips that can help you more effectively measure whether or not a product makes a noticeable difference in your appearance.

A Scientific Approach to Testing Cosmetic Products

If you’re really interested in finding out whether a product works or not, here’s how to perform a more rigorous evaluation:

1. “Control” for Variations in Your Picture

Unless you’ve got several friends willing to stand by while you test a product, chances are that the results will be captured in a photograph. The problem? It’s really difficult to duplicate the exact lighting and exposure conditions of any pic! And, that’s not to mention possible daily changes in your complexion due to diet or sleep.

A simpler solution is to apply any given product to half of your face. Granted, this works better for products that are supposed to have an instant effect—like the aforementioned primer.

However, doing so does take some variables out of the equation, like if your skin is more clear one day versus another due to another product, or again, diet, sleep, or any other change. It’s only in a side-by-side comparison that you can be sure both examples are being judged equally.

2. Enlist a Friend or Two

When we shell out cash on a product, we can’t help but hope that it will work. This placebo effect makes it downright difficult to determine if something is making a genuine difference—or if we’re examining its effects through rose colored lenses.

One simple way to view whether or not a product is living up to its claims is to enlist a friend or two to try it at the same time. By seeing the product’s effects on different subjects, you’ll be able to more easily ascertain whether or not there’s a noticeable difference.

Of course, if you’re attempting to test a pore minimizing product, you’re not going to see a big difference should you enlist a porcelain-faced friend. However, with a little discretion, a second opinion can be invaluable before making a second purchase.

3. Eliminate “Application Bias”

“Application bias” sounds super scientific, but in the case of cosmetics, we literally mean a difference in how a product is applied to one side of your face versus the other.

That’s because each of us favors one hand over the other. In doing so, you might actually be skewing a product’s results simply in the way that you apply it! For example, most people who are practiced at applying makeup have one eye that turns out better than the other—due to a steadier hand.

Depending on the product that you’re testing out, you might consider having a second person apply it to your face. Granted, this can be more difficult if you’re testing a night cream that needs several weeks of application to assess. However, when considering a serum or foundation that promises immediate effects, it’s important to realize that we all favor one side of our face with a lighter touch.

4.“Blind” Your Study

A blind study means that test subjects don’t know whether or not they’re using Product A or Product B. This isn’t to be confused with a double-blind study, which means that researchers don’t know either.

While double-blind is the way to go in actual scientific assessment, it’s pretty impossible to do when applying your own products. However, that doesn’t leave you completely empty handed when looking for unbiased results.

Instead, apply the product that you’d like to test and snap a pic. Then, take another without. The trick is that, instead of labeling both pictures, share them with a friend (or audience, if you’re a beauty blogger!) and ask if they can tell the difference.

By keeping your friend or audience in the dark, you’ve avoided influencing their assessment and have a better chance at getting unbiased feedback of a product’s results.

Studies Should Be Blind, Not Shopping

Do you hope to reduce your wrinkles or plump up your pout? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with purchasing a product that promises results!

However, as we share in “How to Spot Deceptive Advertising Language,” nearly 80 percent of cosmetics brands have been caught red-handed making marketing promises of results that their products can’t muster.

Even when you have realistic expectations of a product’s results, such as the aforementioned primer, it’s still worth working through these steps to determine whether any given product is worth the price.

Remember, it’s a dog-eat-dog world for any consumer and it’s your job to protect your wallet. Again, we’re not saying that all skin care products are hogwash. However, when less really is more, save your complexion and your cash by sniffing our superfluous products with the help of a little scientific objectivity.

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Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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