I’ll admit it: I’m obsessed with stunning beauty product packaging. It started with my grandmother, who had a mirrored vanity tray of crystal-cut perfume bottles and gorgeous pink jars in the bathroom. The charming tableau inspired my own vanity: I scour store shelves and zero in on the prettiest products to complement my countertop. Of course, I check the label to make sure that they have the ingredients I’m looking for, but beyond that, the only thing I’m pondering is how to place it just so to create an Instagram®-worthy display.
Recently, I veered from my usual aesthetic and bought a serious, pure vitamin C cream in a utilitarian, nondescript tube. Thanks to a note on the box, I learned that this more practical-looking package was doing me a very good service — keeping oxygen and light out to prevent the main ingredient inside from degrading. (Learn more about vitamin C here.) Armed with that new knowledge, it started to make me rethink all those alluring vessels lining my vanity. Were my skincare ingredients silently slipping away in a non-airtight package and consequently, not delivering the best results they could to my complexion?
Unfortunately, yes, says Dr. Matthew Lin, Director of Dermatology at Mount Sinai® in New York City. “Every time you open a jar, bottle, or tube, the formula is exposed to oxygen and light, which reduces the ingredient potency and shelf-life,” he explains. “It’s crucial that the packaging is preventative, making sure the formula in it remains airtight, light-proof, and cool.” A handful of ingredients (such as the aforementioned vitamin C) are actually so unstable that light exposure causes them to deteriorate. Others aren’t so fragile, but still need airtight packaging to prevent degradation.
The good news: you don’t have to give up pretty packaging in order to get the maximum benefits (and your money’s worth) from what’s inside. There are plenty of attractive functional bottles, tubes, and jars — proving pretty and practical do exist. Keep reading to learn all about some of the most popular active ingredients and how they can change, the key packaging properties to look for when choosing skincare, plus product suggestions.
The ingredient: Vitamin C
What happens to it: Oxygen is the main culprit in disrupting C, so airtight packaging is a must. You should also make sure that the opening of the container is small, like a nozzle or pump. “Compared to other ingredients, Vitamin C is the quickest to lose potency,” explains Brookline, Massachusetts-based dermatologist Dr. Papri Sarkar. “It needs to have the right pH to work effectively and unless it’s in the right container, it will change from light and air exposure.” She adds that those beautiful, clear-bottled formulas on the shelves may look nice, but the formula has likely already been broken down by light coming through the glass. This will cause it to be less effective, so it’s best to pass over those products.
The product pick: Pure vitamin C is at its best when it’s packaged in a tube or pump, not a jar, says Dr. Sarkar. L’Oréal® Revitalift Derm Intensives® 10% Pure Vitamin C Serum ($30) is a waterless cream that’s produced in a controlled environment to reduce oxygen exposure. It’s then enclosed in an airtight, opaque metal tube. The slim nozzle opening won’t let air or light in, so the formula is preserved until you’ve used it up.
The ingredient: Retinol
What happens to it: Retinol is like the vampire of skincare: It stays strong only in the dark. “It’s extremely sensitive to light and oxygen, as well as heat, so it needs to be treated with extra care,” says Dr. Lin. He suggests a dark airless pump or tube (you’ll notice many formulas are housed in navy or black containers), plus keeping it in a cool, dim space for extra light protection. If you suspect it’s been oxidized, check out the color and smell, says Dr. Lin. “If it feels different to you, then it may have lost some of its power.”
[Editor's note: Retinol shouldn't be used by those who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.]
The product pick: Dr. Lin says his patients swear by the Elizabeth Arden® Retinol Ceramide Capsule Line Erasing Night Serum ($84). Because each single-use ampoule keeps air and light out, it’s seriously potent. Plus, it ensures you’re getting the right dose, so you’ll get the maximum benefits without the irritation that comes from using too much retinol. Bonus: the capsules are super TSA-friendly, so there’s no worry about exposure or waste while traveling.
The ingredient: Peptides
What happens to it: “There are so many different types of peptide ingredients, that it’s hard to know how stable the ingredient is in the formula,” warns Dr. Sarkar. However, to be safe, she recommends that you buy something in an airtight package. Avoid jars, which will expose the formula to more air and light than a tube or pump. If it’s an all-natural formula with little to no preservatives, be sure the container isn’t clear. Light can get it into clear packaging, causing it will decompose more quickly than one with preservatives that extend the shelf life, she adds.
The product pick: Paula’s Choice® Peptide Booster ($52) is housed in a white, opaque bottle with an airtight dropper dispenser, so there’s little room for exposure. You can use it alone or mix it with your favorite serum or moisturizer for a boost, and be assured the actives are always fresh and potent.
The ingredient: Glycolic Acid
What happens to it: Unlike other actives, glycolic doesn’t dissipate when exposed to air — it gets stronger, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. “When the air hits a glycolic formula, the water it’s made with can evaporate, making the product more concentrated and, therefore, more irritating,” says Dr. Sarkar. However, most of this evaporation is due to user error: “Most of the time, a formula dries out not from the packaging, but forgetting to put the lid back on tightly,” she warns. A jar or dropper bottle is fine for keeping the product at its best, but make sure to close it up after each use.
The product pick: An individually-wrapped, glycolic acid-soaked pad is ideal because there’s no air exposure — or need to remember to tighten up a canister lid. Dr. Dennis Gross® Alpha Beta® Universal Daily Peel ($88) is a two-step daily peel with a combination of glycolic and other exfoliating alpha-hydroxy acids to reveal a brighter-looking complexion. The packaging is petite enough to stash in an interior pocket of a bag, and once you’ve swiped the individual-use pads across your face, you can throw them out.
The ingredient: Antioxidant Blends
What happens to them: Since most blends work synergistically, you’ll often see vitamin C on the ingredient label. These other antioxidants like vitamin E and ferulic acid have been shown to help vitamin C remain stable and increase its efficacy eight-fold, says Dr. Sarkar. Still, keeping air and light out will maintain the life expectancy of the product. For a serum, look for a light-shielding bottle with a dropper since it dispenses an exact dose that doesn’t get exposed to light and air.
The product pick: Skinceuticals® C E Ferulic® With 15% L-Ascorbic Acid ($166) has a clinical exterior that means serious business inside. The brown bottle guards against any scrap of light from coming in, and the concentrated dropper dose draws up the formula without any oxygen contact. But that’s not why this is a popular product: The patented antioxidant ingredients give maximum protection against environmental damage from free radicals and brighter, glowing skin.
Some complimentary products were provided to the author for the purpose of writing this article.
Product prices may vary from the time this article was written.
Allergan® may receive commissions for purchases made through links in this article.