Women are notoriously bad at diagnosing their own complexions. In fact, 26 percent of women in a recent survey admitted that they’ve broken out in a rash from a product that didn’t suit their skin type.
updated 2/27/2009 8:13:15 AM ET 2009-02-27T13:13:15

We have nothing against the hardworking people behind the cosmetics counter. When it’s time for a new eye shadow, we’re happy to loiter until the adviser wearing the thinnest coat of Spackle is free, buy one or two of her recommendations, and then skedaddle out of there before the hard sell really starts.

But skin care is another matter. It’s hard to be a trusting soul when someone who works on commission solemnly swears you need a $250 jar of cream. But that saleswoman probably has a better track record than most of us, since women are notoriously bad at diagnosing their own complexions.

“There are all sorts of factors that can confuse the issue: climate, your time of the month, products you’re using,” says New York City dermatologist Doris Day. “These variables can make the skin appear more dry or oily or sensitive than it really is — and using the wrong product can just make a problem worse.”

In fact, 26 percent of women in a recent Olay survey admitted that they’ve broken out in a rash from a product that didn’t suit their skin type.

To find out just how far off base we can get — and how much better our skin could be — Allure sent six women on an undercover shopping mission, then asked top dermatologists to review the recommendations. Here, a look at the good, the bad, and the likely-to-result-in-ugly.

Elizabeth Angell, 34, senior editor, Allure
Her self-diagnosis: Dry and sensitive, with occasional redness. “I’m fairskinned, so I worry about sun damage. I use a mild or a sensitive-skin cleanser every morning (if I wash too often, my face dries out) and a rich moisturizer, and I occasionally do a vitamin C peel when my skin looks dull. I think I may need to start an anti-aging regimen, and I’m wondering whether my sensitivity and dryness could mean bigger problems as my skin ages.”

What the saleswoman told her: “I explained to the woman at the Chanel counter at Macy’s in New York City that I was curious about anti-aging treatments. She said that my current cleanser is actually harsh, which surprised me, and instead recommended Chanel’s cleansing milk, which she said is less drying because it can be used without water. She also suggested a toner, a serum, a day cream, a night cream, and an eye cream from Chanel’s anti-aging Rectifiance Intense line, which she said is appropriate for sensitive skin.”

What the dermatologist says: “Elizabeth identified her skin type accurately — she has a dry, sensitive complexion with some scattered brown spots,” says New York City dermatologist Heidi Waldorf. “It’s good that she’s already using a heavy-duty moisturizer, but she needs to add a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 to her everyday routine. I like La Roche-Posay Anthelios SX SPF 15 moisturizer because it has both UVA and UVB protection. And I’d prefer she switch to a more hydrating cleanser like the Chanel one or CeraVe. Her biggest issue is that she really needs to start moisturizing at night. I’d suggest Olay Definity night cream, which contains niacinamide to help reduce redness, along with glucosamine for her hyperpigmentation. But Elizabeth should definitely skip the alcohol-based toner — it would be too drying.”

Jillian Mackenzie, 36, deputy editor, Allure
Her self-diagnosis: Combination/dry. “My forehead and cheeks are dry, but my nose gets oily. I wash with a cream cleanser once a day (any more often and I get flaky), and I exfoliate with a salicylic acid scrub two to three days a week, rubbing extra hard on my nose. To ward off wrinkles, I alternate different antioxidants, and I use night creams during the day because they’re much richer. My big question: Do I need different products on my nose than everywhere else?” Video: The science of skin

What the saleswoman told her: “The woman at the Estée Lauder counter at Bloomingdale’s in New York City recommended products for normal/combination skin: foaming cleanser, SPF 15 moisturizer, pore-minimizing serum, and hyaluronic acid serum to help with my wrinkles and dryness. She told me to apply everything everywhere, and to use one serum in the morning and the other at night. I asked if the products would be too oily on my nose or too drying on the rest of my face, but she didn’t really have much of an answer.”

What the dermatologist says: “Most people have combination skin, so usually the key to optimal results is treating different parts of the face differently,” says Day. “Jillian can continue to use her creamy cleanser, salicylic acid scrub, and antioxidant products — especially Prevage, which contains the excellent antioxidant idebenone — on her entire face. But I’d recommend adding a peasize dab of Renova every other night on her nose and forehead after rubbing moisturizer on her cheeks. I also suggested Jillian try a powder sunscreen, such as Colorescience Sunforgettable SPF 30, to minimize the appearance of her pores while she protects her skin.”

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Lacey Browne, 27, associate photo editor, Allure
Her self-diagnosis: Normal/oily. “I used to have bad acne and have been on various topical and oral prescription medicines for years. I’m now treating it with birth control pills and Spironolactone, a pill used to help breakouts caused by hormonal fluctuations. The combination works well. But now I don’t know whether to buy products for the acne I used to have or for my new, more normal skin. I use a cleanser for oily skin, an oil-free moisturizer, and a home microdermabrasion product once a week.”

What the saleswoman told her: “Vichy has counters at some Duane Reade drugstores in New York City that are similar to what you’d find in a department store. There, the saleswoman used a machine that magnified my skin on a computer screen. She said that my once oily skin is now normal/combination, then added that the lines around my mouth proved that my skin was very dehydrated.

Video: Nourishing your winter skin She also told me that I have something called reactive sensitivity, meaning my skin responds to environmental triggers by becoming red. This makes sunscreen especially important. She suggested I scale down my at-home microdermabrasion to only once a month and instead use Vichy’s exfoliating cream twice a week, which she said would be gentler. She also recommended their foaming cleanser, a hydrating serum for nighttime, and an SPF 15 moisturizer for day.”

What the dermatologist says: “In her head, Lacey is still an oily-skinned teenager, but skin changes over time — as do the appropriate treatments,” says Waldorf. “She has combination skin now. Her current cleanser is OK in the summer, but for winter, she needs a milder one like CeraVe or Cetaphil. My most pressing concern is that she’s not moisturizing at night. She should try moisturizer with retinol, like Neutrogena Ageless Intensives night cream, to help any residual acne, large pores, and early photoaging. I agree with the Vichy consultant that Lacey’s skin did appear dry in some areas, so for daytime, she might want to switch from her current moisturizer to the Vichy day cream, which is richer. In general, Lacey has to be more careful — if she strips away all the oil, her skin will become increasingly irritated.”

Erin Wilson, 30, online advertising executive
Her self-diagnosis: Combination. “My face is dry, and I have rosacea, eczema, and occasional pimples. I wash with the same salicylic acid acne cleanser I’ve used since sixth grade, and during the day I use Cetaphil Daily Moisturizer SPF 15 — it’s one of the few SPF formulas that doesn’t make me break out.”

What the saleswoman told her: “The Clinique adviser at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City recommended a cleanser and an oil-free moisturizer from the Redness Solutions line, designed to minimize flushing. Both felt cooling, which the saleswoman said would help my rosacea. She also recommended an SPF 40 sunscreen, adding that the SPF 15 I had been using was not enough.”

What the dermatologist says: “Erin’s main problem is actually her sensitive skin,” says Day. “She has some acne, and her eczema and rosacea are made worse by products that dry and break down the skin’s barrier, so I suggest products without fragrances, dyes, or potential for allergic reactions. A salicylic acid cleanser will help her breakouts and shouldn’t aggravate sensitive skin as long as she doesn’t use it every day in the winter. But she should switch to a 0.5 percent concentration of salicylic acid every other day or even once a week. All other times, I recommend a gentle cleanser like the Clinique one. Erin’s combination of acne and eczema warrants something stronger than OTC products. That’s why at night, she should first apply prescription EpiCeram, which will soothe her eczema by repairing her skin’s barrier, then a gentle prescription retinoid, such as Atralin. Follow that with a rich, creamy moisturizer on top.”

Mary-Katherine Ream, 22, recent college graduate
Her self-diagnosis: Changes seasonally/sensitive. “My skin turns warm and red when I use a new product, and it gets very dry when it’s cold and oily when it’s hot. Right now, I’m using a creamy cleanser, a rich moisturizing cream, and a firming eye cream to prevent wrinkles. Once a week, I do an exfoliating peel.”

What the saleswoman told her: “At the Lancôme counter at Macy’s in Chicago, the consultant demonstrated the Diagnôs Expert machine, which took close-up pictures of my face and gauged how my pore size, brown spots, oil production, fine lines, and firmness compared to that of other women my age. The machine said that I had very small pores, no sun spots, an oily T-zone, extremely oily cheeks — and the lines and wrinkles of a 37-year-old! I would’ve freaked out, but my consultant explained that my skin is dry and that’s why my wrinkles look worse. She recommended a deep-cleansing oil that she said wouldn’t upset my sensitive skin, an alcohol-free toner to reduce redness, an antioxidant serum, and a rich SPF 30 moisturizer with antioxidants to prevent further aging. She also suggested a home microdermabrasion kit, which she claimed would even out my skin tone and make my face glow.”

What the dermatologist says: “The fact that Mary-Katherine’s skin changes seasonally means she has to change her products accordingly,” says Waldorf. “I really like the Lancôme cleansing oil for winter and a milder cleanser like Cetaphil for the warmer months. It’s very important that any day cream she use contain sunscreen, especially since it looks like Mary-Katherine may have early rosacea. A product like Aveeno Ultra-Calming Daily Moisturizer SPF 15 will help even out her redness. I don’t think that she has the significant wrinkling that the Lancôme machine said she did, and I wouldn’t recommend a toner or a scrub, which could actually make her face more red.”

Serena Berra, 36, advertising brand planner
Her self-diagnosis: Sensitive with breakouts. “I’m allergic to the fragrance in many skin-care products, so I spend a lot of time in stores reading through all the ingredients. I’m amazed how many products are labeled ‘sensitive’ but still include a fragrance. I used to take Accutane for acne, and though it has mostly cleared up, I sometimes get breakouts, so I cleanse with a foaming wash and occasionally use a home alpha hydroxy acid peel. I also still have a lot of hyperpigmentation left over from previous acne.”

What the saleswoman told her: “I went to Sephora in New York City and told the skin-care expert that I like my cleanser but that it never quite gets all my makeup off, and she recommended a foaming cleanser from Cosmedicine. She suggested Ole Henriksen Skin Insulator SPF 15 moisturizer because it has sunscreen, and an Ole Henriksen pigment-lightening serum with vitamin C and mulberry to gently lighten my acne spots. She also led me to a Fresh clay mask, which she said would detoxify my skin — whatever that means — and an Ole Henriksen acne spot treatment that contains zinc instead of benzoyl peroxide, which she said was too drying for me. She really seemed to know what was fragrance-free and what wasn’t, and when she wasn’t positive, she offered to look up the products’ ingredients.”

What the dermatologist says: “Serena’s skin is probably not truly sensitive, but she does have a fragrance allergy that can leave it irritated,” says Day. “The allergy also makes it tough to treat her acne, scarring, and hyperpigmentation because the majority of products contain scented ingredients. Her current products are fine, but if she wants to combat breakouts and pigmentation more dramatically, I’d recommend applying prescription Tri-Luma every other night under her current moisturizer. Tri-Luma contains the pigment blocker hydroquinone, tretinoin to exfoliate, and a gentle cortisone to prevent irritation. Exfoliating with her home peel once a week will also keep her skin clear, and of course sun protection is key to keeping her hyperpigmentation from worsening. I liked the regimen Sephora recommended because it addresses both acne and excess oil. And the Skin Insulator’s grape-seed oil and vitamin C may help even out her skin tone and prevent future damage.”

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