How We Picked the Winners for our 2021 Healthy Beauty Awards

How We Picked the Winners for our 2021 Healthy Beauty Awards

by Sue Jones
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Our 2021 SELF Healthy Beauty Awards are here, and we’re so thrilled to share them with you. Each year we take time to select the best, most useful, and most effective products across skin care, hair care, body care, and cosmetics. For this year’s awards, we’re proud to announce a whole new category: Meet oral care—the place where beauty and health truly intersect. We’ve also dedicated an entire gallery to the best SPF products for the first time ever and rounded up all of our drugstore winners in a single spot for you too. (Because who doesn’t love a good drugstore buy?)

One thing we love about the Healthy Beauty Awards is that it brings awareness of our favorite new products and brands to our readers. Similarly, supporting and promoting products from companies owned by people of color is one small way we hope to use our platform to advance the cause of racial justice and equality. To understand where we can improve in this mission, we implemented a diversity audit into our process last year.

During that audit we found that only a small percentage of brands that submitted products in 2020 were owned by Black people or non-Black people of color. So for 2021, we wanted to make sure that we were more intentional about bringing awareness to our submissions process and more proactive about reaching out to POC-owned companies. This led to an increase in submissions from Black-owned and other POC-owned companies, and an increase in the percentage of winners from Black- and POC-owned companies as well. We’ll continue to track our data and dedicate resources to proactive outreach in subsequent years.

Onto the winners: The 2021 Healthy Beauty Awards truly have something for everyone. Maybe you’re feeling anxious about reentering the world. Or maybe you’re eager and excited without a hint of fear. No matter which way you swing, we’d venture to bet that taking care of yourself physically—feeling your best both inside and out-—is something that might make your days a little bit brighter. Whether you’re craving a new look for long-awaited nights out with friends or have fully embraced your inner introvert with stay-at-home spa nights, we hope there is something in here that will help you feel better, whatever that means for you.

How We Chose the Winners

We used the below criteria—updated in 2021 with our dermatologist-and-dentist board—to sort through the thousands of product submissions we received. That way, we determined which products would advance into the testing phase of our Healthy Beauty Awards process.

Next, 65 judges with different skin types, hair types, skin conditions, and skin concerns spent almost two months testing the products we selected for them. Testers wrote thorough reviews of each product, ranking them on a scale of 1 to 10 and providing written feedback that walked us through every inch of their experience. Reviews discussed everything from a product’s packaging to the way the items smelled and felt, and of course, whether it really, truly worked.

Finally, SELF editors looked at each review, considering a product’s average score along with the written feedback to select our winners. When our testers’ experiences of the same product greatly varied—which happened on occasion—we referred to our expert guidelines to determine which product met the mark best.

What the Experts Said

We consulted with four dermatologists and one dentist to get their science-backed advice on what people with different skin types, skin concerns, hair types, and oral health concerns should look for in products. Below, you’ll find a general summary of the information they shared, which we used to guide how we selected products to both test and win.

Though the advice here may be useful for many, you may find that some of these ingredients or suggestions don’t work for you. If you’re struggling to figure out what makes your skin and hair happy, consider seeing a dermatologist who can provide individualized advice. And if you’re experiencing concerning teeth, gum, or tongue symptoms, like pain or unusual discoloration, see a dentist.

Skin Care and Makeup for Dry Skin

Dry skin is skin that is not getting enough moisture or not able to keep hydration. Dry skin is caused by an impaired skin barrier and dysfunction or deficiency in the necessary healthy fats in the top layer of the skin (cholesterol, fatty acids, and ceramides), which are essential to normal skin function. Since the protective lipid layer is responsible for keeping moisture in and bacteria and irritants out, dry skin often presents with redness, flaking, itching.

That means that you’ll want to gravitate toward 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.

Because dry skin can be acne-prone, make sure those thick moisturizers aren’t also 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 some occlusive oils, including coconut oil, as well as any product that feels too occlusive on the skin.

Ingredients to 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), which have both exfoliating and hydrating properties.
  • If you want to use retinoids like retinol and adapalene but find that they are too harsh, try bakuchiol or another plant-based retinol, an alternative that is gentler but doesn’t have as much conclusive research behind it. Alternatively, sandwich your retinol between two layers of moisturizer to avoid irritation.
  • Soothing ingredients like aloe and oatmeal may be helpful when your dry skin is irritated. Niacinamide, or vitamin B3, is another great ingredient for those with dry skin—it is a powerful antioxidant that can help reduce hyperpigmentation and discoloration, minimize redness, and enhance hydration.

Ingredients to 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 sensitive side, you may want to avoid fragrances and alcohol.

Skin Care and Makeup for Combination Skin

Combination skin is, admittedly, a little bit tricky. Those with combination skin have patches of skin that tend 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. For instance, you may want to use drying chemical exfoliants at night followed by a creamy, hydrating cleanser in the morning.

Ingredients to look for:

  • Light hydrating ingredients, like hyaluronic acid and glycerin, as well as chemical exfoliants and retinoids. The key is maintaining a good balance.

Ingredients to 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. Eyelid skin and the skin around your mouth are particularly sensitive areas. If you find that products frequently irritate your skin, 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, fragrance-free 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. Try patch testing a small amount of product just behind your ear before applying it to your entire face.

Ingredients to 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 alpha-hydroxy-acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy-acids (BHAs)—are often 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.
  • Niacinamide can be anti-inflammatory and reduce redness.
  • In general, our panel also recommended that those with sensitive skin opt for mineral sunscreen ingredients. Mineral sunscreens—also called physical blockers—contain ingredients like titanium oxide or zinc oxide that shield skin from the sun with an umbrella-type effect. Chemical sunscreen, on the other hand, contain active agents that absorb and change UV rays before they hit your skin. Some ingredients in chemical sunscreen may be triggering to those with sensitive or easily irritated skin.

Ingredients to 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

Skin that produces an excess of oil (sebum) may feel greasy. Extra sebum frequently contributes to the formation of acne, so oily skin is also often acne-prone. That oil also provides a bit of a buffer that makes it easier to withstand more intense exfoliating and retinoid products. Don’t forget to see a dermatologist for evaluation if your pimples are cystic and need more treatment beyond over-the-counter products.

Ingredients to look for:

  • Chemical exfoliating ingredients such as lactic acid, as well as physical exfoliants. Acne-fighting ingredients including azelaic acid and retinoids. Look for a cleanser that contains acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, or benzoyl peroxide.
  • Opt for lighter moisturizers that are less likely to contain pore-clogging ingredients or even light hydrating serums containing hyaluronic acid.
  • 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, tranexamic acid, licorice, niacinamide, 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.
  • Oily skin can still use oils. Look for lightweight oils like jojoba oil, which is fast-absorbing and most resembles the skin’s natural sebum. Grapeseed oil is a natural astringent with antibacterial properties. Also try rosehip oil, often referred to as a “dry oil” because it’s lightweight and fast-absorbing.

Ingredients to avoid:

  • Ingredients that may be comedogenic, like vitamin E and some occlusive oils, including coconut oil.

Skin Care and Makeup for Signs of Aging

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 keep your skin as healthy as possible, you should look for a combination of hydrating products and those with proven benefits.

It’s important to remember that the best thing you can do to reduce or slow signs of aging is to wear a broad spectrum SPF daily. To be most effective, sunscreen should always be applied as the final step in your skin-care routine.

Ingredients to look for:

  • Retinoids and antioxidants will together help hydrate and reduce signs of aging.
  • Humectant ingredients (ingredients that help you retain moisture, like hyaluronic acid and glycerin), ceramides, peptides, and antioxidants like vitamin C and resveratrol are a great place to start.

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 existing spots from getting darker.

Ingredients to look for:

  • Chemical exfoliants including AHAs (glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid) and BHAs (salicylic acid).
  • Brightening ingredients like retinoids, vitamin C, hydroquinone, kojic acid, niacinamide, soy, licorice root, arbutin, and tranexamic acid.
  • Retinols or retinoids can also help with skin cell turnover and lifting pigment.
  • 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

If you have fine and thinning hair that you want to look fuller, those results often come 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 hairstyles 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 that are often used together for the best results.

Ingredients to look for:

  • Silicones (such as silica), hydrolized keratin, and minoxidil. The label may say words like volumizing, thickening, and sulfate-free.

Ingredients to 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.

Those with natural hair should avoid washing it too frequently, as this can dry out the hair and cause damage. Washing 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, and 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. 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 may be linked to hormone changes and health problems like asthma. But, as SELF explained previously, the research isn’t conclusive at this point on whether or not these ingredients actually directly cause health issues. 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!

Ingredients to 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 hair strong and give kinky, wavy, or curly hair more definition, 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.
  • Because 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.

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.

Ingredients to 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.

Ingredients to avoid:

  • 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, and getting tight braids, extensions, weaves, or perms. If you have natural hair, our experts say a hair oil may come in especially handy here.

Ingredients to look for:

  • Silicones (including dimethicone) to plump the hair, hydrolized keratin (especially if your hair is also thinning), and argan oil, jojoba oil, avocado oil, shea butter, and (for some) olive oil.

Ingredients to 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 contain allergens, so if you find that you’re experiencing a bad reaction, talk to a dermatologist.

Best Practices for Oral Care

A baseline oral health care practice should involve brushing your teeth twice daily and flossing at least once daily. Adding in mouthwash is optional, and should not be substituted for brushing or flossing as it doesn’t have a comparable effect on removing bacteria from your teeth and gums.

When it comes to using a manual toothbrush, a soft nylon brush tends to work best for most gum and teeth types. Toothbrushes are sold with different degrees of softness, so if you know your teeth and gums are more sensitive, you can look for a brush that is labeled as having very soft bristles.

How you brush your teeth—and how often you brush them—has a larger impact on your oral health than the brush itself. With a manual toothbrush, you should always brush teeth in a circular motion, versus a motion where you scrub horizontally back and forth.

An electric toothbrush will almost always be more effective than a manual brush, as the brushing motion and speed is quicker and more consistent. Budget-friendly electric toothbrushes can still be extremely effective—you don’t need all the bells and whistles to find an electric toothbrush that does the trick. If you have issues with dexterity, look for an electric brush with a smaller brush head. To brush with an electric toothbrush, glide the brush over all surface areas of your teeth, taking around 30 seconds for each quadrant of your mouth. You don’t need to brush or scrub along with the electric brush.

The only surefire way to remove bacteria and food from between your teeth is by scraping up and down between them with floss. Traditional string floss is the most effective here. Water flossers shoot water between and around the teeth but don’t have the same mechanical action of scraping off bacteria. That being said, it is better to use a water flosser than to skip flossing altogether. Water flossers can also be extremely useful for people with braces, bridges, or other orthodontia.

If the contacts, or spaces between your teeth, are tight together, you may want to opt for a wax floss as it’s slightly more lubricated than non-waxed floss.

Oral Care for Sensitive Teeth and Gums

Sensitivity in teeth and gums can cause a burning or extended tingling sensation. Sensitive gums may be inflamed, swollen, or redder than usual. You may notice signs of sensitivity after eating foods that are particularly cold or hot, or after using certain mouthwashes and toothpastes. There are times when some moderate sensitivity is normal, like in the few seconds after rinsing out a mouthwash or flossing. But if that feeling extends for longer—even hours—or your gum tissue has a lingering soreness, you may be dealing with more intense sensitivity. If you ever experience extreme oral pain or discomfort, or if something with your teeth, tongue, or gums seems off for you, see a dentist immediately.

If your teeth are feeling sensitive, especially after being triggered by something like an at-home whitening treatment or a certain food or drink, rub a pea-size amount of sensitive teeth-friendly toothpaste on your teeth before bed. You can do this nightly for seven to 10 days. If you’re experiencing painful or uncomfortable prolonged sensitivity, see your dentist.

Ingredients to look for:

  • Fluoride will help strengthen teeth and combat sensitivity. While anyone can benefit from fluoride, it’s especially helpful for people who are prone to cavities or are looking to prevent them. You can find both toothpastes and mouthwashes that contain fluoride.
  • Potassium nitrate can help counteract sensitivity, especially when it’s included as an additive in whitening products.

Ingredients to avoid:

  • If you’re prone to canker sores (also known as stomatitis), avoid sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS, a chemical compound that acts as a foaming agent in mouthwash and toothpastes.
  • You may want to avoid mouthwashes that contain alcohol. Alcohol is included in some mouthwashes in order to break down the essential oils in the solution and can be especially irritating for people who live with dry mouth, as it further increases dryness.
  • Opt for mouthwashes that do not contain peroxide. Peroxide works to gently erode your enamel, which is helpful for removing surface stains. However, it can also be inflammatory for people with sensitive teeth.

Oral Care for Teeth-Whitening

While whitening mouthwashes and toothpastes can be somewhat helpful for surface stains on teeth—like those you might have from drinking coffee—their effectiveness pales in comparison to a true whitening treatment done either at home or in a dentist’s office. That’s because the contact time between the whitening agent and your teeth is usually too short for your teeth to respond to the active ingredients.

What makes a whitening treatment effective will depend on a few variables, like concentration of bleach, intensity of the LED light being used (if applicable), and the delivery system (how the light and bleach are being delivered to teeth). LED whitening treatments work by using blue light to speed up the chemical reaction between the whitening agent, usually hydrogen peroxide, and your teeth. Most LED at-home whitening treatments are not strong enough to cause damage when used as directed, though they may cause sensitivity.

If you have sensitive teeth but still want to try an at-home whitening treatment, apply a toothpaste formulated for sensitive teeth to your teeth at the same time as the whitening agent. It shouldn’t affect whitening results and can help soothe irritated teeth and gums.

Ingredients to look for:

  • In mouthwash, look for peroxide, hydrogen peroxide, or another peroxide derivative.
  • Whitening toothpastes often use special abrasives that gently polish the teeth and chemicals that help break down or dissolve stains. Look for mentions of silica, pyrophosphates, carbamide peroxide, or hydrogen peroxide.

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