Fancy Face Creams, Made by Dermatologists, for Your Skin Only

The next big thing in self-care is a mail-order skin treatment routine chemically designed just for you, your skin, and its environment

Fancy Face Creams, Made by Dermatologists, for Your Skin Only
Fancy Face Creams, Made by Dermatologists, for Your Skin Only

Here are the primary obstacles to figuring out the best skin care regimen for yourself:

It’s hard for you, as a layperson, to know what products and ingredients are best.

Plus, there are many variables that influence your skin’s health, from diet to water quality, and mass products aren’t tailored to these precise things anyway.

And yet, dermatologists are expensive and can be intimidating.

The newest idea in mail-order beauty tries to address all these problems in a fresh way: A pair of startups offers consumers the ability to complete a digital skin care quiz, then consult with a dermatologist before receiving a customized regimen. It’s not that the doctors choose products that will work for you—the brand custom makes them for you, with ingredients added ad hoc like a smoothie. So, if signs of aging are your main concern, they’ll up the dosage of retinoids to reverse and prevent wrinkles, fine lines, sun spots, and acne. Or, if your skin is hypersensitive and irritable, the algorithm pries for specifics: This tells the doctor which ingredients to prescribe in your skin care cocktail.

Two companies have taken the lead out of the gate: Curology, co-founded and helmed by Dr. David Lortscher, has raised $18.8 million from firms such as Forerunner Ventures, Sherpa Capital, 137 Ventures, and Advance Venture Partners. Lortscher’s aim was to create a business that cut big pharma markups and eliminated economic barriers to highly effective ingredients like prescription-only tretinoin (a type of age-reversing retinol). Curology’s two-month skin care sets—with a cleanser, moisturizer, and custom night cream—start at $60, or you can opt just for the custom cream for $20 per month.

There’s also Proven, which has raised $150,000 in seed funding this year, and is backed by Y Combinator, Social Capital, Soma Capital, and more. Co-founders Ming Zhao and Amy Yuan first built a proprietary skin care database that encompasses more than 4,000 research articles and 8 million-plus consumer reviews on over 100,000 beauty products, and 20,000 ingredients. This database, the Skin Genome Project, is the foundation of Proven’s AI-fueled questionnaire. Proven’s two-month skin care sets cost $145 and include three custom products (cleanser, moisturizer, and night cream).

Customised beauty isn’t exactly new: Birchbox has been tailoring sample-packed hair and skin care assortments for eight years, allowing consumers to test products that fit their profile. More recently, companies such as Hims and Hers, as well as Keeps, connect customers with doctors online to prescribe pills and creams for hair retention, wrinkle reversal, and even a sex-drive boost.

But these new programs offer a simplified, long-term personal solution I wanted to try out. With five-plus years covering skin care (half of them with Birchbox), I tested both brands for a month each—from questionnaire to product application. The two take slightly different approaches to the same end: Curology asks the top-level questions about sensitivity, aging, breakouts, and oil production, and then hands your results to a dermatologist to scrutinize and sign off.

Proven, the more expensive of the two, dives deeper, so you need to be tuned in to your flare-ups, sun exposure, diet, stress level, and even air travel. It then factors in your city’s weather patterns, water hardness, and more, before handing results to the dermatologist. With both services, you must upload well-lit photos of your face, so the doctor can further assess any conditions. You’ll get a summary of the ingredients that will be used in your product assortment, which includes a daytime moisturizer, daily cleanser, and corrective night cream.

My profile is standard for a 30-something: wrinkles, fine lines, mild acne, rough skin, moderate sun exposure. I have combination skin, which means I have an oily forehead, chin, and nose, and dry cheeks. I have been six months without using any retinol products, which is to say that my skin could be sensitive to it, which I knew to watch for in trials.

The cornerstone product in both services is the night cream, since the body heals and regenerates while you sleep. This is when those corrective ingredients matter most. Here then are the key ingredients that comprised my customized night-cream formula from each brand.