Dec 8, 2021
Choosing the best beauty products from the 15,000-plus options that launched in the U.S. this year could be a daunting task. But ELLE’s beauty team was up to the challenge. We tested, re-tested—and then asked experts to test too—all in the name of compiling a comprehensive list of the year’s 44 best innovations. Try them and see what these pioneering problem-solvers can do for you.
Rapid Firming Peptide Contour Lift Cream
The micro-peptides in this new formula are two-and-a-half times smaller than anti-aging peptides in other leading skin-care products. Why does this matter? Improved and deeper absorption. “Products that penetrate the interface between epidermis and dermis are going to give you a better benefit,” says dermatologist Rosemarie Ingleton, MD. “You don’t produce collagen in the epidermis, you produce it in the dermis. So you need to get down there to stimulate the cells that make collagen.”
GrandeREVIVE Brightening Eye Cream with Wrinkle Defense
Since the pandemic, many of us have upped our screen time and exposure to blue light—and the latter, some doctors suggest, may contribute to accelerated skin aging. So applying a blue-light blocker, like Grande Cosmetics’s cream, which protects the eye area using active botanicals, may support better skin health. Says dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD: “While the data on blue light’s effect on the skin isn’t definitive yet, why not protect against potential damage?” Point taken.
Silymarin CF Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment
According to Ingleton, everybody can benefit from having skin-brightening vitamin C in their beauty product lineup. “But those with acne-prone skin are already likely using acne treatments, so it might be trickier to incorporate it into your routine because of potential irritation.” Instead, this featherweight serum offers the best of both worlds: a very stable form of vitamin C (l-ascorbic acid) and salicylic acid, the tried-and-true beta-hydroxy acid to help unclog pores. “It combines both of these ingredients safely, so it’s doing double duty in your skincare routine,” she adds.
My Period La Cure
“At the beginning of our period, testosterone and progesterone levels rise above our estrogens levels,” Elizabeth Houshmand, MD says. “This hormonal fluctuation can cause hormonal outbreaks.” This kit contains three different serums with ingredients like deep-cleaning Chilean mint and brightening sweet orange extract—divided into nine ampoules—that aim to support your skin as it changes. “This is a nice way to help rebalance your skin during your cycle.”
Watermelon Glow Hyaluronic Clay Pore-Tight Facial Mask
Clay masks have a reputation for being drying—so Korean beauty-inspired brand Glow Recipe found a way to infuse kaolin clay with hyaluronic acid to keep skin hydrated as pores are cleared. “The mask was easily absorbed into my skin and did not dry it out like some conventional clay masks,” says Houshmand, who applied the product to damp skin. “I like that it incorporates AHAs, one of my favorite ingredients to help brighten skin.”
Crepe Control Brightening & Firming Hand Cream
The skin on your hands is both thinner and has fewer oil glands than the rest of your body, which makes it extra vulnerable to dryness and irritation. Add to that the frequent hand washing we’ve all been doing and dermatologists say it’s no surprise they’ve seen an increase in patients with dyshidrosis (hand eczema) and xerosis (dryness). “Your hands are more prone [than other body parts] to dryness, irritation, and wrinkles,” says Engelman. That’s why you should reach for a supercharged formula like StriVectin’s, which has peptides to hydrate and fight signs of aging.
Abeille Royale Advanced Youth Watery Oil
This cult-classic treatment, which originally launched in 2013, got a makeover this year and now boasts four types of therapeutic honey sustainably harvested in locations around the globe. Why honey? It’s “naturally antiseptic, hydrating, pore refining, and radiance boosting,” says Engelman. Plus, she says, “this product is so lightweight, it’s almost deceptive that it’s an oil. It’s perfect for those who are oily or acne-prone but still want anti-aging benefits.”
Tolérance Control Soothing Skin Recovery Cream
Avène’s Tolérance Control was made for those with hyper-sensitive skin, and ingredients like the brand’s famed thermal spring water and postbiotics start soothing in 30 seconds. “It’s a great formula for those with irritated or compromised skin because it has soothing ingredients without irritating actives,” Ingleton says. And because there are no preservatives or parabens in the fragrance-free formula, the brand created breakthrough packaging to ensure each pump of the product stayed completely sterile. “The airless packaging is key for avoiding potential irritants,” Ingleton adds.
Milk Marvel Dark Spot Serum
“I love the application of this product,” says celebrity esthetician Sarah Ford, who describes a Goldilocks-like experience. “It’s not too thick, and not too oily. It’s perfect preventative serum for excess pigmentation in normal, sensitive, or acne-prone skin.” Founded by two friends and former Google employees, Eadem is made with Smart Melanin Beauty, a vetting system that has women of color (chemists, dermatologists, testers) weigh every step of the development to create beauty products that actually work.
Golden Rays Sunscreen
Four-time Grand Slam champion and mental health advocate Naomi Osaka also found the time this year to launch Kinló—a skincare line specifically formulated for melanin-rich skin. The mineral-based SPF looks to eliminate all the past complaints POCs have had about physical sunscreens. “It’s tinted in a shade that’s perfect for medium and dark skin tones, so it doesn’t leave a cast,” Avendaño says. “Instead, this blends into those skin tones and gives you a perfect glow.” For fairer complexions, think of this sunscreen as a block-and-bronzer duo: “Blend it evenly and very quickly to achieve a soft sunkissed effect.”
Universal Microbiome Barrier Balancing Cleanser
“Research has shown that there are differences in the microbiome of healthy skin and skin with conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis,” says Ingleton. Over-cleansing, aka getting that tight feeling post-wash, is a common way to disrupt microbiome, so select a formula with ingredients like vitamins and ceramides that nurture the skin’s beneficial flora and fauna. BeautyStat’s Balancing Cleanser has both in spades, plus silver, which eviscerates bad bacteria.
Capture Totale C.E.L.L. Energy Super Potent Eye Serum
The always-cool stainless steel applicator, which is the size of a fingertip with a gently wavy texture, makes it “super convenient” to apply the silky serum and score a lymphatic drainage massage, says Ford. “I’m super picky with serums,” she adds. “But the avena oak and rye seed extract in this serum make it super smooth. It starts off with a light feel, but provides deep hydration that works great for fine lines and wrinkles.”
Previous iterations of high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) treatments that you’d get at a doctor’s office (like the celebrity-loved Ultherapy) were notoriously painful. But Sofwave’s breakthrough technology delivers the same skin-tightening benefits in 45 minutes, with dramatically less pain. Yes, you’ll still want to use a numbing cream beforehand, but with basically no downtime and just a little redness, this is a major upgrade.
Hair loss—which can be triggered by hormonal changes, illness, or stress—has been a major topic inside dermatologists’ offices across America. Hydrafacial (known for its instant glow-inducing skin treatment) developed a scalp-only treatment to help temper the loss. The first step cleanses everything (think: dry shampoo, dandruff, and pollution); step two infuses a proprietary serum back into hair follicles. Bonus: you take the same serum home to continue the treatment.
Dr. Harris Anti-Wrinkle Sleep Mask
A sleep mask is no longer just a staple on a transatlantic flight. The Dr. Harris Sleep Mask is one you’ll want to wear every night, as it has been clinically proven to smooth wrinkles across the forehead and in the eye area. Created by London-based doctor Steve Harris, this innovative eye shield looks like your classic mask on the outside—but on the flip side (the part that touches your skin), there are 40 acupressure dots to help relax facial muscles and, in turn, minimize skin creasing. “The positioning makes sense from both an anatomical and a bio-feedback perspective,” Engelman says. “You can certainly see temporary improvements in wrinkling from the use of acupressure.”
Neo Small Applicators
A tummy tuck was once the only way to treat diastasis recti (DR), a separation of the abdominal muscles that can be caused by pregnancy. But Emsculpt Neo is now FDA-approved to treat DR non-invasively. Using radio frequency and high intensity focused electromagnetic energies, Neo “stimulates about 24,000 abdominal contractions, strengthening the muscles and closing the separation,” says plastic surgeon David Shafer, MD. In a clinical study, patients saw an average 19 percent improvement after four to six sessions.
“Blue light is a great preventative treatment for inflammation and acne,” Ford says. “I use it with the majority of my treatments and encourage my patients to also do it at home.” If targeted breakouts are your issue, this blue light therapy (which affixes to your face using a sticker) will kill the bacteria that causes acne. Average treatment time is 20 minutes per day.
Facial Sculpting Wand
Ford is known for her heavenly facial massages, and while nothing can replace human touch, she says the Facial Sculpting Wand is a viable way to give yourself an at-home lymphatic massage. It’s like a (gentle!) Theragun for your face, performing repetitive tapping motions as you drag it across the skin. The vibrations lead to better circulation and smoother skin.
Tattoo industry veterans and dermatologists collaborated to create Ephemeral’s magic ink, which has larger molecules than the permanent version, resulting in body art that will last between nine and 15 months. Currently there are bi-coastal shops, with more on the way, as well as pop-ups across the country.
This is the first-ever topical medication that inhibits the formation of janus kinase enzymes (JAK), and it’s been FDA-approved to treat eczema. “Studies have shown that eczema may be caused due to an increase in cytokines which are key for inflammation,” Houshmand says. “By closing off certain overactive pathways within cells, JAK inhibitors limit the cytokines that may trigger eczema and its symptoms.” She adds that it’s a great option for patients who haven’t had success with the other treatment modalities.
Unplugged Cordless Styler
Historically, travel-size cordless irons have offered convenience—but mediocre smoothing. The new GHD Unplugged cordless styler aims to change that. The tiny-but-mighty tool weighs about half a pound, fits snugly inside a purse, and has two sensors that help the plates stay at 365°F, a temperature that’s optimal for most hair types (and comparable to conventional irons). “Not being tethered to the wall makes styling so much more convenient,” says hairstylist Brittany Sullivan. “This will be incredible for busy people on the go.”
Super Anti-Aging Shampoo
A new shampoo from Dr. Barbara Sturm, the science-centric skin care brand, aims to slow aging in the hair follicles and delay the onset of grays with an antioxidant blend that includes cassia alata extract, a medicinal plant that’s been shown to stimulate melanin production in the follicle and help preserve the hair’s rich color. This bioactive botanical also “exhibits protective effects against premature aging in hair follicles and helps with scalp and hair rejuvenation,” says Houshmand.
Supersonic Flyaway Attachment
“I’ve never seen anything like this clever attachment,” says celebrity hairstylist Vernon François, who predicts that this new accessory for Dyson’s Supersonic dryer will make getting a glossy blowout even easier. Utilizing what’s called the Coanda effect, the tool works by gently lifting longer strands to the surface and pushing smaller, broken hairs underneath, out of sight. The result: a “smooth, salon finish that may negate the need for a flatiron,” François says.
Complete Instant Recovery Serum
Hemi-squalane, a smaller version of super-hydrating squalane, is the magic ingredient in Jonathan Van Ness’s new haircare line. Its selling point: the tinier molecule is able to penetrate deeper into strands, resulting in more immediate repair and hydration. “The texture surprised me because it’s more of a cream [than a serum]” says Sullivan. “But [despite the creamy consistency] my hair didn’t feel weighed down or greasy.”
Monochromes Essential Eyeshadow Trio
File this under “a product you didn’t know you needed—but won’t want to live without.” Monochromes, 10 new eye shadow palettes that each feature a single color in a matte, satin, and metallic finish, will help condense your color options to just the one you wear most. The result is less waste and easier everyday application. “In the land of 400 colors to a palette, people are craving some editing,” says makeup artist and Beauty Is Boring founder Robin Black. “Plus, you can’t screw these up… these are like no-brainer eye shadows.”
Glow On Highlighting Blush
The Lip Bar took a scientific approach to creating its new blushes, studying the diverse skin tones of about 100 women before designing three shades it deemed universally flattering: Pinch Me (pink), Outspoken (coral), and Top Shelf (deep red). Each is a color-plus-highlighter hybrid, providing a buildable flush with subtle iridescence. And experts attest to its natural result: “This blends seamlessly and has a silky finish that melts into skin,” says celebrity makeup artist Misha Shahzada.
Confession Lipstick Red 0
An iconic red lip has been tough to achieve for vegans: Many red lipsticks depend on carmine, a pigment made from crushed female insects. “Red O,” a pigment Hourglass created in partnership with Unilever Research & Development, is a carmine replacement that delivers a rich vibrancy other vegan alternatives haven’t been able to achieve. “This red is divine and would look great on all complexions,” says celebrity makeup artist Allan Avendaño.
Lash Sensational Sky High Washable Mascara
This mascara was one of Maybelline’s most popular products this year, largely due to its catchy, viral TikTok campaign. But the bamboo extract and lengthening formula is worthy of accolades, too. “The formula is so light that you’d never know it’s filled with fibers,” says celebrity makeup artist William Scott. “If I’m really going for length, I’ll pull one or two coats through the lashes, then do a final coat on just the tips to add extra length.”
Rouge Sur Mesure
Choose from pre-set shades—or snap a photo of your OOTD, then use this tool to create a single dose of lip color to match or complement it. The YSL device uses artificial intelligence technology to communicate with the Rouge Sur Mesure app on your smartphone, creating a wide array of lip color choices (more than a thousand, to be exact). “I love that this device allows you to act as your own chemist,” says celebrity makeup artist Katie Jane Hughes.
Sunforgettable Total Protection Face Shield Flex
This SPF has a magic trick inside the turquoise bottle. “The sunscreen comes out of the tube [as] a bright white, but with some gentle blending, encapsulated pigments transform it into your skin tone!” Black says. “It’s fun to apply and the coverage is similar to a BB Cream.” The mineral-based protection comes in four forgivable shades but hopefully will expand to even more soon.
IntensifEYES Artistry Wand
It’s a backstage beauty secret that the mixing medium Mehron is the secret to bold eyeshadow. But this year, makeup artist Pat McGrath created her own version: a concentrated solid in a wand that’s less mess and super simple to apply, even for non-pros. “The shape of the pen makes it easy to get into areas like the inner corner of the eyes and make that area pop,” says Avendaño, who uses then wand as the primer before adding the shadow or highlight on top. “It also makes creating an ombré look easier!”
Infinite Chrome Flakes
Black calls these shadow toppers “innovative, sensorial, and high performing.” There are nine different shades of the chromatic flakes (which come in a gel)—from the golden Fireball to the bright turquoise Moonlight. Black suggests using your fingers to tap the shadow onto bare skin. This drop has perfect timing, too, with season two of our favorite makeup inspo show, Euphoria, returning to TV.
Fractal Glitter Eye Paint
Instead of traditional glitter (which has been proven time and time again to be harmful to the environment), About-face formulated its Fractal eyeshadows with natural mica pearls. The thick creams have “tons of shimmer” and last for a long time, Black says. The packaging is fun, too. “I’ve never seen liquid eyeshadow in a pouch,” she adds.
Pop Reds Lipstick Collection
The concept of monochromatic beauty looks—aka using the same shade on your lips and cheeks—isn’t new, but Clinique nailed both the formula and the color selection with its Pop Reds collection. It’s a high-shine formula; try patting it onto the apples of your cheeks for a glossy, flushed look, then dab on the lips for a matching tint. Feeling daring? Swipe directly on lips for a more intense color payoff. The beauty brand has even adapted its beauty counter for the virtual world. “I was skeptical about the Clinique Shade Match Science, but it’s worth using the online tool,” Black says. “The color matching was surprisingly accurate for my skin tone.”
Cosmic Pearl Dewy Eyeshadow
The bi-phase formula in this shadow uses “water break” technology, traditionally seen in skincare, to improve the application and hold shimmer in place. “The shadows are so smooth and glide on perfectly without fallout,” says Avendaño, who likes to use his fingers for a sheer glow, or a wet brush to totally amplify the shine.
The mission behind Diarrha Ndiaye’s clean beauty brand Ami Colé (inspired by her Sengalese roots) was to create options for those who wanted a natural, no-makeup look on melanin-rich skin. In the first drop, which came out in May 2021, the hero product was the Skin Enhancing Tint. This lightweight fluid contains baobab seed extract, hibiscus flower, and pumpkin seed extract to nourish the skin, plus it comes in six shades to seamlessly cover a range of medium to rich skin tones. “This reminds me of a tinted moisturizer I was obsessed with in the late ’90s or early 2000s that was discontinued—it’s great for those who don’t want a lot of coverage but want a soft blurring,” Avendaño says.
Luxury Fragrance Collection
All eight scents in Estée Lauder’s new collection contain the innovative ScentCapture Fragrance Extender, which releases fragrance molecules slowly, over time, using a controlled delivery system. This enables the scent to linger on the skin for up to 12 hours (many traditional scents tap out at about six hours). “Since consumers are focused on how long a fragrance lasts,” says Linda G. Levy, president of the Fragrance Foundation, “this is a smart breakthrough.”
Lash & Brow Masque
Lash extensions can make daily grooming easier, but they can also inflict damage on fragile hair. RevitaLash’s treatment was created to counteract that. The nourishing formula delivers strengthening ingredients to repair delicate lashes and brow hair, as well as antioxidants to help prevent future damage. Lash extension expert Dionne Phillips says there’s a clear need for this type of product. “I tell my clients to take periodic breaks from extensions, and I’d suggest they use something like this during that break.”
Everything about this body wash—from the thin soap sheet to the exterior packaging—completely dissolves in the shower with you. Once you hop in the stall and are ready to wash, tear open the sachet and wet the soap sheet. It’ll transform into suds while your outer packaging melts down the drain, helping keep both you and the planet clean.
To celebrate the launch of their Allegra fragrance collection earlier this year, Bulgari reimagined its chic Shelley scarf in a new high-tech silk that absorbs fragrance molecules, holding onto scent longer. There are five designs (each corresponds with a different Allegra fragrance) that all encompass a different bella vita. “Transforming an accessory into a fragrance extender is genius,” says Levy. “Some people don’t want to have the scent directly on their skin, but still want a perfume. And the fragrances themselves are absolutely beautiful.”
Post-Wax Calming Masks
Not only can getting waxed be uncomfortable physically—it can also irritate your skin. “You want to hydrate and calm the skin after putting it through a waxing,” Engelman says. This pouch has four hydrogel rectangle strips (they look similar to the ones used during a hair removal treatment) drenched in skin-soothing ingredients, including chamomile, aloe, and cucumber. It feels amazing on the skin (even better if you stick in the fridge before) and can even help with preventing ingrown hair, too.
Rose Load Genderful Fine Fragrance
“Traditionally, fragrances were thought of as either made for a man or a woman,” Levy shares. “But the breakthrough with Boy Smells is the way the collection was presented. It’s not genderless, which can have a negative connotation. It’s ‘genderfull.’” Co-founders Matthew Herman and David Kien expanded the boundaries of fragrance even further by cheekily naming the five-piece lineup “cologne de parfums.” Each fragrance takes your nose on an unexpected scent journey; try Rose Load, which combines rose petals with raspberry, papyrus, and dark wood.
“Natural is not always better than synthetic when it comes to creating a fragrance,” says Levy. That’s why Ex Nihilo’s new synthetic ingredient, a bio-science molecule named Akigalawood that smells both woodsy and gingery, is a sustainable alternative to patchouli. Also, like most synthetics, Akigalawood is hypoallergenic. While it’s made in a lab, the allure of the scent is still very real—wild, sexy, and green.
DRx SpectraLite BodyWare Pro
Dennis Gross’s FaceWare device is one of the most popular (and Instagrammable) masks on the market—and this year the brand launched a component for the body. “This flexible device offers three different wavelengths of light,” Houshmand says. “Red stimulates collagen production, blue destroys acne-causing bacteria, and purple combines the two. I like that it bends easily so it can be used on multiple areas of the body, like the chest, back, neck, arms or legs.”
Future of Beauty Judges
This year’s judging panel featured three dermatologists, a plastic surgeon, five makeup artists, two hairstylists, a fragrance expert, and a lash extension specialist. The judges were selected for their expertise and impartiality.
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