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Ask the Doc: What is the difference between a moisturizer, primer and BB cream?

04-29-12 Woman applying lotion to her face

With most brands’ skincare systems averaging at least a trio of products, you may wonder if it’s even possible to have a wash-and-go face these days. After a recent late-night outing, I came home to commit the cardinal skincare sin – hitting the sheets with full-on of cosmetics. With an agitated a.m. face, I reached for some complexion-calming products that have worked well for me in the past: non-irritating coconut Castile soap followed by a soothing makeup primer.

The instant relief combined with my shine-free skin got me thinking – do I really need all these products I’m applying every day? I’m a little doubtful on the difference between moisturizers and primers, and I bet I’m probably not alone. Dr. JoshuaZeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in Mt. Sinai Hospital’s department of dermatology weighed in on the matter to help clarify.


Zeichner explains that moisturizers are designed to help hydrate the skin. If you need to even out your skin tone, you can opt for a moisturizer that not only hydrates but offers pigments that can regulate redness. You can choose a formulation that contains added skin-protecting ingredients such as sunscreens or antioxidants.

The Doctor’s Picks: If you have sensitive skin, lanolin may be an irritant. It’s not hard to avoid it in your skincare products. Zeichner suggests the lightweight Bio-Health Vitamin E Lotion, which is vegan and additive-free, with organic botanical ingredients. For a budget-friendly option that works well for all skin types he recommends Cetaphil Dermacontrol Moisturizer with SPF 30.

Make Up Primers                                

A make up primer is designed to aid in a smooth makeup application and prolong its staying power so your flawless face lasts longer than it would sans primer, Zeichner explains. Although there are plenty of options available on the market geared toward specific skin types, primers typically contain oil-absorbing ingredients that make your skin appear less shiny.

The Doctor’s Pick: Zeichner recommends Smashbox Photo Finish, which comes in a variety of formulations so you can find the best one for your specific skin type and condition.

BB Creams

Zeichner says you can limit your product count by streamlining with a one that blends the best of both worlds in one bottle. BB creams – short for blemish balm – are all-in-one products that sooth and protect the skin. While you’ll encounter more than a dozen options these days, this skincare trend from Asia became hot news to the States in 2011. Sephora stores carry Asian favorites Dr. Jart from Kore and Boscia of Japan, and you can find other options in a range of prices from budget-friendly drugstore brand Garnier to department store beauty counter favorites like Clinique Estee Lauder and the newest BB cream buzzing on the market from Hydroxatone.  Zeichner says an added bonus of most BB creams is that they contain age-defying ingredients such as Vitamin C, an antioxidant that protects the skin from UV damage.

The Doctor’s Pick: At just $12.99, the Garnier Skin Renew BB Cream Miracle Skin Perfector is a steal when compared to its competitors that run from $30 and up. It has an SPF 15 offering light sun protection as it hydrates your skin and improves its color and texture. It comes in two colors, light and medium to even out your skin tone similar to a tinted moisturizer.

Another option that’s similar to a BB cream is the five-in-one Miracle SkinTransformer by Sarah McNamara. It has an SPF 20 and will give your skin an airbrushed appearance so you can skip foundation if you want to. Like a BB cream, the Miracle Skin Transformer is enriched with vitamins (A, E, K and CoEnzymeQ10) to preserve your complexion’s youthful texture and glow.


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Tricia Chaves
By: Tricia Chaves

In spite of being the baby girl of the family with five brothers, Tricia Chaves was never destined to be a tomboy. As a latch-key kid growing up in Cleveland, the corner drugstore makeup aisle was a treasure trove, when she wasn’t in the kitchen or library. With a mom as a manicurist, the salon became an after-school hangout in high school. Still in her teens, she became a Mary Kay consultant and helped women build their confidence by teaching them how to care for their skin and apply cosmetics. Today she works full time as a freelance writer giving tips on her favorite topics: food, gardening, glamour and travel on sites like Tyra Banks’ TypeF, USA Today and the San Francisco Chronicle. With her husband and three Pomeranians, she calls Rio de Janeiro home. In November 2011, Tricia created Cover Look Collection. On her site, she teams up with an esteemed group of celebrity MDs, beauty and style experts to create "How To" guides that help men and women in the real world achieve current magazine cover looks. Tricia and her team of Cover Look Correspondents blog about beauty and fashion with tips and products for living a fabulous lifestyle.