There’s no shortage of skincare products available, making it challenging to find the correct formulas suitable for your skin type. And then there’s all the marketing hype to navigate through. Between celebrity brands with eye-catching packing and so-called “proprietary” ingredients that promise the moon and the stars, deciphering fact from fiction is no easy feat. That’s where Paula Begoun comes into the picture. The beauty expert, author, and skincare company owner has established herself as one of the most trustworthy leaders in the beauty industry.
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Originally known as the “Cosmetics Cop,” Begoun has a reputation for being 100% transparent while challenging beliefs, myths, and trends. In 2002, she launched an online ingredient dictionary, a go-to resource for consumers and professionals. It’s only fitting that Begoun launched her own line of skincare products, starting with the 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant (one of the industry’s first leave-on exfoliants) in 2000.
Since then, Paula’s Choice Skincare has morphed into what’s estimated as a 2 billion dollar business and has been acquired by Unilever, along with other big-name brands like REN, Tatcha, Murad, Kate Sommerville, and Dermalogica.
Let’s take a closer look at brand ethos, how the products are formulated, and whether or not they’re worth the hype.
Paula’s Choice pledges to formulate efficacious products supported and verified by extensive research. The brand doesn’t promise miracles, but it does vow to be transparent regarding the results you can expect.
- Ingredients are added safely yet effectively to maintain a stable pH.
- Formulations contain a blend of ingredients that help improve the skin’s overall health.
- Products are non-irritating and fragrance-free. Each product is tested on humans, not animals, in an independent lab to ensure its safety.
- Paula’s Choice is Leaping Bunny certified.
- Packaging is strategically chosen to maintain the integrity of the ingredients as best as possible.
Key Ingredients in Paula’s Choice Products
Peptides: Peptides can help in various ways, from supporting hydration and collagen production to wound healing. The benefit of the peptides is mainly dependent on the type used.
If you’re looking for a peptide serum, we recommend Carrot & Stick The Repair Serum. It contains 6 plant-based peptides to promote plumper and smoother-looking skin.
Azelaic Acid: Derived from wheat and barley, azelaic acid has been used in a variety of skincare applications, including products marketed for the treatment of acne, the brightening of hyperpigmentation, and promoting skin healing, among others. Azelaic acid is a dicarboxylic acid that helps to exfoliate the skin, removing dead skin cells and promoting skin cell turnover. It may also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that may boost its ability to improve the appearance of the skin.
Bakuchiol: Bakuchiol is the latest active skincare ingredient to make a splash. Bakuchiol is touted as a gentle, vegan alternative to retinol products, helping to reduce the signs of aging and help support the treatment of acne and congested skin. The main benefit of bakuchiol that is often advertised is that it is less irritating and sensitizing than traditional retinol products.
Ceramides: As a part of the skin’s natural barrier, ceramides help to prevent the epidermis, or the top layer of the skin, from losing moisture. When people experience dry skin, it is often because of a loss of ceramides in the skin, which can also cause itching, flaking, peeling, and scaling. Using skincare products with ceramides may help replace lipids lost due to chronic dryness, environmental factors, aging, and skin damage caused by certain skin conditions.
Glycolic Acid: GA increases collagen production, refines texture, brightens and refreshes skin tone, reduces wrinkles, and is a particularly excellent chemical peel for acne scars — especially stubborn marks left behind from old breakouts. Glycolic acid also treats discoloration and acne, though less effectively than salicylic acid.
Hyaluronic Acid: Hyaluronic acid strengthens the skin’s natural barriers to help seal in moisture, which creates an intense hydrating effect that can soften the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. While HA can’t increase cell turnover like retinol or glycolic acid, it does help further skin cell regeneration due to increased hydration and barrier protection. Research indicates HA has antibacterial properties, which is excellent news for acne patients.
Lactic Acid: Lactic acid exfoliates and brightens the skin, prevents acne, boosts skin hydration, corrects skin discoloration, and help fights visible signs of aging. LA is an effective ingredient for all skin types, even those with sensitive skin. It is particularly beneficial for treating acne and dry and dull skin. However, you should not use a lactic acid product if you have skin irritation, such as redness, swelling, or open sores.
Niacinamide: Niacinamide reduces environmental damage due to its ability to improve the skin’s barrier (its first line of defense) while helping repair signs of past wear. It enhances skin’s resiliency, improves texture, hydrates, minimizes the appearance of large pores, regulates oil production, enhances skin’s radiance, fades discoloration, and calms inflammation.
Omega Fatty Acids: While you can also reap the benefits of omega fatty acids for your skin by eating foods like salmon and avocado, when applied topically, omegas help regulate oil production, improve hydration levels, lessen breakouts, and soften the signs of aging skin.
Retinol: Retinol is vitamin A. Once absorbed into the skin, it is converted into the active form, retinoic acid. Our skin cells contain receptors for retinoic acid, which allow for the benefits such as faster skin cell turnover, reduction in the appearance of hyperpigmentation, and increased collagen production, which helps soften fine lines and wrinkles.
Use retinoids at night. We recommend this retinoid oil serum. It contains Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate, an ingredient that provides similar benefits without the irritation.
Salicylic Acid: Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid commonly used in skincare products to help visibly improve the skin’s texture, reduce the signs of aging and increase skin cell turnover, reducing blemishes. Salicylic acid is mainly used in anti-aging and acne products.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that protects your skin from elements like the sun (though it is not a replacement for sunscreen), pollution, and cigarette smoke. Vitamin C also discourages melanin production in the skin by inhibiting the enzyme responsible for skin pigment, melanin. As a result, vitamin C helps discoloration issues (think brown spots), evens skin tone, brightens, and increases radiance.
Our favorite antioxidant serum is Carrot & Stick The Concentrate. It contains a multitude of plant and marine antioxidants to help defend against visible aging and free radical damage. Use it every morning.
Ingredients You Won’t Find in Paula’s Choice Skincare
- 1,4 Dioxane
- Abrasive Particles
- Alcohol (SD, Denatured, Isopropyl, or Ethyl)
- Aluminum Powder
- Essential Oils
- Formaldehyde (or Formaldehyde releasing agents)
- Fragrant Plant Extracts
- Nano Particles
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
- Synthetic Dyes
- Synthetic Fragrances
Paula’s Choice is making several strides to help reduce its carbon footprint, including:
- A recycling program (a partnership with TerraCycle) to help you recycle all of your empty Paula’s Choice products.
- Greenhouse gas reduction efforts through partnerships with industry experts who help the brand reduce its environmental impact, including measuring emissions.
- Post-consumer recycled materials have been added to packaging and design initiatives to make them more recyclable. Cardboard shippers are 50% PCR; by the end of 2023, all paper stock will be FSC- (Forest Stewardship Council) Certified.
- The brand partners with Tree-Nation to plant trees to offset carbon emissions from employee air travel and Cloverly to offset emissions for the transport of product orders.
10 of the Best-Selling Paula’s Choice Products
The brand started in 2000 with its now number-one selling 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant. It has since grown into a robust collection of several hundred results-driven formulas that have garnered the praises of consumers and beauty experts. It’s been an award-winning product for several consecutive years, voted best by several reputable beauty publications.
2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
As previously mentioned, this was one of the industry’s first BHA (beta hydroxy acid) exfoliants, but it certainly hasn’t gotten out of the spotlight. It’s the brand’s number-one selling product and cult favorite worldwide. The product is gentle enough to leave on. Yet, it effectively removes dead skin cells, unclogs pores, softens fine lines and wrinkles, reduces the signs of discoloration, and brightens the complexion.
- Has a healthy skin pH range of 3.2–3.8.
- Beta hydroxy acid (aka salicylic acid) supports the natural exfoliation process by helping it shed dead skin cells to reveal a healthier, smoother, clearer-looking complexion.
- Gentle enough to use twice a day.
Phytoestrogen Elasticity Renewal Serum
This unique face and neck serum visibly improves the signs of aging skin associated with estrogen decline, including loss of elasticity and volume, crepiness, and wrinkles, thanks to breakthrough research.
- Formulated for both the face and neck.
- A unique blend of soy-derived equol, genistein, daidzein, and other antioxidants like resveratrol increases resilience, supports elasticity, improves texture, and restores hydration.
1% Retinol Treatment
While retinol is an excellent anti-aging ingredient, it can dry and irritate if not used carefully. This formula contains a high-strength 1% concentration of retinol with a controlled-release delivery system to help counteract any adverse effects while softening the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, large pores, and discoloration.
- A controlled-release delivery system allows for even, consistent absorption.
- The light lotion texture absorbs quickly into the skin while providing optimal hydration.
- Licorice and oat extracts, along with plant extracts, help calm any signs of sensitivity.
10% Niacinamide Booster
In 2013, Paula launched her line of Boosters to help target different skin concerns. This 10% concentrated niacinamide (vitamin B3) formula remains a top seller, likely because niacinamide is one of those ingredients that stands out for its benefits to the skin. It enhances skin’s resiliency, improves texture, hydrates, minimizes the appearance of large pores, regulates oil production, boosts the skin’s radiance, fades discoloration, and calms inflammation.
- Promotes a brighter, more youthful-looking complexion
- Sheer, ultra-light liquid formula
- Use alone or add to your moisturizer or serum
Super-Light Wrinkle Defense SPF 30
When using products with active ingredients like retinol and niacinamide, it’s crucial to wear SPF during the day. In general, sun protection should be worn daily regardless of the ingredients in your routine, as sun exposure is the number one cause of aging skin. This ultra-light tinted mineral-based formula protects against harmful rays while giving the skin a more even-looking appearance after just one use.
- The secret sauce is a blend of a lightly tinted, pure mineral zinc oxide sunscreen and an assorted blend of antioxidants known to boost skin’s environmental defenses and prevent premature aging.
- Skin looks and feels firmer with immediate and regular use.
- It leaves behind a silky, light-matte feel.
C15 Super Booster
This concentrated 15% pure vitamin C formula is another of Paula’s Choice best-selling products — and boosters. Stabilized C (l-ascorbic acid), soothing vitamin E, and skin-plumping peptides brighten the skin, even out the skin tone, and soften the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
- Ferulic acid, a powerful antioxidant, works to neutralize the skin’s free radical damage, which helps reduce the appearance of premature aging and UV damage.
- Promotes a more radiant complexion.
- Absorbs quickly into the skin.
- Use alone or add to your moisturizer or serum.
- Features a pH of 3.0.
Pore Reducing Toner
The secret to an effective toner for oily skin is that it doesn’t strip the skin of its natural oils — it only causes the skin to produce more oil to compensate for the loss. This formula effectively balances oil, minimizes pores, protects, and lightly moisturizes thanks to hydrating ceramides and antioxidants.
- Skin becomes more even and smooth.
- It also removes the last traces of makeup.
- Oily areas become more mattified without drying out the skin.
10% Azelaic Acid Booster
This award-winning booster features potent azelaic acid, a dicarboxylic acid that helps increase skin cell turnover and the skin’s radiance. The powerhouse ingredient also boasts anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that improve the appearance of the skin.
- Azelaic acid’s effectiveness is backed by over 20 years of research.
- The booster also features 0.5% salicylic acid and plant-derived ingredients to brighten and soothe.
- Features a lightweight, oil-free cream-gel texture.
- Use alone or add to your moisturizer or serum.
Barrier Repair Moisturizer with Retinol
A damaged skin barrier has small, microscopic skin cracks, making it easier for moisture to escape and irritants to enter. Common signs of a broken skin barrier include dryness, dehydration, irritation, itchiness, flakiness, cracks or fissures, rough texture, increased sensitivity, and advanced (or new) breakouts. This best-selling moisturizer helps prevent moisture loss while promoting a firmer-looking, more radiant complexion.
- The addition of 0.1% retinol helps visibly reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles while improving texture and tone.
- An exclusive blend of antioxidants protects against environmental assault.
- Backed by 40-plus years of research-proven results.
Essential Glow Moisturizer SPF 30
This award-winning moisturizer creates an instant, healthy glow thanks to all-mineral sun protection and skin-brightening licorice, kiwi, argan, niacinamide, and vitamin C. Other vitamin-derived antioxidants defend against air pollution and damaging blue light exposure.
- SPF 30 protects against harmful UVA/UVB rays.
- Creates an instant, healthy glow for makeup-optional skin.
Overall, we think Paula’s Choice is worth the hype. The brand is built on a foundation of Begoun’s extensive ingredient knowledge and reputation for being 100% transparent while challenging beliefs, myths, and trends.
- We can’t argue with the fact that Paula’s Choice products are formulated with clean, results-driven ingredients and are void of harmful additives like nanoparticles, phthalates, sodium lauryl sulfate, and formaldehyde, to name a few. The brand pledges to formulate efficacious products supported and verified by extensive research.
- We love that the brand doesn’t promise miracles, but it does vow to be transparent regarding the type of results you can expect. Formulations contain a blend of ingredients that help improve the skin’s overall health while being cruelty-free and Leaping Bunny certified.
Paula’s Choice makes sustainability efforts, including a recycling program, greenhouse gas reduction through strategic partnerships, using post-consumer recycled materials, and initiatives to offset carbon emissions.
What are some alternatives to Paula’s Choice?
While we strive to provide accurate reviews, the reality is that not every product or brand is for everyone. The good news is that you have options.
Carrot & Stick is another clean brand that harnesses the power of evidence-based ingredients backed by science. Like Paula’s Choice, the brand never formulates any of its products with ingredients from the “Nix List,” such as sulfates, parabens, formaldehydes, phthalates, mineral oil, retinyl palmitate, oxybenzone, coal tar, hydroquinone, triclosan, triclocarban, synthetic fragrances or animal-based ingredients.
If you’re looking for skincare products to address the signs of aging, we recommend Carrot & Stick. Carrot & Stick maximizes the use of powerful ingredients and minimizes the use of superficial ones, resulting in advanced skincare solutions that help promote healthy, more youthful-looking skin. We recommend the Day & Night Routine.
“What’s Behind Unilever’s Choice of Paula’s Choice?” Beauty Independent, June 2021.
“Pirnazar P, Wolinsky L, Nachnani S, Haake S, Pilloni A, Bernard GW.” Bacteriostatic effects of hyaluronic acid. J Periodontol. 1999 Apr;70(4):370-4. doi: 10.1902/jop.19126.96.36.1990. PMID: 10328647.