Next time you’re in the cosmetics aisle, here’s Catherine Clifford guide for demystifying the alphabet soup of skincare creams.
THAT CLASSIC ANXIETY dream where you’re suddenly facing a test on material you never learned? I’ve been feeling that way in the makeup aisle. You can’t walk through any cosmetics section without being bombarded by BBs—BB Creams, and their younger siblings, CC Creams. Sephora and Ulta each boast almost 80 versions. Was I the only one absent the day everyone else was apparently informed about these? (I felt better when even my young, hip hair stylist said , “Yeah, what are those??”—and she works for a company that makes some.)
The alphabet bandwagon and I first crossed paths a couple years ago when a beauty-sampler box included a small tube labeled “BB cream.” Bewildered but assured by accompanying copy that it supplied, in addition to sun protection, a golden glow flattering to all, I skimmed on a light layer. I looked like I’d face-planted in Grey Poupon. I tossed it, but over the next year, I started seeing BBs, then CCs extolled in magazines, ads and websites as magical, the best of makeup and treatment in one, the single must-have product—but without specifics of what they are, what they do, or even a definitive answer on what the letters stand for. So here’s the scoop: BB is short for Beauty Balm. Or Blemish Balm. Or Blemish Base. Or Beblesh (Beblesh?? No clue.) Balm. The CCs are for Color and Correcting–except when they are for Concealing or Covering or Complexion or even Clay.
OK, but behind the non-consensus on names, let’s get to basic attributes. Most BB creams contain sunscreen, usually in a significant 20-30 SPF range, but more than a few have none. Some contain acne-fighters, others aging-fighters. The lowest common denominator is that all have some color, provide some coverage and have at least one added skin treatment/protectant/enhancer. That makes them different from CC creams in…um…no way. CC creams are sometimes purported to be slightly sheerer, but there’s so much variation between brands that, basically, the terms BB and CC are interchangeable. . (Exhibit A: One cosmetic-chemist columnist recounted working on an upcoming product that was changed pre-launch from “BB Cream” to “CC Cream”— no change in formulation whatever, just the name.)
Whether called BB or CC, however, they are breathlessly touted as a whole new breed of products!! Well, not so’s you’d notice. What years ago were discrete categories—you had foundation, you had moisturizer, you had treatment cream, you had sunscreen—have long since overlapped as, just for instance, salicylic acid was added to foundation to help with breakouts, retinols added for wrinkle-smoothing; color was added to tint moisturizers; sunscreen was added to just about everything. Alphabet creams are just one more iteration. The many benefits variously claimed by BB and CC creams—sunscreening, hydrating, priming, brightening, anti-aging, color correcting, refining, skin-lightening, blemish hiding, blemish-treating, dark-spot-erasing, pore-minimizing, mattifying, nourishing, firming, redness-reducing, vibrancy-enhancing and on and on—testify to the wide range of choices, which leaves you reading labels and possibly checking ingredient lists, same as you would choosing any moisturizer or foundation to see if it has what you’re looking for. Note, too, that the boasts are often embroidered and then some. Scan the list of 10 or 12 or 15 promised beauty-boosts on a single product and you may notice eye-roll-inducing redundancy: Brightens! Reduces dullness! Makes skin radiant! That’s not three different things!
Although some brands offer up to ten shades, the typical BB/CC cream gives you only three to five, so matching skin tone can be a challenge. Women with darker skin in particular have complained about being overlooked, but the odds of anyone finding a great match are suboptimal. A few brands provide just a single “self-adjusting” color–and if anyone can give a convincing or even plausible explanation of how a cosmetic “self-adjusts” to match different skins, I’ve yet to hear it.
So they’re nothing unique, with limited shades and confusing claims. Is there a reason to even give BBs and CCs a try? Sure. If you don’t already use a foundation or tinted moisturizer/sunscreen that covers similar bases, a BB or CC could be your single morning-time-saving shot. I realized I’ve basically been making my own equivalent for years now, daily mixing daubs of foundation with salicylic-acid moisturizer or sunscreen in my palm. Just throw a bit of color into your favorite primer/moisturizer/sunscreen/acne/wrinkle whatever cream(s) and—presto! But besides being messy, you could be combining ingredients that don’t play together well: one ingredient may nullify another (Vitamin C is especially fragile), or you may get too much of a good thing (piggybacked exfoliators might irritate skin). Furthermore, a BB or CC cream may be innately safer than multiple products. The Environmental Working Group, which favors minimizing the number of ingredients (the fewer the chemicals, the less likely we’ll react badly to one), found that someone who used, say, separate moisturizing sunscreen, foundation and concealer would be exposed on average to 70 ingredients, versus 40 in a typical BB or CC cream, and the number of ingredients EWG considers hazardous would typically drop from three to one.
Having tried out a handful of both BBs and CCs in a few different brands, I can’t say I’m a convert. All tended to go on thick—“spackle” and “drywall compound” came to mind—without any dramatic beautifying illusions that I could perceive. Despite promises of radiance, dewiness or natural-looking perfection, results from my samplings were too heavy, too matte, too dry, too dusty (they roused ancient memories of the powdery, rouged cheeks of my grandma’s friends), making me wonder if there was any skin-of-a-certain-age that would consider these a friend. I did finally try one that was pretty OK—after I’d first mixed in moisturizer, then sprayed with a hydrator afterwards. Which, of course, dilutes the sunscreen, scotches the one-step aspect and kind of misses the whole point.
Maybe I simply missed the one all-in-one that is my perfect match, though I wasn’t inspired to search further. My aloofness towards alphabet creams shows I’m clearly out of sync with the beauty-buying public, however. BBs and CCs are still happening big-time, with DD creams hot on their heels (DD for—steel yourself—Dermatalogically Defining or Dynamic Do-All or Daily Defense). In fact, searching online for double-initialed skin preps, if you include prescriptions there are only a handful of letter pairs out of 26 that don’t get some result (yes, there is more than one ZZ cream). And this time, I did hold onto the tubes I tried out—as one more element to play with in my cosmetic paint box, maybe I’ll eventually figure out what all the fuss is about.
Catherine Clifford is a frequent contributor to MyLittleBird.