I Tested Three Cult Beauty Brands (And Found The Best Products From Each)

My real take on Tata Harper, Drunk Elephant, and The Ordinary...
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I recently realized that I'm in my late twenties but still haven't stuck to a consistent skincare regimen. The problem is, my skin is finicky: My cheeks are dry, my T-zone is oily, I'm sensitive to scents, and my chin is a constant victim to hormonal acne (which I'm fairly certain isn't helped by my love of dairy). From a little bit of research, I discovered that I have "combination skin", which doesn't make finding the right products super simple. Beauty stores intimidate and overwhelm me, and I generally use the half an hour I have every six months with my dermatologist to discuss sun protection instead of asking for guidance on my daily skincare routine.

But I do spend a lot of time on Instagram, and I tend to start recognizing patterns and trends that stick with me. Some of my favorite things to keep track of? Skincare products that media companies, influencers, and my friends swear by.

A few months ago, I was browsing Sephora's website and came across their miniature sets with three brands I didn't know made travel versions of their cult-followed products: The Ordinary, Tata Harper, and Drunk Elephant. I added them to my cart quicker than you can say "beauty experiment", and threw a Story on my personal Instagram asking for everyone's preference—and the people were divided.

Each brand had some loyal, dedicated users who claimed that the products completely transformed their skin. So I ordered them all and decided to try the three brands for a month at a time to determine which products reigned supreme. Here's what I found:

The Ordinary

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I first heard about The Ordinary a few years ago when Deciem (its controversial parent company) opened its door in NYC. I knew they were revolutionizing the beauty industry by offering no-frills products with expensive ingredients at affordable prices, but I never took the time to look into it. This brand received the most positive feedback from my Story, but I had also heard that their products could be drying.

My initial reaction: The packaging is minimal and chic, and I loved that they were essentially scentless. I was also pleasantly surprised at the value—this line is by far the least expensive with the highest volume of product (in ounces). Learning a three-step regimen* after I showered in the evening and when I woke up in the morning was more therapeutic than I thought it would be, but I was initially anxious that my skin would react poorly to so many layers on my face.

*Since this kit didn't come with a facial cleanser, I opted for my trusty Cetaphil face wash.

"Buffet": I loved this product. I found that it made my skin feel taught and vibrant. It's initially slippery to the touch but absorbs quickly, and it allowed for my skin to soak in all the other products more efficiently.

Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion: I was brand-new to retinol when I tried this, and the instructions don't indicate how often you should be applying—it just states to add it to your nighttime routine. When I came to the office a week into the experiment complaining about dryness, Anne (our skincare guru) instructed me to tone down the usage to about twice per week, which cleared up most of the flakiness I was seeing. I found that it faded some of my dark spots and brightened my complexion.

Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA: As a moisturizer, I was hesitant about this (I lean towards face oils) but came to really enjoy the texture. I only needed the smallest amount to cover my entire face, but I was a bit disappointed that it had 0 SPF. I wound-up having to supplement the (inevitable) dryness from the retinol with my favorite natural face oil by Earth Tu Face, and found that combination led to an overall healthier glow to my skin.

After 30 days: I could confidently leave the house without makeup on and for the first time in my life appreciated how important a real skincare routine was. I was treating my face well and it rewarded me with minimal breakouts.

Day 1 before the experiment. Some smaller forehead acne, dark spots and an uneven (aka very red) complexion.

Day 1 before the experiment. Some smaller forehead acne, dark spots and an uneven (aka very red) complexion.

No makeup, right after I got into my car to head to work in the morning on the final day of my month using The Ordinary. Only complaint is the slight redness on my nose!

No makeup, right after I got into my car to head to work in the morning on the final day of my month using The Ordinary. Only complaint is the slight redness on my nose!

Tata Harper

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I sit next to Leslie in the office, so she's #influenced me to incorporate a bit more natural beauty into my routine (the Ilia mascara has changed my life). When we covered her natural beauty routine, she recommended three Tata Harper products that seemed to do wonders for her (though also warned me that the natural scents in them can cause breakouts in some). It's also mentioned on every beauty blog and even touted as an "investment" for your skin.

My initial reaction: Of the three brands, I was most excited to try Tata Harper. I once spent 30 minutes in Sephora testing and smelling every single product, trying to convince myself they were worth the steep price, only to leave empty-handed. I'd heard that the mask was life-changing, so my expectations were high.

Reparative Moisturizer: This smells incredible, so it was unfortunate that my skin had a poor reaction to it. My forehead and hairline broke-out (my hypothesis is that it's from the fragrance) and it took nearly an entire week to recover. 

Rejuvenating Serum: I liked the serum, but for an award-winning product, I didn't find it super memorable. It claims to "visibly minimize the signs of aging, to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles while restoring your skin's strength, vitality and radiance," and though a month isn't nearly long enough to determine if those claims are valid, I didn't find it to be any better more effective than The Ordinary, which is significantly more affordable. Overall, I don't think it's worth the $110 for a single ounce of product.

Regenerating Cleanser: I was nottt a fan of this guy. I like a gel, foaming cleanser (I even prefer to use my cleanser to remove makeup) and this was truly the opposite. I didn't find it drying, but I stopped using this product about a week in (mainly because of the added exfoliant).

Hydrating Floral Essence: Pleasant, but I could never see myself using a toning spray on the regular. Personally, I don't have the desire for a more dramatic "dewy" look (my oily forehead takes care of that on its own!). It smelled delightful and felt refreshing, but I would have preferred to swap this for a larger quantity of the eye crème.

Resurfacing Mask: I'm not a huge face mask gal. The risk (an unpleasant reaction that could last weeks) generally isn't worth it to me. But I was surprised to find this to be sufficiently exfoliating without being too harsh. There was only enough product for about four masks, so I did one per week to clear up the breakouts I was experiencing and felt it calming the redness. Right after I washed it off, my skin felt significantly less dull and it created a better surface to apply of the other products.

Replenishing Nutrient Complex: I found this to be light, easy to apply, and loved that their retinoid product came in an oil form. However, it has a floral scent that I found unnecessary and a bit irritating, so if I had to choose, I'd stick with The Ordinary's.

Restorative Eye Crème Packet: This was almost offensively small, but I loved it so much that I've since purchased the full-size product. I'm at an age where I need an eye cream, but nothing heavy-duty, and this is the one. It smells incredible and doesn't feel too indulgent. While I don't think it's reduced any of the fine lines near my eyes, I have noticed that my under eye circles don't seem nearly as dark. I'm seeing this as a more natural, preventative measure for aging.

After 30 days: Though they're natural, the scents in many of Tata Harper's products didn't totally work with my skin. The eye crème and face mask were my two overall winners, but based on the price, I would personally pass on the rest.

Attempting the Resurfacing Mask to get rid of the two zits on my forehead and clogged pores on my chin.

Attempting the Resurfacing Mask to get rid of the two zits on my forehead and clogged pores on my chin.

Taken at about noon, three hours after I washed my face and applied makeup over the weekend. My forehead already started getting oily and based on its texture, you can tell it's not too happy.

Taken at about noon, three hours after I washed my face and applied makeup over the weekend. My forehead already started getting oily and based on its texture, you can tell it's not too happy.

Drunk Elephant

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A friend of mine had rounded up her skincare routine just before I began my final month, and I spotted several Drunk Elephant products* (which gave me hope that I had possibly saved the best for last).

My initial reaction: I found the branding to be a bit eccentric and though I know they're "miniature", I was disappointed in how tiny the products were when I removed them from the packaging. I expected these to have a fragrance, but to my surprise they're all virtually scentless (score!). 

*Since this kit didn't come with a facial cleanser, I opted for my trusty Cetaphil face wash.

Virgin Marula Oil: This felt extremely luxurious but not too heavy. I personally don't like feeling as if there's a thick layer of oil on my face when I go to bed, and Drunk Elephant seem to have cracked the code on the facial oil perfect weight. Though I was instructed to only use it in my nighttime routine, I loved it so much that I wound up incorporating it into my morning as well (one pump on top of the hydration serum).

T.L.C. Framboos™ Glycolic Night Serum: I felt that adding this each evening felt like I was prepping my face to absorb all the nutrients in the oil, and it definitely fought any dullness I was battling. Each morning, I looked a little less sullen than usual because my skin felt refreshed.

B-Hydra Intensive Hydration Serum: Very lightweight, and just one pump gave the right amount of product to cover my face in a think layer. However, I found this to be a bit repetitive with the C-Firma serum. Two serums felt a bit indulgent and unnecessary.

C-Firma Day Serum: Drunk Elephant claims that this product can stay active on the skin for up to 72 hours and cannot be washed or rubbed off. I don't know if that's actually true, but I did find that it kept my combination skin in check and seemed to even-out my complexion, even during long, stressful days. Plus, I like the idea that your skin needs different nutrients at night than it does in the morning, so using one serum before bed and another when I woke up felt like I was giving my face the treatment it deserves.

After 30 days: I'm a very happy camper. Drunk Elephant's products cleared-up the remaining breakouts that I had from Tata Harper, and kept my face nearly clear of any acne all month (even during my period). 

Overall Takeaway: I'm planning on incorporating a few of each ("Buffet" and the Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion from The Ordinary, the Restorative Eye Crème and Resurfacing Mask from Tata Harper, and the Virgin Marula OilT.L.C. Framboos™ Glycolic Night Serum and C-Firma Day Serum from Drunk Elephant) into my newfound skin routine!

A bit of redness on my nose, but overall my skin is looking clear on day 20 of Drunk Elephant.

A bit of redness on my nose, but overall my skin is looking clear on day 20 of Drunk Elephant.

The 30th day of Drunk Elephant. My skin feels nearly flawless!

The 30th day of Drunk Elephant. My skin feels nearly flawless!

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