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updated 11/5/2004 2:17:48 PM ET 2004-11-05T19:17:48

With the presidential election at hand, a thought comes to mind: Freedom of choice is a wonderful thing. Sometimes, though, the more options you have, the more confused you become. Take beauty products, for example. There are a staggering number of them on the market, each offering something amazing-younger-looking skin, fuller lips, frizz-free hair. But knowing which claims are truthful isn't always easy. So for the sixth straight year, we went in search of products that not only make you look good but leave your skin, hair, and other body parts in healthier shape. First, we asked cosmetics companies to nominate their all-stars; then we enlisted three dermatologists to give them a trial run. The votes are in.

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Three judges on products

Lisa Donofrio, M.D.
You could say Donofrio went the extra mile to test makeup-and then some. "I recently traveled to Europe on business, so I brought along an extra suitcase just for the products I was trying," says Donofrio, 42, a Health editorial adviser who has private practices in New York and New Haven, Connecticut, and is an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Tulane University School of Medicine and associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine. "It was ideal because I got to see how the products performed under different conditions. When I left the United States, it was pouring rain; in Switzerland, it was cold; and Paris was sunny and hot. Considering most American women use the same makeup year-round, the changing climates added a unique element to testing these products."

Marsha Gordon, M.D.
What started out as an experiment turned into a lifestyle-altering experience, says Gordon, 46. "Since testing the products, I've introduced a whole new crop of cleansers, moisturizers, and sunscreens into my skin-care regimen." But what really impressed Gordon, vice chairwoman of the Department of Dermatology at New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital, was how gentle and multitalented the latest breed of products is. "Manufacturers have come to understand that it's essential for a sunscreen to have moisturizers and for a cleanser to contain exfoliants that can do their job without being abrasive," she says.

Grace Pak, M.D.
Pak did a double take while perusing the ingredient lists of the hair-care products she tested. "Some of the ingredients I came across-honey, soy, aloe vera, chamomile, and witch hazel-are things usually found in skin-care products," notes Pak, 40, who has a dermatology practice in Manhattan and is an attending physician at Northern Westchester Hospital Center in Mount Kisco, New York. "But it actually makes sense to put these ingredients in hair products, because hair and skin are made up of many of the same components, like keratin." The doctor also discovered testing the products was inspirational as well as enlightening. "My hair was in such great shape afterward, it prompted me to abandon my blow-dryer and go back to my naturally straight texture," Pak says.

The product winners are ...

1) Best Foundation - Bobbi Brown Extra SPF 25 Tinted Moisturizing Balm ($45)
Lots of makeups do a decent job of hiding imperfections, but how many can claim to be good for your complexion? "This foundation doesn't sit on top of the skin but actually melts into it with one light stroke," judge Lisa Donofrio, M.D., says. The secret to the easy application lies in the cream formula, which is high in emollients and low in waxes. Glycerin, a humectant, attracts and binds water to the upper layer of skin; sodium hyaluronate forms a protective veil over the skin's surface to help seal in that moisture. The makeup also boasts shea butter (a moisturizer found in some hair conditioners), which leaves skin velvety-soft. Another healthy addition: evening primrose oil, which is rich in gamma-linoleic acid, a substance that is essential for cell-membrane strength. The makers even found room for vitamin A, a retinoid that reduces lines and age spots. Finally, an SPF 25 sunscreen provides an easy way to shield yourself from UV rays. Special kudos go to a color palette that suits most skin tones, from the palest porcelain to a deep, rich brown.

2) Best Shampoo - EO Chamomile & Honey Shampoo ($8.99)
Aloe vera, hops, white ginger, wild-cherry bark, nettle, and horsetail: You'd be hard-pressed to find a shampoo with as many natural ingredients. But the one that piqued the interest of judge Grace Pak, M.D., was honey, one of nature's best-kept secrets. "It's a great healer and a humectant that helps hair retain moisture," Pak notes. Just as important, she says, is what's not on the list. "Most shampoos use detergents like sodium      lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate to help clear oil from the scalp. Yet these ingredients tend to strip hair of necessary moisture." In their place are amphoteric surfactants (what manufacturers often call a "coconut-oil cleansing complex"), detergents similar to the ones found in baby shampoos. These mild ingredients clean effectively while treating hair with kid gloves. Chamomile oil calms skin irritations, while witch hazel, a natural antiseptic, removes excess oil and product buildup, leaving your scalp clean and refreshed. And sensitive types, take note: There are no synthetic dyes, fragrances, or fillers.

3) Best Moisturizer - Olay Regenerist Enhancing Lotion With UV Protection ($18.99)
If a moisturizer contains too much oil, it will feel too heavy; if it has too much water, it will feel too light, says judge Marsha Gordon, M.D. "But this is an ideal mix of water and lipid-based ingredients." Vitamin E and pro-vitamins B3 and B5 work in tandem; allantoin, a smoothing conditioner, protects skin and reduces the appearance of wrinkles. But the component that really grabbed Gordon's attention was Pal-KTTKS, a small string of pentapeptides (amino acids) that may help produce collagen and deter premature aging. "There is some research that hopes to find that peptides may also have a positive effect in wound healing," Gordon says. "Since other antiaging ingredients [like tretinoin, the active ingredient in Retin-A] also have wound-healing properties, there is a possibility that KTTKS might be able to correct photodamage." Add antioxidants like green tea extract and vitamin C, along with the UVA sunscreen avobenzone, and you've got a daily moisturizer that promises to make your skin look great today-as well as 10 years down the road.

4) Best Cleanser -  Origins Checks And Balances Frothy Face Wash ($16.50)
This creamy cleanser is great for combination skin because it works to zap the oilies while also moisturizing dry patches, Gordon says. What's behind the well-balanced formula? For starters, konjac powder, a plant-derived ingredient not found in many cleansers. It targets only excess oil, leaving moisturizing sebum where skin needs it. Even after you wash and dry your face, traces of the powder stay behind to absorb additional oil. The product's moisturizing properties come from hydrolyzed wheat protein, which coats and protects dry areas. "The protein fills in tiny cracks in the top layer of skin for a smoother look and feel," Gordon says. Another ingredient that caught her eye is tourmaline, which causes each droplet of water and cleanser to break apart into even tinier fragments, "so they can reach deep into the pores for more-thorough cleansing," Gordon explains. The fresh spearmint scent also earned points for its calming effect.

5) Best Mascara - Revlon Lash Fantasy Primer + Mascara ($8.99)
Most women don't condition their lashes before applying mascara. "But by applying a primer," Donofrio says, "you're widening the diameter of each individual hair. That means you don't have to apply multiple coats of color later, which can lead to clumping and breakage." This product packs both a base coat and color in a unique double-sided wand. The conditioning primer is made with a panthenol-vitamin complex. "Panthenol is the same softening agent found in many hair conditioners," Donofrio says. "It moisturizes lashes so they're less brittle." All three colors-Blackest Black, Black, and Blackened Brown-fatten each lash (with beeswax and carnauba wax) as they darken. The brush also deserves praise: "Eyelashes are different lengths," Donofrio says. "But this brush is designed with closely spaced bristles that can reach the tiniest lashes for even coverage." And the hypoallergenic formula is easy on the eyes-gentle enough even for contact lens wearers.

6) Best Conditioner - Suave Professionals Color Care Conditioner ($1.99)
The crucial test for any conditioner is how well it treats hair that's taken a beating. This winner rises to the challenge, helping repair some of the damage caused by brushing, chemical treatments, heat styling, and the sun. Panthenol helps attract and bind water to the hair shaft and smooths roughened cuticles, making hair easy to comb. Soy protein, a polymer film-former, penetrates the shaft to fill in minor defects and temporarily repair split ends, reducing frizz. Dimethiconol, a silicone, also bonds to the cuticle to help seal it. Sunflower-seed oil, an excellent emollient, boosts moisture. Yet another benefit: UV protectants, such as ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate and antioxidant vitamins C and E. They're as important for hair as for skin, because the sun's rays can fade color or turn it brassy. As a bonus, rosemary extract soothes irritated scalps. Finally, there's the reasonable price. "This big bottle costs less than $2," Pak notes. "Yet it does a better job than products that cost five times as much."

7) Best Nail Product - Sephora Cuticle Care Pen ($12)
Sometimes a package is every bit as important as what's inside. This nail treatment is a case in point. Of course, it's crucial to keep cuticles moisturized. "When the skin is ragged, you're tempted to pick at it, and that can lead to infection, resulting in ridges, splitting, and nails that break easily," Pak says. "But some people don't like cuticle and hand creams because they tend to be sticky and oily." So Sephora came up with a smart solution. The dispenser works like a pen, so you can apply the product (infused with aloe vera gel and oil of onager, a relative of evening primrose oil) exactly where you want it, with no mess. "This also reduces the risk of bacterial contamination since you don't have to dip your finger into a solution," Pak explains. The slender case slips easily into your purse or desk drawer at work, so a perfect 10 digits are always within reach.

8) Best Fragrance -  Clarins Eau Tranquility ($43.50)
Anyone who's ever drifted blissfully off to sleep after taking a soak in a lavender-infused bath knows just how powerful scent can be. So the chemists who created this fresh-smelling body spray came up with a similar feel-good formula: a carefully chosen mix of essential oils (like basil and iris) and aromatic plant extracts (such as sarsaparilla), all of which invigorate the senses and soothe away tension. "A spa treatment in a bottle" is how Donofrio describes the pleasant herbal scent. "Even those who can't tolerate perfume will probably love it." For an instant lift, store the glass bottle in the refrigerator, and spray the fragrance over pulse points on your wrists and neck anytime you need a cool, refreshing pick-me-up.

9) Best Body Wash - Dove Gentle Exfoliating Body Wash ($3.99)
Everyone wants soft, touchable skin. But in trying to get it, you may actually do more harm than good. "Healthy skin needs to shed dead, dulling cells," Gordon says. "While many exfoliants, such as pumice, loofahs, grains, and sea salt, can help things along, they can also be too abrasive, tearing away at the skin's outer layer and causing redness and irritation." But this body cleanser won't damage your skin even if you use it every day. The reason is the tiny blue plastic beads dispersed throughout the lotion, which exfoliate without scratching. "Unlike the abrasive particles found in most scrubs," Gordon says, "these beads have smooth edges." But a gentle touch isn't the only feature to rave about: There are also the rich emollients, including sunflower and soybean oils as well as petrolatum, which Gordon calls "the gold standard" among moisturizers. Dermatologist-tested, the wash is suitable for the most sensitive skin.

10) Best Sunscreen - Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protection Cream For Face SPF 55 ($32)
Gordon cites a "fantasy list" of ingredients in this sunscreen. Physical blockers like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sit on the skin's surface and deflect UVA rays. "Zinc oxide is the best UVA sunblock, and this contains at least twice as much as most other products." Even better, it's ground into fine particles that absorb easily into skin. Upping the ante are the UVB-fighting chemical sunscreens methoxycinnamate and dibenzoylmethane, which also absorbs UVA. "Many wonder whether the UV radiation that's absorbed by chemical sunscreens could be transferred back into the deep layers of skin," Gordon says. "But this product boasts a safety-shield polymer that prevents rays from penetrating." It also has one of the highest SPFs available and wears well because of ingredients such as xylitol (a synthetic humectant) and Hydro-Wrap Vitalizing DE (a patented retexturizer), which work together to smooth rough skin. The sunscreen is also resistant to water, sand, and sweat, making it truly a day at the beach.

11) Best Styling Product - Matrix Biolage Smoothing Shine Milk ($12.95)
Women are coming to their senses and working with their hair's natural texture rather than against it. "That's what this styling product is all about," Pak says. Designed to be sprayed on damp hair, it keeps tresses under control without the unnatural hold typical of so many styling aids. Pak particularly approves of the short list of ingredients. "The fewer a product has, the less potential there is for an allergic reaction," she notes. Another positive: "Traditional hair sprays, gels, and mousses contain co-polymers such as PVP, a resin that coats hair and holds it in place," Pak explains. "When these resins come in contact with water, they can become sticky or, if you use too much, flake off. But this product is polymer-free, so there's no tackiness." Botanical milk extract coats the hair shaft to leave it soft, while dimethicone adds a healthy gloss. The lightweight lotion, which has the consistency of (what else?) milk, doesn't give hair a greasy feeling. The pump-top sprayer is a plus, too: Its fine mist won't weigh things down.

12) Best Lip Product - Avon Beyond Color Plumping Lipcolor With Retinol SPF 15 ($8)
You moisturize your face, and you baby the delicate skin around your eyes. But what have you done for your lips lately? At first glance, this semi-matte lipstick might not seem to offer much in the way of treatment, but don't be fooled. Petrolatum and glycerin defend against moisture loss. Retinol, an antiaging ingredient usually found in skin creams, helps diminish fine lines, reduce rough texture, and reverse sun damage. "It's smart to put retinol in a lip product because lips are especially vulnerable to sun damage, even more so than any other part of your body," Donofrio says. "What's more, skin cancers that occur on the lips are among the most aggressive and least easy to treat." Antioxidant vitamins A and C fight free radicals, molecules that can also lead to premature aging, Donofrio notes. And with 20 shades to choose from, this lipstick lets everyone reap the benefits.

Resources
Body wash: Dove, at mass retailers nationwide
Cleanser: Origins, 800-674-4467 or www.origins.com
Conditioner: Suave, at mass retailers nationwide
Foundation: Bobbi Brown, 877-310-9222 or www.bobbibrown.com
Fragrance: Clarins, www.clarins.com for stores or www.gloss.com to buy online
Lip product: Avon, 800-367-2866 or www.avon.com
Mascara: Revlon, at mass retailers nationwide
Moisturizer: Olay, at mass retailers nationwide
Nail product: Sephora, 877-737-4672 or www.sephora.com
Shampoo: EO, 800-570-3775 or www.eoproducts.com
Styling product: Matrix, www.matrix.com for salons
Sunscreen: Shiseido, www.sca.shiseido.com for stores                              

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