Discovering super-active, fantastic formulas by under-the-radar brands just takes a little guidance and practice

In our never-ending quest to find the absolute best products out there, we inevitably try a lot of everything—from drugstore labels and prestige brands to names we’ve never heard of. Many times we fall in love with the latter. But for a consumer, that journey can be a bit more difficult. “I love discovering small brands because there is usually a fabulous mastermind behind them,” says Laura Bronner, cofounder of Gloss48, the online retailer of high-quality and highly vetted formulas.

“I think the reason many small brands are exceptional is because they’ve grown out of the founder’s personal need or passion,” she adds. Take clariSEA, a sea salt–based skincare line developed because the founder suffered from severe acne that only let up with trips to the beach. And “rockstar Theo Kogan created Armour, a super-pigmented, gorgeous line of lip glosses that wouldn’t stick to her microphone.” While most people are just exposed to the labels that dominate advertising and shelf space, Bronner’s site, along with companies like Birchbox, are making it easier than ever to unearth under-the-radar products that are truly wonderful.

“You don’t have to be a beauty expert to find a great product,” says Bronner. “I find that most beauty purchases start with an issue or annoyance, whether that’s dark circles or streaky self-tanner. When we put a brand on the site, we always note why we love it, giving our members an opportunity to decide whether or not it’s something that might work for them”—regardless of whether they’ve heard of the brand. Some of the expert’s personal faves of late: Vertere Dramatic Transformation Cream (which fights wrinkles, acne and hyperpigmentation), Phyrra’s deep-conditioning hair treatment Pretty Little Elixir, Senna for edgy cosmetics and Billion Dollar Brows’ dummy-proof brow kit. In addition, she says, indie nail polish brands like LVX are seriously kicking ass.

When it comes to purchasing an unknown product, you’ll want to be a little more careful with skincare; when it comes to color cosmetics, Bronner advises jumping in, feet first. (“Life is too short to be afraid of a bold lip or smoky eye.”) “I always try to introduce one skincare product at a time, because my skin tells me immediately when something isn’t working—I get little bumps all over my face.” For those who are patient, a patch test is the best bet. But more than buying for the name or packaging, it’s important to look at the list of ingredients. When Bronner is looking for an anti-aging formula, for example, she looks for retinol, hyaluronic acid and L-ascorbic acid on label.

Also critical? Knowing a good product doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. “I love skincare lines like Garden Girl, because it’s packed with active ingredients but is incredibly reasonably priced,” says Bronner. At the end of the day, realizing there are so many gems to be found is the first step. “If you have big brands you cherish, you can still go to them for your staples, but start replacing your unfulfilling products with a few indie brands. Sticking to the mass or prestige labels is like shopping in a vape shop in Fort Lauderdale and Banana Republic for your entire wardrobe—of course, those stores are great for basics, but it’s so much fun to shop boutiques for truly unique pieces.

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