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Up until recently, I hadn’t shopped at Ulta in years. They got on my “bad list” when they sent me a coupon, and then wouldn’t let me use it on the item I wanted to buy because it was a “premium” brand. I expect that kind of nonsense from department stores, which is why I almost never shop in department stores, but with a store like Ulta, if you’re going to issue a coupon, issue the damn coupon and don’t screw around excluding half the store.

I decided to give them another go because they had a one-day-only promotion in March–all “butter by LONDON” nail polishes were buy one, get one free. As a person who generally doesn’t want to spend $15 on a single bottle of nail polish, this seemed like a prime opportunity. So I put aside my ire and made the purchase. Mind you, I had to make the purchase online because Ulta, in their infinite wisdom, doesn’t have a store in Washington, DC. Wtf, Ulta. The closest store is in Silver Spring, which is only about 10 miles away, but it’s a solid 30-minute drive. I wasn’t going to spend an hour in the car just to get some nail polish on sale. I have my limits.

Unfortunately, ulta.com has a $50 minimum for free shipping, and I wasn’t about to spend $6 in shipping costs for $15 worth of nail polish, so I picked up a few hair products and two more butter polishes to round out my shopping cart. I’ll review the nail polish once I’ve had a chance to use all four colors. Today’s post is about something else: free samples. Ulta includes a little goody bag of samples with each order. With mine I received Boots Botanics Ionic Clay Mask Shine Away, L’Oréal Age Perfect Glow Renewal Facial Oil (could these names be any longer?), Smashbox Photo Finish Foundation Primer, and Versace Bright Crystal perfume.

Boots Botanics Ionic Clay Mask Shine Away

Boots Botanics copy

Boots Botanics is an offshoot line from Boots UK, a well-known British brand. As you might guess, the Botanics line is focused on using natural plant-based ingredients, working with the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England. The Botanics line emphasizes ethical and sustainable sourcing of ingredients and raw materials, along with recycled and recyclable packaging. However, none of the Boots websites makes any overt mention of whether their products are cruelty-free, and their packaging does not contain the standard cruelty-free logos or marks. I found this post discussing Boots’s cruelty-free status, which seems somewhat encouraging. But after searching for the term “animal testing” on the main Boots page, I was finally able to find their policy, which is the standard evasive BS created by corporate lawyers for companies that want the gloss of being cruelty-free without the hard work of ensuring that their products are actually cruelty-free.

As for the product itself, it’s a pretty standard clay mask. It’s dark green and very thick and mud-like. After applying it to your face, it dries fairly quickly so that you truly feel like you’re wearing a mask. I generally use masks just before showering, because I find it’s much easier to rinse off a mask in the shower than in the sink. This mask is no exception–it takes a lot of rinsing to remove all that clay. Afterwards, my skin felt very clean. I didn’t detect any difference visually, but I don’t have shiny skin to begin with. Someone with a more oily complexion than mine might see different results. Although the sample was large enough that I could have gotten two or three uses out of it, I foolishly didn’t seal it in an airtight container after using it the first time, and the remaining product dried out in the pouch.

On the plus side, this product only has five ingredients: sea silt (i.e., mud), water, willow bark extract, potassium sorbate, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate. On the negative side, those last two are not so good. Potassium sorbate is a water-soluble salt used as a preservative. That sounds fine, until you read that it is a skin, eye, and respiratory irritant and can be toxic to human red blood cells and DNA. Awesome. I definitely want to put that on my face. To be fair, unless you’re allergic to potassium or eating and using an excessive number of foods and products that use potassium sorbate, you probably won’t have a problem. But it’s good to be aware. As for sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, this is another synthetic preservative that is also a potentially, but not necessarily, toxic allergen.

Bottom line: it’s a decent product, and a nice sample, but until Boots is certified cruelty-free, I won’t be buying any of their products. And despite their attempt at a “natural” and “plant-derived” product, they’re still using synthetic ingredients that may or may not be harmful to your health. There are truly natural preservatives that they could use instead, so it’s not like they’re using the potentially bad ones out of necessity.

L’Oréal Age Perfect Glow Renewal Facial Oil

Age Perfect copy

L’Oréal also falls into the category of companies that want street cred for not testing on animals but can’t commit to the cause enough to not leave themselves a loophole large enough to drive a tank through. They are working to increase sustainability–zero-waste production, less water usage, lower carbon dioxide emissions–so I’ll give them points for trying.

The Glow Renewal Facial Oil is indeed an oil. The directions indicate you should use 4-5 drops, but I found that 3 drops would do the trick. Maybe I have a small face. There was enough product in the sample for me to use it both morning and night for several days. It made my skin very soft, and allowed my moisturizer to go on very smoothly. However, I didn’t notice any “glow” to my skin. (And yes, I find it mildly amusing that I received one product designed to eliminate shine and another designed to create glow, which is essentially shine.) L’Oréal claims that the oil is non-greasy, and I found that it lived up to that claim. The oil absorbed quickly into my skin and left no residue.

L’Oréal’s marketing indicates that the product contains “eight essential oils,”  but there are a total of 16 oil ingredients: olive fruit, jojoba seed, camelina sativa seed, sunflower seed, rosa canina fruit, corn, apricot kernel, passiflora edulis seed, rice bran, pelargonium graveolens flower, origanum majorana leaf, anthemis nobilis flower, lavendula hybrida, orange peel, rosemary leaf, and lavender. Plus vitamin E, cucumber, turmeric root, and jasmine extracts. So the botanicals are definitely in there. But so is something called alpha-isomethyl ionone (a synthetic fragrance) and benzyl alcohol. I’ll never understand why cosmetic companies think it’s a good idea to put alcohol, which is a drying ingredient, in products designed to moisturize. Talk about working at cross-purposes. And I question the need for synthetic fragrance with all those naturally fragrant botanical oils in there.

Bottom line: another decent product and nice sample size, but until they commit to being truly cruelty-free and synthetic-free, I won’t purchase it.

Smashbox Photo Finish Foundation Primer

Smashbox copy

I feel like every time I read a magazine these days, someone is recommending this Smashbox product, so I was really pleased to get a sample of it. I wasn’t terribly impressed though. First, some facts about the company. I didn’t realize until I clicked on “Supplier Relations” on the Smashbox site that they are owned by Estée Lauder. (I swear, there are really only five companies in the entire world, and those five companies own everything else.) Estée Lauder, and therefore Smashbox, has the same animal testing loophole that L’Oréal does. You can read more about it here. Their website doesn’t say much about environmentally friendly or sustainable practices, but they make a point of saying they are committed to not working with suppliers engaging in human trafficking or slave labor. This shouldn’t even be something companies need to make a point of, but there it is.

Because this product is positioned as a primer, I was expecting it to be opaque and creamy, but instead it was a clear serum-type formulation. The Smashbox website refers to it as “silky” and “lightweight,” both of which I would agree with. It really made my skin feel smooth without feeling like I had added an extra product to my face. There was enough primer in the sample to use it for three days, but I didn’t see any noticeable difference in the appearance of my face after applying my foundation over it. And why would I spend $36 on the Smashbox primer when I can spend $9.99 on Trader Joe’s Facial Serum and get the exact same results? (A post on facial serums is coming soon…)

I also dislike the number of ingredients I can’t pronounce in the Smashbox primer. There are so many, it would take me all day to discuss each one individually. Suffice it to say that it’s nowhere near a “natural” product and contains multiple ingredients that could be harmful to you.

Bottom line: too expensive and too many chemicals to be something I would actually purchase.

Versace Bright Crystal Perfume

Versace copy

Versace’s websites are suspiciously lacking any commentary regarding their attitude toward animal testing, sustainability, ethical practices, and other concerns of conscious consumers. It seems safe to say that if you’re looking for a socially conscious company, you should look elsewhere.

I was expecting this fragrance to be bold, strong, and a little too much–like everything else Versace creates. Instead I found it to be so subtle, I could barely smell it on my wrist. As with most perfumes, it contains a list of chemicals longer than my arm. According to the packaging, it contains the scents of pomegranate, peony, magnolia, lotus, acajou, vegetal amber, yuzu, iced accord, and musk. I detected nothing in particular, just a faint, floral scent. The sample is only good for one use, so I didn’t have an opportunity to try it again.

Bottom line: I disliked this perfume after using it, and after the recursive hell that is the Versace website experience, I dislike this entire brand.

While it’s nice that Ulta includes samples with your order, I didn’t find anything that I actually liked enough to buy. But at least now I don’t have to waste my money finding out the hard way that I don’t want these products. That’s probably not the result Ulta was hoping for, but there you have it. As for Ulta itself, the jury is still out on whether they get to move off the “bad list.”