Sunday Riley Good Genes Review

[Update 181017: Sunday Riley has admitted to having employees post fake reviews on Sephora after a whistleblower leaked an email outlining the practice to Reddit’s SkincareAddiction. Read more about the story in my post.]

Lemme tell you, if I ever wrote down my life goals, “get addicted to a $105/oz. lactic acid” would not top the list.

And yet here we are.


Let’s put Good Genes in context because late stage capitalism has a way of distorting things. When I was an undergrad student, trying to have some spending money while not taking on a job that might keep me from obsessively studying history, I sold my plasma. I’d sit there for an hour or so with a bigass needle in my arm, fiddling with a squeeze thing, trying to understand Eric Hobsbawm’s arguments about nations and nationalism. I won’t lie: it hurt. Next to me, my blood would be spun to separate the red blood cells from the plasma. The red cells would be pumped back into me along with some saline via a smaller needle within the big needle, I’d hop up slightly less confused about the origins of World War I, and I’d have $20 in cash. They had a bag of my bodily fluids. Now, if I were really on my shit, I’d go back a second time that week and get $30 (the $10 bonus was related to the plasma center not needing to duplicate tests from earlier in the week) for a bag of Tracy juice.

Why am I talking about selling my bodily fluids to buy Ladies Night South Beach Iced Teas, drugstore makeup, and gas for my car? Because it would take more than 4 bags of Tracy juice or Reader juice at 2001-2004 prices to buy 1 ounce of Good Genes.

When I think about the price of cosmetics, I sometimes think about the wages I was paid in the past. $5.15/hr for cutting fabric at JoAnn’s when I was 16, $6.25/hr plus tips for singing at Coldstone Creamery when I needed a summer job after college, $9.50/hr to organize a library in Midtown Manhattan filled with 19th-century books that turned my fingers black when I touched them.

Four bags of Tracy juice, 20 hours of cutting fabric instead of working on my tennis swing for the upcoming season, maybe 13 hours of scooping ice cream and singing “We Are Coldstone” to the tune of the Flintstones theme song, 11 hours of holding in sneezes while trying to create order out of a dead professor’s chaos. That’s what it would take to buy Good Genes.

Now, there are those who say that luxury skincare and makeup is a privilege and not a right, and that products like Good Genes are meant for those who can’t or won’t do mental calculations like these when considering a purchase. In some ways, I hear that. Nobody needs this product, I don’t need a luxury car, this isn’t life and death stuff. I absolutely do not think that anyone needs to be selling plasma or going into debt to get skincare. I certainly don’t think anyone should be resorting to buying this product from sketchy sellers in order to get it at more affordable prices.

This price problem isn’t specific to Good Genes. In general, lactic acid products tend to cost more than the more common glycolic acid for reasons I can’t seem to figure out.

I realize that beauty blogs and Instagrams are supposed to be self-care spaces with virtually no mention of anything outside the walls of Sephora, but I can’t shake the feeling that when you’re suggesting that people spend $105/oz. on a product, it’s not a bad thing to contextualize the purchase. And let’s be real: my photos aren’t good enough for this blog to be escapist; you must be here for something a bit more grounded in reality.

Would I put my body on the line and donate four bags of plasma to get Good Genes? Absofuckinglutely not. I still have those little plasma donation scars and I doubt even the great Good Genes could smooth them out entirely. Have I slapped down my own money more than once to buy this? You bet.

Something is broken here and it’s not the formula. The formula is great. I just wish it were more within reach for more people.

What I’m doing about the $105/oz. problem:  each year for the blog’s birthday, I try to do some sort of special project. In 2015, it was a comparison review of 15 oil cleansers. For 2016, my friend Chel from Holy Snails gave a reader a bottle of the completely unbuyable SnowShark serum. For 2017, I’m doing my most ambitious (and expensive, OTL) project to date: a comparison of all the lactic acid products I could find that might dupe, unseat, or stand in for Sunday Riley’s Good Genes. I began testing everything more than three months ago. I’ll start with a comparison post in April that talks about pH, percentages, textures, results, and prices. After that, I’ll start slowly posting standalone reviews of the contenders for the crown. [Update: here’s the lactic acid comparison post!]

What’s the big deal about lactic acid?

Sunday Riley Good Genes Review

For the longest time, I experienced AHAs thought glycolic acids and an occasional mandelic acid peel. That was it. Glycolic truly helped my skin, but it HURT. It felt like it was burrowing deep into my skin and I tended to end up flaky after using it despite mainly using glycolic lotions (that also left me kind of slick and oily).

Lactic acid was a major change. I first experienced it via some KP treatment body wipes made by Paula’s Choice (please god let these be made again). They smelled like stank, but they gently exfoliated everything, banished ingrown hairs, and left me feeling smooooth. I knew I wanted that stanky smoother for my face.

Lactic acid molecules are bigger than glycolic acid molecules, meaning that they don’t burrow as deeply into your skin. That means gentler exfoliation. AHAs also help attract water to your skin; lactic acid is more hydrating than glycolic.

If you have dry and sensitive skin, lactic acids are the shit. I don’t have dry skin and my skin tends to be pretty resilient with everything but cleansers, but I still love lactic acids because they work and they make my skin look better overnight. They also contribute to the long-term progress of my skin by helping old clogs surface.

Who Shouldn’t Use This

Lactic acid was originally made using cow milk, so it may not be suitable for people with milk allergies. By milk allergy, I mean a true milk allergy and not lactose intolerance; I’m lactose intolerant and I’ve tested more than 10 lactic acid products without a problem (it’s a completely different disorder related to digestive enzymes). All that said, apparently more lactic acids are now synthetic, so they may not even set off the skin of people with milk allergies.

Low-percentage (non-peel) AHAs like this should be suitable for those who are pregnant, but run it by your doctor.

The combo of lactic acid and Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) Root Extract potentially raises some concerns for darker skin tones. While the lactic acid molecules are bigger than those in glycolic and the concentration isn’t peel-like, the addition of Licorice Root Extract in many lactic acid products makes me nervous about recommending them to readers who want exfoliation, but want to maintain their natural melanin. [I’m not a scientist, so this paragraph is written for the sake of full disclosure, not settling the issue.] While AHAs like lactic acids exfoliate to lift off pigmentation that’s acquired due to exposure to the sun and hyperpigmentation from old blemishes, Licorice Root Extract actually works on the melanin to potentially change your melanin from inside. From Lotioncrafter: “Studies have shown it may be of benefit in skin lightening products as it contains liquiritin and isoliquertin, flavonoid containing glycosides which induce skin lightening by dispersing melanin pigment and enhancing more even pigment distribution.” The phrasing of this is vague– this could be referring to hyperpigmentation rather than natural melanin, so I’m unclear whether this could impact your natural skin tone and should be dodged, or whether it’s just going to affect damaged areas.

I don’t seek out skin lightening products and I suspect that there’s not enough Licorice Root Extract to make a big difference for my skin (my skin doesn’t look lighter after using Good Genes for some time). Licorice Root Extract is fairly common in kbeauty products, and we haven’t had reports of skin lightening from fans. That said, I can see why readers with darker skin would dodge this product and go for a mandelic acid, which is recommended by Makeup Artist’s Choice for exfoliation minus unwanted lightening. Sheryll Donerson from the Wanderlust Project wrote in xoNecole about her love of mandelic acid for exfoliation minus the possible melanin disruption.

Sunday Riley Good Genes Review

Sunday Riley Good Genes Review

About the brand: Sunday Riley has some amazing, seemingly undupable (so far) skincare products. At prices that drive me insane. I’ve been testing this since November and I’ve already rebought it twice, so…

Other Sunday Riley products I’ve reviewed:

What it is: a thin lactic acid lotion.

What does it do: it exfoliates your skin. That means potentially helping to bring clogs up to the surface (meaning you can purge from this product — read this guide from Lab Muffin on the difference between purging and breaking out). This is my main reason for loving AHAs; they “scale” the top layer of my skin, helping to get out long-buried, otherwise totally unmovable clogs. Removing that top layer of skin also helps to fade hyperpigmentation from past breakouts as well as pigmentation from the sun (aka. a tan). This product can also help your skin feel more moisturized and make pores appear smaller. The fact that Good Genes removes the top layer of your skin and exposes the baby skin underneath to the elements means that you really need to have a great daily sunscreen routine in place or else you’ll risk sunburns even more and potentially the sort of deep sun damage that can be really aging in the long-run.

How to apply it: start with one pump and spread it over your skin in a thin layer (no need to pile it on).

Where Sunday Riley says to put it in your routine: after Luna Oil. That…hmm. I tried this once and the Luna buffered the Good Genes, making it less sting-y, but also less effective at exfoliating my skin.

Where I think you should put it in your routine: in the AHA slot. Need a basic outline of when to use your products? Here you go:

visual guide to kbeauty
confused about where products go? visit my visual guide to skincare

Can your skin handle it? If you’re rocking a pretty hard routine with a BHA and prescription or OTC skin medicine like Curology or Differin already, and your skin is sort of walking a thin line between really getting somewhere and plunging into the pit of overexfoliation, introduce this very carefully. My skin is pretty tough when it comes to this stuff, but I’m in the middle of The Differin Purge, and I nearly broke my skin from doing a pH adjusting toner + BHA + Good Genes + Differin routine. If you’re in the middle of a purge due to medication already, hold off until you’d had three months on the meds to adjust.

Ingredients: Opuntia Tuna Fruit (Prickly Pear) Extract, Agave Tequilana Leaf (Blue Agave) Extract, Cypripedium Pubescens (Lady’s Slipper Orchid) Extract, Opuntia Vulgaris (Cactus) Extract, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract & Saccharomyses Cerevisiae (Yeast) Extract, Lactic Acid, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Butylene Glycol, Squalane, Cyclomethicone, Dimethicone, Ppg-12/Smdi Copolymer, Stearic Acid, Cetearyl Alcohol And Ceteareth20, Glyceryl Stearate And Peg-100 Stearate, Arnica Montana (Flower) Extract, Peg-75 Meadowfoam Oil, Glycyrrhiza Glabra (Licorice) Root Extract, Cymbopogon Schoenanthus (Lemongrass) Oil, Triethanolamine, Xantham Gum, Phenoxyethanol, Steareth-20, DMDM Hydantoin. CosDNA analysis.

Ingredient breakdown: this is where my lack of fucks about science frustrates me because all those funky extracts at the start of the list are supposedly just moisturizers. And yet, this product manages to soothe my skin like a boss. That could come from the Arnica Flower Extract, but in that case, HOLY SHIT SOMEONE PUT THAT IN EVERYTHING. There are some common potential acne and sensitive skin triggers here, but nothing is leaping off the list at 3 out of 5 or more. Sunday Riley is a trained chemist/formulator, and this formula is honestly a masterpiece in the original sense of the word.

pH level: 2.6. That’s actually pretty damn low for an AHA that you can buy for daily home use (although Biologique Recherche lotion P50 is even lower). The fairly low pH level could cause irritation, but I’ve found the formula to be pretty gentle, likely because there’s only 5% lactic acid in it; more at that level could be problematic.

Sunday Riley Good Genes Review
Sorry for the terrible photo — it’s hard to pH test and take photos at the same time!

% lactic acid: about 5%. I’ve seen some claim the percentage is 40% and that’s absolutely bonkers and incorrect. 40% at a pH of 2.6 would melt your face off, it would not be safe for home use. Sunday Riley’s official Facebook wrote that the actual percentage is about 5%, which becomes like 40% due to the low pH (credit to r/SkincareAddiction for that). Saying that something is like 40% due to a low pH makes no sense either, that’s not how this works, my god. We need to stop this acid escalation. 5% lactic acid at a low 2.6 pH is enough to give you those special tingles and gently melt off some nasty without leaving you fucked up. Why anyone is bringing forty-fucking-percent into the conversation is beyond me. 40% at a high pH would probably be less effective than this formula, urgh.

What type of skin might like this: this is perfect for dry, sensitive skin, but my oily, fairly resilient skin likes it, too. The “good for all skin types” claim isn’t a joke.

Packaging: The whole thing comes in the beauty version of a presentation box, sigh. It’s a sturdy glass bottle with a plastic pump. The plastic pump locks for travel. My beef with the packaging is that removing the pump to whack the remaining Genes out when the bottle gets low is damn near impossible.

Smell: it smells a bit sharp and biting as if it’s going to sting more than it does. There’s certainly a scent (more like 8 competing scents) and it isn’t something I look forward to smelling, but it isn’t as nasty as many lactic acids.

Sunday Riley Good Genes Review

Does it play well with makeup and sunscreen: I find that this makes the surface of my skin weird enough that makeup tends to look patchy on top of it. I use it at night as a result. That’s a bit strange since without makeup on top, this formula makes my skin feel super smooth after it sinks in.

Price: $105/£85.00 for 1oz./30ml

Value: staggeringly expensive. But it fucking works! That’s the problem! It’s expensive and it’s really great.

How the great Good Genes could be unseated by another lactic acid

There are a few places where I think Good Genes is potentially vulnerable against the field of contenders I’m testing.

  • price (obviously)
  • smell (Good Genes smells…sort of ok for a lactic, but it doesn’t smell good imo)
  • pH level/acid % (a lactic product with a higher pH and higher acid % could be gentler while just as effective)
  • packaging (it would be nice to be able to get every last bit out of the container)
  • cooperativeness with makeup

What’s good: it truly works to gently exfoliate and smooth my skin while leaving it calm; in some cases, dramatic smoothing like that has set off inflammation domino effects that lead to crazy purge cysts as multiple clogged pores become inflamed and merge into a super zit. Not so here. The lotion is thin enough that it spreads easily and the smell isn’t bad for a lactic acid (which usually smell like fermented sweat). This is truly one of those miraculous, overnight game-changers we’re always looking for.

What’s not good: the price and the packaging. It’s not a great smell.

Will I repurchase it: I’ve been snatching this up any time I see a way to get it under the $105 sticker price. I realized that I needed to write this review when I discovered a spare box tucked in my mail basket. PEOPLE: I’M STASHING BOTTLES OF GOOD GENES AROUND THE HOUSE THE WAY MY GRANDMA WHO LIVED THROUGH THE GREAT DEPRESSION STASHED CASH. DesPITe NeEDinG tO TeST 10+ OthER lACtiC aCIDs!!>!!>

Where to buy it

I really, strenuously recommend buying a product like Good Genes after testing a sample and then purchasing it at an authorized retailer with a great return and gift with purchase policy. Your local Sephora can actually make up a little sample of Good Genes for you at no charge from one of their tester bottles. If you’re lazy/shy/not-near-Sephora, you can buy [sealed] deluxe samples on eBay from other beauty fans (I’d stick to sellers with 100% ratings and clearly noted sample sizes); they often end up in beauty boxes or as GWPs but they do cost quite a bit even as samples. Many people stock up on this product during Sephora’s annual 15% and 20% off sales. I’ve thrown it into Cult Beauty orders to get their staggeringly amazing Goody Bags (released seasonally). I’ve also ordered it from Cult Beauty when the exchange rate was favorable.

Amazon | Sephora | Cult Beauty (UK) | Net-A-Porter | Space NK (US) | Barneys | Bloomingdales | Nordstrom | Dermstore

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