The claims manufacturers are making about BB creams are astounding: some are "miraculous", one nourishes your complexion and protects it from free-radical damage, while another contains ginkgo water and 50 kinds of botanical complexes to help make skin healthy. They one-up each other on the number of beauty products they claim to replace as a five-in-one, nine-in-one or all-in-one "super-make-up".

If you believe the make-up companies, it's time to throw out all your skincare and cosmetics products and replace them with a one-step BB solution. But should you follow their advice?

What is BB cream?

According to Paula Begoun, author of the popular Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me guide to cosmetics and creator of the Paula's Choice skincare and cosmetic line, BB (beauty balm) cream was originally developed in Germany. It was subsequently adopted with great enthusiasm around Asia, and finally spread to the rest of the world.

Many of the BB creams available on the Australian market come in just one, two or three shades. "There's nothing in the formula that can magically match your skin tone, but western BB creams tend to be sheer and have a thinner, more lotion-like texture, so it's easier to match a variety of skin tones when there is less coverage," says Begoun.

A good-quality BB cream should be a good all-rounder. "If a BB cream is well formulated it should contain beneficial ingredients beyond sunscreen, and sometimes these ingredients [can] improve dark spots, brighten an uneven skin tone, or help further reduce signs of ageing," says Begoun.

But despite the big claims and fancy advertising campaigns, she doesn't believe BB creams are in general a revolutionary new product. "A state-of- the-art foundation or tinted moisturiser can do the same [things as a BB cream], so it doesn't mean BB creams are necessarily better. [Cosmetic companies] are just marketing a name, not a new category of product, at least not in the West."

User trial

To put these beauty balms to the test, we bought 10 BB creams and gave them to a user panel of 34 women of varying ages, skin types and tones.

The women were divided into two groups and each was randomly assigned five creams to trial in a blind test. Products were placed into identical plain packaging. Each one was tested in random order by between 13 and 20 triallists, who used the cream for three consecutive days.

We then asked them to rate each cream on the following:
  • texture
  • coverage
  • whether it was an effective moisturiser
  • fragrance

We also asked them whether they would buy the product, assuming the price was about the same as the products they usually used.

For the product characteristics, two thumbs up represent a product that was outstanding, one thumb up indicates a comparatively good performance, one thumb down illustrates a product that performed comparatively poorly, while two thumbs down denote a product that performed particularly poorly. No thumbs were given for comparatively average performance.

BB cream user trial Price($) Triallists who would buy/No. who tested
Texture   Coverage Moisturising Fragrance Where to buy
Garnier BB Cream Miracle Skin Perfector 13.95
9/19 3 garnier.com.au
Natio Pure Mineral Skin Perfecting BB Cream 14.95 6/13 3 3 4 natio.com.au
Palmer's Eventone BB Cream 9.99 6/19 3 My Chemist,
Chemist Warehouse
Smashbox Camera Ready BB Cream 54.95
6/20 Kit Cosmetics
Missha M Signature Real Complete B. B Cream 36.90 3/14 3 missha.com.au
Bobbi Brown BB Cream 60 3/15 4 4 bobbibrown.com.au
Jane Iredale Glow Time Full Coverage Mineral BB Cream 72 3/18 2 janeiredale.com
Lioele BB Beyond the solution 23.95 2/14 3 liole.com.au
Rimmel BB Cream 12.95 2/18 rimmellondon.com/au
Alex Cosmetic Alex Organics Pure BB Cream 79.80 1/15 1 3 1 1 Call 1300 301 007 for stockists

Great all-rounders

The Australian-made Natio was a top pick among our triallists when it came to moisturising, was a perfect shade match for almost all of the 13 women who tried it, and six who trialled it said they would buy it. Natio also rated very well for texture, being described as silky, creamy and velvety. "It made my skin look clearer without looking like I was covering it up," said one. However, some triallists didn't like its fragrance, and while others felt the coverage was sufficient, several commented on its sheerness. "I would not buy it. It did not seem to have any effect on my skin," said one triallist.

The Garnier BB Cream performed very well in our trial. Almost three-quarters of the 19 women who tried it found the shade matched their skin perfectly, and several liked its texture and fragrance. Eleven triallists felt it moisturised effectively, and 15 rated its coverage as very or somewhat effective. But where some found the cream's coverage sufficient, others found it light. "It wasn't good at covering blemishes and I would use concealer in addition to this product," said one triallist.

Despite the SPF 15 rating on both products, neither provides broad spectrum protection, so they are not a replacement for sunscreen.

Best sun protection

Almost all the BB creams we bought claim to provide sun protection. But we dug a little deeper, and discovered all is not as it seems. UVA and UVB radiation contributes to skin cancer, and UVA is responsible for visible signs of ageing. BB creams (and other sunscreen-containing products) that only carry an SPF number without the words "broad spectrum" on their labels may not necessarily protect from UVA radiation, so they don't provide adequate sun protection.

According to Craig Sinclair, chair of the Public Health Committee of Cancer Council Australia, the quantity of sunscreen required for sun protection on the face (about one teaspoon) and the frequency of reapplication required (every two hours) is generally not achieved with a cosmetic product, so it's not a suitable sunscreen replacement.

Both Jane Iredale and Missha creams have an SPF 25 rating and make claims about providing UVA coverage. While neither product specifies "broad spectrum" protection, the Jane Iredale is recommended by the international Skin Cancer Foundation, while Missha's features UVA-protecting titanium dioxide and zinc oxide early in its ingredient list, meaning they appear in a high concentration in the product.

Overall, the Jane Iredale, available in six shades, divided our triallists. Almost all of the women described the cream's texture as thick, with more than a quarter finding it pasty, while those with sensitive skin said they wouldn't buy this product. However, 10 triallists reported not needing other make-up or moisturiser when using this BB cream.

For details of Missha's performance in our trial, see below.

Korean formulations

According to Paula Begoun, most BB creams sold in the West are "little more than tinted moisturisers. In contrast, many BB creams sold in Asia have thicker textures and higher levels of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide for sun protection, and are intended to leave a white cast on the skin. They're also often formulated with antioxidants and skin-lightening ingredients."

Several Korean creams are now available in Australia, including the Missha and Lioele creams, but those with Western expectations of cosmetics won't necessarily like either cream, as our trial results confirm.

Lioele is available in one shade in Australia, while Missha comes in two, which may hamper finding a good skin tone match. Half of the 14 women who tried Lioele found the shade too light, saying it left them with a white, pasty or even ghostly complexion. Almost half of those who tried Missha also found it too light. "In Asian countries there is an accepted desire to have a lighter skin tone, and they are less concerned about matching their skin colour than women in western-oriented countries," explains Begoun.

Many Korean BB creams, including the Missha, use skin-whitening ingredients in their formulation. And while the Missha contains a sunscreen, the Lioele does not.

Not tested on animals

These four creams are the only products in our trial certified by a third party as not tested on animals.

Our triallists generally disliked the texture and fragrance of Alex Cosmetic BB Cream, the most expensive cream in our trial, and found it unsuitable as a moisturiser. However, this may be in part due to the fact that this cream is designed as a specialist product, and claims to heal and calm the skin, particularly after cosmetic treatments such as peels or laser procedures.

Our triallists were split on what the cream smelt like – from clay to putty and herbs to lavender – but many commented on its unpleasantness overall. "This one looked like a dreadful colour in the pot but matched well with my skin when it was on my face. This was its only redeeming feature," said one triallist. "The colour was a pinky-brown that sat on top of the skin and looked really unnatural," said another.

Palmer's, Bobbi Brown, Garnier, Rimmel and Missha claim on their packaging or websites or via communication with CHOICE that they don't test on animals, but the reality is murky. Some make wishy-washy statements such as "against animal testing" on their products; others are less equivocal, but this doesn't necessarily match their actual practices.

By law (with limited exemptions from mid-2014), China requires cosmetics sold in its market to be tested on animals. As a result, companies that sell their products in China (unless they are manufactured or wholly packaged locally) – which include several of those discussed here – will have had their products tested on animals.

Smashbox Camera Ready BB Cream was a middle-of-the-road BB cream. Its texture was described as creamy, smooth or velvety by several triallists, with more than half liking it. However, only six of the 20 women who tried it said they'd buy it. With five shades available in the range, it might be easier to find a good match for your skin tone. "It covered my face evenly, but I needed to apply more on the nose and chin. It did not last all day and became spotty later on," said one participant.

About the rest

  • Palmer's Eventone BB Cream performed reasonably well. A good proportion of the triallists described its texture as smooth or silky, although several described the coverage as light. "To me it seemed like it had been thinned and was a cheaper-quality make-up," reported one triallist.
  • While relatively few women said they would buy the Bobbi Brown BB Cream, it rated comparatively very well on coverage and moisturising characteristics, and several triallists felt it could replace a number of their skin and cosmetics products. "The coverage was the best of the [four] products I have tried so far. The evenness was slightly affected by the thicker texture of the product," said one triallist.
  • While the Rimmel BB Cream didn't perform particularly badly, it didn't perform particularly well either. "I found it to be light, smooth and fragrant, and it gave reasonable coverage," said one triallist. "However, I found that by lunchtime each day, I had to reapply to strategic places on my face due to nose blowing, face touching and so on."