I'm not a dermatologist and don't claim to be an expert in the area. This is simply what I've learned that works best for me.
1. I focus on brands that have less hype and advertising around them: The brands that advertise a lot or put their products in fancy bottles will mark up their price to compensate for this. I focus on brands that seem self-sustaining without much advertising: Roc retinol products are a favorite. The retinol is high potency for over the counter, combined with ingredients that work in harmony with it, and is packaged in a way that protects the ingredients. I also recently tried a brand called Exuviance that I really like (and will review shortly).
2. I don't just look for words like "vitamins" in face creams; I look at the concentration level and the packaging. Vitamin C needs to be listed as stabilized, meaning it won't oxidize as quickly, and the potency needs to be at least 10%. Also, the packaging should be opaque to protect the concentration. Many products will claim to have vitamins in them, but if the packaging is bad (offers exposure to light and air easily) and the concentration is low, it's pretty much useless. I also look at brands that combine anti-oxidants, like C and E, so that they can work in synergy. A favorite brand is Philosophy: Higher end, but it's no-frills and delivers.
3. I avoid a lot of bells and whistles: I see face creams more for their prevention than correction possibilities. This is why I focus on products with topical anti-oxidants and retinol. With all of our advances in this area, face creams are still very limited at reversing major signs of skin damage. Any product that promises you the world with little science to explain how is a red flag.
Me at 35