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What’s a Gel Cream and Why Does It Keep Selling Out at Sephora?

The texture is like nothing you’ve ever felt before.

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An open jar of Tatcha Water Cream on a marble tray
Tatcha Water Cream ($68)

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To be frank, there are a lot of BS new beauty products out there right now. Gel creams, also sometimes called water creams, water gels, or (god help us) water gel creams, are not one of them. They are great. And don’t just take my word for it — they’ve been selling out at Sephora.

So what exactly is it? A gel cream is a hydrating product that usually comes in a jar. But it doesn’t have that thick, creamy, oily texture that more traditional moisturizers in jars have — think Jell-O instead of mayo. They feel better on your skin than watery lotions, but are much less gloppier than creams. Gel creams are slightly jiggly, kinda slippery, and usually a translucent, milky color.

Gel creams contain a lot of humectant ingredients, which means ingredients that attract and retain water, making them super hydrating. They also visibly plump your skin a bit. If you read the ingredient list on these products, you’ll see the humectants glycerin, ingredients in the glycol family, and hyaluronic acid all popping up close to the beginning of the list, meaning they’re there in high concentrations.

These products also usually have a hefty dose of silicones (look for ingredients that end in -siloxane or -ethicone), which often get a bad rap in skincare but actually attract moisture and have emollient properties. They’re what give tons of products that characteristic slip feeling.

What you generally won’t find are oils and heavy butters, which make these a godsend for acne-prone and oily skin types. They also absorb so much more easily and can even act as makeup primers in a pinch. Different brands will then toss in their own proprietary ingredient mixtures and make claims about other things their gel creams can do, but they are first and foremost for hydration.

While I can’t conclusively pinpoint the first gel cream to ever appear on this earth, what I do know is that Korean cosmetics companies started making them several years ago, and recently western brands have followed suit. Which brings us to Sephora.

Over the last four months, Sephora has launched two gel creams that have caused a frenzy with shoppers. The first, Peter Thomas Roth’s Water Drench Hyaluronic Cloud Cream ($52), launched in January, and shoppers promptly wiped the shelves clean. (I saw evidence of this at my own rather mellow Sephora at the time.)

PTR’s gel cream contains a whopping 30 percent hyaluronic acid, and it has the most satisfying slip and no fragrance. I felt like it locked in my serums and kept my face plumped up and soft all day. Peter Thomas Roth himself said the company has never spent more money or resources on any other launch in the company’s history, so that helps explain why people were ready to buy it. Per Roth, it outsold both the company’s and the retailer’s forecasted sales. Sephora and Ulta have both been fully restocked as of this month.

Then there’s the recently launched Tatcha Water Cream ($68). Tatcha is an American company whose products are inspired by geishas’ beauty routines and made in Japan. It’s a beautiful line and has been pretty buzzy since its inception. This gel cream, however, took the brand to the next level. It’s sold out twice since it launched on April 1st and, as of this writing, is still sold out at Sephora, at least online.

Tatcha’s gel cream is a bit richer than PTR’s, is lightly scented, and is presented in a light blue jar with a clever gold-colored holder on top for the little scoop. The brand claims it has some anti-aging and pore-tightening properties. It’s truly a gorgeous product. (Hot tip: You can buy it right now at QVC for $61.82, about $6 cheaper than its usual price.)

Trendy products are fun and all, but there are some tried-and-true brands out there that you should know about if gel creams sound like something you’d be into:

Belif Aqua Bomb ($38): This reasonably priced gem is an OG K-beauty best seller that also did really well when it launched at Sephora a few years ago. (Garnier has recently caused a bit of a scandal n the K-beauty community by launching Moisture Bomb ($12.79), a product that takes quite a bit of, uh, inspiration from the original Belif.)

Laneige Water Bank Moisture Cream ($35): This is another classic K-beauty brand that was sold at Target until recently, and it will soon be debuting at Sephora. It’s a great first gel cream to try and see if you like the texture.

Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel Cream ($19.99): Neutrogena jumped onto the bandwagon with this basic dye-free, fragrance-free version two years ago.

Sunday Riley Tidal Brightening Enzyme Water ($65): I love this formula, which in addition to its amazing hydrating properties has ingredients that can tackle dark spots and provide a bit of exfoliation.

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