I am a fellow art historian (uh...sadly I have to have a day job to support my research but what the heck) and since I love research here is a question I could probably figure out if I really wanted to. Many...if not all of the major magazine are full of "Must Haves". Real Simple (which is hardly real or simple) does reviews called Road Tests on products. I have always wondered whether there is a correlation between recommendations and the magazine's advertisers? Perhaps this is hard to answer because everyone gets free products to review. And there are sooo many advertisers in these magazines it would be hard to avoid a conflict of interest. Perhaps you have a take on this?
Glad to hear from a fellow art lover! Your question is a good one, and one I've thought about myself many times. It's funny that you brought up Real Simple, as it's one of my favorite magazines (my mom got me into it). When they do the road test reviews, it seems like they use regular people to try the products, which I give them credit for. But I think with every magazine there's reason to be suspicious that there's a lot of editing involved (these reviews aren't long anyway, usually just a couple of quotations) and editors are purposefully leaving out any negative information, since every brand is an advertiser or potential advertiser, and they don't want to hurt their relationships with the brands.
When I'm looking for a product to try or want to learn more about it, I generally go to MakeupAlley and look through their reviews. The reviewers are (most likely) regular women with no connection to the industry and if you read through 20-30 short reviews, you get a good idea for the product and what type of people it works for. It's just another case where the more opinions you have, the more you'll know what to expect. I'll check The Beauty Brains or sometimes Paula Begoun if the product makes questionable claims, or to check that the product doesn't have any ingredients that might irritate my sensitive skin.
And if you can try a product before buying, definitely do it. Sephora and Nordstrom are two retailers with a great reputation for giving out generous samples, then accepting returns if you're unhappy with the product. It's always good to check your store's return policy on cosmetics before you buy something, especially if it's pricey.
I'm a really skeptical person, so I hope I haven't turned you off beauty mags or blogs, but I'll use their reviews as a jumping off point to do more research before I buy. I expect readers to do the same things in response to reading one of my product reviews. Every review is subjective and I can only speak to how well (or poorly) the product worked on my body, with my particular skin and hair type. What appeals to me in terms of texture, scent or packaging could be a major turn-off to another person. But as I've pointed out before, I make it a point to always state when I've gotten a product for free, so you never have to question whether I'm biased because it was a gift.
How do you guys approach beauty product reviews online and in magazines? Any other tips for researching products before buying?