The beauty obsessives over at Birchbox recently conducted a survey of their users, covering a wide variety of topics from favorite celebrity haircut to regional trends in foundation use (there’s an infograph here with some, but not all, of the data). When asked, “What beauty products baffle you?” 44% of users said “sheet masks” (fair; what the shit is that?) and right behind at 40% was… BB Cream. So, while BB Cream may be (very) old news to some of you, many are still confounded by this supposed “miracle product.” What’s more–although it’s so popular that Sephora now devotes large floor displays to different versions–no one seems able to fully explain what it is. Some cursory internet research revealed, quite helpfully, that BB Cream is 1) like foundation, but not; 2) like tinted moisturizer, but not, and 3) Korean… but actually German. Which, obviously, illuminates nothing.

Hoping to get a cogent answer, I ventured into the Sephora flagship on 34th Street. I found one of those bright BB floor displays–this one featuring Stila, Smashbox, Too Faced, Boscia, Clinique, Dior, Dr Jart–and started slathering product all over my hands and wrists. One of the employees’ noticed my fervor and cheerfully asked if I needed help.

I told her I wanted to know about BB Cream. She replied by telling me which ones were the most popular.

“Right,” I said, “But… what is it?”

“It’s a-may-zing!”

“Okay.” I reassessed my strategy. “How is it not just a foundation with lighter coverage?”

“It’s better!” she said brightly.

“Okay. But why?”

“Well, it’s lighter and less heavy than foundation.”

“So… it’s like a tinted moisturizer?”

“No, it has better coverage.”

“So, it’s a tinted moisturizer with better coverage…?”

Her smile kind of hardened on her face. “No. It’s better!”

Look, I am not going to disparage this nice lady because she couldn’t answer my weirdly specific questions (and also because fucking with people is frequently one’s sole source of entertainment in retail). But! I can still be extremely frustrated by the sudden omnipresence of BB Cream without ever once being offered a viable explanation as to why it’s so great, other than big smiles and promises it is. I supposed, then, BB Cream was either the latest invention of a beauty industry that thrives on convincing women they need stuff they probably don’t… or a total miracle product that required no explanation because it was just that good.

And so…

Let’s begin with the most rudimentary information about BB: that those letters stand for Blemish Balm, Beauty Balm, Blemish Base or–perhaps most delightful to say–Beblesh Balm, depending on who you ask. Most blogs tell the story of it becoming wildly popular in Asia–where the beauty emphasis tends to fall on flawless, even complexion–when several Korean actresses endorsed it as their “secret weapon.” Song Hye Kyo was supposedly the first; her brand of choice is Skin79.

A few years ago, I saw my first BB Creams popping up in the little beauty sections of Asian grocery stores (which I troll constantly because they have the best snacks). Not long after, the product arrived in full force stateside because the beauty industry is forever roaming the earth like a ghost with unfinished business, looking for ways to innovate and capitalize. Once beauty heavy hitters like Garnier (owned by L’Oreal) and Clinique (owned by Estée Lauder) launched homegrown versions, other brands went scrambling. Before we knew it, luxury houses like Dior and Chanel–who called it CC Cream, preciously–were on it, too.

Which brings us to big, hyperbole-laden floor displays at Sephora:

You can't see it, but the bottom of the display declares in all caps, ALL-IN-ONE WONDER CREAM. I'm serious.

So, in addition to finding out what BB Cream was exactly–rather, if there was an appreciable difference between BB and a light foundation or tinted moisturizer/sunscreen–I wanted to know if it was worth all this hype. Of course, the answer to that is “nothing ever is” but I was still going to try my best or else I’d have to come up with 2000 words about, I don’t know, dry shampoo. Dry shampoo. I’m not a fucking scientist.

Since BB is hawked as a skincare product as much as a beauty tool (er, ALL! IN! ONE! WONDER! CREAM!) I began my quest to discover its wiles by talking to someone with a foot in both industries: Proactiv‘s resident beauty expert Amy Nadine, who’s served as makeup artist to stars like Kate Bosworth, Rachel Bilson and George Clooney. She counts herself a longtime fan of BB and was quick to explain that it offers multiple benefits (see those caps above). Nadine said, “I like that it’s a one-stop shop: evening out skin tone, has anti-aging components, SPF, moisturizes and covers.” She’s glad for the sudden explosion of popularity, too, because it means more options: “It’s come a long way since a chemist in Germany developed it in one shade that we used to have to follow with foundation. Now there are many brands at different price points that have come out with more shades so it can and should be worn alone.”

So it was Korean but actually German (maybe).

Although I was intrigued by the idea of a German chemist inventing the product in a lab somewhere, I next sought out a dermatologist. I prefer talking to derms about makeup because they tend to be a little more dour and unimpressed by new crazes in beauty but Debra Jaliman, author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist, also gave our mythic wonder cream a solid endorsement. She likes BB because it puts an SPF on women who might not ordinarily prioritize sun protection. She said:

They are multipurpose products. You find a moisturizer, foundation, sunblock, and primer all in one product. Some have an anti-aging ingredients (Clinique includes antioxidants) or brighteners (Garnier). The reason many people like them is that in this fast paced world, when people are so busy, instead of layering multiple products they can use just one. They generally give good coverage. I like a specific sunscreen with the best sun protective ingredients, so for me I prefer separate products. But for others it’s a good way to get people who wouldn’t always wear a sunscreen to actually wear one and have their skin look good in the process.

Okay, so BB is a multi-tasker; liked by makeup artists because you don’t have to layer on moisturizer/primer/foundation, and liked by derms who just want women to wear an SPF. We’re almost somewhere!

I was actually having a hard time finding anyone who’d say anything bad about BB, until I found Sebastien Tardif, a power-makeup artist who’s worked with some of the best models in the business: Naomi Campbell, Jessica Stam, Helen Christensen, Carmen Kass. He told me that he’s been working in Korea (and around Asia) since 2001, so BB is old news to him. Although he understands why women are curious about it given all the hype, his concern is that many BB Creams come in only one shade yet purport to adapt to any skintone: “The limited color range ‘one shade fits all’ approach is misleading, [it leaves] skin ashy and made up looking; in my opinion, BB Creams fail to meet customers’ personalized needs.” Tardif is launching Veil Cosmetics this month, which he says was inspired by the Asian emphasis on beautiful skin, but his equivalent product comes in 12 shades.

Similarly unsatisfied with the one shade approach was Bobbi Brown, a brand that has always specialized in faces (foundation, bronzer, blush, etc). They’d been tinkering away on a formula for some time before releasing their version. I spoke with Gabrielle Nevin, Executive Director of Product Development at Bobbi Brown and Alicia Sontag, SVP, Global Marketing about their BB Cream: “Skin has to look like skin–texture and color–[so it’s] imperative to have multiple shade offerings,” said Nevin, however it’s “sometimes difficult to obtain darker shades in higher SPF formulas.” Bobbi Brown now offers BBs in five shades (and a higher-than-average SPF 35).

Sontag chimes in to further praise the cream’s versatility, “It can be used as a combination product to save on steps of SPF, coverage, anti-aging and brightening and bring all into one. Different women can use it in many different ways to fit their needs. For a minimalist – it can be “all in one”. For a makeup junkie, it is the perfect step after their skin care routine and before their foundation/makeup routine.”

I was beginning to better understand the differences between your garden variety foundation or tinted moisturizer and BB Cream, although my natural skepticism hadn’t quite been abated–BB still sounded like a spruced up version of either, albiet with some good benefits.

So I went to the source.

I spoke with Claudia Dellenbusch, a rep for Dr. Christine Schrammek Kosmetik; Schrammek is our our German scientist from the ’50s and the woman who invented BB. According to the brand’s website, she “spent many years working in a skin clinic as well as in her own surgery, dealing with the skin problems of hundreds of patients.” According to Dellenbusch, blemish balm originated about 53 years ago, when Schrammek was developing an herbal peel (now a range of products dubbed Green Peel). She needed something gentle for sensitive skin post-peel and ended up using a cream “she produced herself in her own small laboratory.” Then things got interesting.

Blemish balm was introduced to the German market in 1967. Per the Schrammek mythology, the smooth, flawless complexion it offered made the product popular with Korean nurses working in Germany, who in turn brought it back with them to Korea. Though Blemish balm wasn’t specifically created with the Asian market mind, it swiftly gained ground there: “There has been a company representative in Korea since the 1980s,” Dellenbusch said, “When Dr. Schrammek accepted the invitation of a cosmetic representative to travel to Korea in 1985, blemish balm had already become quite popular there. Not only in Korea, but also in Japan there was a breakthrough.” Since the 1990s, blemish balm had been “referred to in Asian markets as ‘BB cream,’ and so the name of an entire product category was born. The ‘hype’ started there and came now back to the rest of the world.”

As far as Dellenbusch and the team at Schrammek Kosmetik are concerned, all the rest are imitators: “There are a lot of products on the market which call themselves Blemish Balm or just BB cream.” The biggest difference is primarily in “the range of application.” Their formula boasts “an anti-inflammatory, regenerative and soothing effect. Blemish balm not only conceals impurities, but also helps regulate dysfunctional skin processes and alleviate skin problems.” The original blemish balm, essentially, is all about skincare, while “[other] ‘BB creams’ are more created as a tinted, light make-up.”

Basically, BB creams are an offshoot of this blemish balm, a lab-developed cure-all for a variety of skin conditions: “emergency help for pimples and blackheads, “an anti-itch treatment for insect bites, alleviating the “pain of lip blisters,” healing “mild burns and slight wounds,” concealing “impurities, redness, enlarged pores and hyperpigmentation,” with an all-around “anti-inflammatory and soothing effect [that] supports the regeneration process after a laser treatment.”

Which brings us back to our original question!

…And, sadly, a pretty unsatisfying conclusion: BB cream is actually no one thing. Once it became solidified as a beauty juggernaut in the Asian market in the ’90s–leading to the inception of brands like Hanskin, the first company to specialize in BB (here’s one)– it branched into too many different products to talk about as anything other than a (very broad) category. There are some basic features most BB Creams have–tint, coverage, an SPF, moisturizer, acne-fighting chemicals, anti-aging components, nebulously “purifying” stuff–but there are no hard and fast rules. Some brands specialize in a straight-forward flawless complexion, others in moisturizing, still others in longwear, and more in things like whitening and anti-aging. Many brands offer products that promise to be “more than a BB,” like Lancome‘s version which skews toward a lifting and firming  effect, or Dior’s, which emphasizes its moisturizing properties. Basically, there’s no one kind of BB cream, as they are all different species spawned from the skincare-oriented original blemish balm.

…But that’s nothing against BB; which brings us to the second part of our search, Should We Care? My answer is, yes, it’s actually pretty great. For all the hype, BB has splintered off into some many different specializations and, for girls who don’t like heavy, full-coverage but want a little more security than tinted SPF, it means there’s suddenly a shitload of options. What BB cream you want is, of course, entirely up to your specific skintype and needs stemming from that, but I’ve tried to be helpful and put together this little list of BB Creams We Have Tried & Liked.

As is the case with all beauty products, go test them first, especially with stuff that goes on your face. Go to Sephora, find that floor display and put on as many as you can, because they really do offer different things. In fact, their only real unifying characteristic is that they’re… lighter than foundation but (generally) cover better than a tinted moisturizer. So it’s not just a makeup store employee platitude; it’s actually kind of true.