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Sometimes walking down the skin care aisle feels like visiting Times Square. It’s the ads! Everywhere! Promising you entry to the world of *insert new trend here* skin!
But even if you buy every celebrity face care product or follow your favorite influencer’s “Get Ready with Me” video, replicating routines never, if rarely, give results for flawless skin. So, what gives?
The often-forgotten piece in the skin care puzzle is genetics. There are a handful of blessed people who’ll always have gorgeous skin, no matter what they do to it.
Another piece is technology. A model’s dewy skin might look pore-less on screen but keep in mind that true and scarred skin texture is often edited or blurred away. It’s not easy to spot Photoshop edits these days, so take a step back from your phone if you feel like your skin standards are becoming skewed by social media.
Third trick in the skin care book is the dollars. Whether eating habits, product, or environment, the more dough you spend, the more access you have to the attention of experts, personalized recommendations, and high quality food or tools.
But spending money to buy someone else’s routine isn’t the same as personalizing your own skin care routine. There is no one size fits all for skin health. All skin types, environments, allergies, and/or sensitives require different products and adjustments in a routine.
As for what adjustments you do need to make? We’re here to help. With advice from dermatologists and licensed estheticians alike, we rounded up the best advice on how to build your skin care routine, step-by-step and in the right order, from the ground up.
Keep your skin-pectations low
- Products can take anywhere from 4–6 weeks to work.
- Take it slow and keep your line-up exclusive when courting new products.
- Don’t expect overnight results. That’s a recipe for disappointment and possibly a damaged skin barrier.
Psst: Based on dermatologist input, popular reviews, and editor’s picks, we’ve also included product recommendations for each step of the routine.
$ = under $10
$$ = $10–30
$$$ = over $30
For beginners out there who don’t want to spend a lot of money, or don’t want to overwhelm their skin, this one’s for you. Dr. Angelo Landriscina, a dermatologist, tells us that, “All you need for your face is a gentle cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen, that’s really it. Everything else might be helpful, but it isn’t essential.”
Stick to this 5-minute or less routine to keep your skin healthy and happy.
|cleanser||remove dirt, oil, bacteria, dead skin cells; provides a clean and cleared surface for product application||acne prevention, maintaining pH levels, skin hydration|
|moisturizer||skin hydration||dry skin, skin barrier balance|
|sunscreen||sun protection (Dr. Landriscina says that this is the most important step in a routine “without a doubt. Without it, everything else you’re doing is in vain.”)||hyperpigmentation, wrinkles, skin cancer prevention — just about everything skin health|
Depending on the type of tap water you’re using and/or your cleanser, toners with hydrating or active acids might be a helpful step prepping your skin well for the products that come after. People who wear makeup might find this step helpful with cleaning and fortifying their skin.
How long does a product take to work?
Dana Murray, licensed esthetician, notes that, “The general rule with all skin care is if you don’t start seeing results with a product in 4 to 6 weeks, it may not be working for you.”
That’s just to start seeing results. For some people with reactive skin and/or sensitivities, Hadiyah Daché, licensed esthetician (aka The Fairy Glow Mother) says, “It can take up to 3 months for acne lesions to be visible.”
If you’ve ever felt confused by what stopped working (or why you’re breaking out when nothing changed), an “old” product could be the culprit. This is why you should introduce new products one at a time. “You risk having a reaction and not knowing what caused it,” says Landriscina.
After (or even right next to) sunscreen, most skin professionals agree that cleansing, to remove the debris, unnecessary oils, and dead skin cells, is crucial to your routine. “A proper cleanse is the foundation to a good skin care routine,” says Murray. But you probably don’t have to go as hard as you think.
If your skin is ultra-sensitive or dry, it could be a good idea to relegate cleanser to nighttime use only and wash with water in the mornings for maximum gentleness and minimum stripping.
Let’s get into cleanser recommendations by skin type
- Dry. Oil and cream cleansers are the way to go for dry skin. Marie Veronique Pure + E.O. Free Oil Cleanser ($$$) cleanses without stripping the skin of its protective oils, and balances the skin with antioxidants to boot.
- Oily. CeraVe is beloved by dermatologists far and wide for a reason, and their Foaming Face Wash ($$) is no exception. It cleanses and removes excess oil, but also features ceramides, niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid to protect, soothe, and hydrate.
- Combination. It’s all about balance when it comes to combo-skin. Missha Super Aqua Cell Renew Snail Cleansing Foam ($) foams mildly to remove oil without drying the skin, and even features snail mucin to promote cell turnover.
- Sensitive. Using a cream cleanser allows for you to gently clean your skin without drying or stripping it. We like Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Hydrating Daily Facial Cleanser ($) because it’s fragrance free and non-irritating.
- Worried about acne? Aveeno Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser ($) is a cult favorite. It features salicylic acid to treat breakouts but won’t dry out the skin. The lower price is the icing on the cake.
Should I double cleanse?
In short, situationally, but probably not every day.
Double cleansing had its start in Korea and, like much of Korea’s innovative beauty practices, has spread around the world. The idea is to start with an oil or balm cleanser to break down oils, makeup, and sunscreen, and then to move on to a water-based cleanser that targets the pores.
It’s best for makeup wearers or for people who feel like an oil slick at the end of the day and for whom one cleanser isn’t cutting it. Otherwise, you’ll want to stick to a single cleanse on a normal day.
Every time we talk toners, there’s a history lesson — and there’s a reason for that! “Traditionally, toner was designed to restore balance to the skin’s pH as soaps used during cleansing were very stripping. Today, cleansers are generally pH balanced and toners now serve a few different functions,” explains Daché.
“First, when applied using a cotton round, the toner step can pick up any excess dirt you may have missed during cleansing. Secondly, skin care products are best applied on damp skin but most people completely dry their faces after cleansing. So toners also help to re-dampen the skin. I also like to think of toning as adding your first layer of hydration.”
Toners nowadays typically also feature some active ingredients for treating skin concerns. As Daché mentions, you’ll want to apply them as a mist directly onto your face or with a cotton pad.
Shopping for a toner? Keep an eye on these ingredients:
- Hyaluronic acid. Hada Labo Gokujyun Hyaluronic Acid Lotion ($$) features four hyaluronic acids to boost hydration in dry skin before moisturizing. Don’t be confused by the name, Japanese brands typically refer to toners as lotions.
- Rose water. Rose water can have a host of benefits for the skin, from soothing to graceful aging to healing acne scars. This Heritage Store Rose Petals Rosewater Facial Toner ($$) also features aloe vera for additional soothing and healing properties.
- AHA/BHA acids. Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA’s) and Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA’s) are chemical exfoliants that can treat acne, skin texture, and acne scarring. Check out COSRX Clarifying Treatment Toner ($$) if you’re looking to ease your way into chemical exfoliation.
- Tea tree oil. Have whiteheads that look super easy to pop? Avoid that by using tea tree oil in your routine. For people with acne prone skin, a toner like The Body Shop’s Tea Tree Skin Clearing Mattifying Toner ($), might help fight surface bacteria.
- Brightening ingredients. Ingredients like licorice extract, birch extract, and vitamin C can serve to brighten the skin and fade discoloration like acne scarring. Acwell licorice pH balancing toner ($$) hits the mark by also being a pH balancing toner, which can help with damaged acid mantles (“the barrier to microbes,” says Landriscina).
While a serum is not a necessary part of a skin care routine, they are beloved by dermatologists and estheticians alike for their concentrated ability to target specific issues. Skin plumping, brightening, hydrating, acne-fighting, wrinkles and fine lines — serums can target whatever you need.
Here are a few ingredients you can look out for in your serums when you shop
- Hyaluronic acid. Quench dehydrated skin with a little help from HA. Landriscina is a fan of NIOD’s Multi-Molecular Hyaluronic complex ($$$) because “it has 15 different weights of hyaluronic acid which work at different levels of the skin in order to maximize hydration. I slap this on whenever I want to look like a plump, dewy angel.”
- Vitamin C / Antioxidant serums. Murray feels that everyone should be applying an antioxidant serum in the morning. Dr. Jing Liu, board-certified dermatologist, agrees and recommends a daily vitamin C serum to all. Landriscina is loving Naturium’s Vitamin C Complex Serum ($$), “[non-irritating and] great for anyone concerned with hyperpigmentation or other signs of aging.” Murray, on the other hand, loves Maelove’s The Glow Maker ($$) because “it contains vitamin C, ferulic acid, vitamin E, and hyaluronic acid” to brighten and hydrate the skin.
- Niacinamide. Niacinamide is an ingredient that can just about do it all — it can soothe acne, and rosacea, reduce pore size, smooth wrinkles and much more. Liu recommends The Ordinary’s Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% serum ($) for all skin types.
- Retinoids. Those who are concerned about acne and aging skin alike should look to retinoids. They can be a bit harsh, so try easing your way in with this affordable serum from The Ordinary ($).
- Peptides. Plump up your skin with a peptide serum. Murray recommends Alastin’s Restorative Skin Complex ($$$) for all skin types. “It’s a peptide serum with niacinamide so it helps to stimulate collagen and elastin and helps with hyperpigmentation.”
- Snail mucin. This ingredient got a huge start in 2018, around the same time K-Beauty became mainstream. Through a few clinical trials they found that snail mucin is a great moisturizer and helps heal wounds faster. Acne-prone folks with dry skin, you’ll probably like Benton’s Snail Mucin Essence ($$).
Do I need an eye cream?
According to Landriscina, “Absolutely not. Typically, eye creams have a HUGE markup and there’s nothing that necessarily sets them apart from regular moisturizers. However, if you have different skin care goals for your eye area than the rest of your face, they might be useful.”
For Liu, they aren’t necessary either, but she does note: “They are formulated and tested for the skin area which is more sensitive. Expectation: moisturizing may help with fine lines and puffiness, [but] will not improve dark circles.” Basically, you’ll want to manage your expectations and assess your goals and sensitivities before splurging.
“Moisturizers are an essential part of a good daily skin care routine (a.m. and p.m.) regardless of skin type,” says Murray. “It really doesn’t vary by skin type because even the oiliest of skin can benefit from a skin appropriate moisturizer (like a gel-cream). Otherwise the skin can become unbalanced, dehydrated (lacking water) and over produce oil to compensate for the dehydration.”
Liu agrees, “Anytime our skin (e.g. hands) gets wet, we should be moisturizing, otherwise it will lead to dry skin and hand dermatitis.”
Climate and season may also affect your moisturizing routine too. “For most others, I do generally recommend a heavier moisturizer during the winter and/or applying an occlusive nightly during the winter to keep moisture locked in. [But] some oily types just don’t respond well to heavier moisturizers,” says Daché. “If that’s you, don’t feel bullied to keep what [was] suggested.”
Here’s a moisturizer breakdown by skin type
- Dry. Dry skinned angels will want to look to thicker creams with hyaluronic acid to relieve tight skin. CeraVe’s Moisturizing Cream ($$) also has ceramides to keep skin happy and hydrated all day.
- Oily. While it’s still crucial to moisturize oily skin, you may prefer to stick to lighter formulations to avoid feeling weighed down. This lightweight gel formulation from Clinique ($$$) should do just the trick.
- Sensitive. This skin type requires gentle hands and gentle ingredients, so we recommend simple, fragrance-free formulations with calming ingredients. Aveeno’s Ultra-Calming Nourishing Night Cream ($$) is formulated specifically for sensitive skin and features oat and feverfew to soothe and repair.
- Normal. Holy hydration Batman! You can keep it simple with products like the affordable, vegan, and cruelty-free e.l.f. Holy Hydration! Face Cream ($$) formulation. This offers hyaluronic acid and peptides to plump and keep the skin moist.
- Combination. It can be a Goldilocks act for combo skin to find a moisturizer for dry patches while keeping oily areas feeling light. Clinique’s Moisture Surge 72-Hour Auto-Replenishing Hydrator ($$$) has an airy formula that’s made to deliver continued hydration throughout the day.
What about face oils and night creams?
Murray simplifies face oils for us: “For normal, dry and combination skin a face oil can be mixed with moisturizer to boost moisture.” It’s not a replacement for your moisturizer, but it will help to seal in the work your moisturizer is doing for your skin.
And try not to “apply facial oils beneath or on top of SPF,” says Daché. According to her, it could break down your sunscreen formula and make it less effective. Keep oils use to nighttime, when possible.
This also explains why night creams are a PM step. In a nutshell, some night creams might have ingredients which could make the skin more sensitive to sun damage when applied during the day.
Check the product’s instructions and warnings before use and if you see these kinds of warnings, stick to nighttime use. Be doubly sure not to skip out on your sunscreen the next day.
Every expert we spoke to stressed how crucial daily sunscreen use is. Indoors or outdoors, rain or shine, winter or summer, skipping sunscreen is one of the biggest mistakes a person can make, says Landriscina. “Without proper sun protection, everything else [from your routine] will be useless,” he stresses.
The sun is very damaging to the skin, can speed up the aging process, and, most severely, increase your risk for skin cancer.
After you moisturize, make sure you’re applying an adequate amount to protect your whole body. A shot glass’ worth should the job on average, or 2 to 3 tablespoons on the body and 1 to 2 for the face and neck.
Be sure to reapply after 8 hours or earlier if anything happens that could remove the sunscreen, like sweating, swimming, or friction.
To shop for sunscreen, check out our article on best sunscreen by skin type here. Here’s a preview of our selects:
|oily skin||Zinc has soothing properties that can help to control oil and soothe inflammatory acne, so oily skin types might enjoy this gentle zinc-oxide-based mineral formula from Elta MD ($$$) for protection.|
|sensitive skin||Sensitive skin might benefit from a mineral sunscreen over a chemical formula to avoid irritation. Baby your skin with Aveeno Baby’s Continuous Protection Sensitive Skin Zinc Oxide Sunscreen ($$), it’s ultra-gentle and is even tear-free!|
|eco-friendly||Thinksport’s Safe Sunscreen ($) is the full package. It’s affordable, free of biologically harmful chemicals, reef-safe, cruelty-free, vegan, and even gluten-free. Now that’s a sunscreen.|
|dark skin||Long have the melanin-blessed labored to find a sunscreen that would not leave us grey or ghostly. Enter Black Girl Sunscreen ($$), no white cast product that also features carrot seed oil, cocoa-seed butter, and avocado oil for a smooth glow.|
Of course, there’s more fun for the true enthusiasts. We’re talking exciting add-ons and tools that level you right up in ways celebrities and influencers don’t always talk about.
Keep in mind, that these are not required by any means, and the prices are often a little eye-widening. But if you’re yearning for more, we’ve got you covered.
A tool for oily and acne-prone skin, clay masks work by absorbing excess oil. To avoid dehydrating your skin, limit use this 2 to 3 times a week, before moisturizing.
This 3-Minute Detox Mask from Estee Lauder ($$$) quickly absorbs excess oil and unlike many clay masks rinses off easily when you’re ready to take it off.
LED light therapy is proven to have a host of benefits for the skin with continued use, from tackling wrinkles to inflammation.
Those with sensitive skin and lots of patience might be curious to try this out at home. Project E Beauty’s wireless mask ($$$) features a piece for your face and your neck each, and is one of the (slightly) less expensive options of the pack.
If you’re looking to firm or tone your skin, look to microcurrent tools. Tender souls need not be afraid, this works without penetrating your skin by sending tiny electro currents that tell your muscles to tighten up.
While you shouldn’t be able to feel this treatment, some have reported teeth sensitivities. If that’s you, you may want to avoid the mouth area and use it for the glamorous forehead results.
Nuface ($$$) has become synonymous with the word microcurrent, check out their options here.
Murray notes that the physical “sheet” of the sheet mask keeps the product on your face from evaporating and pushes it into the skin. They’re great for hydration and their individually packaged nature makes them ideal for travel, but she doesn’t love them for acne-prone or inflamed skin.
“After the initial cooling off period (even refrigerated masks!) it warms to the temperature of your skin [and] there is a certain level of heat from the occlusive nature of the sheet mask which can cause more inflammation and redness,” she explains on her Instagram.
If you’re a sheet mask lover, she recommends 100% Pure’s Collagen Boost Sheet Mask ($$). “I love this mask because it’s really suitable for most skin types and provides a ton of benefits. It contains vitamin C, retinol, and hyaluronic acid so you’re getting a powerhouse of ingredients!”
This stamper from The Things We Do ($$$) allows you to minimize any skin dragging and also comes with a hydrating serum to help recovery. Make sure to use caution and follow the directions exactly and follow proper technique and sanitation practices if you choose to try this, or you could harm or infect your skin.
Make sure to ease into these products. For example, 30 percent glycolic acid is overkill, but an affordable 7 percent Toning Solution from The Ordinary ($) may do the trick, if you want to test the waters. It also has aloe vera to soothe your skin while you exfoliate.
Outside of seeing a dermatologist, the best thing you can do for your skin is to book regular appointments with a licensed esthetician. Licensed estheticians are certified professionals with a depth of knowledge and expertise that the layperson lacks.
They’re able to do procedures for the skin that we can’t do at home, like laser treatments, facials, microdermabrasion, and chemical peels, just to name a few. Both professionals can also evaluate your skin, routine, and products to make sure you’re treating your skin right.
As you might have read in some IG comments, why bother to spend money on skin care when there’s a plethora of tutorials for DIY skin care at home? Well, Liu and Landriscina both strongly warn against it.
“Unfortunately there’s a scourge of people online singing the praises of putting different foods on your skin,” says Landriscina. “These will likely do nothing [but], at most, you can have severe reactions.”
“A common example is lemons,” he says. “People tout this as a cure for everything from acne to hyperpigmentation. However, citrus fruits harbor chemicals called furocoumarins that can cause a phototoxic reaction called phytophotodermatitis if the skin is exposed to the sun. I always advise using only substances designed for skin in your skin care routine,” he says.
At the end of the day, no matter what you choose to do with it, please remember that whatever state your skin is in is beautiful. The stigma around acne is proven to diminish the quality of life of those who have it.
So as you practice patience for yourself, remember to also work on your inner beauty as well. Managing stress and maximizing happiness is one way of manifesting the clarity and brain space to focus on other things. And by putting skin health over skin aesthetics, the rest will fall into place.
Catherine Adams (she/her) is a Black writer, cat-lover, and beauty connoisseur. You can find her at www.lightweightlux.com or riding her bike along the lakefront in Chicago.