A few short years ago, my friends and I thought the height of skincare was remembering to wash our faces at night. Now, people are embracing 10-step routines, and Instagram is littered with face masks and miracle cures. So what should we actually be using?
In an attempt to end some of the confusion — for myself and others — I spoke to dermatologists to get their expert recommendations for the best ingredients for every skin type. Though there are still mountains of products out there, at least now you’ll know what ingredients to look for as you sort through the wild world of skincare.
When you’re on the lookout for new cleansers, serums, moisturizers, or toners, here’s the best stuff to give you a chance at the J.Lo-esque skin of your dreams.
Acne-prone and oily skin: Salicylic acid
“Salicylic acid works inside the pores to loosen clogs and kill acne bacteria,” says Dr. Jacqueline Schaffer, MD, dermatologist and creator of Schique Skincare. “The acid is antibacterial and contains the same anti-inflammatory ingredients as aspirin.” By fighting the germs that cause acne and reducing the inflammation that arises with clogged pores, salicylic acid helps clear the skin without adding shine or oil.
“This is ideal for those who have acne and want to clear up blackheads and whiteheads,” says Schaffer. Still, you can’t drown yourself in this stuff whenever you see a pimple. “Don’t forget to use in moderation because it can cause mild stinging and skin irritation.”
Oily skin: Beta hydroxy acid (BHA)
If acne isn’t a problem, but oiliness is, go for beta hydroxy acid over salicylic acid. Schaffer calls it a “beauty weapon” that works for acne but is especially good for reducing oil. This acid is a little tamer and can be found in everything from facial scrubs to moisturizers.
Dry, sensitive skin: Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA)
With sensitive skin, make sure to always test new products carefully. What works for one sensitive-skinned soul, may not work for another. Still, Schaffer finds that alpha hydroxy acids are a great bet. “Glycolic, lactic, mandelic, and citric acids are considered AHAs, and they’re best on skin where breakouts are not a problem.”
Acid and sensitive skin may sound kind of like strawberries and ranch dressing — aka a horrible combination — but these acids are very gentle. Glycolic acid comes from sugar and penetrates deeply into the skin. “It regenerates collagen, thickens the epidermis, dermis, and evens out the skin tone,” says Schaffer. Lactic acid is becoming more widely available and is great for gentle exfoliation. “Mandelic acid is the gentlest one of all. It’s oil-soluble, allowing it to work within the pores as well as on the surface of the skin.”
Dry skin: Honey
Though you could use AHAs for dry, but not necessarily sensitive skin, Schaffer recommends this pantry favorite. “The composition of honey is considered a humectant that attracts moisture and keeps it locked inside,” says Schaffer. The Central Asian Journal of Global Health found that honey also has powerful antimicrobial properties and it might help modulate the skin’s immune system.
Combination skin: Hyaluronic acid
Finding that perfect ingredient that doesn’t dry out your skin or clog your pores can be tough for folks with combo skin. Dr. Arisa Ortiz, MD, recommends hyaluronic acid because it both “hydrates the skin and smooths the appearance of fine lines without feeling greasy.” This ingredient is able to fight both oiliness and dryness, which sounds like some serious skin voodoo. But hyaluronic acid’s ability to work both ends of the spectrum earn it enthusiastic reviews from dermatologists as a treatment for combo skincare.
Hydroquinone may sound like a forgotten Marvel character or a super craft cocktail, but it helps with dark spots. “Hydroquinone turns down the volume on melanocytes that are producing too much melanin that causes the hyperpigmentation,” says Schaffer. She cautions that you shouldn’t use this to “bleach your skin” or expect hyperpigmentation to disappear. “Using hydroquinone only helps prevent future pigmentation, so be sure not to fall for any gimmicks.”
Blotchy skin: Tea tree oil
Uneven skin tone can strike at any time, though in my experience it seems to pop up whenever you’re going on some super Instagram-worthy trip. To combat blotchiness, Schaffer recommends tea tree oil. “Sticking to soft ingredients like tea tree oil nurtures the skin and helps provide an even skin tone.” You can use the essential oil on its own or in a cleanser or moisturizer of your choice.
Aging skin: Retinol
While we embrace our unique beauty at every age, many of us would prefer to downplay lines and wrinkles. And there are a lot of products that promise to do just that, but most are scientifically iffy, at best. A study published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science found that retinol is one of the best options.
The study found that 0.4 percent topical retinol showed anti-aging effects by improving the homeostasis of the epidermis and dermis, stimulating the proliferation of keratinocytes and endothelial cells, and activating dermal fibroblasts. The study showed evidence that 0.4 percent topical retinol is a promising and safe treatment to naturally improve aged human skin.
Last but not least, everyone should use a toner
“The purpose of a toner is to really clean the skin,” says Dr. Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, MD, medical director of Mudgil Dermatology. “It’s best used after cleansing with your usual face wash, which sometimes can leave behind some impurities and dead skin cells.”
I was very skeptical about this whole toner deal until my friend (who has incredible skin and doesn’t seem to have aged in the last 14 years) said a good toner was her No. 1 recommendation. Since then, I’ve used a toner every night, and my super dry skin seems to hold in a bit more moisture and generally just feels nice.
But you don’t have to trust just me or my random friend — Mudgil is also adamant about toners. Here are the toner ingredients he recommends for the most common skin types:
- Dry skin: Opt for emollient-based toners. Look for essential oils or glycerin, but avoid alcohol.
- Oily skin: Choose clay-based toners. The clay helps remove excess oil.
- Acne-prone skin: Toners containing salicylic acid or glycolic acid work best.
Sensitive/eczema-prone skin: Aloe-based toners are soothing and nonirritating.
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Of course, if you have another ingredient you swear by, use it! Doctors know their stuff, but everyone reacts differently to skincare products. So, stick with the things you love, but give these ingredients a try if you want something new and doctor-approved.