When I was 12 and my skin was just beginning to show the, er, glowing effects of puberty, my mother realized that a soap bar in the shower wasn't going to cut it for my skin care routine anymore. She put me through what was then a tween rite of passage: a trip to the Clinique counter, where a nice lady showed me how to cleanse, exfoliate, apply that pretty pink toner, and otherwise care for the oiliness and breakouts to come.
These days, when I step into a Sephora or department store, I sometimes miss that nice lady and wish she'd take my hand and show me what to do.
Today, we face a paralyzing number of skin care choices. Should we stick to the three steps we grew up with? Or is it better to delve into the 10-step Korean skin care routine, complete with its many layers of oils, serums, masks, and lotions? Rather than simply guessing, I approached some actual experts for tips on how to build a good routine and decide what's best for our individual needs.
"You can do a few things or you can do a lot of things, and both can be just fine," says Doris Day, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and clinical associate professor at the New York University Langone Medical Centers. "People who are really motivated can do a 10-step layered process. But if you're lazy, kind of like I am, you don't really have to."
Day divides her skin care advice into "must-haves"—cleanse, exfoliate, moisturize, apply sunscreen—and "nice-to-haves" (everything else). Here's how to start.
"Elements like pollution and makeup left on the skin can be toxic," Day says. "That accelerates aging."
If you're wearing makeup, you can first turn to a makeup-removing cloth or pad, or a cleansing oil. If most of your foundation has worn off by night's end, you can just focus on any waterproof eye makeup and then move on to the cleanser. Day recommends a lighter product in the morning than at night. Be sure to choose something appropriate for your skin type: A foaming cleanser with benzoyl peroxide is good for oily skin but not for sensitive, dry skin.
Also, if you're coming home from a party in the wee hours and just DGAF, Day has given the permission you've longed for: "In a real pinch, a makeup removal cloth is all you need," she says. "If you're really hungover and tired and just want to get to bed, you can just use the cloth and be done."
Even after you cleanse, it can be tempting to want to scrape off every last bit of dirt and dead skin cells nightly, imagining you can start anew with a fresh layer each day, but that's not a great idea.
"Every day is just too much," says celebrity aesthetician Ildi Pekar. "And I have seen people who have done that. Over time, their skin becomes more likely to be irritated by pressure and sensitive to ingredients."
The frequency of exfoliation Day recommends depends on which kind of product you're using. If you're going for a fancy machine, like a Clarisonic brush, to do your dirty work, you may only have to use it as little as once a month. But if you're using less-intense physical scrubs, you'd want to use them a little more often.
Another option is a chemical exfoliating cleanser, which can be in the form of salicylic or glycolic acids for oily skin or milder cleansers for more sensitive skin. For her own skin, Pekar says she alternates between a natural enzyme exfoliator and a glycolic acid exfoliator and uses one or the other two to three times a week.
The important thing to do here is to pay attention to how your skin reacts, looking for signs of irritation or inflammation.
"Play around with what works for you," Day says. "Then you can go stronger or lighter in areas that are more or less sensitive."
While this is in Day's "nice-to-have" category, it is one last way to remove any remaining dirt particles your cleanser missed—which makes it great for days you've sweated it out a lot in the gym. Toners have also gotten a lot less astringent than in the days when we used to slap on the Sea Breeze and give a full-on Macaulay Culkin scream.
"Toner helps to balance, oxygenate, and cleanse the skin," Pekar says.
Essences and Waters
The 10-step Korean skin care routine positions essences as a necessary step. These are gentle ways to apply active ingredients to the skin—so gentle that they can feel a little like the Emperor's New Clothes. Day assures us that many of these products do have active ingredients that can be good for your skin, though it's still not completely necessary to apply them.
Dermatologist Marie Jhin, M.D., author of Asian Beauty Secrets, doesn't necessarily advocate everyone go through an entire 10-step skin care regimen but does say this kind of careful process has a benefit, in her eyes.
"This means you are taking time for your skin," she says. "I think the reason Koreans have good skin has to do with compliance. One of the biggest things I notice about my patients, whether their issue is anti-aging or acne, if they are diligent, then they're going to end up with better results. And it takes time. It's not a 1-2-3 magic. With any type of creams, you've got to really be mindful of the steps and making it a routine. Just like how you can't exercise just once—it's about commitment."
So, if you have the cash to splash on SK-II essence, then go for it—but don't expect results unless you use it every day. You could also go for another Korean line that's involved but slightly more streamlined, Saranghae, which combines enough steps (like essence and serum) to make its skin care process only five steps instead of 10.
Serums, Oils, and Eye Creams
This category of product is where you can get very specific with your skin care needs. All of the ingredients in these products could theoretically also exist in a daily moisturizer or night cream, but not all of your face is the same.
"A serum is designed just to deliver actives for a specific purpose," Day says. So this is a good way to apply something like retinol in the wrinkle-prone areas, another serum for any dark spots, and a third to treat your pimples.
There is such a thing as getting carried away, according to Pekar. "I preach less is more," she says. "Sometimes too many different ingredients in combination can be irritating." That said, Pekar sells her own tissue repair serum that includes anti-inflammatory CBD oil, moisturizing hyaluronic acid, and probiotics—which does sound pretty good.
A Vitamin C serum can be a great option for people with all sorts of skin concerns, from acne to fine lines—here's how to pick a good one.
Sheet masks, detoxifying clay masks, and other forms of mask are a more intense method for applying ingredients you could get in other ways. Day likes to think of masks as fun excuses to spend more time with your skin care. "You can make a treat out of it," she says.
They're not necessary, but they can be a great way to get in some self-care and can absolutely go a long way toward addressing skin concerns—especially if you buy or make one for your particular skin type.
Moisturizer and Sunblock
Here, we come to the last but most definitely not least important step. Choose your moisturizer wisely—thicker and more occlusive (locking in moisture) ointment-like lotion for dryer skin, and lighter, even gel-like, if you're oily or prone to acne.
During the day, you don't really need a separate sunblock and moisturizer, Day says, as long as you truly apply your broad-spectrum (UVA- and UVB-blocking) SPF 30 all-in-one lotion generously on your face, neck, and chest—and reapply it throughout the day. If you're going to be spending a bunch of time outside, however, it's a good idea to go with a stronger SPF, so long as it's truly broad-spectrum—EWG publishes a great guide to sunscreens you can use to find one that will work for your needs.
Switch It Up
Once you figure out the skin care routine that works best for you, it shouldn't be set in stone.
"The skin does change especially during the seasons," Pekar says. "You need to use less or use more of certain products to help balance your skin year round."
And your skin care routine in your 30s should probably not look like the one you used in your 20s. Take a closer look in the mirror, treat yourself to a facial, or visit a board-certified dermatologist regularly to reevaluate what's working and what isn't for your skin. Then you'll have an excuse to play around—and add something new to your ritual.
Sabrina Rojas Weiss lives in Brooklyn, surrounded by her fellow freelance writers and competitive stroller-pushers. Follow her on Twitter @shalapitcher.