It may seem like skin care is a world of ever-changing and complex trends. But the most effective skin care routine for you might just be the simplest one. As it turns out, experts say your regimen really only needs to include three basic steps.
"It's very intuitive," Dr. Shasa Hu, associate professor in the department of dermatology and cutaneous surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, told TODAY. "Step one: cleanse. Step two: hydrate or moisturize. And step three: protection, meaning sunscreen," she explained.
Depending on your skin type and any specific skin issues you want to address, you might fine-tune the products you're using in that routine or add in certain treatments, Dr. Nada Elbuluk, associate professor of dermatology at the USC Keck School of Medicine, told TODAY.
But those three steps are the "simplest bare bones" of a routine that everyone should be following, she said. And if you're not seeing a dermatologist, "keeping a simple regimen is best."
These are the three essential steps of a skin care routine:
The first step in your morning and evening routines should be cleansing your skin. And you don't have to be too picky about your products here, the experts said.
While different skin types may have specific preferences, "you're never going to go wrong" with a simple, gentle cleanser, Elbuluk said. These should be fragrance-free cleansers without active ingredients (like salicylic acid, for example) and are especially great for dry or sensitive skin.
"That's suitable for pretty much all skin types," Hu agreed.
But if you're trying to manage acne, you may want to use a cleanser with alpha- or beta-hydroxy-acids (such as lactic, glycolic and salicylic acids), which gently exfoliate the skin, Hu said.
If you start adding other products into your routine that also have active ingredients like these, you may want to fall back to a gentler cleanser, Elbuluk said. That's because using them together may irritate or dry out your skin.
Once your skin is clean and patted dry, you should apply some type of moisturizer to stay hydrated and protect your skin's barrier — especially if your skin is on the dry side, Elbuluk said.
"Our skin barrier becomes more and more compromised, especially as we get older," Hu said. "Our skin doesn't regenerate or repair itself as much, so it's important to hydrate and protect your skin barrier."
Hu encourages her patients to be "savvy consumers" and to take the time to read a product's ingredients, making sure it has both hydrating and moisturizing compounds.
Hydrating ingredients include humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, which draw water into the skin, she explained. And moisturizing ingredients, like ceramides, help keep that water in your skin and fortify the skin's protective barrier.
If your skin is on the oilier side, you should still use a moisturizer daily, the experts said. But you may prefer to use one with a lighter feel, like a gel or water cream formula. Hu recommends acne-prone folks look for products with labels like "non-comedogenic" and "oil-free."
Those with dry skin as well as those hoping to manage fine lines and wrinkles may want to look for thicker products containing oils that help seal moisture into the skin, Hu said, especially at night.
Everyone should make sunscreen the final step of their morning skin care routine, the experts said. And you may be able to combine the moisturizer and sunscreen steps into one, Elbuluk added. "The sunscreen that people use in the morning is typically in a cream or lotion base," she explained, which may make it enough for you to use in place of a dedicated moisturizer.
Or, you may find a moisturizer with built-in sunscreen, which can also serve as two products in one (provided it has at least 30 SPF broad-spectrum protection), the American Academy of Dermatology explains.
While some people may find that they prefer to use some sunscreen ingredients over others, the experts said that any sunscreen will do — as long as you use it consistently.
Mineral sunscreen ingredients (also called physical blockers), such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are "typically less irritating and more easily tolerated," Hu said. So people with sensitive skin or skin conditions such as rosacea and eczema may want to stick with those.
But sunscreens with chemical ingredients often blend into skin more easily and feel lighter. That's why those with darker skin tones as well as those with oilier skin may prefer the feel of chemical SPF products or sunscreens that combine mineral and chemical blockers.
If you want results, consistency is key
Once you’ve nailed those three basic steps, you can add in other products or fine-tune your selections to target more specific skin issues, like hyperpigmentation or fine lines. But it's more important than anything else to use those three simple steps consistently.
"Ideally, you're creating a regimen that you can feel comfortable using daily so that you really have consistency, because that's how you're going to see the benefit," Elbuluk explained. That means you should only take on a routine that you know you’ll stick with — and that you should resist the urge to add new steps until you’ve mastered those basics.
Adding too many products in too quickly may put you at risk of irritating your skin (especially if you're using more than one product with active ingredients), Elbuluk said. And if you do see irritation, it will be challenging to figure out which product is the culprit.
Hu also urged people who are new to skin care to be patient. "There's really no quick fixes," she said. "If you build a new regimen, and give it at least six to eight weeks before you give up and start buying other products."
If you're not seeing the result you want with your skin care routine or your skin is frequently getting irritated or breaking out, see a dermatologist for guidance, Elbuluk said. (But you also don't need to wait until then to get an expert's advice — and you should be seeing a dermatologist for regular skin checks anyway.)
Above all, remember that skin care doesn't need to be expensive, complicated or in fancy packaging to be effective, Hu said. "Don't fall for the hype."