The Only Three Skin Care Ingredients You Need

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Photo: Henry Leutwyler

Snail slime. Plant stem cells. Bee venom. These are just a few of the many, many confusing things touted on the ingredient labels of serums, moisturizers, and eye creams. If you’ve spent any time in Sephora lately, you know it can be completely overwhelming trying to shop for effective skin care. To cut through the noise, I talked to two top NYC dermatologists, Dr. Elizabeth Hale and Dr. Amy Wechsler, to get their recommendations on universal ingredients and products and find out exactly what should be in your skin care arsenal. 

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Obviously everyone has individualized skin care needs, but let’s go ahead and generalize anyway. Basic skin care should include protection, preventing and treating signs of aging, and hydration.  I knew sunscreen would be number one on both doctors’ list (it was, and they both reminded me how important it is), so I asked them for their top three products/ingredients after sunscreen. Both dermatologists agreed on the same three must-haves:

Anti-oxidants: Anti-oxidants are both protective and preventive when it comes to aging. “Antioxidants are ideal for packing a super-sized punch against free-radicals to help protect your skin,” Dr. Wechsler said. “Look for these in your skincare products, and try to include them naturally in your diet, through treats like green tea or antioxidant-rich berries.”  According to Dr. Hale, free radicals from pollution and UV radiation can get into your skin and cause genetic mutations which can lead to skin cancer and the development of the signs of aging.

There are multiple effective anti-oxidants: “Vitamin C is a popular one, because in addition to having antioxidant properties, it’s also a natural skin brightener,” Dr. Hale says. “It’s probably one of the most common ones, too. Truthfully I like formulas that have multiple antioxidants.” She’s a fan of Cindy Crawford’s Meaningful Beauty Crème de Serum and SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic

Related: Do You Need to Use Toner?

Retinoids: Retinoids—like tretinoin and retinol—are skin care’s powerhouse ingredient, and one that has lots of research behind it. Retinoids just work. Dr. Wechsler recommends prescription retinol because, “[It] is a great anti-ager that can transform your skin, smoothing wrinkles, unclogging pores, lightening sun spots or discoloration, and improving the texture of the skin.” But it can also be a bit expensive and cause drying in people with sensitive skin, so there are effective over-the-counter options out there, too. Dr. Hale likes RoC’s retinol product line  and SkinMedica Tri-Retinol Complex

Moisture: Hydrated skin just looks and feels healthy. In addition to drinking enough water everyday, use a good moisturizer. “This is one of the easiest and most affordable anti-agers available, since a moisturizer can immediately reduce the appearance of dry or dull skin, minimizing fine lines and dull spots,” Dr. Wechsler pointed out.

As far as specific ingredients, “I like ceramide a lot because it’s a kind of mortar that keeps our skin cells together. It’s a fatty acid,” Dr. Hale said. “It’s a really good moisturizer that best mimics our body’s natural properties.” You definitely don’t need to spend a lot on moisturizer. Dr. Hale swears by CeraVe lotion, a popular drugstore option.

Now get out there and build yourself a skin care routine. After you get into a groove with those three, then you can start investigating things like “royal jelly” and “circuminoids.” 

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