Starting a skincare routine can seem overwhelming, but once you find products that work for you, it’s truly a low-lift way to add important self-care to your daily routine. Not only can using skincare products actually be a meditative moment in your day, but we also truly need skincare to protect us from skin cancer, and take care of our body’s largest organ (the skin!). "At the most basic level, your routine should protect your skin in the morning and work to prevent environmental damage during the day. In the evening, your products should repair any damage and strengthen your skin while your sleep," explains dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner.
But where to even start? With a myriad of cleansers, serums, exfoliants, and emulsions, it can be overwhelming. With expert recommendations, and our favorite product recommendations: here’s how to do it, from the order you should use your skincare products, to how often you should exfoliate.
The first rule: start slow. Especially if you currently have no skincare routine at all, don’t overwhelm yourself and start slow. “You should start with just a few products and then build on your routine over time,” says dermatologist Dr. Morgan Rabach.
Just like you wash your hair and body, it’s important to use a cleanser (made just for your face) to wash your skin. Rabach recommends cleansing twice daily. “Cleansing helps remove dead skin, reduce oils in acne prone skin, remove buildup of bacteria and yeast that live on the skin, remove pollutants that collect on the skin during the day, and remove all makeup, so pores do not get clogged.” she says. We think that’s motivation enough.
Therefore, washing your face is where your skincare routine should start. To pick a cleanser, consider your skin type. Oily-combination skin types often benefit from a gel cleanser, which can be more purifying, while drier skin types benefit from a cream or milk cleanser.
Combination to Oily
Oilier types should reach for gel cleansers, which effectively lift grim and crud off the skin, but don't overly dry out the face, which can cause overproduction of oil.
Combination to Dry
If your skin is on the dryer end of the spectrum, look for cleansers that when added to water become milky emulsions. No stripping or drying of the skin in sight, what you're left with is just a clean and comfortable face.
First things first: if you want to keep your routine quick, skip this step! If not, we like a toner to: 1. truly make sure the skin's got a perfectly clean canvas post-cleansing and 2. either add hydration or exfoliation to our routine. Dr. Rabach recommends making sure your toner is oil-free.
Look for a hydrating toner that is filled with soothing botanicals and hydrating fatty acids to seal in moisture.
For blemish-prone skin, a chemical exfoliant that helps lift dead skin and oil that could clog pores, as well as skin soothers like chamomile help calm redness and inflammation from breakouts.
Serums are one of the best ways to address your personal skin concerns. "A serum is a skincare product designed to deliver a high concentration of a specific active ingredient to the skin," dermatologist Dr. Zeichner says, adding that they're usually designed to "perform a single job, whether that is to hydrate, protect, brighten, calm, or even the skin." It's important to make sure you're choosing a serum that's actually right for you. One thing dermatologists agree on is using an antioxidant serum (like Vitamin C) in the morning.
However, at night, you've got options, again depending on your skin's specific needs. Another tip: if you are layering serums, do so by weight, with the heavier product on top. While an antioxidant is typically best for day, hydrating emulsions are best used both morning and night, and anti-aging options are best left for the nighttime.
Antioxidants such as vitamin C are crucial when protecting skin against environmental stressors, making them the perfect selection for a daytime serum.
Layer on extra hydration with a hyaluronic acid serum. The ingredient is a humectant—it draws water into your skin—and helps keep it there. The result is plumper, more hydrated skin.
For dermatologists, retinol is the be-all, end-all ingredient when it comes to anti-aging. "Retinol is perhaps the best studied ingredient we have to fight the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles," Dr. Zeichner says. "It has been shown to bind to retinoid receptors within skin cells to stimulate collagen production and enhance cell turnover. This translates to brighter, more even, more radiant, stronger skin."
Pro tip: while serum should always be applied before moisturizer, be sure to apply your retinol and let it be before you layer on a hydrating serum on top.
To seal in the rest of your products, and to protect your skin, a moisturizer is essential. "Moisturizers protect the outer layers of skin and prevent moisture from leaving your cells. Overly dry skin and overly oily skin can both lead to breakouts," Dr. Rabach says. She recommends a thicker moisturizer if you have dry skin and a lighter gel moisturizer if you have oily skin.
If your skin is chronically dry, then reach for a thicker cream that works to improve skin barrier health and hydration levels, which also plays a part in helping improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
If your skin can't handle a heavy cream, and is prone to blemishes, try a lightweight moisturizer fortified with ingredients that combat shine and eliminate breakouts.
Chemical exfoliation refers to ingredients like alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids, which work to resurface the skin, and help it stay clear, and glowy. "Everyone should use alpha and beta hydroxy acids at least once a week to remove outer layers of skin and help collagen and elastin stay active. Be sure to add this step in after you wash your face, but before you add serum or a hydrating toner.
Reach for peels that combine ingredients like glycolic, salicylic, and lactic acids to reduce dullness, uneven texture, and help brighten dark spots. Tip: don't use on nights that you are using your retinol or retinoid serum.
You didn't think we'd finish a basic skincare routine without proper sun protection, did you? It's every dermatologist's ultimate non-negotiable. "Even incidental sun exposure adds up over a lifetime. You may not realize it but you are getting sun exposure on your walk to grocery store or on your drive to work. UVA rays even penetrate through window glass, so you are not immune even if you are indoors," Dr. Zeichner explains. His advice? "Choose a sunscreen with at least SPF30 and look for the words "broad spectrum" to make sure it blocks both UVA and UVB rays." (Our recommendation below).
The benefits are plentiful: "SPF reduces the chance of skin cancer, and sun-related skin damage like sunspots, pre-cancers, wrinkles, sagging skin, discoloration and uneven tone," Dr. Rabach adds.
Daily SPF is an important final step in any skincare routine because it prevents sun damage, but it also happens to be non-negotiable if you are using chemical exfoliants or a retinol, which tend to make skin sun sensitive.
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