How to choose, how to choose? Isn't that the enduring question when shopping for skin care products? For the longest time I chose my products like taking shots in the dark. I would even go into Sephora and ask the sales associates for skin care advice!
I didn't have a routine, I only had a vague idea of my skin type and needs, and I didn't know anything about active ingredients. Still, I was always so surprised that nothing seemed to make my skin look better.
I wasted so much money over the years buying products based on little more than what they looked like or, at best, the claims made on the package (or worst case scenario the advice of commission earning sales associates!).
The worst part of it is that I did a lot of damage to my skin by using products that were totally wrong for me, then trying to fix the damage with other products that were even worse.
I was in a vicious skin damaging cycle until I discovered the importance of a well researched and customized skin care routine.
How To Make Your Products Work Better
I did a lot of research to find the best and most effective products for my specific skin type and needs. In doing so I also learned that good products go hand in hand with proper application. The order you use your products makes a big difference in their effectiveness and can even make them work synergistically by optimizing performance.
I know not everyone has the time or the know-how to this level of research so I want to share everything I've learned with you to make the question of how to choose that much easier. It's not an exaggeration to say that a good skin care routine is the most important step toward getting the skin you've always wanted. If you follow the steps below, you'll be well on your way.
This post will provide an overview of the fundamental components of a skin care routine. Before starting, remember these important points:
- Don't introduce too many new products at once. There are a few reasons for this. First, your skin might react badly simply due to the abrupt change, especially if it's sensitive to begin with. Second, if you add multiple products at once and do react badly, you won't be able to identify which product caused the reaction. The introduction of new products should be spaced out by at least one week, ideally two.
- Always do a patch test. Every product you use should be introduced patiently and thoughtfully. Don't roll the dice on your skin by going full face with a new product. To do a proper patch test cover an area small enough to be inconspicuous but large enough to see any chance (think dime sized). Apply behind the ear to test for allergic reactions, a sensitive area like the wrist to check for sensitivity, and an acne prone area to test for comedogenicity. Also be aware that reactions can occur within a few minutes or take as long as a month to develop.
- Respect your skin type. This is one of the most important factors in determining which products to use. We've put together this chart to help you determine your skin type so you can customize your routine accordingly.
- "All natural" / few ingredients does not mean better. Natural products are not inherently better for us. There are plenty of natural things that can be terrible for your skin (poison ivy, baking soda, lemon juice and essential oils) and there are plenty of chemicals that are essential for healthy skin (topical antibiotics and pain relief anyone?).
Cleansing along with moisturizing are the cornerstones of a good skin care routine. These are the only steps that are not only not "optional", but completely vital.
It's generally recommended that you cleanse your face at least once per day, in the evening. Once is totally fine if your skin is dry or dehydrated, in which case you can get by just splashing a bit of water on your skin in the morning and cleansing as usual in the evening.
Even if you do only use water in the morning, water itself can be drying for some so if you find your skin is still tight after applying moisturizer consider using a more emollient moisturizer or adding an alcohol free moisturizing toner like Murad Hydrating Toner, an occlusive like Vaseline, or a hydrating cleanser like Clinique Take Off The Day Cleansing Balm (which can safely be used both AM and PM by those with very dry or dehydrated skin. )
If you have balanced, oily, acne prone, combination, or mature skin that isn't dry or dehydrated, then you can cleanse twice per day. You still shouldn't use a cleanser than is too stripping because that can exacerbate acne and make your skin look dull by compromising the moisture barrier.
No fatty alcohols + with 2% BHA for acne prone skin.
Fragrance & paraben free, hydrating cleanser for normal, oily or acne prone skin and for anti-aging. Contains antioxidants.
Suitable for normal, oily, dry or dehydrated skin and for anti-aging. Not suitable for acne prone skin especially if sensitive to fatty alcohols.
If you have especially sensitive, reactive or irritable skin you should avoid fragrances, dyes, foaming cleansers and alcohol. A good option for this type of skin is Avène Gentle Cleanser for Intolerant Skin.
It may seem obvious, but you should be cleansing your face daily even if you don't wear makeup. If you do wear makeup, you may need to use a non-comedogenic alcohol-free makeup remover before your cleanser, especially if you use a gentle cleanser. Oils are effective and inexpensive options. Both unscented cosmetic grade mineral oil and sunflower oil won't clog pores.
This brings us to the oil cleansing method.
Oil Cleansing Method
It's counter-intuituve but those with oily or acne prone skin often benefit from the Oil Cleansing Method (OCM). The Oil Cleansing Method is also recommended for those with very dry, dehydrated or sensitive skin. See these posts for a great overview of how its done and what oils to use.
2. Exfoliate (optional)
No skin care ritual is less understood or more potentially damaging than exfoliation. Very broadly exfoliation involves removing the outer layers of skin to speed up cell turnover and improve the appearance of skin. Exfoliation is a highly effective at home skin improvement treatment when done right.
There are two ways to exfoliate: mechanically and chemically. Mechanical exfoliation is what most people think of when they think about exfoliation. It involves scrubbing the skin with abrasive materials to remove the outer layer and it's literally one of the most damaging things you can do to your skin.
Not On Your Face
The problem with mechanical exfoliation is that at a microscopic level the material is often uneven, which creates microtears and cuts in the skin that can then accumulate bacteria and cause inflammation.
It may feel like your skin is improving and your skin might be super smooth but it is not a long-term viable skin treatment. Sooner or later the damage will start to show. If you have St. Ives Apricot Scrub in your home (as many of us do) we don't recommend using it on delicate facial skin. Overall it's better suited as a body scrub (and a pretty effective and budget friendly one at that.)
AHAs & BHAs | The Holy Grail of Better Skin
Chemical exfoliation involves applying Alpha Hydroxy & Beta Hydroxy Acids (AHAs & BHAs) to the skin to chemically remove the upper layers and speed up cell turnover. Unlike mechanical exfoliation, it provides a smooth and even treatment. It also gives you much more control over the treatment because you can choose the exact percentage and type of acid you use. Different acids have different properties.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)
Types of AHA acids include glycolic (good for all skin types), lactic (good for acne prone) and mandelic (sensitive and acne prone skin).
Depending on the concentration, these acids can be made into formulations as overnight & spot treatments at the lower end and chemical peels at the upper end.
If you've never used an AHA before and especially if you have sensitive or very reactive skin it's recommended that you start with a lower concentration AHA like Nip + Fab Glycolic Fix Pads with 2.8% glycolic acid.
For something slightly stronger Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting AHA Gel with 8% glycolic acid comes highly recommended by aestheticians and beauty bloggers alike. It has strong support for good reason but it also has a price to match.
A more budget friendly option is Derma E Evenly Radiant Overnight Peel that also has 8% glycolic acid but is a fraction of the cost.
Both of these products work beautifully to resurface and reveal smooth and even skin.
Our only complaint is that (as with most AHAs) they don't feel very nice to put on. First, if you have any scratches or tiny cuts (like from shaving or the like) it will sting a little. Second, they don't smell very nice. Third, these lotions don't absorb right away (by right away we mean instantly) and if you try to speed things up by rubbing them in, they sort of foam up. Our method is to put on a thin layer over the skin, wait about 15 seconds, and then gently rub it in.
With all that being said, the bottom line is that they work and they work well. Everything doesn't have to be cotton candy scented and luxurious to use, right? If you want results, you will get results. We noticed a difference within 2 weeks.
As they say, the proof is in the pudding.
Quick FYI, it's generally recommended that you avoid AHA based cleansers because the consensus is that they will just wash off down the drain before they've had a change to take effect.
Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)
BHAs include salicylic acid, which is one of the most common OTC acne treatments. It's often found in concentrations of 2% and is most effective at removing oil and dirt from the skin rather than speeding cell turnover.
Although salicylic acid is a common ingredient, its inclusion doesn't automatically mean a product is effective. In fact, many salicylic acid containing products can cause more damage than good.
Those with acne prone skin often have bad reactions to alcohol, fragrances, and fatty alcohols: all ingredients which are commonly found alongside BHAs.
To make the most of BHA use a product that doesn't contain alcohol, fragrances or fatty alcohols like Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid.
If you are not sensitive to fatty alcohols there are a number of moisturizers with BHA that are highly recommended including:
With a chemical exfoliant and BHA for acne prone skin.
With a chemical exfoliant, BHA, & niacinamide for dry or dehydrated acne prone skin.
Beginners should start with a low concentration acid and slowly increase strength over time. AHA/BHAs are much more effective as lotions or treatments than cleansers.
An acid should never be used at the same time as a retinoid as it may cause redness and dryness. An AHA shouldn't be used at the same time as Vitamin C as they cancel out.
As a general rule, avoid skin care products containing alcohol especially AHA/BHA products with alcohol like the Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peels as they can cause excessive drying to skin and can significantly compromise your skin's moisture barrier, sending you into a vicious bad skin cycle.
Sunscreen must always be used when AHAs/BHAs form a part of your skin care regime (even if it's only once or twice a week) as the acid treatments may cause increased photosensitivity and lead to hyerp-pigmentation (dark spots).
3. Treat (optional)
Oftentimes these days we have active ingredients like AHAs/BHAs, retinoids, and ceramides grouped in with either cleansers or moisturizers. There evidence that actives added to cleansers don't do a lot for your skin because they're just rinsed off and washed down the drain.
That means that a lot of cleansers with active ingredients may be a big waste of time and money.
Actives added to moisturizers have been shown to be beneficial. The CeraVe line of moisturizers have a number of active ingredients (see below) that can do a lot of good for your skin. If you are just maintaining a balanced complexion, the concentration of actives in these moisturizers is likely sufficient of your needs. However, if you're looking to improve your skin in any way, then you should consider a more potent approach by using active ingredients on their own in a pre-moisturizing treatment.
The kind of active ingredient you use depends on the skin issue you're trying to resolve. Whether you want to get rid of dark spots, erase fine lines, or tighten up your eye area it's a different treatment protocol that also changes based on your skin type.
Anti-Aging | Retinol Is Key
A gentle introductory product for a broad anti-aging, fine line fighting, and skin tightening regimen is Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair.
It has a low concentration of retinol but can still be drying for some, especially those with dry or dehydrated skin. Be sure to use an especially rich moisturizer like CeraVe Moisturizing Cream if your skin feels dry.
When first beginning to use retinol a period of "purging" may occur when the skin breaks out before it improves. This is normal and can be mitigated by using a moisturizer formulated for acne prone skin like Sebamed Clear Face Care Gel. If you skin still feels dry consider a lower dose retinol product until you work up to a higher dose.
If you've tried a lower concentration retinol product and want to move up come back to see us soon because we're working really hard to post our recommendations as soon as possible.
Although retinol is key when it come to anti-aging, there are also ingredients that can have a synergistic effect and significantly improve your results. It's generally agreed that the best addition is a vitamin C serum.
Vitamin C has potent anti-aging and tone correcting properties. A higher concentration Vitamin C product can produce significant results on it's own without the addition of a retinoid.
These high concentration products should be used sparingly not combined with a retinoid as part of an anti-aging regime but as a spot treatment for deep furrows or dark spots (more on dark spots below ) followed by a adequate moisturizer and copious amounts of sunscreen.
Low concentration vitamin c can be applied before a (low concentration) retinoid based moisturizer or after a (low concentration) retinoid based treatment with at least 15 minutes in between (or at the bery least enough time for the first product to dry completely) as long as the skin tolerates it.
The introduction of new products should be spaced out and a spot test should always be done. Vitamin C can increase photosensitivity so a good sunscreen should always be worn properly (at least 1/4 tsp reapplied every 2 hours at minimum.)
Paula's Choice C15 Super Booster (15% with Vitamin E, Ferulic & Hyaluronic Acid)
Perricone MD Vitamin C Ester (15% with Hyaluronic Acid)
Dark Spots / Hyperpigmentation / Post-Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation
Those dark spots that never seem to fade away can be treated! Stay tuned we'll be posting our recommendations as soon as we can!
Putting It All Together
If you're starting or adding to a skin care regimen, it can be a challenge understanding exactly how everything fits together. The rules below will help make that a bit easier for you. Just remember, always do a patch test and when in doubt ask a professional rather than risking your skin.
Retinoids + AHAs = redness & irritation
Retinoids + BHAs = dryness/flaking/peeling
Retinoids + Benzoyl Peroxide = cancel out
Vitamin C + AHAs = cancel out
Moisturizer isn't just moisturizer. There are five major types of moisturizing agents that all have different properties and benefits for different skin types (Nolan, K. and Marmur, E. (2012), Moisturizers: Reality and the skin benefits. Dermatologic Therapy, 25: 229–233): occlusives, humectants, emollients, rejuvenators, and ceramides.
Occlusives Create a barrier on the surface of the skin to prevent water loss. One of the most well tolerated and common occlusives in skin care products today is petroleum jelly like Vaseline or Aquaphor Healing Ointment.
Dimethicone is also quite common and, like petroleum jelly, is also anti-comedogenic, anti-acnegenic, and hypoallergenic. Dimethicone allows for the evaporation of perspiration and is good in sunscreen formulations, but also allows for evaporation of liquid so it isn't as effective as petrolatum as an occlusive in moisturizing formulations.
Humectants Enhance water absorption into the skin. Common humectants are glycerin and glycerol but hydroxy acids, propylene glycol and urea are also seen quite often.
A humectant containing cream is especially effective for dry or dehydrated skin as it draws more moisture into the skin. Good options include CeraVe Moisturizing Facial Lotion (petrolatum free) and Sebamed Clear Face Care Gel (for acne prone skin).
Emollients Include oils, fats and essential fatty acids that improve smoothness, softness, and overall appearance of skin by establishing a protective barrier on the surface of the skin.
Common emollients include argan oil, sea buckthorn oil, and squalene or squalane for acne prone skin like Peter Thomas Roth Oilless Oil 100% Purified Squalane. Emollients can be found alone or in combination with other ingredients in a moisturizing formulation.
Rejuvenators Include essential proteins like collagen, elastin and keratin. The molecules are often too large to penetrate the skin but have an effect similar to emollients in that they still improve the appearance of skin by filling fine lines.
These are especially recommended for mature skin or anti-aging benefits. The absorption of rejuvenators may be increased many times over by micro needling.
Ceramides Naturally occurring essential components of the outer layer of skin that maintain the integrity of the skin barrier. Insufficient ceramides have been linked to dry skin.
Although they aren't technically a moisturizer, their addition to moisturizers has been proven to help restore the skin's moisture barrier and improve dry and dehydrated skin. They are often found in very expensive products, but studies have shown that less expensive OTC formulations are just as effective (though they may have fewer other beneficial ingredients like antioxidants).
Some good options are: CeraVe Moisturizing Cream (with hyaluronic acid for anti-aging or very dry/dehydrated skin), CeraVe SA Renewing Skin Lotion (with a chemical exfoliant and BHA) or SA Renewing Cream (with a chemical exfoliant, BHA, & niacinamide) , or Dr. Jart Ceramidin Cream if you have a sensitivity to fatty alcohols.
With hyaluronic acid for anti-aging & very dry or dehydrated skin.
With a chemical exfoliant and BHA for acne prone skin.
With a chemical exfoliant, BHA, & niacinamide for dry or dehydrated acne prone skin.
For acne prone skin with a sensitivity to fatty alcohols.
Those with acne prone skin should be be aware of fatty alcohols like cetearyl alcohol and cetyl alcohol which have been known to aggravate acne in some. All CeraVe moisturizers contain these ingredients and as such, other options should be considered if you suspect you may have a fatty alcohol sensitivity. A good option is Sebamed Clear Face Gel.
5. Sun Protection (optional but highly recommended)
We can't force you to wear sunscreen, but we can try to scare you into it. This picture shows what sun exposure did to one side of a man's face. That should scare you into slathering sunscreen all over your body in the dead of night. If you don't wear sunscreen, you are subjecting your skin to damage every single day.
Also, consider the fact that sunscreen formulations have come a long way. If you choose the right sunscreen you won't have to worry about a thick, heavy feeling cream or a white cast. We've narrowed down our top picks here but for more details see TOP FIVE Sunscreens for Different Skin Types & Skin Needs.
Best for Sensitive & Acne Prone Skin
Best for Darker Skin
Best No Fuss Drug Store Option
Best Sunscreen Treatment
What To Leave Out
Toner used to be used to neutralize facial cleansers that left skin at an incorrect pH. Cleansers don't do that anymore so toner is really a non-essential.
However, if you're like this writer and you just like the feeling of using a toner (and seeing the dirt you've cleaned off on the cotton ball after you do) then be careful to choose one that has absolutely no isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol.
Alcohol is drying and stripping for every skin type. Consider instead Neutrogena Alcohol-Free Toner or Thayer's Alcohol-Free Rose Petal Witch Hazel with Aloe Vera.
Despite what clever cosmetics marketing would have you believe, you don't actually need a separate eye cream. You can use your regular face cream gently around your eye area. There is nothing about the eye area that makes it have different requirements than the rest of the skin on your face. If you would like to use a cream or mask for the idea area there's nothing wrong with that but it isn't absolutely necessary.
Gendered Skin Care
This is another one that's more a result of cosmetics marketing than actual science. Women's and men's skin is the same. The only difference between women's and men's cosmetics is packaging and fragrance. You can take it as a scientific fact that skin care is gender neutral until it's proven otherwise.
10 Tips For The Perfect Skincare Routine Infographic
I was in a vicious skin damaging cycle until I discovered the importance of a well researched and customized skin care routine. I wasted so much money and time. Thinking about my products and investing the time and money up front into a well though out skin care routine has saved me tons of money in the long run and made my skin so much better than I ever imagined it could be.