The best skincare advice we can offer: establish a thoughtful, personalized skincare routine and stick to it. Consistency is key, as is patience. It takes time, typically four weeks, for skincare formulas to start showing results, says New York-based board-certified dermatologist Morgan Rabach, MD.
Following a routine seems easy enough, but for many it’s surprisingly difficult. The world of skincare, a nearly $100 billion industry, has more new product options than ever before, and each one promises to work wonders. “The most common challenge my patients face is navigating the sheer volume of choice, marketing, and messaging,” says Erum Ilyas, MD, board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group. This not only leads to impulse purchases and information overload, but also to skin problems, as using too many different products can lead to dryness and irritation.
Bottom line: ignore the noise and focus on getting the routine right for you. To do this, identify your current skin problems (dryness? Dark spots? Acne? Fine lines?) and your skin goals (more radiant skin? More firmness?). These keywords will guide you to the products you need, says Adam Tinklepaugh, MD, board-certified dermatologist of MDCS Dermatology. We go into more detail on what to look for, and the correct order to apply them, below.
How to Build a Skincare Routine
Your routine should have three goals: cleanse, treat and protect the skin, says Azadeh Shirazi, MD, board-certified dermatologist. Learn how to choose products for each step, ahead.
Step 1: Cleanser
Look for a mild formula instead of one with lots of active ingredients, Ilyas says. The purpose of cleaning is to reduce the buildup of oil from the day before or impurities that have accumulated throughout the day. “Some people like to have a cleanser that exfoliates or treats problem areas, but the ingredients need to be on your skin for at least a minute to have an impact,” says Shirazi. “Just putting it on and rinsing it out doesn’t do much.”
If you have oily skin, opt for a foam or gel formula, which will provide you with deep cleansing. If you have dry or sensitive skin, try a cleansing cream. If you wear makeup, you might want to double cleanse at night. You’ll first apply an oil-based cleansing balm, which breaks down makeup, and then your foam, gel, or cream cleanser, says Rabach.
Regardless of your skin type, do not cleanse more than twice a day, as this can strip your skin’s natural oils. “The oil on our skin is healthy and normal. It keeps us from drying out,” says Tinklepaugh.
Step 2: Treatment
Now that your skin is clean, you want to apply a formula that targets your specific skin concern. It should contain an active ingredient, such as vitamin C, alpha and beta hydroxy acids, niacinamide or retinol, Shirazi says. Ingredients like these have been proven to treat dullness, dryness, uneven texture, pimples, fine lines, dark spots, or loss of firmness.
To lighten the skin, look for kojic acid, vitamin C or niacinamide.
To moisturize, look for ceramides, squalane, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, panthenol (pro-vitamin B5), shea butter or oat complexes.
To soften fine lines or wrinkles or help firm skin, use a retinol, a retinol alternative like bakuchiol or glycolic acid.
To treat acne, try salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or retinol.
Look for a toner, essence or serum. These are lightweight and meant to sink into your skin. “Applying actives to freshly cleansed skin increases their effectiveness,” says Ilyas.
A word of warning: “Many people try to apply multiple treatments. But this can overwhelm the skin,” says Shirazi. “It’s always best to stick with one active treatment product for at least four weeks before adding a second. And don’t combine multiple exfoliants, like glycolic acid and a retinol, for example. You’ll damage the skin barrier.
Step 3: Protection
Moisturizing your skin is the third critical step. “In the morning, make sure your moisturizer contains SPF to protect against UV and blue light,” says Ilyas. For the evening, use a moisturizer with top-notch moisturizers that repair skin overnight. “If your skin is on the oily side, opt for a lightweight moisturizer containing hyaluronic acid,” Ilyas recommends.
“For anti-aging, I favor a moisturizer that contains stem cells, niacinamide, resveratrol, or caffeine to help support cell turnover,” says Shirazi.
Genesis Rivas is the beauty editor for Oprah Daily, where she covers hair, makeup, skin, nails, and more. Before joining the Oprah Daily team, she wrote for several publications, including InStyle, Real Simple and Shape. When she’s not testing, researching, and writing fun and educational beauty content, you can find her dancing and eating across New York City. Follow her on Instagram or TikTok
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