As someone who has done little more than wash with Target-brand face cleanser and use $4 Suave lotion on my face for the better part of four decades, when it comes to skincare, I’m no guru. Through a mix of cluelessness, willful ignorance, and a little luck, I didn’t need to understand proper skincare or devote any time to learning how to do it. The whole industry seemed like a colossal racket of overwhelming ingredients, conflicting recommendations, false promises, and wildly expensive products whose very existence hinged on—and intensified—women’s insecurities.
Also? It confused the hell out of me.
A trip to the skincare aisle, (much like the makeup counter) still sends me into a tailspin. Do I need finishing and firming or weightless hydration? This restores my lipids—but is that important? What are amino-peptides?! Which usually led to me walking out empty-handed, with no appreciable upgrade to the actual care of my skin.
And while I still don’t need to understand skincare, I’ve reached a point where I want to. Over time, my “I will not be ensnared, you patriarchal shysters!” resistance has downgraded to a softer, “Well it would be nice to not see quite so many of my pores” stance. My description of the beauty industry may still be true—but what’s wrong with wanting your skin to look brighter, healthier, less lined and blotchy, and not completely devoid of water? Not a thing.
I’ve learned there is a correct order to apply skincare products if you want them to be most effective and non-irritating. (The general rule of thumb is to apply them in order of consistency, from thinnest to thickest.) Here, we’ll outline the most basic routine, including the order in which you apply them. We’ll tell you the musts (cleanse, moisturize, sunscreen) and the optionals (everything else).
Step 1: Cleanser (necessary)
All skincare begins with cleaning your skin, twice per day—once in the morning and once at night. (I have been known to skip a morning cleanse, because how dirty can my face get while sleeping?) But after a day taking on the world’s oils, germs, dirt, and pollutants, I really must insist you wash every night. And so do dermatologists. Board-certified Manhattan dermatologist Sejal Shah told Allure, “At the end of the day, it’s important to cleanse to remove not only skin-care products and makeup that you applied in the morning, but also excess oil, sweat, dead skin cells, pollutants, and other debris that collect on the skin throughout the day.”
The cleanser you need will vary based on skin type. Without getting into the weeds, beginners can start with something gentle, hydrating, and fragrance-free. Oily skin often does well with foaming liquids while dry skin hydrates best with an emollient-rich cream-based cleanser.
Step 2: Toner (optional)
Anytime I got a pimple as a teenager, I’d douse it repeatedly with an astringent-soaked tissue until it dried, scabbed, flaked, and finally peeled off. Good system! While you’d have to pay me to believe Sea Breeze wasn’t just straight rubbing alcohol with a fun color, today’s toners are milder and contain better ingredients. Modern toners function as light, nutrient-rich skin replenishers and primers for your skin to absorb other ingredients, if you’re so inclined.
Look for alpha and beta hydroxy acids to remove dead skin cells and unclog pores (use AHAs for dry skin and BHAs fo oily skin). Hyaluronic acid boosts hydration, rosewater and green tea extracts reduce redness, and vitamin E and C provide a layer of protection against free radicals (unstable atoms that break down collagen, cause unwanted pigmentation and premature aging).
One guideline with toner is to wait five minutes, or until it dries, before applying your next step, to give the nutrient-rich acids time to be fully absorbed.
Step 3: Serum (optional)
While not a technically essential step, you may not want to sleep on serums. As Yale professor and dermatologist Dr. Mona Gohara told Cosmopolitan, “Serums are essentially just shots of extremely concentrated nutrients, hydrators, and antioxidants that really amp up your skin health as soon as you apply them.” (She then called them the “heavy lifters of your skincare routine.”)
Vitamin C serums are basically magic in a tiny jar. They brighten skin, boost collagen, prevent fine lines, inhibit melanin production which helps fade dark spots and acne scars (over time), and protect skin from environmental damage (free radicals, again). Serums with hyaluronic acid hydrate by sealing in moisture. Retinol serums stimulate the production of collagen and elastin, making these the best to combat visible signs of aging. (Vitamin C serums are best applied in the morning, to take advantage of their protective properties; the retinol serums degrade in sunlight, making them best suited for nighttime application.)
Step 4: Moisturizer (necessary)
You can forget about the other steps, but moisturizing is key. Not only for your skin’s overall health, but also because it makes skin feel less tight. Moisturizer hydrates, softens, and seals other products into your skin, making them more effective. Also, it replaces some of the necessary oils we strip away with every face washing.
Are there daytime moisturizers and nighttime moisturizers? I’m sorry to say, there are. And while you don’t need two different moisturizers, they do serve different purposes. Day moisturizers (applied in the morning) are lightweight in consistency and designed to help protect your skin against the the day’s environmental aggressors (free radicals and UV rays). Night moisturizers, which are typically heavier and thicker, are all about skin repair and regeneration, and will contain ingredients like retinol (vitamin A-based anti-aging), vitamin E and resveratrol (antioxidants), ceramides (protective proteins), glycerin, and lactic acid (exfoliant).
Step 5: Sunscreen (necessary)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a dermatologist who didn’t recommend sunscreen as an essential—perhaps the most crucial—step in any skincare regimen. Use a sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher and apply it daily, even if you can’t see the sun.
Of course, there are many other steps one can add to a skincare routine (exfoliation, face masks, microcurrents, oh boy!) But for today’s lesson, we’ll stop here, hopefully with you having a bit more knowledge than you did before.