The only guide to skin care you need

We know more about how to care for our skin than ever before, but with a dizzying array of science-based options out there all vying for a spot on our bathroom counter, things can get overwhelming fast.

If you’ve ever bailed out on a shopping cart full of serums, moisturizers, exfoliants, and creams in a state of skin care routine overload, this guide is for you.

Pro-tip: Keep it simple — and smart. Skip trying to maintain a 10-step routine every day and break down your regimen into daily, weekly, and monthly tasks.

1. Cleanse every night

Your skin may be fine with skipping an AM wash, or sticking to just water or a very quick wipe with cleansing (aka micellar) water. But when it comes to your PM routine, cleaning off the slurry of makeup, sunscreen, dirt, oil, and bacteria teeming in your pores is a must.

Cleansing tip: David Lortscher, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Curology, is in favor of micellar water: “It cleanses, removes makeup, and moisturizes in one step by using tiny molecules — micelles — that pull the dirt and oil out of your skin.” Follow that step up with a gentle cleanser.

If you rather double-cleanse (without micellar water), use an oil-based cleanser to break down makeup and sunscreen, followed by a foaming cleanser. If your skin does not tolerate foaming cleansers, then use a gentle non-foaming product. This is a thorough but super gentle way to cleanse everything off your skin without stripping it.

2. Wear sunscreen

Yes, we’ve all heard the warnings and are still tempted to zip out for errands sans sunscreen, or to dodge that familiar greasy, heavy feeling — but sun damage goes far beyond just a tan: UV radiation is behind photoaging, inflammation, and skin cancer.

Lortscher estimates that damage from UV is responsible for “up to 80 percent of skin aging” and recommends a minimum of SPF 30 UVA and UVB protection daily.

SPF tip: Use a stand-alone sunscreen. Even if your daily moisturizer or makeup has a stated SPF, keep in mind that SPF rating is based off a volume of sunscreen that’s far more than people think2 milligrams (mg) per square centimeter (cm) of skin to be exact. That’s 1/4 teaspoon on average.

Imagine using up an entire bottle of foundation in less than four weeks — that’s how much you’d need to be protected!

You can’t add up SPF

Keep in mind that even if you’re wearing multiple products with SPF, you can’t “add up” the SPFs to equal 30. You need to make sure that one of the products is SPF 30 on its own.

3. Skip a step, if you can

Don’t feel like you have to slather on everything every day. Instead, focus on what your skin needs. Does it need a moisturizer to fight dryness? Or is it dehydrated? Are you using a prescription that needs to be applied daily?

Your skin’s needs may change wildly due to climate, season, weather, and age. If you wake up on a humid day and can’t bear the thought of applying your usual rich moisturizer, skip it! Don’t feel like you have to do the same thing every day — your regimen should be enjoyable and relaxing.

Tip: The best routine is a doable one. Once you’ve taken care of the basics, it’s OK to stop there, or add steps and products if you feel like it.

You can pamper your winter-dry skin with an overnight sleeping pack, soothe summer skin with a refreshing sheet mask, or simply crawl into bed with just-cleansed skin if you’re not feeling up to a full routine.

But you don’t have to do it all, every day.

1. Exfoliate with restraint

Not everyone needs to exfoliate their skin, but even with regular cleansing, layers of dead skin can build up on the surface, leaving your face feeling grimy, rough, or dull.

Exfoliating once a week can help your skin look and feel smoother, brighter, and will reduce the likelihood of clogged pores.

Beware of manual exfoliants (aka scrubs)

Scrubs featuring rough or sharp particles can cause microtears in the skin. Scrubs can also worsen acne, Lortscher explains, as the “friction from aggressive scrubbing will backfire. This causes irritation, and irritation leads to more acne.”

Instead of a scrub, consider a chemical exfoliant, such as an AHA or BHA. These dislodge excess dead skin, allowing it to be gently wiped away.

Pro-tip: Daily or weekly, not both. Some AHA/BHA chemical exfoliants are designed to be used daily. If you’re already using a daily exfoliant, you may want to avoid a more intense once-weekly exfoliation, as your skin will already be more sensitive. If not, your skin might benefit from a weekly exfoliant to slough off dead skin.

2. De-clog your pores

Check out the state of your pores: Is your nose teeming with blackheads and sebaceous filaments? Even though you shouldn’t try to extract them yourself, congested pores are annoying at best and inviting acne at worst.

A purifying face mask, such as a clay- or charcoal-based mask, or gentle oil massage may help to loosen clogs and minimize the appearance of your pores. Just don’t pick at your skin!

1. Check your expiry dates

From face masks to serums, you may not use up products before they expire. Once a month, check the expiration dates of your products for anything due to be tossed.

Even though the sweltering humidity may have you skipping your richer moisturizers, leftovers don’t mean it’s still good to use — especially if it’s a product you scoop out with your fingers. This method could possibly introduce bacteria or contaminants, allowing them to thrive in the jar. Consider discarding these products after six months.

2. Skin self-check

Lortscher recommends a monthly skin self-exam to identify any spots that might need the attention of a dermatologist. Learn how to do a thorough self-exam to detect skin cancer from the American Academy of Dermatology.

1. Chemical peels

Daily chemical exfoliation is one thing, but full-on chemical peels aren’t something you should be trying at home. Did you know that glycolic acid, one of the most commonly used alpha-hydroxy acid exfoliants, causes increased photosensitivity that can last up to a week even at a low daily concentration?

Considering the high concentrations and increased risk of damage with chemical peels, peels are best done in the office of a professional who can guide you through post-peel care and precautions.

2. Squeezing and popping clogged pores

We’ve all been there — you wake up the morning before a big event and you’ve got an unwelcome blemish waving at you from every reflective surface.

As tempting as it may be to squeeze that zit to oblivion — don’t! See your dermatologist for something that will usually shrink this within 36 hours — an injection of a dilute cortisone medication called Kenalog right into the cyst will do the trick.

Same with extractions

Those eye-catching blackheads and bumpy whiteheads that show as moguls under makeup may look ripe for emptying. But restrain yourself from going on a search-and-destroy mission! Extractions are something best done by a professional.

3. Skin diagnosis and treatment

As inviting as it is to look for solutions to serious skin troubles in over-the-counter products and popular remedies, self-diagnosis and DIY treatment can be frustrating at best. At worst, you may actually damage your skin.

“In the case of mild acne, over-the-counter medications along with esthetician treatments may be sufficient,” says Lortscher, but for “more inflamed, extensive, or unresponsive acne, prescription medications are usually indicated, and can only be obtained from a dermatologist or other licensed medical provider.”

“If you want a facial treatment, need product recommendations, have some mild breakout or dry patches on your skin, you might call your esthetician,” suggests Lortscher, but for “stubborn acne, [and] other skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, or skin growths, you’ll want to make an appointment with your dermatologist.”

Backgroundlicensed skin care professionallicensed medical doctors
What they treataesthetic skin concerns, to improve the appearance of your skin with surface treatmentsskin diseases, disorders, and their underlying causes
Servicesextractions, microdermabrasion, light chemical peels, facial massages, masks, hair removal, application of facial makeupMakes diagnoses (including stubborn acne, eczema, psoriasis, and skin growths); prescribes prescription-based treatments including topical or oral medications; performs procedures including injections for inflamed cystic acne, Botox, dermal fillers, strong chemical peels, and laser procedures; performs surgeries including excisions of skin cancers

See a derm for serious aesthetic concerns that might require surgery, especially if you’re at higher risk for adverse side effects due to having a darker skin type or a propensity for scarring (such as keloids).

Don’t forget to ask your dermatologist for a baseline skin cancer check. You never want to be sleepless at 3 a.m. wondering if that spot on your arm is a freckle or something serious!

Unless you have a serious skin condition or have had a cancer scare, chances are you haven’t seriously considered seeing a dermatologist.

Insurance rarely covers skin issues that aren’t severe enough to be labeled a “medical condition” (acne counts but not anti-aging concerns such as hyperpigmentation), leaving most of us reluctant to bear the inconvenience and out-of-pocket expenses.

The rise of teledermatology, however, is changing the game. Curology connects their patients with licensed medical professionals online, letting you get a dermatology evaluation and treatment plan while still in your jammies.

This convenient, online service lets your dermatology provider examine your skin (limited to the treatment of acne and anti-aging concerns), discuss your goals, and send a customized prescription treatment right to your door. Without setting fire to your wallet.

Does it work like traditional dermatology? Yes, because other than the process being online, you’re consulting a licensed Nurse Practitioner or Physician Assistant who is working closely with board-certified dermatologists in the Curology office.

Before: Three years ago my face suddenly exploded with dry, patchy areas, pustules, painful cystic acne, and turned bright red.

I tried everything I could think of to get rid of the acne, or at least calm it down. Birth control, every drugstore face wash, mask, and cream I could find — still no change.

Years went by and I just learned to pretend on the outside that I was okay with my skin, [but inside] I’d be crying because I felt so helpless to fix any of it. My mom would cry, too, wishing there was something she could do to help.

One day, I was scrolling through Instagram and saw an ad for Curology, went to the website, and filled out the form. After some back and forth, my Curology provider, Monica Sanchez (my magical unicorn) decided to start with a month of antibiotics (doxycycline) to fight my acne from within, as well as starting my Curology formula once a day after washing my face with a gentle cleanser at night.

After: After two weeks, I started noticing a difference. My face was still red, but it was smooth! I cried so many happy tears, y’all. I could cover the remaining issues with makeup and no one could even tell that I had bright red skin and some scarring underneath.

I was overwhelmingly happy even at that stage, but then a couple of months went by and it kept. getting. better. My skin is now smooth, clear, and calm. My confidence has soared. Now I rarely get a pimple (I used to get at least 3 new ones per day), and I can leave the house without makeup.

Holy freaking cannoli there is such freedom in this tiny act.

Here’s a quick version you can print out and pin to your mirror!

Clean your face at nightExfoliateCheck all of your product’s expiry dates
Wear sunscreenUnclog your pores with a mask or massage (optional)Do a skin cancer self-exam
Simplify your routine

Your skin care routine should be something that you enjoy — or at the very least feel good about doing. With these simple steps, you can feel confident that you’re giving your skin the care that it needs, so you can enjoy beautiful, healthy skin year-round.

Kate M. Watts is a science enthusiast and beauty writer who dreams of finishing her coffee before it cools. Her home is overrun with old books and demanding houseplants, and she’s accepted her best life comes with a fine patina of dog hair. You can find her on Twitter.