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A single, solitary approach to skin care that works for everyone might sound like a dream come true. But for the moment, it remains just that: a dream.
Every skin type has different needs, so certain ingredients might harm your skin instead of help it. Maybe your best friend raves about a particular ingredient — but when you try it, you break out overnight.
Without a doubt, finding an effective routine might take some time and dedication. But if you’d like some help getting started, you’ve come to the right place.
Below, you’ll find guidance on outlining basic skin care needs, setting some skin goals, and finding reputable products.
A skin care routine is one of the most important things you can do if you have concerns about skin damage, including visible signs of aging, says Jennifer Gordon, a board certified dermatologist in Austin, TX.
Even more importantly, a good skin care routine helps lower your chances of developing skin cancer.
A good routine, Gordon explains, is something you no longer think or fret about.
“It’s a pattern that you develop that’s beneficial to you and your skin. Getting in this habit will have life-long benefits,” she says.
Skin type and needs
Everyone has a different skin type and different skin concerns, says Harshal Ranglani, a dermatologist based in Mumbai, India.
“Some may want to focus on pigmentation, while others want to focus on redness, sensitivity, or pores,” she says.
But since your skin type and needs can change over time, what works in your 30s may no longer meet your needs in your 50s. Similarly, a routine that works for a 40-year-old may be too intense for a 20-year-old.
Examples of skin types include:
Not sure how to figure out your skin type? Our guide can help.
Next, Ranglani suggests setting some goals. What would you like to improve about your skin?
Possible skin goals might include:
- a more even-looking skin tone
- reduced appearance of pores
- brighter or glowing skin
- more hydrated skin
Once you know your skin type, and you have your goals in mind, you’re ready to start exploring ingredients and products.
PSA: Always do a patch test when trying new products
You might feel tempted to try your new products out immediately, but it’s always wise to test how your skin will react to the ingredients. A patch test can help lower your chances of irritation and unwanted reactions.
Patch testing is especially important if you have sensitive skin or allergies to certain skin care ingredients.
To perform a patch test:
- Apply a small amount of the product to an area near where you plan to apply it. A body lotion or cream could go on your inner wrist, while a face serum or moisturizer could go along your jaw or behind your ear.
- Wait 24 to 48 hours.
- Check the application site. Do you notice any discoloration, hives, or peeling? Does your skin itch?
- If you don’t notice any irritation, you can likely use the product safely.
The foundations of a good skin care routine include the following.
Cleansing is your first step.
Ranglani explains that cleansers help remove sebum as well as dirt and makeup.
“They may contain active ingredients to target concerns, like oily skin. However, since they are in contact with the skin only for a few minutes (sometimes even less), it’s not advisable to splurge too much just on a cleanser,” she says.
- salicylic acid-based cleansers for oily or acne-prone skin
- mild cleansers without too many active ingredients for rosacea-prone skin
Moisturizing is also a must for hydrated skin.
- For oilier skin. Opt for moisturizers with salicylic acid and niacinamide. Both oily and acne-prone skin can also benefit from mattifying moisturizers, which help absorb excess oil and smooth your skin’s appearance.
- For dry skin. Good moisturizers for dry skin often contain hydrating ingredients, like ceramides, glycerin, panthenol, and hyaluronic acid. “Avoid AHA/BHA-containing cleansers and stick to milder ones, maybe those containing polyhydroxy acids (PHAs),” Ranglani says.
- For rosacea-prone skin. Opt for simple moisturizers, or ones with rosacea-friendly ingredients.
You’ve probably come across guidance urging you to wear sunscreen every day, but we want to emphasize the importance of daily sunscreen for every person, of every skin color.
Gordon (along with most other experts) recommends a sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher for daily use.
As for sunscreen type, you have options: The choice between chemical or physical sunscreen will likely come down to your personal preferences or skin care needs.
Whichever you choose, opt for a broad spectrum sunscreen that offers protection from ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Got more questions about sunscreen? Our guide has you covered.
Removing makeup before bed might seem like a tall order some nights, but your skin will appreciate the effort.
Ranglani suggests removing makeup with micellar water.
“This is a gentle yet effective way of completely removing layers of makeup, without having to rub the skin aggressively,” she says.
But as Gordon notes, any gentle cleanser designed to remove makeup can work.
Avoid mixing too many ingredients
Putting together a custom routine may have you feeling like a kid with a chemistry set.
It’s important to keep in mind, though, that mixing and matching the wrong ingredients can cause burning, itching, and other unwanted side effects.
Ranglani recommends the following:
- Avoid using salicylic acid or glycolic acid with retinols, since this could lead to irritation, dryness, and sensitivity.
- Avoid introducing too many new products at the same time. This can lead to irritation, but it can also make it tough to tell which products work for you.
- Check with your dermatologist before using any over-the-counter products if you use medications for acne.
Gordon says the best strategy involves:
- starting slow
- avoiding multiple acids
- keeping your skin moisturized
You’ll also want to avoid combining too many active ingredients, as a general rule.
A few additional steps in a skin care routine might include the following.
Toner and serum
Wondering where toners and serums fit in?
Many experts consider toners a skippable step.
Gordon feels that toners, while helpful to balance skin pH, tend to strip moisture. Your skin may respond by overproducing sebum, which can cause acne, she says.
Ranglani explains that serums, on the other hand, are highly concentrated formulations with a high percentage of active ingredients, like vitamin C, niacinamide, or retinol.
“They can be a great addition to skin care routines when used appropriately,” she says.
- Using a vitamin C serum in the morning before applying sunscreen
can provide additional protectionfrom UV rays.
- Using niacinamide before applying moisturizer may
help address blemishesand skin discoloration.
“Serums are typically beneficial for all skin types, but the type of serum and strength will vary based on your specific concerns. It is important to remember that higher concentrations of ingredients (even vitamin C) can sometimes irritate the skin,” Ranglani says.
What about makeup?
People who wear makeup should opt for noncomedogenic options, or products less likely to clog pores, Gordon recommends.
She points to some brands that have done dermatologic research: Colorescience, Neutrogena, and Clinique.
Richard Bottiglione, a board certified dermatologist in Arizona, says oil-free formulas are a good option if you have oilier or acne-prone skin.
“For those with dry skin, a formulation with oil can be moisturizing. When you take makeup off, use a cleanser that does a good job cleaning your skin,” he says.
Tip: Avoid sharing makeup brushes and other tools.
Wondering how often to indulge in skin treatments, like facials?
Ranglani suggests getting them about once every 3 to 6 months.
“They are not a necessity, but [they] can be a good add-on. They can provide an instant glow and are nice if you’d like something done before a special event,” she says.
When it comes to facials, you have plenty to choose from, including DIY options. But for Gordon, there’s no substitute for the professional option.
Her take on facials: “Do them monthly if you can, and don’t let them put oil on you. Get a ‘real’ facial, like a hydrafacial or Diamond Glow.”
So, you’ve settled on some products and patch tested them. Next, you can start establishing a daily routine.
You might not find it possible to stick to that routine every day — for example, when you’re sick, tired, or traveling without your usual products.
“It’s perfectly OK to miss out on a few days intermittently without losing out on all the benefits,” Ranglani says.
She emphasizes, though, that at minimum you’ll want to apply sunscreen daily and remove makeup before bed.
Ranglani offers one possible routine to try:
- After waking up: cleanser, spot application or serum, moisturizer, sunscreen
- Before bed: cleanser, spot application or serum, moisturizer
A general rule of thumb, according to Ranglani, is to apply products from the thinnest to the thickest consistency.
“And sunscreen is always the last layer, followed by makeup,” she says.
Spot application or serum?
Spot applications, like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, can help treat acne. You might not want to use another serum on your entire face at the same time.
“Layering many products at the same time also increases the risk of irritation,” Ranglani explains.
Gordon offers another routine to consider:
- After waking up: gentle cleanser, moisturizer, SPF with antioxidants in it
- Before bed: gentle cleanser and makeup remover, retinol, moisturizer
Tip: Gordon recommends listing each step in order and taping it to your mirror to help train your routine.
Should I use retinol?
This vitamin A derivative may offer plenty of skin benefits, including:
- promoting collagen and elastin production to “plump” skin and reduce appearance of wrinkles and fine lines
- treating acne
- improving skin tone and texture
That said, it won’t necessarily work for everyone, since it can lead to dryness and irritation. It’s always best to get guidance from a dermatologist before trying retinol.
A custom skin care routine may take some time to nail down. You’ll likely end up sampling a range of brands and products before finding the ones that work for your skin.
But if you don’t mind rolling up your sleeves for a little experimentation, the process can be fun.
Tip: Find travel-size options of products you want to try before committing to the bigger bottle (and higher price).
Keep in mind, too, that your skin needs might vary from time to time, depending on elements beyond your control. That’s why, as Gordon points out, you’ll always want to pay attention to your skin.
“If you need extra moisture because of weather change or dehydration, give it. If you need acne medicine because of a breakout, give it,” she says.
In skin care, purging describes your skin’s reaction to new active ingredients.
You might notice:
- dry, peeling skin
You’re most likely experiencing purging if these reactions:
- pop up in places where you’d typically notice breakouts
- take less time to heal than your typical pimples
Purging doesn’t necessarily mean you should throw out your new product.
Your skin may simply need a little time to adjust to the new ingredients. Waiting a few weeks can help you make sure. In the meantime, avoid picking at any pimples, since this can lead to scarring.
It’s tempting to scour the internet for your favorite products at their lowest prices. But you may notice that third-party sites, like Amazon or Walmart, don’t always have positive reviews for these discounted finds.
For example, you may find reviews where buyers report:
- expired products
- unpleasant or unusual product smell
- products with a different color than usual
- damaged packaging
Do some research to find out which sites are authorized to sell a particular brand. Some high end skin care lines don’t permit any sales of their products on sites like Amazon. So, the ones you find there may not be safe to use.
Keep in mind, too, that reviews — while often helpful — can sometimes be deceiving.
For example, brands often display only the best product reviews on their website. If you want a balanced perspective, try searching Google for additional reviews of the product.
It also doesn’t hurt to check whether reviews come from social media influencers, who may have good reason to back a particular product. That doesn’t automatically make the review false or misleading, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Tip: If you notice a sponsored review, consider other reviews before making a decision.
Finally, think about your budget before you start shopping, and remember that expensive doesn’t always mean better.
“Don’t be tricked into thinking that that expensive skin care you buy will definitely work for your skin,” Ranglani says.
She also emphasizes the importance of considering product claims carefully, including labels that say “natural” or “chemical-free.”
“There’s no such thing as chemical-free skin care. Instead, equip yourself with the knowledge of skin care ingredients and how they really work,” she says.
Overwhelmed with the sheer amount of products to choose from? Unsure about your specific skin type or needs?
A dermatologist can offer more personalized guidance on creating the most effective skin care routine.
“Often, over-experimenting with the wrong kind of products can lead to problems, like dehydrated skin and a damaged skin barrier,” Ranglani says.
She goes on to emphasize the importance of working with a dermatologist when you have multiple skin concerns. They can help you develop a targeted approach to treatment.
Support from a dermatologist, however beneficial, may not always be possible. If you don’t have much experience with skin care products, Bottiglione recommends starting with a limited assortment of gentle or mild products. You can add to them over time, as needed.
A custom skin care routine can promote smoother skin and a healthy-looking glow. Identifying your skin type and skin care goals offers a helpful place to start creating the right routine for you.
Just remember, a little patience goes a long way — both when trying new ingredients and waiting for results. Introduce products slowly, and reach out to a dermatologist if you have any persistent skin concerns.
Breanna Mona is a writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. She holds a master’s degree in media and journalism and writes about health, lifestyle, and entertainment.