There are approximately a million skin-care products out there. But the truth is that, for your skin-care routine to be effective, it should really be as simple and consistent as possible, Shari Lipner, M.D., dermatologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian, tells SELF.
That can be hard to accept, especially when there are so many shiny new products popping up all the time. So we asked dermatologists to explain exactly how and when to use the mainstay products that make up a basic skin-care routine—plus, how to add a few steps as needed.
The mainstay in every skin-care routine, cleansers remove excess oil, makeup, dirt, and dead skin cells, and maintain hydration, says Alina G. Bridges, D.O., dermatologist at Mayo Clinic, tells SELF.
After removing any eye makeup with a separate makeup remover or micellar water, use a cleanser as the first major step in your skin-care routine every morning and night. You should also cleanse after any major sweat sessions. To use a cleanser, first apply it with your fingertips according to the product’s instructions (for some you may need to wet your skin first with water, but others—mainly cleansing oils and balms—require dry skin). Then gently massage it into the skin for 30 seconds to one minute, until the product lathers, then rinse with lukewarm water.
Although the act of cleansing your skin is relatively simple, picking a product can seem complicated—especially with the many options available, including cream-, gel-, water-, and oil-based. Fortunately, for the vast majority of us, experts recommend gentle, nonabrasive water-based cleansers free of alcohol and fragrance. “Gentle cleansers clean the skin without making it too dry,” Shilpi Khetarpal, M.D,, dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF.
That said, if your skin is extremely dry or sensitive, you may want to consider an oil- or cream-based cleanser, which will help moisturize the skin. And if your skin is oily or acne-prone, a cleanser containing salicylic acid can help cut down on grease and breakouts.
Although exfoliating isn’t an essential step, some people find that it does help with cosmetic concerns and acne. In fact, exfoliation removes the outer layers of dead skin cells, helping to brighten and smooth the face, even out pigmentation, unclog pores, and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, Dr. Bridges explains.
There are generally two ways to go about exfoliating: physical (manual) and chemical. With physical exfoliation, you use a tool, such as a brush, a sponge, or a face scrub, to mechanically remove the dead skin cells, Dr. Lipner says. Meanwhile, with chemical exfoliation, chemicals (including lactic, glycolic, and salicylic acid) gently dissolve the cells.
Although exfoliation has been mainstream for years, some experts advise against it. Lipner notes that these products can cause irritation or make symptoms worse for those with eczema or sensitive skin. “The skin will naturally slough off anyway, and research has not proved long-term benefits [of regular exfoliation],” adds Anna L. Chien, M.D., associate professor of dermatology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, tells SELF.
If you still plan to exfoliate, do it right after cleansing, either in the morning or evening. The frequency depends on the specific product and your skin. However, to be safe, start with once a week and see how it goes, Dr. Chien advises. If you find that your chosen method of exfoliation is too intense, you can try easing up on the pressure of your manual exfoliator or opting for a gentler chemical exfoliant (like lactic acid or a PHA) instead.
Retinoids are derivatives of vitamin A compounds that have shown to be effective at treating acne as well as reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, Dr. Khetarpal explains. The only catch: They can come with side effects including dryness, redness, flaking, and irritation.
There are a few forms of retinoids, SELF illustrated previously. On one end there’s the gentler, over-the-counter retinol and retinal which are available in cosmetic skin-care products like night creams, serums, and moisturizers. Adapalene, a synthetic retinoid, is available as an over-the-counter drug (Differin). And prescription-only retinoid acid, or tretinoin (Retin-A), is more effective, yet harsher on the skin. It’s available in different strengths, from least to most powerful: 0.025%, 0.05%, and 0.1%.
Experts generally recommend starting with retinol because it tends to be gentler than prescription versions. Start by using it just three times per week to see how well your skin tolerates it. If you can use it that often without any issues, you can increase your usage to every other night, then every night.
If you tolerate that well and want something a little stronger—or you have more severe acne or signs of aging that you want to tackle—you may want to consider using Differin or a prescription retinoid. Experiment with lower-strength formulations and once or twice a week usage, then consider adjusting upward in strength and frequency (up to daily), Dr. Bridges says.
When using a prescription product, it’s crucial to follow your dermatologist’s instructions. In general, though, experts suggest using just a pea-sized amount in the evenings after cleansing—only after your skin is totally dry, which will keep the product from irritating you too much. Also, be sure to follow quickly with your moisturizer or even mix your retinoid with the moisturizer to help buffer it.
Big note: Experts caution against exfoliating and using retinoids (particularly tretinoin) in the same routine because both can cause irritation—especially when used one right after the other. If you want to use both, try exfoliating and using your retinoid on alternating evenings, or exfoliating in the morning and using the retinoid at night.
Also, because retinoids increase your sensitivity to the sun, make sure you’re always using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least 30 SPF, Dr. Lipner says. And avoid retinoids if you’re pregnant, she says.
Considered a must in skin-care routines, moisturizers help draw and seal moisture into the skin, Dr. Lipner says, which helps the skin barrier more effectively protect and hydrate your skin. They’re essential in the morning, Dr. Chien says, but optional in the evening—as long as your skin isn’t dry and you’re not using a product like a retinoid that can cause dryness or irritation.
As far as product order goes in the morning, dermatologists agree moisturizers should be applied after cleansing and exfoliating, but differ on whether they should come before or after sunscreen. To make the decision easier, you can choose a moisturizer with at least SPF 30 and broad-spectrum protection (for daytime use), then layer makeup on top.
If you plan to moisturize in the evening, you can use the same product. Or you can try a formula with other ingredients, like retinol or antioxidants. Either way, use a small amount, covering the forehead, nose, cheeks, chin, and neck, Dr. Bridges says.
A nonnegotiable, sunscreen helps protect the skin from the sun’s UV rays, which may cause skin cancer and signs of aging, Dr. Lipner explains. Apply every day after cleansing and exfoliating and before makeup.
Slather on at least 15 minutes before heading outdoors (30 minutes before going in water), and reapply every two hours if you remain outside, Dr. Khetarpal says. Physical sunscreens (which consist of zinc or iron oxide or titanium dioxide) physically block UV rays from damaging the skin while chemical sunscreens (which usually end in -ate or -one) absorb the ultraviolet light, then break it down, she clarifies.
While physical sunscreens are less likely to irritate the skin, they can also be thicker and pastier. So the bottom line is to wear whatever sunscreen you actually enjoy enough to use regularly—whether it’s chemical, physical, or a combination of the two.
It may take some trial and error to find your perfect routine.
If you’re totally new to skin care, this may all seem a little intimidating. Or, if you’re someone who always needs a basket when you enter Sephora, this might seem a little basic. But, as SELF wrote previously, a skin-care routine doesn’t have to be intense to be effective.
For many people, just nailing down the basics—cleansing, moisturizing, and sunscreen—is enough to see a noticeable improvement in their skin. But if you have a skin condition or don’t find this works for you, it’s definitely worth talking to a board-certified dermatologist for guidance on crafting a skin-care regimen that’s tailored to your individual skin needs, Dr. Chien says.
“These are general recommendations, as everyone’s skin is a little different,” she tells us. “Everyone should be empowered to know their skin, and have the flexibility to make adjustments.”