So you want to start a skincare routine, but you have some questions: How many products do you have to use? Which ones are right for your skin? In what order should you be applying these products? And what do those products even do?
To get the most benefit out of regular skincare regimen, Dr. Ashley Magovern, board-certified dermatologist and owner and founder of Manhattan Dermatology, says to follow three simple steps: cleanse, treat, and moisturize. You’re probably already familiar with cleansing and moisturizing, but what does “treating” your skin involve?
According to Dr. Magovern, it means using serums or creams packed full of skincare superheroes like vitamin C, retinol, alpha hydroxy acid and more. “I think that adding a middle step in between the cleansing and moisturizing components is really important,” says Dr. Magovern. “It can make a huge difference over time and in the health of your skin and just in the appearance and the aging of your skin.”
Below, Dr. Magovern offers a basic step-by-step skincare routine to use as a blueprint for your own regimen, with product recommendations tested by the GH Beauty Lab, dermatologist favorites, and best-selling online picks. Of course, everyone’s skin is different, so adjust based on what works for your age and skin type.
Your Daytime Skincare Routine
Cleansing is the first step of any good skincare routine. The type of cleanser you use matters more than you think it does — gentle face washes are the way to go, particularly if you plan on using more active ingredients down the line. “Too many people cleanse too much or too often or with a cleanser that’s too harsh, and it will actually break down your skin barrier,” warns Dr. Magovern.
Toner is an optional step, but if you have a toner you like, you should absolutely use it. Dr. Magovern says that toner can be a great way to balance your skin’s pH. If you have acne-prone skin, look for a toner specifically formulated for acne with ingredients like salicylic acid to calm breakouts. If you have dry or sensitive skin, opt for a hydrating toner to soothe dry skin.
3. Vitamin C Serum
When it comes to serums, Dr. Magovern recommends using a vitamin C serum during the day. “I feel like everybody should use vitamin C, no matter what your age, even starting in your 20s,” says Dr. Magovern. “It helps reverse a lot of the damage that we get from the sun and pollution.” When using a vitamin C serum, look for one that contains a stable form of vitamin C, so that the molecule will actually be able to soak into your skin. For darker skin tones, hyperpigmentation can be a common issue, and using a vitamin C serum in the a.m. can help mitigate dark spots, says Jennifer David, D.O., a dermatologist in Philadelphia and founder of Skin & Scripts Virtual Dermatology.
4. Eye Cream
Eye creams fall into the “treat” category. Dab on eye cream using your ring finger (your weakest finger) so you don’t unintentionally cause damage to your eye area.
After you’ve treated your skin, it’s time to moisturize. Moisturizer keeps your skin hydrated and helps strengthen your skin barrier. For daytime use, opt for a lighter moisturizer that will soak in quickly and won’t cause pilling under makeup. If your skin is drier, try a thicker formula, like a cream. “Look for ceramides or hyaluronic acid, since these ingredients are the building blocks of moisture retention in skin,” says Dr. David.
This is the most important step in your skincare routine. “If you don’t wear sunscreen, it’s like you might as well not do any of those other steps,” says Dr. Magovern. “The sun is the number one reason why people’s skin will age prematurely.” And the damage isn’t only cosmetic, no matter your skin color: “People of color can and do get skin cancer,” Dr. David says. “Plus, if you’re treating hyperpigmentation without daily SPF use, it’s like taking two steps forward and one step backward.”
Smooth on a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher sunscreen as the last step in your morning skincare routine, including on your neck and the backs of your hands. Heads up: Protecting your skin from the sun is important even if you’re spending your days indoors, as UV rays can still come in through the windows.
Your Nighttime Skincare Routine
You’ll want to switch up your skincare routine at night — and not just because you don’t need SPF while you sleep! According to Dr. Magovern, your nighttime routine is the perfect time to make sure your skin is getting as many nutrients and active ingredients as possible, since your skin regenerates and repairs itself while you snooze. You’ll still follow the basic steps — cleanse, treat, and moisturize — but at night, the routine will look a little bit different.
Dr. Magovern still recommends going for a gentle cleanser, but at night, you can use a cleanser that helps take off your makeup, like a cleansing oil. If you want to go the extra mile, you can even try “double cleansing” by using a water-based face wash after an oil cleanser to clean any lingering dirt and oil out of your pores.
If you’d like to use a toner, apply it the same way you would in the morning. This will go before you start applying serums and treatments.
3. Serums and Treatments
Dr. Magovern is a big fan of using alpha hydroxy acid to help brighten skin by sloughing off dead skin cells. It helps build your collagen and improves radiance. If you’re looking to include retinol in your skincare routine, Dr. Magovern says its best to apply during your nighttime ritual. Retinol is a form of vitamin A that helps decrease visible wrinkles, bright spots and pore size. If you’re treating hyperpigmentation, alternate between a retinoid and the spot-fading active ingredient hydroquinone, Dr. David recommends.
“Everyone can use a retinol,” says Magovern. You can start using retinol as early as your 20s, but it becomes especially important as you age. “In your 40s and 50s is definitely where retinol should come in if it if it hasn’t already.”
4. Eye Cream
Dr. Magovern likes to tell her patients to try training the skin around their eyes to handle more active ingredients (like retinol) to reap their benefits. “You don’t have to use a lot, but if you start training your skin to tolerate more active products around the eye, you’ll see more change,” she says. You can pat a bit of your serum or treatment around your eye area, then follow up by using your favorite eye cream.
5. Acne Spot Treatment
If you have a pimple that you’d like to see go away sooner rather than later, this is a great time to apply acne spot treatments. But instead of focusing on pimples when they pop up, Magovern advises you to keep up with your skincare routine as a preventative measure. “If you just treat the spot, then you’re going to get an acne breakout right next door to it if your skin is clogged. You’re getting breakouts because oil is building up in your skin. So you have to keep the pores clean on your whole face. “
Moisturizing is really important at night, as it creates a barrier that seals in active ingredients and hydration. This way, when you wake up, your skin is glowy and plump —and ready to start the day.
7. Face Oil
Face oils are a great way to lock in moisture while you sleep. “A lot of people think that if they have like acne or oily skin, their skin will break out with the oils but it’s actually not true,” says Magovern. “A lot of them can actually really help hydrate and soften the skin.” Particularly if you’re using active ingredients like retinol and alpha hydroxy acids, face oils are a great way to add an extra boost of moisture.
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