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What To Look for in Daytime and Nighttime Facial Creams

Day creams should protect your skin, night creams should soothe and repair it

older female applying cream to face looking in mirror

If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed when faced (pun very much intended) with picking out a facial cream, you’re not alone. There are so many products out there today that it can be hard to decipher what your skin actually needs — and what it really doesn’t.


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Using a face cream is one of those skin care steps that’s actually important. That’s because it keeps the moisture and elasticity in your skin, which can help reduce wrinkles, age spots and other fine lines. In addition to anti-aging benefits, face creams act as a protective barrier against environmental damage.

We talked to dermatologist Melissa Piliang, MD, about the difference between daytime and nighttime face creams. She explains why it’s worth having one of each and offers some simple advice on what to look for and avoid when you’re picking them out.

Why do you need a different face cream for day and night?

Are face creams for daytime and nighttime use really all that different? Given how much money we spend on skin care products every year, it’s natural to be suspicious. But in this case, it’s not an advertising trick. Day and night facial creams really are unique.

“Day and night creams differ in what they are supposed to do for your skin,” Dr. Piliang explains. “At night, you’re looking for a cream to penetrate deeper into your skin to help repair it. And with day creams, you’re looking for something to help protect your skin from the outside elements.”

When and how to pick your face creams

Dr. Piliang encourages her patients to get in the habit of using daytime and nighttime face creams in their mid to late 20s. For the products to do their job properly, she says that it’s important to choose the right product for your skin type.

“If you’re not sure what your skin type is, start by asking your dermatologist,” she suggests.

As a general rule of thumb, she adds that it’s a good idea to use products that say “noncomedogenic.” That means the ingredients in the product shouldn’t block your pores and cause you to break out.

Of course, there are plenty of comedogenic ingredients and products out there that are great for your skin. Shea butter, jojoba oil, cocoa butter and coconut oil are all comedogenic ingredients. But — especially if you have oily, combination, sensitive or acne-prone skin — you’re better off limiting their use to your body, if you use them at all.


What to look for in a night face cream

Night creams are usually thicker than day creams. That, Dr. Piliang says, is because they’re designed to moisturize, soothe and repair your skin while you sleep.

She recommends looking for the following ingredients in a night cream:

  • Retinols. This vitamin A derivative has anti-aging properties and helps improve the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and brown spots. It can also even out and brighten your skin tone. But beware, this over-the-counter agent is powerful and can cause irritation. Dr. Piliang advises starting slowly, using only a very small amount three times a week and increasing as tolerated. If you have sensitive skin, she says that you need to be especially careful.
  • Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). These common facial acids are composed of citric and other fruit acids and are good for improving the appearance of dull or ashy-looking skin. They gently exfoliate and soften, which helps the product penetrate more effectively.
  • Hyaluronic acid (HA). Hyaluronic acid is a substance that your body naturally produces, but the lab-produced hyaluronic acid used in face creams is usually derived from plants. This ingredient absorbs moisture to plump your skin and helps with fine lines, wrinkles and skin pigment issues.
  • Vitamin E. This fat-soluble vitamin is an antioxidant that moisturizes skin and brightens complexion. It’s one of the components of sebum, the oil our skin produces to moisturize and protect itself. Both age and sun damage reduce our vitamin E levels, which is why it’s such a common ingredient in night creams.
  • Resveratrol. Resveratrol is an antioxidant that helps with stress. In addition to many other health benefits, it’s known to reduce redness, irritation and hyperpigmentation. It can also speed up healing or regeneration when your skin is damaged and reduce signs of aging.

What to look for in a day face cream

Day creams should be lighter and include:

  • Sunscreen. Look for a cream with long-acting sunscreen. This means a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher. If you want extra sun protection, check out Korean and Japanese skin care products. When it comes to sun protection, they’re decades ahead of everybody else.
  • Vitamin C. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that can help boost collagen production. It also brightens skin, evens pigmentation, protects against sun damage and speeds wound healing.

Pro tip: Use a day cream with SPF every, all year long, even if you aren’t spending much time out in the sunshine. You don’t realize how much sun exposure you get through windows or even getting in and out of the car.

And don’t let fancy packaging or a high price tag fool you. When it comes to picking a day cream, household name brands can be just as good as their pricier counterparts.

What to look for if you have sensitive skin

It can be a struggle to find a facial cream for skin that’s easily irritated or prone to dryness. Even if they have a lot of great components, the wrong ingredient — or the wrong concentration of that ingredient — may be enough to cause an allergic reaction.

While you can’t always predict how a product’s going to affect your skin, there are some ingredients that improve the chances of it being sensitive-skin friendly.

Dr. Piliang suggests looking for the following ingredients in face creams for sensitive skin:

  • Ceramides. These are natural proteins in the outer layers of the skin that keep moisture in and protect against environmental toxins. Older and sensitive skin tends to have fewer ceramides, which makes it a vital component of many anti-aging creams.
  • Glycerin. Glycerin is a natural humectant (moisturizer) that repairs skin.
  • Lactic acid. This ingredient is an exfoliant that removes the outer layer of dead skin cells, allowing moisturizers to penetrate more effectively.


Things you should never use if you have sensitive, oily or acne-prone skin

If you have sensitive, oily or acne-prone skin, Dr. Piliang recommends avoiding oils, waxes and petrolatum. They’re too heavy and can plug pores and make acne worse. Remember to look for the word “noncomedogenic” on the product packaging. If you don’t see that word anywhere, chances are it’s a bad choice for your face.

Other ingredients to avoid include:

  • Fragrances and perfumes. They can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions.
  • Retinoic acid. Retinoic acid isn’t the same thing as retinol. It’s about 20 times stronger. Using it is likely to cause dryness and irritation.
  • Methylparabens/parabens. These cosmetic preservatives can cause allergic reactions and stuff up your pores.
  • Salicylic acid. It’s a great product for some people, but this exfoliant can irritate sensitive skin.


It’s also important to approach “all-natural ingredients” with caution. Remember: Natural doesn’t always mean healthy. And when it comes to skin, everybody is different. Natural ingredients can be good, but plants, nuts and berries can also cause severe allergic reactions.

If you want to try using a product that contains any of the ingredients listed here, Dr. Piliang suggests doing a patch test on your inner arm for a few days to see how your skin reacts. The delicate skin on your face will thank you for it.

Face facts

Day creams and night creams aren’t a gimmick: They’re distinct skin care products that have different benefits. Day creams are lightweight and focus primarily on brightening your complexion, maintaining hydration and protecting your skin from sun and other environmental damage. Night creams are much thicker. The result? They deliver more moisture, reduce damage and soothe any irritation you may be experiencing.

In order to choose the facial cream that works best for you, you need to know your skin type. If you aren’t sure where your skin falls on the spectrum, ask a dermatologist. As a general rule, it’s best to opt for creams that are noncomedogenic and have little or no fragrance. If you have sensitive skin, you need to be even more selective.

It’s worth getting into the habit of using these products by the time you enter your mid to late 20s. That way, you get the full benefit of their anti-aging properties and keep your face looking younger longer.


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