What Products Do I Actually Need for a Simple, Everyday Skin Care Routine?

A beginner’s guide to skin care essentials
skin care, facial cleanser, cleansers, moisturizer, routine, healthy skin

You want to take good care of your skin. But stepping into a beauty store — or even the skin care aisle of the drug store — can feel instantly overwhelming. (Why are there so many products?!)

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With so many products claiming to make your skin look ahh-mazing, it’s hard to know which ones you really need.

“A skin care routine should really be tailored based on each person’s individual skin type and what their goals are,” says dermatologist Shilpi Khetarpal, MD. “For younger people, it’s about protecting the skin from the sun and pollution. For someone who’s acne-prone, it’s about addressing that. For someone who has more mature skin, it might be about preventing fine lines, discoloration and other signs of aging.”

A good routine can help your skin look and feel great — but it doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Here are the basic steps that Dr. Khetarpal recommends.

In the morning

“Typically I think of our morning routine as protecting our skin and our nighttime routine as repairing it,” Dr. Khetarpal says.

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She recommends starting with these three products in the a.m.:

  • Cleanser: Even if your face feels clean in the morning, she recommends washing it with a gentle, non-medicated cleanser, which will clean the skin without leaving it too dry.
  • Antioxidant cream, serum or oil: You’re looking for something that contains antioxidants such as vitamins C or E or ferulic acid. Studies show antioxidants can hydrate and brighten your skin. They also offer protection from molecules in our environment (called free radicals) that can damage the skin.
  • Sunscreen: Use a product with at least SPF 30 to protect your skin from ultraviolet radiation. The cream you put on in the previous step — or the concealer or foundation you’re going to put on next — might already contain this. If it doesn’t, apply a separate facial sunscreen. “I recommend a sunscreen with either iron oxide, zinc oxide or titanium dioxide,” Dr. Khetarpal says.

After these steps, you’re all set to put on makeup, if that’s your thing.

In the evening

At night, you’re focused on cleaning and repairing your skin. Here’s how you can do that:

  • Makeup remover: “Most cleansers aren’t going to take off all of our makeup, so it’s not a bad idea to do a makeup remover first,” Dr. Khetarpal says. There are a number of products that can remove makeup, including wipes, micellar water or balms.
  • Cleanser: You can use the gentle cleanser you use in the morning or a different one that’s more targeted toward your skin type. Acne-prone skin might do well with a face wash that contains salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide, Dr. Khetarpal says. Someone who’s in their 30s or 40s might opt for something with an alpha hydroxy acid, such as glycolic acid, that brightens the skin and can help with pigmentation.
  • Toner (optional): If you don’t use a makeup remover before washing your face, wiping with a toner afterward can pick up any additional dirt and makeup that your cleanser didn’t get. Dr. Khetarpal recommends this option for people who tend to have more oily skin. “Some toners are alcohol-based and can strip the natural oils from your skin and lead to dryness or irritation,” she says.
  • Night cream: As a final step in your nightly routine, apply a vitamin A-based cream to help build new collagen and keep the skin looking young. Dr. Khetarpal recommends one that contains tretinoin, retinol or adapalene. If it dries out your skin at all, you can add a moisturizer that contains ceramide or hyaluronic acid on top.

Ingredients matter

When it comes to skin care, don’t judge a product’s quality by its price tag — or by the claims made on its label. Dr. Khetarpal recommends investing in products that contain ingredients that are backed by scientific studies, like the ones she mentions above.

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“The products that are really going to help your skin are not always going to be the most expensive ones,” she says.

“Just because something is very expensive, that doesn’t mean it going to help your skin. And just because something is natural doesn’t mean you can’t be allergic to it.”

Because many beauty products contain preservatives, chemicals or fragrances that could irritate or dry out your skin, it’s a good idea to introduce new products one at a time. If you have sensitive skin, Dr. Khetarpal recommends using a pea-sized dot of product behind your ear, along your jawline, and waiting a day or two to make sure your skin doesn’t react before applying it to your whole face.

It’s not just about what you put on your face

It’s important to remember that no product on any shelf is going to give you fabulous, glowing skin if you don’t take care of it from the inside out. Like the rest of your body, your skin won’t be at its best if you aren’t getting enough sleep (yes, beauty sleep is a real thing), managing your stress and eating a healthy, well-rounded diet.

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