What skincare products should I use? What order should they go in? What is a serum for? What’s ACTUALLY important?
I have been asked these questions and countless others from both women and men when it comes to the wide breadth of topics related to skincare. I decided to write a blog post about the basic principals of skincare, a crash course about skincare so that you can make a better decision about your routine—Skincare 101. This information is, of course, unisex and is applicable to all. In this blog post, I do not recommend specific products, because every person’s skin type, weather climate, diet, etc. is different, but I will give general information. Consult a dermatologist if you do have specific needs.
Information is organized in order of application and what I believe are the basic steps of skincare for an AM/PM routine. More steps can be added, but this is a pared down list for those that are interested in investing their effort into skincare without getting overwhelmed with the gamut of options available. I define what each step is, when to use such products, what the skin benefits are, and application tips.
cleans skin and removes residue
A daily cleanser is used in the morning and in the evening. There are distinctions between what I use in the day versus night time; the skin is typically not impacted by sweat, environmental factors, skincare products, makeup, etc. as it is in the PM. I recommend a light cleanser in the morning (sometimes even just micellar water, more on that later) and one that has provides a deeper clean with active ingredients like charcoal or salicylic acid in the evening. Wet face, gently lather onto face, and rinse with lukewarm water. In terms of texture, when my skin is normal I gravitate towards gel cleansers (also recommended for oily skin) and use a cream cleanser when my skin is dehydrated. If you’re just purchasing one, go for a gel cleanser with gentle ingredients. For those that wear makeup, I do recommend double-cleansing (let me know if you’re interested in a dedicated post).
removes dead skin cells to allow treatment products to absorb into skin
No matter the your skin type, regular exfoliation is important to de-congest clogged pores and promote cell turnover to reveal smoother, brighter, and more even skin texture and tone. There are mechanical and chemical exfoliators; a facial scrub is considered a mechanical exfoliator, because it has small particles that physically scrub the skin to remove the surface layer. Certain exfoilators are quite harsh and contain larger pieces, which can be abrasive if used too frequently or vigorously. Find one that is gentle on the skin and test how often your skin can handle using it. I recommend about 2-3 times per week.
The facial exfoliator replaces the facial cleanser step; I prefer to use it in the PM. This way, I can use my serums/moisturizers afterwards to allow for increased absorption and to allow my skin to rest overnight. Those that have sensitive skin may experience additional sensitives if you exfoliate and immediately go out into direct sunlight for an extensive time.
Micellar Water and/or Toner
gently cleanses skin and/or balance skin’s pH level to maintain hydration
Micellar water and toners have distinctively different roles. Micellar water is composed of tiny spheres (referred as, micelles) of cleansing oil molecules suspended in soft water. These spheres attract oil and dirt and are able to draw out impurities without drying out skin. I use a micellar water-soaked cotton square and gently sweep across my skin for a quick first cleanse or to remove eye makeup (Bioderma is the O.G. and works wonderfully). For those with normal skin, it can also be used as a morning cleanse instead of using a facial cleanser; it will remove minimal debris without drying the skin with water and cleansers.
Toners have a thin, water-like consistency. Their role is to rebalance the pH level of skin, which can lean towards alkaline after cleansing. Toners typically have a slight acidic pH to re-balance skin back to the ideal pH level of 5.5. Toners are applied with a cotton pad, gently sweeping up and outward. When choosing a toner, I look for one without alcohol, which can strip the skin of its natural oils. Other toners have exfoliating and/or hydrating properties, which offers additional benefits. As someone with sensitive skin, I respond better to a simple toner with few active ingredients and look to my serums to address the major skincare issues.
APPLICATION TIP: When layering skincare products, a good rule of thumb is layering thinner (water-like) products first (i.e. toner) and ending with the thicker products (i.e. moisturizer).
Treatments (Serums, Facial Oil, Ampoules)
addresses specific skin care needs (dullness, acne, aging, etc.)
Treatments are the most important step to target specific skin care needs such as loss of firmness, pigmentation/scarring, uneven skin texture, and oiliness. This can be achieved through serums, oils, acids, and ampoules (high concentration of active ingredients). It’s important to read up on what various ingredients do, and recognize that each person’s skin responds differently to each ingredient.
Typically, acids (lactic, AHA, BHA) are used to chemically exfoliate the skin to promote cell turnover resulting in softer skin, smoother skin texture, and quicker fading of scarring. Because of this, certain acids are recommended for night use only and can cause sun sensitivity. Therefore, diligent application and reapplication of sunblock is a must. Hyaluronic acid helps to maintain collagen levels in the skin and allow the skin to retain moisture; serums with hyaluronic acid will operate the same way. While other oils such as Squalane are naturally occurring within the body, supplementing with more assists with hydration and anti-bacterial (treats and may prevent acne) and anti-oxidant benefits. Different types of oils (i.e. rose hip seed, blueberry extract, argan oil) have Vitamin A, C, and/or E, essential fatty acids, and other good-for-your-skin properties. Other active ingredients or cocktail of active ingredients (i.e. ampoules) may target multiple needs at once.
I recommend use of one treatment product at a time (no layering) unless a product is specified to be used in this way. Layering multiple treatment products without understanding the cross effect of active ingredients can result in cancellation of their benefits, skin irritation, and at worst, damage to the skin. For those with sensitive skin, I recommend using a test patch before using the treatment product all over the face. In addition, serums and oils can take time to experience change so use a specific product consistently for at least two to three weeks. To apply, tap onto skin while avoiding the eye area. Allow several minutes for the product to penetrate the skin before layering moisturizer on top.
Moisturizer: AM and PM
boosts and locks in moisture and smooths fine lines
A daily moisturizer helps to lock in moisture, smooth fine lines, and allows for youthful, soft skin. I recommend using two different moisturizers, one for AM and one for PM. Look for an AM moisturizer with a light texture and sun protection. The PM one shouldn’t have SPF and can have a heavier texture to hydrate and heal overnight. Those with acne-prone or oily skin may respond better to a moisturizer that has a gel consistency rather than a cream. Apply with fingers and wait a couple minutes before sunscreen.
protects from aging and skin cancer
Sunscreen is absolutely essential to prevent premature aging and protect against skin cancer. When choosing one for you, consider choosing one with broad spectrum protection and at least an SPF 30 or higher. Apply to the face and neck daily with reapplication every 2 hours even if it’s an overcast day or you’re staying mostly indoors. I use a mineral SPF for reapplication over makeup.
If there is SPF in a daily moisturizer or makeup, I still apply a separate sunscreen and “layer” SPF. Chances are that you do not get the full SPF protection that the product provides. For instance, when you apply an SPF 30 product, it usually has an effect of SPF 15 or 20, because a heavy application would be required for the full SPF 30. Therefore layering a daily moisturizer with SPF 15, then sunblock with SPF 30, and foundation with SPF 15 will provide more protection. I went into extensive detail about sunblock including the differences between physical and chemical SPF, some preferred products, and a comical personal experience about sunblock in this prior blog post.
APPLICATION TIP: Apply sunscreen after moisturizer and allow a couple minutes if you’re applying makeup on top. Mineral SPF that comes in a brush-on applicator and/or facial sprays with SPF are easy reapplication formats.
moisturizes and protects eye area to prevent aging
Eye cream is applied during the AM and PM skincare routine. Due to the thin skin around the eyes, this area can show signs of premature aging and fine wrinkles. In the early to mid 20s, lines around the eyes can be the result of dehydration and can be resolved with an eye cream. If not addressed during the earlier phases, the wrinkles can become more permanent with extended dehydration.
To apply, place a sparing (tiny!) amount on each ring finger and gently tap into orbital/eye socket area below the eyes and on the brow bone above the eye. Be careful not to apply to lids or too close to the lash line. Use just a small amount of product per eye to prevent millia (tiny white bumps) from clogging up skin and prevent natural skin exfoliation.
When choosing an eye cream, different ones address varied issues including fine lines, dark circles, dryness, etc. Look for one that meets your needs. If purchasing one to use for the day and night, choose one with medium viscosity that won’t feel too rich for daytime use (and layer under makeup) and not too unsubstantial for nighttime use. Like moisturizers, some eye creams have a light, gel-like texture.
hydrates and protects lips
The lips are exposed to the sun and environmental elements that leave them chapped. Just as a good eye cream is good for anti-aging so is a good lip balm. My AM lip balm has the much-needed SPF, which should be reapplied regularly. It is also lightweight and provides fair moisture to the lips. For the PM, I use a lip treatment or balm that is emollient. I will apply it before bed and leave it on overnight.
AM routine = cleanser or micellar water, daytime treatment, moisturizer with SPF, sunblock, eye cream, lip balm with SPF
PM routine = cleanser or exfoliator, toner, treatment(s), PM moisturizer, eye cream, lip balm without SPF
And that’s the Skincare 101 guide!
If this was helpful and you’d like to see each step broken down further including discussion of active ingredients and product recommendations, let me know and I can make a Skincare 101 series. Each post would go in depth on individual steps (i.e. Skincare 101: AHA vs. BHA, Skincare 101: Double-Cleansing, Skincare 101: Serums).
I am so pleased to be able to finally share this information. Feel free to pass it on to others that may be interested. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment if you have specific questions about any particular step or want product recommendations tailored to your skin type.
What are your skincare favorites?
To keep updated, subscribe below and connect with me via Instagram.