Cleanse, tone, moisturize. Remember when skincare was that simple? Now, there are seemingly endless products to navigate in the quest for brighter, tighter, clearer skin. While we love a photogenic sheet mask as much as the next girl, we’re also firm believers that a tightly edited routine of powerhouse ingredients is a must. Here’s what you need.
1. WHY DO I EVEN NEED A SKINCARE ROUTINE? Dr. Nowell Solish, a Toronto-based dermatologist, says there is “no question” that a good skincare routine promotes skin health. At the bare minimum, daily cleansing will remove the buildup of oil, dirt and pollution that accumulates on your face throughout the day. “It’s an essential part of having nice skin,” adds Dr. Dennis Gross, a dermatologist in New York City, noting that the results you can get from using at-home products today are “unprecedented.”
2. WHAT IS THE MOST EFFECTIVE WAY TO WASH MY FACE? Start by removing eye makeup, which can be tricky to get off. Then double-cleanse, by using either an oil-based cleanser followed by a face wash or a micellar water or makeup remover and then a face wash. The idea is to remove all your makeup on the first rinse so the second cleanse is all about your skin. Keep the water temperature warm—not too hot or too cold.
3. HOW MANY TIMES A DAY DO I NEED TO WASH MY FACE? You should wash your face twice daily (morning and night), according to derms. Montreal-based facialist Jennifer Brodeur, who works with Oprah, says skipping a morning cleanse—and just using toner and moisturizer instead—is fine if you’ve done a good cleanse the night before.
4. CAN’T I JUST USE A FACE WIPE? Aside from it being not the most environmentally friendly of options, some people can get redness or rashes from the preservatives in wipes. Use them sparingly.
5. HOW OFTEN SHOULD I EXFOLIATE? “It takes about two weeks for a skin cell to make its way from the lower skin layer to the surface,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC. “Then enough dead cells must accumulate to interfere with light reflection and lead to dullness. I typically recommend exfoliating once a week. If your skin can tolerate it, then it is okay to advance to twice a week.”
6. DO I NEED TO WEAR MOISTURIZER IF I’M WEARING SUNSCREEN? “Sunscreens are moisturizers,” says Solish. Most of us don’t put on SPF-containing moisturizers thick enough to get full advantage of the sun protection, he notes. “Pick a sunscreen that has a moisturizing base that you like [a rich cream or a gel texture, for example] so it’s a one-step process.”
7. WHAT SHOULD I SPENT THE MOST MONEY ON? “Serums are usually the most expensive products in your skincare routine,” says Zeichner. And for good reason: “They are loaded with high concentrations of special actives that often require specialized formula- tions to ensure stability and penetration into the skin.”
8. IS THERE ANYTHING SKINCARE CAN’T DO? Topical skincare can’t solve everything. For most cosmetic skin issues, like acne, fine lines and pigmentation, “there are going to be products that help everybody,” says Gross. “The worst-case scenario is that they won’t help them enough.” However, using at-home products to treat what Gross calls “medical” con- cerns, like eczema, will only help the symptoms and not treat the cause. See a derm.
9. IS PURGING A REAL THING? Your skin might “purge” (that is, break out) for up to two weeks when trying a new acne treatment. Note: If you don’t usually get pimples and are using a product that is not intended to treat acne but you are breaking out, then the product likely does not agree with your skin, says Gross. Discontinue use.
10. DO JADE ROLLERS REALLY DO ANYTHING? Well, they’re not magic. But, yes, they do. Jade stones tend to be cold to the touch and feel great rolled across your face. The roll ing motion, like most massages, helps with lymph atic drainage, which means your face could look less puffy. Add it to your routine if you like the sensation— avoid using it over active breakouts or inflamed skin, though.
No skincare wardrobe should be without these six hero ingredients.
The all-in-one: Niacinamide
A form of vitamin B3, niacinamide is one of the most versatile ingredients in skincare. “It’s like an essential nutrient for your skin,” says Dr. Frauke Neuser, Olay principal scientist. “It does so many things.” The brand has been studying the ingredient for 25 years; it’s been proven to be beneficial for skin texture, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. The ingredient plays a starring role in the new Olay Whip fragrance-free moisturizers, which contain a form of niacinamide that’s designed to penetrate through 10 layers of skin. Bonus: It plays nice with other ingredients, like vitamin C, peptides and antioxidants.
Try: Olay Regenerist Whip Fragrance-Free Moisturizer ($40)
The exfoliators: Alpha-hydroxyacids (AHAs) and Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) Ρ
AHAs and BHAs are chemical exfoliators that help slough off dead skin cells and brighten skin without granules, which are used in physical exfoliators. The most common AHAs are glycolic and lactic acids, both of which are water-soluble and work on the surface of the skin. BHAs, like salicylic acid, are oil-soluble, have antibacterial properties and can penetrate deeper into the skin to target acne. You can alternate between AHAs and BHAs or use them together.
Try: Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Professional Grade Resurfacing Liquid Peel ($123), Miracle10 Stem Cell Serum ($130), Vinoperfect Brightening Glycolic Night Cream ($75)
The multi-tasker: Peptides
Peptides are short chains of amino acids that, when linked together, are the building blocks of protein. (Think collagen, elastin and keratin.) In skincare, peptides are proteins that are synthetically made, the most commonly used of which is Matrixyl. “Peptides stimulate the production of collagen and elastin fibres, and [cosmetics companies] can make exact copies of the ones we normally have in our body [so they can make those things] in a higher concentration,” explains Solish. Different types of peptides have different functions, from boosting collagen and hydration to calming inflammation.
Try: Biossance Squalane + Peptide Eye Gel ($68)
The anti-ager: Retinol
This vitamin-A derivative is available over the counter, unlike the prescription-only Retin-A. Retinol revs up skin’s collagen production (translation: it protects against fine lines and wrinkles) and increases cell turnover (aiding with uneven skin tone, texture and even acne scars). A caveat: Not everyone can tolerate retinol. If you have dry skin or are post-menopausal, it can be irritating and hard to use, says Solish. Start gradually, using it once a week until you build up your skin’s tolerance, and always pair it with SPF as retinol increases sun sensitivity.
Try: Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream ($92), SkinCeuticals Retinol 0.3 ($72), Ole Henrikson Transform Plus Glow Cycle Retin-ALT Power Serum ($70)
The hydrator: Hyaluronic Acid (HA)
Found naturally in your body, the spongelike molecule can hold up to a thousand times its weight in water and is key to maintaining moisture levels in your skin. Sadly, it also depletes as you age, resulting in drier, rougher skin. “[HA] is an oil-free way to hydrate the skin internally because it brings water into the skin and keeps it there,” says Gross. Studies show that it also helps with firmness and elasticity. In addition to being applied topically, HA can be injected into the skin in the form of dermal fillers.
Try: Dermalogica Intensive Moisture Balance Moisturizer ($69)
The brightener: Vitamin C
Gross calls this brightening antioxidant’s ability to stimulate the production of collagen “brilliant.” (Ingesting collagen does not yield the same results, he notes.) Vitamin C prevents free radicals from damaging your skin “and helps with uneven skin tone and excess pigment.” Scan labels for L-ascorbic acid, which is the form of vitamin C most recommended by the pros, and look for products that come in an airless pump or single-use packaging, which will protect the potency of the formula by preventing exposure to heat, light and air.
Try: Omorovicza Daily Vitamin C ($200), Pixi Vitamin C Caviar Balm ($34)
A NOTE FROM THE BEAUTY DIRECTOR
A few years ago, a professor at the University of Chicago said that all the truly important financial advice (stick with me here) he’d ever received would fit on an index card—and then wrote it down to prove it. I often go back and read that card when some well-meaning person offers me advice that makes me feel utterly confused. My point: We often complicate things that needn’t be complicated. In that vein, I condensed the general principles that guide my approach to skincare into the five points below in the hope that you can refer to them when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
1. Wear sunscreen.
2. Always wash your face before you go to bed, even if you don’t wear makeup.
3. Exfoliate. Be gentle—don’t overdo it.
4. Follow the instructions on a product. Applying too much of any ingredient equals disaster, not improved result timelines.
5. Give your skin a month to adjust to a new skincare item before you make a judgment (unless you have an immediate adverse reaction, like swelling or hives).
Read The Skincare Bible by Dr. Anjali Mahto. This straight- talking tome from U.K.-based dermatologist Mahto aims to “shatter” the “monolith of misinformation” about skin. As someone with adult acne herself, Mahto is particularly attuned to the needs of acne sufferers.
This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of ELLE Canada.
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's daily newsletter.