There are some folks who can spend an afternoon browsing Dermstore for the next serums or potions they want to try. Then there are some who use the same soap to wash up from head to toe and haven’t considered whether they should be exfoliating—let alone how.
If you fall into the second camp and are curious about starting a skincare routine but feel overwhelmed by the unfamiliar jargon—what is lactic acid and who is making up rules about double cleansing?—let us help. We spoke to Dr. Fran Cook-Bolden, a board-certified dermatologist and cosmetic surgeon with Advanced Dermatology PC in New York City, to set the record straight about what your skin actually needs.
What’s the point of skincare, anyway?
There are two key goals when it comes to skincare: to clean and to protect. For the former, you want a cleanser, and for the latter, you want a moisturizer and a sunscreen. A moisturizer isn’t only important if you have dry, parched skin—this product protects the skin by creating a “barrier” between it and pollutants and irritants that cause damage and can lead to micro-tears in the skin that are more susceptible to infection. A sunscreen, of course, keeps harmful UVA and UVB rays from burning the skin, creating discoloration (like age spots), and potentially causing skin cancer. There are optional steps you can add in, too, but if you want to stick to the basics, these are the only essential products.
As a baseline, Cook-Bolden recommends cleansing and moisturizing twice a day and following up with sunscreen for the daytime. “I think it’s important to refresh the skin because water rehydrates the skin,” Cook-Bolden says. “Night and day is what I recommend. I think it’s a good habit.”
Deciding what products you need in order to perform these steps is more nuanced than the actual steps themselves, as you want products that complement your skin type. To determine whether your skin is dry, normal, or oily, Cook-Bolden suggests observing your cheeks in the afternoon—around 1 or 2 p.m.—on either a cold winter day or a hot summer one, depending on the time of year and where you live. Observing how your skin reacts during extreme temperatures will tell you what it needs. If the skin on your cheeks feels tight or appears scaly with small white flakes, you likely have dry skin. If the skin feels slick or appears greasy or shiny, you have oily skin. If they don’t seem either and you don’t feel very aware of your cheeks, your skin is “normal.”
Not sure? The safe bet is to start with a routine for “normal” skin and go from there.
A routine for normal skin
People with normal skin have no issues with oil production one way or the other and have the most flexibility with their product options.
Start with a gentle cleanser that refreshes the skin
“[Having] normal skin is a sweet spot. [If this describes yours, you] can do almost anything,” Cook-Bolden says. Facial cleansers come in several formulations, including cream, gel, and foaming cleanser—typically creams are for dry skin and foaming for oily. But someone with normal skin can try any of the options to see what they like best. You may find that your skin needs more moisture in the winter and less in the summer, so you can also base which products you purchase on the season.
Cook-Bolden especially recommends Cetaphil for people with normal skin, as it’s soothing and rinses the skin without drying it out or leaving a residue. “It leaves the skin feeling soft and smooth all year round,” she says. “No need to change to accomodate the weather.”
Follow with a lightweight lotion that hydrates the skin without feeling greasy
If you have normal skin, Cook-Bolden recommends a moisturizer with a lotion consistency, so it’s not too thick or too lightweight.
Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion+ is the perfect texture—not thick and gloppy nor so lightweight it feels like you added nothing. Cook-Bolden loves it because it’s another great pick for all year round and it plays well with normal skin even if it leans slightly oily or dry.
During daylight, use a sunscreen that’s also a moisturizer
When the sun’s out, you need an SPF-containing product. If your normal skin errs on the oily side, you may be able to skip your morning moisturizer and use a moisture-containing sunscreen. If you’re more dry, you can pile this on top. Just make sure you follow the instructions and reapply as necessary.
The Aveeno Protect + Hydrate Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 70 is worth trying. This daily SPF uses oatmeal to moisturize the skin and protects you from harmful UVA and UVB rays. The lotion is also lightweight, water-resistant, and absorbs quickly into the skin.
A routine for dry skin
The thing that dry skin craves the most is moisture, which means using a cleanser that removes, dirt, makeup, and grime while not stripping it of oil, and then following up with—you guessed it—moisturizer!
Start with a cleanser that cleans well without making the face feel tight
For dry skin, Cook-Bolden recommends using a cream cleanser and avoiding anything labeled as a gel or foam wash. There aren’t specific ingredients you need to seek out or avoid in your product selection; the most important thing is the texture of the wash.
For a cleanser that’s great for parched skin, Cook-Bolden suggests the La Roche-Posay Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Facial Cleanser. “This is a creamy cleanser that maintains the skin’s natural protective barrier and pH, which is very important for dry skin,” she says. It’s full of ingredients to protect and hydrate and is free of controversial ones that could irritate sensitive skin, such as sulfates, parabens, fluorides, phthalates, dyes, aluminum, and fragrance.
Follow with a moisturizer that replenishes the skin barrier
If your skin is sensitive or irritated from the dryness, look for a moisturizer with ceramides, or lipids found in the outermost layer of the skin that protect the skin barrier. If your skin isn’t sensitive, ceramides certainly won’t hurt, but you can mostly pay attention to the texture, which should be a cream. During the warmer months, you can also choose a lighter moisturizer, like the Clinique lotion recommended above, if a cream feels too heavy.
A tried-and-true moisturizer for sensitive dry skin is the Cerave Moisturizing Cream, which contains ceramides to protect the skin barrier and hyaluronic acid to maintain moisture. “Cerave is a wonderful staple that has all you need for your face and body in one cream,” Cook-Bolden says.
For an even richer product, Cook-Bolden recommends Bioderma Sensibio Rich Cream, which uses an antioxidant that calms and brightens the skin, to alleviate the tight sensation dry skin can have. “If your skin is really dry, this is the cream for instant relief and long-lasting hydration,” Cook-Bolden says.
During the day, use a sunscreen that hydrates and protects
Any SPF, as long as you’re layering it on top of a hydrating moisturizer, will do the job. Cook-Bolden says you can try to combine the moisturizer-and-SPF step in the morning, but you’ll want to make sure you have a very hydrating sunscreen.
One she suggests is EltaMD UV Clear SPF 46, which claims to moisturize with hyaluronic acid, clear pores and reduce shine with lactic acid, and protect the skin from UVA and UVB rays with zinc oxide.
A routine for oily skin
When your skin is prone to oiliness, you want to make sure you’re cleansing twice a day to remove excess oil, but just as important, you want to still replenish the skin’s barrier with moisturizer. The idea is not to completely rid your skin of moisture and leave it stinging or feeling tight. You want to help your skin reach equilibrium by washing and moisturizing it. If you don’t follow up with moisturizer, your skin is more likely to overproduce oil to compensate for the lack of protection.
If your skin is really oily, you can also use a toner after cleansing, which removes excess oil that your cleanser may have missed, and can prevent the overproduction of oil. If this interests you, look for a toner that does not use alcohol as base—instead, snag one that uses a base such as apple cider vinegar, witch hazel, rosewater, purified waters, micellar water, or calendula.
Start with a cleanser that whisks away excess oil
As you might’ve guessed, gel and foam washes are ideal for oily skin. These remove excess oil but they don’t leave your skin depleted and feeling tight—as we know, drying out your skin is not the goal.
For a gentle cleanser that helps balance oil, try Aveeno Ultra-Calming Hydrating Gel Facial Cleanser, which claims to soothe and hydrate the skin using feverfew (a plant) and nourishing oat. “[This is] my all time favorite very affordable cleanser to rebalance oily skin without causing tightness, but leaving skin calm and soothed instead, with just the right amount of hydration,” Cook-Bolden says.
If you have oily skin that’s also sensitive, try the La Roche-Posay Toleriane Purifying Foaming Face Cleanser. It removes makeup and oil while also hydrating and soothing the skin with ingredients like ceramide-3, prebiotic thermal water, glycerin, and niacinamide. “It has all the beneficial and protective features needed for sensitive skin,” Cook-Bolden says.
Follow with a moisturizer that’s lightweight
After washing (and toning, if you so choose), it’s time to go in with a moisturizer. If moisturizer scares you because of your oily skin, don’t let it! Remember that its purpose is more than just moisturizing; it’s protecting your skin from damage.
As with cleanser, gel is the way to go when it comes to moisturizing oily skin. The popular Neutrogena Hydro Boost Water Gel uses hyaluronic acid to moisturize and absorbs quickly into the skin so you don’t feel any slickness.
During the day, use a sunscreen that works as a lightweight moisturizer
With oily skin, you may prefer to skip straight to SPF after washing your face in the morning. A lightweight sunscreen provides the necessary barrier between your skin and the atmosphere. There are also “mattifying” sunscreens that contain oil-absorbing ingredients to keep greasiness and shine at bay throughout the day.
The Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 100+ claims to absorb quickly into the skin and give a non-greasy, matte finish while protecting your skin from UVA and UVB rays.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.