Your Skin-Care Routine Actually Only Needs These 3 Things

It’s hard to look at a pristine #shelfie full of beautiful luxury skin-care products and not think, I need all of this on my face immediately. Or maybe you’re someone who would love to have an actual skin-care routine but just thinking about setting foot in a Sephora is overwhelming.

Either way, you’ll be glad to know that experts tell us a real, honest-to-goodness skin-care regimen only needs a few important elements. And, in fact, most of us would probably be better off sticking to the simpler end of things.

What steps should a skin-care routine include?

The basic steps of a skin-care routine are a gentle cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen, Emily Newsom, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, tells SELF. Seriously, that’s all you have to do. “I like to keep things pretty simple,” she says. “It might not make for great for blogging, but it’s fine.”

In fact, there are very few situations in which people need to use a bunch of products, Temitayo Ogunleye, M.D., assistant professor of clinical dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, tells SELF, explaining that if patients are coming to her with skin issues, she’ll often have them bring all of their products into the office so she can tell them what’s truly necessary. “I go through and I say, ‘Stop using this, stop using that, and you can use these three,’” she says.

Although there’s no inherent problem with using a ton of products if you enjoy them and they aren’t irritating, she says, “first, you have to try these very simple things and then we’ll see.”

You’ll need a cleanser to wash off the dirt, makeup, excess oil, dead skin cells, and environmental impurities that end up on your face naturally throughout the day. Moisturizer will help keep the skin’s protective barrier functioning properly and your skin feeling smooth and soft. And, arguably the most important element, sunscreen helps prevent skin cancer as well as cosmetic sun damage.

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In the morning, wash with cleanser and then follow it with moisturizer and sunscreen (or combine the two with a moisturizer that has broad spectrum SPF 30 or higher). At night, wash with the cleanser again and apply moisturizer. Yes, you can use your SPF moisturizer at night if you’d like, Dr. Ogunleye says. You might find that you prefer something thicker at night, but there’s no rule against using the one with SPF before bed, she says.

From there, it’s important to pay attention to the way your skin reacts both immediately after using the product and in the following days. Do you notice tightness, greasiness, redness, or breakouts?

If it’s on the oily side, you may find that you need to moisturize less often or to use a lighter formula, for instance. If it’s on the dry side, you may need to use a heavier moisturizer. If your skin is very dry or sensitive, you may only need to wash your face with cleanser once a day in the evening while rinsing with water or micellar water in the morning. But if your skin is especially oily or you wear a lot of heavy makeup, you may need to cleanse more often—or even double cleanse at the end of the day.

If your skin is sensitive, you might notice some irritation (redness, itching, flaking), which is a sign that you should back off and call in a dermatologist. You’ll probably have to be careful in the future about avoiding products with certain ingredients, like fragrances, that are likely to be irritating.

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Also, if something is irritating your skin, stop using it! That may seem obvious, but Dr. Ogunleye says this is one of the most common skin-care mistakes she sees. Some products are known to cause a little bit of irritation when you first start using them, but your daily cleanser, moisturizer, or sunscreen should not be causing stinging, burning, or other irritation.

Everyone still needs to apply sunscreen every day, though. No exceptions. Here’s how to find one you won’t mind wearing.

What if I want to do more?

You may be surprised at how, after a few weeks of getting down these basic steps, your other skin concerns calm down. But if they don’t, your next steps will depend on your skin’s specific needs, Dr. Newsom says.

If you have acne, you may want to swap in a cleanser with salicylic acid, a gentle chemical exfoliator, or the occasional spot treatment with benzoyl peroxide. For wrinkles, fine lines, or sun damage, you may want to add in an over-the-counter retinoid to start with (and maybe a prescription one later). And if you’re interested in managing hyperpigmentation, brightening agents like hydroquinone or vitamin C may do the trick.

But be sure to add just one product at a time, Dr. Newsom says, and give it at least two weeks before adding something else. If you add multiple things at once and have a bad reaction to something, it will be impossible to know which product was responsible without patch testing, Dr. Ogunleye points out. Or, if you do see positive results, you won’t know which product was responsible for the change.

It’s also important to avoid adding too many products that do the same thing. If you already have one retinoid or exfoliating acid in your lineup, you may find that adding another one doesn’t help and is actually just more irritating.

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Whatever you do, be patient. Aside from using too many products, Dr. Ogunleye says one of the biggest mistakes newbies make is to give up too easily. “Everybody thinks that you put on your acne cream and the next day all of your acne will be gone,” she says. But, as SELF explained previously, both over-the-counter and prescription treatments take weeks or months to actually result in noticeable changes. So, Dr. Ogunleye says it’s important to adjust your expectations and be prepared to give a new products two-to-three months before getting discouraged and giving up on them.

When should you see a dermatologist?

If you’re trying to find gentle, everyday products and can’t seem to land on one that works with your skin, it’s time to talk to a dermatologist, Dr. Ogunleye says. Alternately, if you’re trying to address a specific skin concern (like acne or hyperpigmentation) and you’re not seeing any improvements, a dermatologist can help figure out the issue and possibly prescribe a stronger medication that may be more effective.

And, of course, if you’re finding that your skin reacts badly to products and you’re not sure why, definitely talk to a dermatologist. They can help you sort through what might be causing that irritation and give you guidelines for how to avoid it in the future.

That said, know that finding what works for you is probably going to take some trial and error. And it will ultimately come down to your individual skin needs and your personal preferences. So the first step is just to get out there and try stuff!


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