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What Skincare Products Do You Really Need – And In What Order?

How many steps should an average skincare routine contain? Four? Five? Ten? With growing regimens becoming the norm and an overwhelming amount of products to choose from, it’s difficult to know what we actually need and what we could really do without.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what works best for your skin, but if you’re in need of a little guidance, I spoke to four skincare professionals for their expert advice. The good news is, it turns out you won’t need to while away your evening behind the bathroom sink. “I’m a firm believer in less is more,” says Dija Ayodele, founder of Black Skin Directory.

Instead, the consensus around “the bare essentials” is that you need a pleasingly streamlined edit of cleanser, hydrator, and SPF. But, for peak skin condition it’s a good idea to add in a targeted serum and exfoliator, depending on your skin type.

As for what order in which to apply them, the golden rule is to start with the lightest texture and move up to the heaviest. That way, your delicate serum won’t have to muscle through a thick layer of lotion to hit its target.

Here’s our cheat sheet to a simple, effective skincare routine:

Step One: Cleanser

Great skin starts with your cleanser. It’s as necessary in the morning (since we sweat in our sleep) as it is in the evening. Alongside nixing make-up and grime, it’ll make skin more receptive to the products you put on next. As Sarah Chapman, Meghan Markle’s favorite facialist explains, thoroughly clean skin “dramatically improves the absorption of the high-performance serums you follow-up with, allowing maximum penetration of powerful actives for serious defense and repair in the skin.”

Make sure you choose one that’s right for your skin type. Oilier and combination skin will benefit from a mild exfoliating cleanser. Ayodele recommends the Osmosis Purify Enzyme Cleanser ($37, Amazon) for the AM to gently brighten and lift away old skin cells, while Gigi Shaker, Senior Medical Aesthetician at beauty and skincare destination, Young LDN, recommends a cleanser that contains salicylic acid if you’re acne prone or a hydrating cleanser if your concern is dryness.

To remove stubborn eye make-up and sunscreen in the evening, you’re best off doing a double cleanse, starting with an oil cleanser. “My top recommendation is the DHC Make Up Remover ($12.50, Amazon) as it’s lightweight, easy to apply, washes off easily, and doesn’t feel greasy,” says Ayodele – followed by your morning face wash.

Step Two: Exfoliator (use as often as needed).

Exfoliating can be a bit of a conundrum. How much you need depends on your skin type. If you’re very oily you may find you can get away with a gentle exfoliation every day. If your skin errs on the dry side, however, it may be that you’re better off using a separate exfoliator just once or twice a week. And, if you use retinol which offers up its own exfoliating benefits (more on that to come), you may find you can forego exfoliators altogether. In general, some trial and error is needed to see what suits your skin.

There are two types of exfoliator to choose from, manual (scrubs) and chemical (low concentrations of skin resurfacing acids). Chapman, however, advices you opt for the latter. “People are often guilty of too much scrubbing. Tearing the skin with crystals, micro-beads, and sharp granules has a thinning effect. Instead, good skincare with lactic and salicylic acids or high levels of vitamin A (aka retinol) will smooth the skin’s surface and exfoliate naturally without causing damaging micro-tears.” Try Chapman’s own Skinesis Liquid Facial Resurfacer ($86.00, Amazon) – a combination of face-friendly lactic and fruit acids which lift away dead cells, evens out skin texture, and gives glow.

Step three: Serum (optional).

Serums are best employed for specific skincare concerns such as pigmentation, fine lines, or dullness. They pack more of a punch and contain higher concentrations of active ingredients than your moisturizer. What’s more, they can be applied in targeted areas (such as under eyes, on top of blemishes or around crows feet) rather than across your entire face, like your moisturizer.

“Your choice of serum should always be tailored to your specific skin concern and therefore could change weekly or even daily, depending on your skin’s needs,” says Chapman. But two hero ingredients the experts agree are worth looking out for are retinol and vitamin C.

Retinol (best used as part of your evening routine as it increases sun sensitivity), is considered the gold standard in smoothing skin, promoting cell turnover (thereby exfoliating) and boosting collagen. “I recommend introducing vitamin A to the skin gradually,” says Chapman “as it can be sensitizing at first, so building up a tolerance avoids irritation while retaining all the transformative benefits.” The Ordinary’s retinol serums ($24, Amazon) come in several concentrations from very mild 0.2 percent up to a much more potent 1 percent, so you can increase your dosage according to your skin.

Vitamin C (best used in the morning to protect your skin throughout the day), is a heavyweight antioxidant that shields skin against environmental damage, helps to see off stubborn dark spots, and does a good job of brightening up dull complexions. “Antioxidants like vitamin C will also boost the protection afforded by your sunscreen and help to control and quell excess melanin (which causes pigmentation),” says Ayodele, who recommends applying before moisturizer to give the ingredients a better chance to sink in.

Step four: Moisturizer

“A good moisturizer that doesn’t clog pores but helps with skin hydration and healing should be used by most people,” says Dr. Barbara Kubicka, aesthetic doctor and founder of Clinicbe. “Especially if you’re using potent ingredients like retinol, since they can dry skin out.” What’s new however, is the advice being given around application. “If you’re oily, you may only want to moisturize once a day rather than twice,” says Shaker. Or, if you’re getting enough in the way of hydration from your serum “you can skip it altogether and head straight to sunscreen,” says Ayodele.

Most combination to dry skin types, however, will benefit from moisturizer to lock-in hydration and safeguard our skin barrier. Choose a texture that works for you – for instance light and oil-balancing if you’re a little oily, or rich and nourishing if your skin’s in need of some more TLC.

Step five: SPF (in the morning).

An oft-neglected but absolutely fundamental step, sunscreen is the number one way to protect against premature aging. It’s often not enough to rely on SPF in your moisturizer since many don’t offer the amount of coverage necessary to shield skin, nor broad spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB rays.

But, standalone sunscreens are getting even smarter, with many now offering protection against sun rays, pollution, and even damaging blue light from our digital devices, in one. Murad City Skin Broad Spectrum SPF50 ($68, Murad) is one such multi-tasker and defends against all three. Apply it as the last step of your skincare routine so that it’s the first line of defense. 

This article originally appeared on our sister site, Grazia

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