Great skin is not simply a matter of DNA — your daily habits, in fact, have a big impact on what you see in the mirror. But depending on which product reviews you read or doctors you consult, there is a dizzying number of opinions on everything from how to moisturize to how to protect yourself from UV rays. Ultimately, caring for your skin is simply personal. Here’s what you should keep in mind to sort through all the noise. 

Skin Care Tips Before You Start

THREE MAIN STEPS

Think of your skin-care routine as consisting of three main steps:

  • Cleansing — Washing your face. 
  • Toning — Balancing the skin.
  • Moisturizing — Hydrating and softening the skin.

The goal of any skin-care routine is to tune up your complexion so it’s functioning at its best, and also troubleshoot or target any areas you want to work on. “Beauty routines are an opportunity to notice changes within yourself,” says the San Francisco skin-care specialist Kristina Holey. As your skin needs shifts with age, so will your products. Still, she adds, “it’s not about creating perfection.”   Allow these three steps to become your daily ritual that fortifies your skin and grounds your day. 

GIVE IT TIME

The science behind skin-care products has come a long way but there’s still no such thing as an instant fix — you need time to reap the benefits, says Dr. Rachel Nazarian, a Manhattan dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group. “Results are only seen through consistent use,” she explains. Generally, aim to use a product over at least six weeks, once or twice daily, to notice a difference.  

Tip: With any skin-care product, apply in order of consistency — from thinnest to thickest. For example, cleanser, toner (if you use it), serum, and then moisturizer.

Cleansing

Washing your face is the most basic and essential step of any routine, says the New York City dermatologist Dr. Carlos Charles. “Our skin comes in contact with environmental pollutants, dirt and other factors each day that should be gently removed.” Wash twice a day, morning and night, to avoid clogged pores, dullness and acne.

FIND YOUR FACIAL CLEANSER

The right formula cleanses your skin without stripping essential, healthy oils. Take it easy with exfoliating scrubs (use once a week) and avoid those with crushed walnut shells or abrasive ingredients. 

For everyday cleansing, here’s what to look for: 

WHAT DOES NON-COMEDOGENIC MEAN EXACTLY?

This term frequently appears on product labels and is used by skin-care experts but not always defined in simple, clear language. Here’s a quick explanation: If a product claims to be non-comedogenic it means that it shouldn’t clog pores or trigger acne — either by occluding the skin, blocking glands or irritating the hair follicle. The claim is not regulated by the F.D.A., however, and many companies do their own internal tests to determine whether a product should be considered comedogenic or not. (Some common known comedogenic ingredients are coconut oil and cocoa butter.) Typically, the fewer ingredients a product has, the easier it is to determine if it will cause any reactions. 

HOW TO USE TONER

For many, the word “toner” brings to mind stinging astringents from the ’80s. “The original was an alcohol-based product that was used to dry up oily skin and remove any leftover dirt following cleansing,” Dr. Nazarian says. Today’s formulas, however, have evolved. Think of them as supplements — these thin liquids deliver an extra shot of nutrients, helping the other products in your regimen absorb better, while still balancing your complexion. Most experts, the New York City aesthetician Jordana Mattioli says, consider toner to be optional: “It can be a good way to add in specific ingredients that you may not have in your other products or add another layer of skin-replenishment.” If you have the time and inclination, here are some hero ingredients to look for: 

  • Alpha and beta hydroxy acids to gently remove dead skin cells that can clog pores, improve sun-damaged skin and minimize dullness.
  • Hyaluronic acid to boost hydration, seal in dewiness and plump skin to subtly treat fine lines.
  • Rose water and green tea to calm irritation and reduce redness with an anti-inflammatory effect.
  • Vitamin E and C to fight daily exposure to free radicals that can age your skin.

WHAT IS TONER?

“Toners should be done after cleansing and before putting on anything else,” Mattioli says. The traditional application method is to saturate a cotton pad and pass it over your face. But, as Mattioli points out, “You end up losing a lot of product.” 

Tip: “Applying toner with clean hands is the most efficient. Just pour a few drops in your palm, then swipe it on.” Or if you prefer, you can pull apart a cotton pad “so it’s not so thick before putting toner on it,” Mattioli advises. Most formulas can be used morning and night, but you might want to use those with exfoliating acids only at night or every other day.  

Treating With Serums

Simply put, serums are powerful skin allies. Filled with concentrated doses of active ingredients, these elixirs can mitigate a number of issues, from dark spots to wrinkles. “Even if you don’t have any specific issues, everyone still needs a general antioxidant serum in the morning to protect from daily aggressors,” Mattioli says. While there are “limitless options” for ingredients, Nazarian singles out her hardworking favorites. To handle specific issues, look for these products:  

  • Hyaluronic acid to seal in hydration and strengthen the barrier function (the top layer of your skin) to prevent moisture loss.
  • Vitamin C to help brighten dull skin and decrease dark spots with continued use.
  • Retinol, vitamin B3, peptides to stimulate the production of collagen and elastin, proteins in the body that help prevent lines and skin sagging. 
  • Colloidal sulfur, niacinamide to calm redness and irritation by decreasing inflammation, and improve acne with its antimicrobial effects.

HELPFUL HINTS AND POINTERS

If you have multiple concerns, you might want to use multiple formulas. “I recommend treating different areas with different products,” Mattioli says. “Maybe you’ll use a vitamin C serum all over but then dab on [another] for hyperpigmentation on just a few spots.” Just run any combination by your dermatologist to avoid any potential reactions. 

To save time, don’t try mixing a serum into your moisturizer. This “lessens the ability of the serum to absorb effectively,” Dr. Nazarian says. “Products should be applied one by one.” 

Not all serums are applied with the same frequency. “This varies with the ingredients,” Dr. Nazarian says. “I prefer antioxidants in the morning because they give you additional protection from the environment, and most of us don’t use enough sunscreen as is,” Mattioli says. Yet certain ingredients are best when slathered on at night. For example: “Retinols are not sun-stable and will degrade if applied in daytime,” Dr. Nazarian explains. Bottom line: Read the label instructions carefully.

Moisturizing

The most basic function of a moisturizer is to hydrate and soften the skin. “Essentially, moisturizers assist in preventing water loss through the outer layers of skin,” Dr. Charles explains. “They can also complement the naturally found protective oils and other building blocks within the skin, such as ceramides.” This is one product that doctors recommend using year-round, for all skin types. “Skin naturally loses the ability to retain moisture as we age,” Dr. Nazarian insists, “and daily activities, such as washing, can strip natural hydrators from the surface.”

HOW TO PICK A MOISTURIZER

“Everyone needs moisture, but the texture of your moisturizer will differ depending on your skin type,” Mattioli notes. Consider this your cheat-sheet, courtesy of Dr. Nazarian.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A DAY AND NIGHT CREAM

Creams you apply in the morning are equipped to protect your skin from the environmental aggressors you’ll face when you leave the house—many contain antioxidants to minimize pollution-based free radicals and sunscreen to shield you from ultraviolet radiation. They typically have a lightweight consistency. Night creams, on the other hand, focus on repairing any damage you might have picked up with ingredients like retinol to speed cellular turnover and counteract dark spots. These creams also replenish moisture levels, which naturally dip in the evening, with emollients that often create a rich, thick texture. 

EYE CREAMS, EXPLAINED

Can you survive without an eye cream? Absolutely. But, if you have specific concerns — like hyperpigmentation, dryness or puffiness — you might want to try one. “The skin around the eyes is quite thin and delicate, and more likely to react to irritating ingredients than other areas,” Dr. Nazarian says. “Therefore, dermatologists typically recommend an eye cream that considers the potential sensitivity and has more tolerable concentrations of active ingredients.” 

For undereye bags and inflammation, caffeine, peptides and hyaluronic acid can be soothing, Mattioli says. “Dark circles can be due to visible veins or actual discoloration common in darker skin tones,” she says. “Look for brightening ingredients like vitamin C, kojic acid and niacinamide.” Insider tip: Steer clear of strong retinols (which can sting and create redness) and fragrance, to avoid any eye irritation.   

Protect With Sunscreen

All of the experts we consulted unanimously agreed on one thing: that sunscreen is, hands down, the most crucial skin-care product. It’s “of utmost importance as part of your year-round regimen,” Dr. Charles points out. “Daily and consistent sunscreen use helps to prevent the development of fine lines and wrinkles, textural imperfections, and changes in the appearance of pores over time. More importantly, daily sunscreen use can help to prevent the formation of certain skin cancers.” To make it easy to remember, experts recommend using a daily moisturizer with a built-in broad spectrum SPF of at least 30.

DECODING SUNSCREEN FORMULAS

There’s a lot of debate over which sunscreens are best and safest for your complexion. You have two types of ingredients in formulas: 

  • Chemical ingredients, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are absorbed into your skin to counteract the damage from ultraviolet light

Pros:

  • Lightweight, easy to apply and transparent on the skin.

Cons:

  • Can irritate and cause reactions in those with sensitive skin.
  • Certain ingredients like oxybenzone have raised health concerns and carry a “high hazard” rating on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database.
  • Physical ingredients, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, that sit on top of your skin to deflect or prevent UV rays from entering your body.

Pros:

  • Very little risk of irritation or health concerns.

Cons:

  • Often leave a white or grayish tint on the skin, particularly in those with darker skin tones.

Insider tip: “I typically advocate the use of sunscreens that contain a combination of physical and chemical blocking components,” Dr. Charles says. “These will provide protection from both UVA and UVB rays, and typically do not create any visible residue.”  

SUNSCREEN APPLICATION 101

Consider this your rule of thumb, according to Dr. Nazarian: “Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure, and reapply at least every two hours. Chemical sunscreens should be applied directly to clean skin, while physical blockers can be applied last in your skin-care regimen, but before makeup is applied. About two tablespoons of sunscreen are appropriate to cover your face and exposed areas of your body; within that amount, use a nickel-size dollop to cover your face.”

Reference: NY Times

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