Skincare can be intimidating, whether you are just starting out or you’re a seasoned professional.
You stroll into Sephora. Hundreds of products line the shelves, bottles and jars of mysterious potions and tonics that claim to be the answer to all your problems. Skin concerns that you never knew existed, until you take a close look in one of those round lit-up mirrors. Is that a wrinkle next to my nose? An age spot on my chin? Huge pores on my forehead? If this lighting makes me look better than usual, what do I look in real life?? The world starts to fall apart and the only hope is that little jar of $60 moisturizer that promises to give you everything you ever wanted. But can it really?
I’ve found that the best thing to arm myself with before venturing out into the world of skincare is knowledge. Hard, concrete facts that I can fall back on and rely on when making a decision about what my skin needs. I’ve compiled the basic skincare routine that serves as my base line, as well as some of my staple products. Hopefully it’ll help you develop or enhance your own skincare routine as well!
The most basic principle to follow for an effective skincare routine that has long-term benefits is: Cleanse, Hydrate, Moisturize, and Sun Protection. So, what’s the difference between hydrating and moisturizing?
Hydration is replenishing your skin with water and nutrients, while most moisturizers do not provide much hydration, but lock all the moisture into your skin. Cleansing helps clear the debris, makeup, and excess sebum from your skin to prevent break outs and help skincare absorb better. Sun protection is key to prevent the signs of aging. In fact, it’s the main culprit for wrinkles and loss of skin elasticity. Sun damage can be subtle and accumulates over time, so be sure to wear that sunscreen religiously, every single day.
The most basic principle to follow for an effective skincare routine that has long-term benefits is: Cleanse, Hydrate, Moisturize, and Sun Protection.
Cleansing is an essential step in any skincare routine. The skin’s ideal pH is 5.5–slightly acidic. The ideal pH level for a cleanser is 4.0 – 6.0, which will help maintain your skin’s moisture barrier and prevent blemish-causing bacteria from growing. Using a cleanser that is alkaline (pH > 6.0) may strip and dry out the skin.
If you have dry or normal skin, you may not even need to wash your face with face wash in the morning. A good, thorough rinse with warm water might be enough. However, if you wake up with an oily face, face wash will be a good idea to clear away the excess sebum. My go-to cleanser for the morning (when I need it) is the Su:m37 Miracle Rose Cleansing Stick (read the full review here!). It is hypoallergenic, contains beneficial oils, like coconut, camellia, and green tea seed oil, that nourish and cleanse the face. Plus, it smells like soft, milky roses. Since the Rose Cleansing Stick is in solid form, it’s perfect for travel and can serve as both the first and second cleanser in the double-cleansing regimen.
In the evening, gently take off your eye makeup with a soft, non-abrasive cotton pad. I use unbleached Muji cut cotton, which is a cheaper, if not better, alternative to the Shiseido facial pads. Then, apply a cleansing oil or cleansing balm directly to a dry face. Add a little water to emulsify and massage gently in circular motions to melt away the rest of your makeup. Makeup, dirt, and excess sebum is most effectively cleaned away with oil cleansers.
Rinse off this cleanser and follow with a low pH foaming cleanser. For this step (surprise, surprise), I always gravitate towards my Su:m37 Miracle Rose Cleansing Stick. I apply it when my skin is still damp from the first cleanse by swiping it gently on the sides of my face, nose, forehead, and neck. The cleanser foams up slightly when gently massaged and rinses away clean, leaving my skin soft and fresh.
Cleaning your face then slapping a thick moisturizer over it is not going to keep your skin hydrated.
Have you ever worn a tiny dress and a huge coat over it in the dead of winter and froze your bottom off, just to look cute at a party? I sure did. Gradually we learn that layering is the key to keeping warm, no matter how thick our coat is.
The same applies to skincare. Cleaning your face then slapping a thick moisturizer over it is not going to keep your skin hydrated. And your skin isn’t even going to look cute. Your oil glands will most likely go into over-drive and that means one thing–an oily, shiny face. Nobody wants that!
Products that hydrate the skin include toner, essences, serums, and lotions. That probably sounds pretty overwhelming for skincare beginners, so let’s break it down.
Toner is the first, and lightest, layer of hydration and preps the skin to better absorb beneficial ingredients in the rest of your skincare routine. Many U.S. toners you see at drugstores contain a lot of alcohol and are marketed to cleanse your skin further. These are minimally hydrating at best, and usually not at all. The high alcohol content is also likely to irritate your skin, making it dry and/or red, even though it might feel refreshing. That’s actually just because alcohol evaporates rapidly, which creates a cooling, “fresh” sensation on the skin.
A hydrating and/or acid toner is much more beneficial for the skin. I like to use Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid right after cleansing. I used to have combination oily skin with a very oily and blackhead-ridden nose. A year after starting to use this BHA liquid, my skin is now more normal, versus combo/oily, and this product was definitely a game changer. Can’t wait a year? Good news! After just a couple months of use, the pores on my nose were visibly smaller, produced less sebum, and formed less blackheads. Way less! I no longer get cystic acne on my nose and chin, which was a problem that plagued me since I was a teenager.
BHA acid (more commonly known as salicylic acid) is a gentle exfoliant that lifts dead surface skin cells and is able to penetrate through sebum into the pore. BHA cleans out blackheads over time, but more importantly, it exfoliates the inner lining of the pore, which helps pores function normally. Pores with a healthy lining are much less likely to trap dirt and oil, making blackheads a thing of the past. BHA also calms and soothes irritated, red skin, smooths skin texture, and hydrates.
Essence & Serums
Essences are a lighter version of serums, and contains a concentration of ingredients to target specific skin issues. I find that in the summertime, I will only need to use a toner, essence, and moisturizer. In the wintertime or drier months, layering an essence with a serum helps my skin retain moisture better.
Being in my mid-twenties, my main concern is to keep skin hydrated at all times, which helps it maintain skin-repairing abilities, and prevent fine lines/wrinkles. I like to try a lot of different essences and serums out of curiosity, but my go-to is always the Belif Hungarian Water Essence. After applying, it quickly sinks into skin, leaving my face refreshed and plump. It does just what it promises. Effective, lightweight, long-lasting hydration. Period.
Serums are more potent than essences, and should have a high concentration of powerhouse ingredients. There are a lot of serums out on the market right now, but here’s what to look for in an effective product:
- Antioxidants: Guards skin against environmental factors like free radicals that accelerate skin aging. Also promotes cellular repair. Examples include:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin E
- Green and black tea
- Fermented ingredients: The fermentation process enhances an ingredient by breaking down its molecules, making it easier to absorb by skin. The process also infuses the concoction with anti-inflammatory properties, which helps to calm any irritation or sensitivity. In addition, fermentation naturally produces acid, lightly exfoliating dead surface skin cells, promoting better penetration of ingredients.
- Niacinamide: This ingredient keeps the skin barrier healthy and strong, maintaining the skin’s ability to retain water and keep out problem-causing bacteria. Especially great for acne-prone, sensitive, and dry skin.
This is a particularly confusing term. “Lotion” is often used in Japanese skincare to refer to hydrating toners, not moisturizer. One of my absolute favorites is the Hada Labo Rohto Gokujyn Hyaluronic Acid Lotion. I apply this lotion after essences/serums and before moisturizer. Hyaluronic acid has the ability to hold 1,000x its weight in water, keeping moisture on the surface of the skin while allowing skin to breathe. It plumps up skin, preventing dryness (dryness=wrinkles!!), and creates an excellent environment for the regeneration of healthy skin cells.
Now that your skin is all plumped up from hydration and chock-full of yummy ingredients, it’s time to seal everything in. Moisturizers should never be used alone, since they provide limited nutrients to the skin. Their primary purpose is to form a film on the skin to seal in moisture. If there’s no moisture…what’s there to seal in?
For daytime, I use Belif The True Cream Aqua Bomb for light, refreshing moisturizing, with an added shot of hydration. This gel-cream sits well under makeup and doesn’t pill. I also use this at night for the hot and humid summer months. For winter or nighttime, I use the Drunk Elephant Lala Retro Whipped Cream, a luxurious, highly occlusive moisturizer that leaves no doubt it’s doing its job. That hydration you just fed your skin with is going nowhere. This moisturizer contains no sensitizing colorants, perfumes, or fragrant essential oils, making it ideal for even sensitive skin.
4. Sun Protection (Daytime)
Protecting your skin is essential to preventing visible signs of aging and maintaining overall skin health. The number one thing I recommend in any skincare routine is applying sunscreen religiously, every morning of every day, regardless of whether it’s sunny or rainy or snowy. I’ve found that Asian sunscreens are far superior to most Western formulations, probably because sunscreen is a must-have in the Asian skincare routine and the market there is quite picky 🙂
My favorite, affordable sunscreen is the Biore Aqua Rich Watery Essence Sunscreen with SPF 50+/PA++++. No white cast, no greasiness. It sets matte and is a great base for foundation even if you don’t want to use a primer. And of course, great sun protection with SPF 50+/PA++++. SPF indicates how effective the sunscreen is at protecting skin from UVB rays (i.e. Sunburn Rays) that cause direct DNA damage to cells. PA indicates the level of protection from UVA rays (i.e. Aging Rays), the main reason behind sun-related skin cancers. UVA rays destroy the vitamin A in our skin and also indirectly causes DNA damage. Protect your skin, everyone!!
Su:m37 Miracle Rose Cleansing Stick
Unbleached Muji cut cotton
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid
Belif Hungarian Water Essence
Hada Labo Rohto Gokujyn Hyaluronic Acid Lotion
Belif The True Cream Aqua Bomb
Drunk Elephant Lala Retro Whipped Cream
Biore Aqua Rich Watery Essence Sunscreen with SPF 50+/PA++++
Hopefully this base line routine was helpful! Let me know in the comments if you want an in-depth review of any products mentioned! What is your daily routine? What skincare products can’t you live without? Feel free to comment below 🙂