The scientific method
I'd like to preface that my skincare routine is an ongoing trial and error saga. Like all research, I'm constantly discovering new things about my skin, as well as novel trends in formulations and technologies that trickle into the market. I've been reading up on several skincare regimens trying to figure out which works best for my skin. There are a number of fads, from the Korean 10-steps to the 11-step Japanese routine to simply using grocery store or DIY products.
I've narrowed my regimen down to 5 basic steps: cleanse, exfoliate, tone, treat, and moisturize. Although I'm easily swayed by packaging and wonderful floral scents, the products that stay in my regular rotation have proven efficacy and their ingredients have scientific backing.
I can't tell you how many times I've purchased a heavy duty foaming face wash thinking that I needed my skin to feel "squeaky clean" for it to actually be clean. Since then, I've learned that a gentle, low pH cleanser is my best friend. I've loved Glossier Milky Jelly Cleanser, which is 25% rosewater for further hydration while you wash. Everyone is on the rose train but, does it really do anything? According to a study in 2012, rosehip oil has been shown to have whitening effects on the skin, helping with hyperpigmentation. Another study cited its effects on skin smoothing when mixed with other ingredients, like milk. This cleanser has poloxamer, which is used in contact lens solution, so even when I use it to erase my eye makeup, I don't get irritated. I massage the cleanser a lot, especially to remove my eye makeup, careful to not aggressively scrub. This gets the job done without the need for stronger chemicals. If I'm wearing heavier makeup, however, I always find that a cleansing oil (The Face Shop Rice Water Bright Cleansing Oil) or a face wipe prior to cleansing gets the entire cleansing step done.
For a deeper clean, I use either a mud mask, like AHAVA Time to Clear Purifying Mud Mask or a clay mask. The mud draws out excess oils while hydrating your skin. Although AHAVA makes my skin tingle, I'm never left red or irritated. Everyone has a clay mask in their arsenal these days. I use the Glossier Mega Greens Galaxy Pack, which is made of white kaolin clay and a bunch (haha) of leafy greens. It gives me a deep clean while being very gentle on my skin. Both clay and mud work by transdermally absorbing impurities, aka: drawing out the bad stuff like a magnet. If I choose to mechanically exfoliate with some type of scrub then I use these masks after.
I try to exfoliate two to three times a week. Mechanical exfoliation using a scrub or cleansing brush sloughs off dead skin cells while chemical exfoliation separates skin cells and draws out the dirt and dead skin. I typically use Rituals Brightening Face Exfoliator, which contains moringa as an emollient and lotus flower extracts to brighten skin. It's got very fine granules so it's not harsh at all on my face. The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution is a chemical exfoliant that I use when I need a more aggressive resurfacing. It's a great product that combines the exfoliating and skin-renewing properties of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and the more gentle pore-unclogging powers of beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). I don't use this more than twice a week because I have very sensitive skin and overuse of acids often leads to skin irritation. It does make my skin tingle but it's never reddened or irritated afterwards.
Toning is a step I used to skip for years. Now, it's a pretty essential part of my skincare routine. Toning sets your skin up for the products you decide to use next. It removes any excess dirt that wasn't washed off during your cleanse, and it ideally rebalances your skin's pH. A good toner will also leave you feeling hydrated and not "stretched out" due to dryness or excess alcohol.
I do the "3 Skin Method", an adaptation of the "7 Skin Method", which you can read about here. The premise is that using only a single layer of toner on your face leaves your skin still feeling dry because all of the liquid has been absorbed quickly. Applying several layers of a toner, especially one that is more viscous, like the Klairs Supple Preparation Toner, can lead to better hydration without the use of heavier creams. Though not exactly dermatologically backed, I'll go along with it because I am that extra. The first step is a swipe of the toner using a cotton pad, and the next two steps I use my hands and wait about 20 seconds between applications. The hydration lasts throughout the day when I do this in the morning, thanks to the hyaluronic acid and other botanical extracts that work to soothe skin, like aloe, centella asiatica, and althea rosea. See? Extra.
Now, the fun part. Depending on my skin's needs, the combination of serums can change. This list can look intimidating, but I don't use all my serums in one sitting. I'm a self-admitted lover of skin potions in fancy bottles (and obviously I love Harry Potter, also because of potions). The following serums are in constant rotation as I've found these to be the "actives" that my skin needs. Your needs may be different. A good rule of thumb is to literally weigh your options: go from thinner to heavier (see here) when layering on products, not just serums (they are listed in order of viscosity, left to right).
- AHA Treatment: I've been using the Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment a couple of nights per week and it has done an amazing job resurfacing my skin and evening skin tone. The lactic acid is a type of AHA, which is good at exfoliating and renewing the appearance of your skin. I use this after toning. Because it's got an AHA, I don't use this if I'm using the peeling solution. Note: whenever you decide to use Vitamin C, AHAs are typically better to use first as they are more acidic than typical Vitamin C serums, meaning they will prep your skin for easier Vitamin C absorption. I wait a couple of minutes before applying other serums once I use this on my face.
- Vitamin C: I use a few drops of the Timeless Skincare 20% Vitamin C and E, Ferulic Acid Serum after toning or the AHA treatment. This serum is unique as it is a greater concentration of L-ascorbic acid (20%). It also has hydrating hyaluronic acid, nourishing Vitamin E, and the antioxidant, Ferulic Acid, that all work to stabilize L-ascorbic acid and extend its benefits onto your skin. I spent a lot of time researching Vitamin C serums because they're not all equal (read about that here). Because Vitamin C increases sun sensitivity, I always use a ton of moisturizer and SPF if I use this during the day.
- Niacinamide: Otherwise known as Vitamin B3, Niacinamide has been shown to reduce redness and inflammation, increase the production of ceramides (essential lipid components in your skin's natural barrier) that wane as we age, minimize fine lines and wrinkles, and help with hyperpigmentation. I sometimes use a few drops of The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1% in the AM or PM but only when I don't incorporate Vitamin C into my routine as these two counteract each other. As an alternative, I use Niacinamide in the morning or Vitamin C at night, or vice versa.
- Peptides: Studies have shown that peptides have a proven anti-aging effect by reducing the number and depth of wrinkles. After the thinner serums in the morning and evening, a couple of drops of The Ordinary Buffet Multi-Technology Peptide Serum is my secret weapon. This multi-peptide complex targets different anti-aging concerns all at once. This is something I always use morning and night.
- Hyaluronic Acid: When my skin is feeling extra parched I add a hydrating serum to the mix. The two I use are a little on the heavier side so they go on later. The Caudalie Vinosource S.O.S. Thirst-Quenching Serum provides the best moisture surge for dry skin with their grape water and hyaluronic acid ingredients. Another serum I use when I need extra TLC is the Korres Wild Rose Face and Eye Serum, which has wild rose oil to nourish and hydrate the skin. It's also got concentrated Vitamin C from the wild rose oil. Depending on the consistency of your hyaluronic acid serum, you may have to use it earlier or later in your routine.
- Retinol: To reduce potential irritation I use these last, after other serums. That way, I've built up a layer before the retinol gets to sink into my skin. Retinol, a form of Vitamin A, belongs to the family of retinoids. The Ordinary Advanced Retinoid 2% contains two different forms of stable retinoid: Solubilized Hydroxypinacolone Retinoate and a sustained delivery form of pure retinol. This combo works synergistically and avoids the usual irritation associated with retinol use. I also alternate this serum with Sunday Riley LUNA Sleeping Night Oil, which has blue tansy to reduce redness and inflammation as well as a trans-retinoic acid ester. There isn't much consensus on whether or not to use it during the day but I err on the side of caution and only use retinol in the evening.
Sheet masks are the best way to treat my skin when it needs a little pampering. I use them after my serums. They're concentrated with good stuff, ranging from rose oil to manuka honey to hyaluronic acid and ceramides. Tony Moly and Innisfree are great inexpensive options. Dr. Jart is wonderful if you have some extra cash to splurge on a sheet mask. Left on for about 20-30 minutes, my skin is glowing afterwards.
I have a few favorites for this step. As for eye creams, I am still on the lookout for a good one, although I've found that the Kate Somerville Goat Milk De-Puffing Eye Balm has made my eye area seem more alert when I apply it in the morning. During the day, I always need an SPF. I layer on Missha Mild Essence Sun Milk over Glossier Priming Moisture Rich, which is a very thick formulation. It comes with ceramides and fatty acids to help lock in moisture and help build the skin's protective barrier. It also helps to relieve redness and irritation that's associated with colder, dryer weather. Now that it's Spring and my face isn't as dry, I only use a bit of it. As a sleep pack (for extra moisturizer, especially for nights I've had too much to drink), I use the Glossier Moisturizing Moon Mask. It's really good for rehydrating my skin. It has hyaluronic acid, natural emollients, like shea butter and squalene, and other skin soothers (aloe and honey) to moisturize and nourish. If I'm feeling extra extra, I put on a face oil to seal it all in. Most days I don't, because I do not have time, but when I do, my current favorite is Disciple Good Skin. This lovely green bottle contains various botanical oils and a prebiotic and it smells divine.
While I enjoy different products, I don't like a routine that cakes on product after product on your skin, making it feel heavy and "done." I enjoy experimenting with different ingredients and through that, I've gotten to know my skin better. The bottom line is that although my regimen is always evolving, I enjoy it. Skincare, to me, is a ritual, not a burden.