So you want to start a skincare routine, but you have some questions: How many skincare products do you have to use? Which ones are right for your skin? In what order should you be applying these products? And what do the products even do?
To get the most benefit out of daily skincare regimen, no matter what your skin type, you should start with three simple steps: cleanse, treat and moisturize, recommends Ashley Magovern, M.D., dermatologist and owner and founder of Manhattan Dermatology in Manhattan Beach, California. You're probably already familiar with cleansing and moisturizing, but what does "treating" your skin involve?
It means using serums or creams packed full of skincare ingredients like vitamin C, retinol, alpha hydroxy acids and others, depending on your skin type and the results you want to see, she explains. "Adding a middle step in between the cleansing and moisturizing components is really important," Dr. Magovern says. "It can make a huge difference over time and in the health, appearance and aging of your skin."
Here, the best dermatologist-approved daily skincare routine for morning and night, including the basic steps that should be in every at-home regimen for oily, dry, combination or acne-prone skin (we've included the Good Housekeeping Institute Beauty Lab's top-tested product picks for each step, too).
Your Morning Skincare Routine
Face cleansing should be the first step in any skincare routine, as it clears away impurities and excess oil that can clog pores and dull skin. But be gentle. “Too many people cleanse too much or too often or with a cleanser that’s too harsh, which will actually break down your skin’s protective barrier,” Dr. Magovern says. If you have dry or sensitive skin, try washing only at night and rinsing your face with water in the morning.
You don’t need a toner, but swiping one on can be a great way to refresh skin, remove any residual debris and balance pH, Dr. Magovern says. If you have acne-prone skin, look for a toner with ingredients like salicylic acid to combat breakouts. For dry or sensitive skin, seek out a hydrating toner (or its sister, an essence) made without parching alcohol and with ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid to soothe.
A serum tailored to your skin concerns can both treat and protect. Look for an antioxidant, like gold-standard vitamin C. “Everyone should use vitamin C, no matter what age,” Dr. Magovern says. “It helps reverse a lot of the skin damage we get from the sun and pollution.” For darker skin tones, hyperpigmentation can be a common issue, and using a vitamin C serum in the morning can help mitigate dark spots, says Jennifer David, D.O., a dermatologist in Philadelphia and founder of Skin & Scripts Virtual Dermatology.
4. Eye Cream
Eye creams fall into the "treat" category, too. If desired, lightly tap on a formula targeted to your eye-area concerns, using your ring finger (your weakest) to avoid tugging on delicate skin and causing damage.
Next come heavier formulas like moisturizer, which keeps skin hydrated and helps strengthen its barrier. Unless you have dry skin, opt for a lighter moisturizer for daytime use, such as a lotion or gel that will soak in quickly and won’t pill under makeup. If your skin is drier, try a thicker formula, like a cream. “Look for ceramides or hyaluronic acid, since these ingredients are the building blocks of moisture retention in skin,” Dr. David explains.
It’s the most important step in any skincare routine, for every skin type and age. “If you don’t wear sunscreen, you might as well not do any of the other steps,” Dr. Magovern says. “The sun is the number one reason people’s skin ages prematurely.” And the damage isn’t only cosmetic, no matter what your skin color: “People of color can and do get skin cancer,” Dr. David says. “Plus, if you’re treating hyperpigmentation without daily SPF use, it’s like taking two steps forward and one step backward.”
Smooth on a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher face sunscreen as the last step in your morning skincare routine, including on your neck and the backs of your hands. Heads up: Protecting your skin from the sun is important even if you're spending your days indoors, as UV rays can penetrate through the windows.
Your Night Skincare Routine
You'll want to switch up your skincare routine at night — and not just because you don't need SPF while you sleep! Your nighttime routine is the perfect time to make sure your skin is getting as many nutrients and active ingredients as possible, since your skin regenerates and repairs itself while you snooze, Dr. Magovern says (hence the term "beauty sleep"). You'll still follow the basic steps — cleanse, treat, and moisturize — but at night, the routine will look a little bit different.
First, remove the day's makeup and grime. Start by applying a separate makeup remover if needed to take off any cosmetics. “Cleansers are not necessarily designed to dissolve makeup, especially on eyes, and haven’t done so effectively in our testing,” says GH Beauty Lab Senior Chemist Sabina Wizemann. Follow with the same cleanser as in the morning, working from the inside of the face up, then out and down along the hairline and perimeter to just underneath the chin, she suggests.
If you’re opting for a toner, apply it the same way you would in the morning. Because they’re liquids, toners should go on before heavier formulas like serums and moisturizers so they have a chance to be absorbed.
3. Serum or Treatment
Night is an ideal time to use products with ingredients that work to slough off dead skin cells or stimulate cell turnover while you sleep, such as alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid or retinol, Dr. Magovern says. These smooth texture, brighten and minimize pores. (Some serums can be used day or night; follow the packaging instructions.) If you’re treating hyperpigmentation, alternate between a retinoid and the spot-fading active ingredient hydroquinone, Dr. David recommends.
4. Eye Cream
Dab a bit of your face serum or treatment, or a separate eye cream if you use one in the morning too, around your eyes. “You don’t have to use a lot, but if you start training your skin to tolerate more active products around the eye, you’ll see more change,” Dr. Magovern explains.
5. Acne Treatment
If you currently have a blemish (or a few), apply an acne treatment at this time. For chronic breakouts, be proactive rather than treating pimples as they pop up, Dr. Magovern advises. “If you just treat the spot, you’ll get acne right next to it if your skin is clogged,” she says. “You’re getting breakouts because oil is building up, so be consistent with your regimen to keep pores all over your face clear.” (If using a retinoid, let skin adjust before trying acne formulas like salicylic acid.)
Moisturizing is especially crucial at night, as it creates a barrier that seals in skin’s natural hydration and any active ingredients to counteract moisture loss that happens as you sleep. The non-SPF moisturizer you use for day works, or try a night-specific formula for targeted benefits like anti-aging.
7. Bonus: Face Oil
If your skin is still feeling parched, applying a face oil can be a great way to help lock in moisture overnight. “A lot of people think that if they have acne or oily skin, they’ll break out with an oil, but it’s not true,” Dr. Magovern explains. “It can actually really help soften skin.” For a nourishing boost, pat on a face oil as a last step once the rest of your leave-on skincare products dry.