To cleanse morning AND night? Does anyone use toner anymore? At what point should you apply serum? Do we really have to SPF every. single. day? Let’s get back to basics. Our skincare expert Gemma Watts breaks it down, and explains exactly what you need to know.
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There is no use agonising over a skincare routine, as the minute it begins to feel like a chore is the moment you’ll feel less inclined to engage with it.
There are few true “essentials” when it comes to building a skincare routine, with the option of adding elements in to suit both your skin and your lifestyle (and the amount of time and patience you have for a routine in general). Begin with the building blocks (and one major non-negotiable), and curate your skincare from there.
While very few things within the realm of beauty should be deemed “essential” (more on that later), there are a handful of items that do form the building blocks of healthy skin. The foundation of your skin routine, a routine that you can build upon, are as follows...
Without effectively cleansing your skin, any other products you choose to apply won’t be able to absorb into the epidermis as designed. Cleansing works to remove dirt, bacteria and excess oil from the surface of the skin (and from within the pores, to an extent) that can build up throughout the course of the day and overnight.
Consider makeup removal a separate step to cleansing. If you are wearing makeup, or a particularly heavy sunscreen formula, throughout the day, cleanse twice: the first time to remove makeup, the second time to properly remove that oil and bacteria.
Many dermatologists agree that cleansing is only completely necessary in the evening. Determining whether or not a morning cleanse is right for you is, unfortunately, a matter of trial and error - for some, it can actually be of detriment to the skin barrier.
Pay attention to how your skin feels after cleansing. If it feels particularly dry and tight, your skin may benefit from skipping future morning cleanses. A micellar solution, rather than a traditional cleanser, can serve as a happy halfway point between cleansing and not. Cleansing is the first step of a good skincare routine.
I love oil cleansers, but a lot of them do feel a bit… much of a muchness.
Hunter Lab’s Lipid Vitamin Cleansing Oil was one of my favourite launches of 2021, across all categories, as it really gives the skin this bright, supple quality beyond simply cleansing and removing makeup.
If I’m wearing makeup, I’ll generally start with an oil cleanser before reaching for a creamy, milky cleanser for a second cleanse.
Grown Alchemist’s Cream Cleanser is so gentle on the skin, so it provides a really deep cleanse without compromising the all important skin barrier.
Even if your skin is typically oily, a moisturiser will work to regulate the skin’s moisture levels, strengthen the skin barrier and, with time, improve its ability to hold onto hydration.
When the skin barrier is impaired, your skin can grow prone to inflammation, irritation and even acne. A simple moisturiser, in a formula as thick or as fluid as feels comfortable for your skin, will allow you to strengthen the skin’s barrier and ensure it is functioning at its healthiest.
In the evening, moisturiser should be applied as the final step of your skincare routine. In the morning, and in the mornings, it should be the second last step before sunscreen.
The role of a moisturiser is right there in its name, and this option from Habitual Beauty is one of my favourites. It delivers soft, pillow-y skin, but it’s also incredibly soothing which makes it ideal for skin that has been exposed to environmental stressors or too many actives.
The serum step of your skincare is where you can really tailor your routine to your personal skin concerns.
Serums are designed to deliver a concentrated hit of ingredients to the skin, formulated to target even the most specific of skin needs.
The rules of serums are, unfortunately, dependent on the serum itself, however there are a few common ingredients that can serve as a really effective starting point when building your routine.
If your skin is dry and dehydrated, try a hyaluronic acid or vitamin B serum. To even out pigmentation and the overall tone of the skin, a vitamin C serum may be of benefit, while a retinol can work to treat both acne and the visible signs of ageing. Oils can also be worked into your routine at this step.
To learn more about serums and my product recommendations, you can read my article Everything You Need to Know About Actives.
Beyond your serums, there are some other skincare products that can be used to customise your routine.
Exfoliating the skin is the process of removing dead, dry and dull cells from the surface of the skin and blockages from within the pores, leaving you with a fresh, bright, clear complexion- consider it the deep clean of your routine.
There are two primary modes of exfoliation you can choose between- manual/physical or “chemical.” Physical exfoliants are products like scrubs that contain tiny grains that work to manually slough away dead and dry skin.
Chemical exfoliants are fluids containing alpha-hydroxy acids or beta-hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs), and in some cases both, that are designed to be applied to the skin to dissolve those cells and blockages.
AHAs are generally recommended for those with typically dry skin, while BHAs are advised for those with oily and acne prone skin. Chemical exfoliants are, in general, gentler on the skin barrier than their physical counterparts.
Exfoliation is not an essential step, as our body is constantly turning over new cells without the assistance of skincare, but working an exfoliating step into your routine once or twice at most per week can help to speed the cell renewal process up in some skin types. An exfoliant is to be applied after your cleansing step.
I personally favour enzymatic and “chemical” exfoliants over physical scrubs. Enzyme exfoliants are a product I only really became familiar with in the last 18 months or so, and I now use one at least once a week. An enzyme exfoliant is a great way to help the skin cells turnover faster if you’re experiencing the drying effects of an ingredient like retinol.
A point of contention amongst skincare lovers and those trained in dermal sciences, toners are generally considered to be non-essential and rather a skincare luxury.
Often confused with one another, toners and essences serve unique purposes. Typical toners are slightly astringent liquids, formulated to absorb any excess oils that your cleanser may have missed, helping to “tighten” the pores. Essences or treatment lotions are similar in consistency, but are hydrating solutions rather than astringent ones.
Both toners and essences are designed to prepare and moisten the skin directly after cleansing (or exfoliating, if you’re using an exfoliant), readying the skin for the serums and moisturisers that follow.
Another point of contention, many believe eye-specific skincare is unnecessary and that its benefits are the same as those seen when regular moisturisers and serums are simply applied to the eye area.
For many, targeted eye creams are necessary to really deliver hydration to the fine skin around the eyes, given that this skin doesn’t produce oil in the same way as the rest of the face. Eye creams can be of benefit to those who experience fine lines and dryness, and should be applied after serums and before moisturisers.
There is one element of your skin regimen that is truly essential.
Sunscreen should be worn daily in order to protect your skin from superficial damage like sunspots and collagen damage, and from serious skin conditions such as melanoma. When choosing a daily sunscreen, look for an SPF of 30 at a minimum with UVA and UVB (broad spectrum) protection, as UVA can penetrate both clouds and glass and is present year round.
As a rule of thumb, if you’re in a space that is light enough to read in without having to turn on a light, you are being exposed to UV. While this rule of thumb can be helpful, I personally choose to ignore it... by getting into the habit of applying sunscreen every single day, you are leaving far less room for error and miscalculation than you would be if you relied on checking or gauging UV levels each day.
Make SPF a habit.
It’s important to remember that sunscreen is only one element of sun protection. Consider hats, protective clothing and shade when planning a day outdoors. Sunscreen should be the final step in your daytime skincare routine.
Youtime’s beauty expert Gemma Watts delivers your ultimate guide to serums: A glossary of ingredients, what to use and when, and how to layer actives to achieve your skin goals