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Last updated October 9, 2020. 9 minute read

Skincare routine: what does that mean? Should you have one?

Cookie-cutter routines don’t work for all skin tones and textures. But it’s not as if you’d want them to since certain active ingredients are better at addressing specific concerns. That’s the opportunity here.

Linnea Zielinski Written by Linnea Zielinski
Reviewed by Yael Cooperman, MD

What do your Pinterest boards, closet, and skincare routine have in common? Without some careful curating, they can all easily get out of hand. The maximalist 10-step Korean skincare regimen that swept the internet may look good on Instagram or your bathroom countertop, but does the average person’s skin need that much TLC? Here’s how to craft a skincare routine that will work for your skin—and your schedule.


  • There is no one skincare routine that’s best for everyone.
  • Your morning skincare routine will likely look different and incorporate different products than your nighttime routine.
  • If you have acne, you may want to consider using products that contain salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or tea tree oil.
  • If you’re looking to correct photodamage, antioxidant serums and retinoids should be higher on your priority list.

What is a skincare routine?

A skincare routine is the series of products you regularly use to care for your skin. And since different people have different skin concerns, it stands to reason that this routine looks different for everyone. For skincare devotees, this may include weekly or monthly treatments. For minimalists, it’s likely all about the everyday essentials. But the core of your skincare routine should be used each morning and evening. 

If you’ve gone through the routine at night, it may be tempting to skip your skincare in the morning, but it’s not a good idea. Overnight, your skin purges oils and debris that you should cleanse from your skin in the morning. This will prevent these particles from contributing to clogged pores or breakouts.


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There may be some small variations between your morning and evening skincare routines. Removing your makeup, for example, is likely a part of the evening’s cleansing process but not the morning’s. And while moisturizer might be a staple in both routines, your morning glow up should include an SPF, and your evening cream can be SPF free.

Steps and products to include in your skincare routine

Cookie-cutter routines don’t work for all skin tones and textures. But it’s not as if you’d want them to since certain active ingredients are better at addressing specific concerns. That’s the opportunity here. These are merely steps to consider and ingredients that may earn a spot in your vanity based on their list of accomplishments in clinical trials. It’s up to you, and potentially your dermatologist, to craft the best skincare routine to vanquish your skincare woes without keeping you tied to your bathroom mirror.

Wash your face

Throughout the day, your skin accumulates environmental pollutants, dirt, and oil. That’s in addition to any makeup you applied in the morning and haven’t yet taken off. All of these things can get into your pores, potentially clogging them. A build-up of bacteria, dead skin cells, and oils can cause blackheads or whiteheads. 

Throughout the day, your skin produces sebum, natural oils that keep the skin moisturized, but too much of it leads to pimples. Haircare products meant to keep your hair sleek and shiny can also cause breakouts if your hair comes in contact with your face.

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Use a gentle cleanser or face wash to remove this dirt and excess sebum, and make sure you don’t scrub too hard. It is possible to cause dry skin by over-exfoliating or cleansing. Micellar water may be a good choice for removing makeup. 

Some facial cleansers can strip necessary face oil. Micellar water, on the other hand, is very gentle and made up of only purified water and mild surfactants that lift away makeup and dirt, as well as hydrating ingredients to help maintain the skin surface barrier.

Apply toner

Toner may only be necessary for those with skin pH issues. The average, healthy skin pH is just under 5 (on a scale from 0 to 14 in which 0 is extremely acidic and 14 is extremely basic), a 2006 study found. But everyday things affect the pH of our skin, from cosmetics and soaps that we use to the pH of the tap water where you live. 

Regular use of tap water in Europe, which typically sits around a pH of 8, for example, can affect skin’s pH for up to six hours (Lambers, 2006). Redness, irritation, and acne may be more common at higher pH levels, in which case a toner may be helpful to bring the skin’s level closer to 5. 

A dermatologist or an at-home pH strip test kit can help you determine if this is the root of any of your skin concerns. Toners should be applied with a clean cotton pad rather than your fingers, which can transfer bacteria to your skin.

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For people with acne-prone skin, this may be a good step to work into your skincare routine in order to use salicylic acid. Although more research is needed on this ingredient, it may help prevent breakouts by dissolving the building blocks that hold the layers of skin together, allowing you to sweep away dead skin cells that can clog pores (Fox, 2016). 

Some toners may also include hydroxy acids, a family of compounds that includes alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) such as glycolic acid or lactic acid. These ingredients can act as strong exfoliants, and past research has shown that hydroxy acids can smooth wrinkles, increase skin cell turnover, restore hydration, and boost collagen synthesis (Moghimipour, 2012). 

Apply serum

Now that your skin is clean and your pores have been cleared, it’s time to apply a serum with a targeted active ingredient to address your individual skin concerns. Antioxidant serum, such as vitamin C serum, may help counter oxidative stress, a process that contributes to skin aging by balancing out free radicals. 

Topical vitamin C has been shown in past research to significantly decrease the appearance of fine lines (Traikovich, 1999), improve photodamage (including lessening deep furrows in the skin) (Humbert, 2003), brighten dark spots caused by hyperpigmentation (Telang, 2013) and boost collagen production (Nusgens, 2001), making it a solid all-around option for a serum.

Apply eye cream

This may not be a twice-a-day step for you. Although some people may enjoy morning eye creams, it may affect how long under-eye concealers last or cause the mascara on your lower lashes to run. You may consider a product with caffeine, which has been shown to improve the look of crow’s feet in as little as three weeks, or vitamin K, which may decrease the darkness of circles under the eyes by reducing the visibility of blood vessels under the skin (Ahmadraji, 2015). 

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If you’re dealing specifically with puffiness of the eye area, caffeine is a good option for alleviating this concern. Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor meaning it shrinks the blood vessels under your eyes and improves the appearance of dark circles. At night, you may want to opt for a more hydrating formula since you don’t need to worry about whether your makeup will run.

Apply spot treatments to any zits

Comedone-free complexion? Congratulations, you can skip this step. But for those looking to quell a brewing breakout or shrink a zit, you may want to opt for a spot treatment that uses benzoyl peroxide. This topical treatment helps clear acne and prevent future breakouts by attacking and reducing the C. acnes (also known as P. acnes) bacteria that live on the skin. It’s available in various forms and in strengths, ranging from 2.5% to 10%, and may even help reduce acne in as little as five days (Zaenglein, 2016). 

If you’re dealing with sensitive skin, a spot treatment containing tea tree oil may be a better fit. Older research suggests that 5% tea tree oil is just as effective as 5% benzoyl peroxide treatment for comedonal acne (blackheads and whiteheads)—but that tea tree oil takes longer to work (Bassett, 1990).

Apply retinoids

Retinoids are a class of chemical compounds that are related to vitamin A and include products like retinol, tretinoin, and retinoic acid. Retinoids increase skin cell turnover or how quickly your body makes new layers of skin and sheds old ones, which means they can help reveal younger-looking skin below. 

But they don’t just work on the surface. They also boost your skin cells’ ability to replenish their collagen, supporting the structure that keeps skin looking plump and smooth. Retinoids block the breakdown of collagen UV light typically causes and can therefore reduce the formation of new fine lines, too (Mukherjee, 2006).

Retinoids are available in over-the-counter skincare products (such as Differin), but your dermatologist may also prescribe one with a higher concentration of the active ingredient (such as Retin-A, Renova, and ReFissa). These ingredients are known to cause skin purging (a process that happens when you first start using certain skincare products), during which your skin will likely look worse before it looks better. 

According to Cosmetic Dermatologist Dr. Michele Green, depending on your skin type, you may need to ease slowly into a retinoid regimen due to the irritation they can initially cause. A dermatologist can help you determine a routine that’s best suited to your skin’s sensitivity, she explains, adding that these products should not be combined with any skincare products that contain hydroxy acids and should always be used in combination with an SPF of at least SPF 30 if you know you’ll be exposed to sunlight.

Healthcare professionals recommend against the use of topical tretinoin during pregnancy. There have been isolated case reports of fetal malformations in the infants of mothers who used topical tretinoin. Oral retinoic acid is absolutely contraindicated during pregnancy, as fetal exposure has been shown to cause significant birth defects and even miscarriage (Lammer, 1985). Dermatologists are often reluctant to prescribe these kinds of medications for use during lactation when alternative options are available (Leachman, 2006).

Apply moisturizer

This is one of the areas where your skincare routine will likely include two separate products, one for morning use and one for the evening. In order to control sebum production, especially if you have oily skin, most people will want to opt for a lighter formula. A moisturizer that uses SPF 30 or higher is especially helpful since it layers easily but also offers protection from photodamage when you head outside.

In the evening, though, you may want to opt for something thicker and more hydrating to support your skin overnight. Many night creams include hyaluronic acid in their formulas—a great choice for just about every skin type. 

Hyaluronic acid is naturally produced by the body, though less so as we age, meaning it’s generally well-tolerated (Ganceviciene, 2012). Despite its name, hyaluronic acid doesn’t act the same way as other acids in your skincare routine, such as AHAs and BHAs, says Dr. Green. She explains that it encourages your skin to hold onto water, lending a plump and voluminous look, and can be combined with stronger active ingredients such as retinoic acid without stripping or drying the skin.

Apply sunscreen

Environmental factors, genetics, and smoking affect skin aging, but sun damage is the biggest external factor that leads to things like fine lines and wrinkles. The ultraviolet (UV) part of daylight, specifically UVB light, damages elastin and collagen fibers, leading to photodamage and premature aging (Avci, 2013). 

Although many moisturizers now come with sunscreen incorporated into their formulas, a good rule of thumb is that sunscreen should be the layer of your skincare closest to the sun. So if you’re planning on going out without makeup, a moisturizer with sun protection may be a good product in your daily lineup. 

But if you plan on applying makeup, be sure to finish off your routine with sunscreen in order to prevent the potential photodamage caused by UV rays. Mineral sunscreen allows for easy application without messing up your makeup.