Skincare can be everything from a minimalistic, essential part of your everyday hygiene, to a deeply personal and relaxing ritual you undertake to feel lush. But with so many products, content, and trends making the rounds, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between what your skin actually needs and what’s just a nice add-on.
The truth is that your skin works around the clock and already does a brilliant job at taking care of itself. That leaves you with a role that may seem small, but it’s crucial to keep your outer layers healthy and thriving.
Your skin is highly resourceful
Our skin is the largest organ in the body and it’s responsible for critical functions like regulating temperature and balancing fluids. But it doesn’t stop there: skin is also in charge of keeping the inner stuff—blood and flesh—in, and the outer stuff—bacteria and viruses—out.
To fend off any unwelcome microbes or pathogens, this organ produces an enveloping film known as the acid mantle. This protective barrier is made of a perfect concoction of natural oils, amino acids, and dead skin cells, and it’s responsible for retaining your skin’s precious moisture and keeping its pH—usually at 5.5—balanced.
“When this layer is damaged or the pH is off, the skin becomes more susceptible to injury and infection,” says Dylan Alston, a dermatologist at Intermountain Medical Group in Utah.
[Related: The most innovative personal care products of 2021]
Your skin also goes beyond the basics—it uses sebum glands to naturally moisturize itself, and regenerates itself in a process called cellular turnover, which takes place every 20 to 45 days depending on your age.
Similarly, and as you may have noticed if you’ve ever had a close encounter with the floor or a shard of glass, your skin has the ability to repair itself. This amazing feat, scientists believe, is possible thanks to the regenerative effects of stem cells located at the base of our hair follicles.
But just like any other organ, skin is also subject to irreparable damage, failure, and cancer. Think about it as a rubber band, says Alston: skin is elastic, but once it has been stretched out too much or snapped, it just cannot go back to being what it was.
That is why you should still incorporate some skin protection into your daily routine.
A healthy lifestyle is also skincare
There are several reasons why you should choose a healthy and balanced lifestyle. And when you do, it’ll show on your skin.
“If you’re exercising, you’re drinking water, and you’re eating healthy, your skin is going to do better,” says Adrienne Haughton, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Stony Brook Medicine.
You may think drinking a lot of water will certainly result in a glowy look. Sadly, there’s not much scientific evidence proving those eight glasses will keep your skin hydrated. Still, scientists stress the importance of drinking an appropriate amount of water for overall health, which will indirectly result in you feeling and looking more radiant.
Just wash your damn face
Washing your makeup off is essential, but even if you don’t wear any, it’s important to just wash your face twice a day.
Haughton recommends using lukewarm water and a gentle cleanser—Regular hand soap often has antibacterial ingredients or even alcohol in it, making it too abrasive and drying for your face.
Afterward, dab your visage dry with a clean towel. Please, don’t use the one you and your party guests have been drying your hands with—you don’t want any residual bacteria in there to make its way to your face and cause a breakout.
Finally, if you can, Haughton recommends waiting 30 minutes before applying any other products to minimize irritation.
Keep in mind that there is such a thing as overwashing your face, and it can result in redness, dry skin, and the disruption of your protective barrier. Stick to doing it just twice a day—preferably when you wake up and when you go to bed. Only add an extra wash if you need to remove any sweat or debris after a workout or a good ol’ spring cleaning, for example.
Always (as in always) use sunscreen
When it comes to products, everything is optional, except wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen every single day.
“There’s no question that sunscreen is the most important thing,” says Haughton.
Protection from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation is crucial for various reasons. First, it helps protect the skin from sunburn which causes painful irritation, but over time, also leaves permanent marks and discoloration. Second, exposure to the sun rapidly breaks down collagen, a protein in your skin responsible for keeping it elastic and resistant. The result is premature aging in the form of wrinkles, fine lines, and a leathery appearance.
“For those seeking any anti-aging skincare, the only product that has been shown to truly slow or affect the aging process is SPF,” says Alston. “That’s it—Everything else is a version of snake oil.”
Third, and most importantly, sunscreen protects your skin against ultraviolet radiation. UV-B and UV-A rays are strongly linked with skin cancer—they damage the DNA in skin cells causing them to act up and possibly grow out of control. A 2019 survey found that only 10 percent of American adults wear sunscreen every day, and the Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that one in every five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.
And this goes for everyone. Haughton says a lot of people still believe darker skin tones don’t need sunscreen, but that is a myth. Melanated skin does have some natural protection of up to SPF15, but that isn’t enough to fully fend off photodamage.
Sunscreen is a great first step for protecting yourself against skin cancer, but wearing it correctly is also crucial. That means every single day—not only in the summer or when the sun is out. We’re exposed to damaging UV rays consistently throughout the year, and they can easily make their way through clouds and windows. Haughton mentions the famous clinical example of a 66-year-old truck driver who noticed that the side of his face closest to the window suffered much more visible sun damage over the years than the other half.
Top it all off with a dash of retinoid
Using moisturizer twice a day—with some added goodies like ceramides or hyaluronic acid—can be very helpful for keeping skin looking healthy.
But then, come the evening, you should also consider a retinoid product—If sunscreen is number one in a skincare routine, Haughton says, retinoids should definitely be number two.
This form of vitamin A helps with collagen production and cellular turnover, resulting in plumper and glowy-looking skin. This ingredient can often be irritating, so it’s best to use it in a cream formulation or with a moisturizer on top. Prescription-strength retinoids are stronger, but you’ll also find a lot of over-the-counter options—some better than others, according to Haughton.
“Distribute a pea-sized amount to various portions of the face, and rub in from there,” she says.
A warning though: retinoids are not to be trifled with. If you apply too much or too frequently, they can cause redness, peeling, or burning of the skin. Alston and Haughton agree that people should start retinoids slowly and progressively, making sure the skin can tolerate them. They also stress the importance of using these products in the evening, as they can cause hyperpigmentation when exposed to sunlight on the skin.
The best strategy is to ask your dermatologist about what kind of retinoid product your skin needs, and the best way to apply it.
Consistency is key
What is really important to understand is that washing your face, using sunscreen, and applying retinoids won’t help you treat acne breakouts, premature aging, or dark spots on your skin—it’ll prevent them. Haughton explains that doing something only after you break out or notice wrinkles on your skin is being late in the game.
“Where most people go wrong is not treating their face every single day,” she says.
Also, make sure you’re tailoring your routine to your skin. It’s tempting to get all of the products on your favorite skinfluencer’s page hoping to get the same results. But chances are you won’t, as a lot of products and methods just do not work the same for everybody.
That’s where going to a dermatologist helps.
It’s great to pamper your skin—but it’s not necessary
Some people might benefit from the brightening effects of vitamin C, or the clarifying powers of antioxidants—always with the help of your clinician. Other than that, you can just stick to the essentials, says Haughton.
Your skin fared just well for millennia before the skincare industry cropped up, so really, anything else you do is just pampering yourself. And most of it might not make that much of a difference.
[Related: Skincare 101: The science behind your favorite moisturizers, serums, actives, and more]
“Unfortunately, many people are convinced that a certain product or a certain lotion holds the secret to achieving amazing, healthy skin,” says Alston. “Far more common than not, all skin creams contain very similar ingredients. What can differ greatly is the correct formulation to allow the product to enter the skin.”
But we are not judging—everybody deserves to feel pampered. As long as you’re not damaging your skin, if having a personal ritual with certain products at the end of the day is important to you, you shouldn’t stop. It’s probably not going to be particularly transformational, but if it feels good, hey, you do you.