How to Build an Easy and Effective Skincare Routine, Step-by-Step

The best skincare advice we can offer: create a thoughtful, personalized skincare routine and stick with it. Consistency is key, as is patience. It takes time — typically four weeks — for skincare formulas to show results, says Morgan Rabach, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.

Following a routine sounds easy enough, but for many it’s surprisingly difficult. The skincare world, a nearly $100 billion industry, is launching more new product options than ever, and each one promises to work wonders. “The most common challenge my patients face is navigating the sheer volume of choices, marketing, and messaging,” says Erum Ilyas, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group. This not only leads to impulse buying and information overload, but also to skin problems as using too many different products can lead to dryness and irritation.

Bottom line: ignore the noise and focus on the routine that’s right for you. To do this, identify your current skin concerns (dryness? dark spots? acne? fine lines?) and skin goals (shining skin? more firmness?). These keywords will help you find the products you need, says Adam Tinklepaugh, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology. We explain below what to look for and how to apply them in the right order.

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How to create a skin care routine

Your routine should have three goals: cleanse, treat, and protect your skin, says Azadeh Shirazi, MD, a board-certified dermatologist. Learn in advance how to choose the products for each step.

Step 1: Detergent

Look for a gentle formula rather than one loaded with active ingredients, says Ilyas. The goal of cleaning is to reduce oil buildup from the night before or contaminants that have built up throughout the day. “Some people like a cleanser that exfoliates or treats issues, but the ingredients need to be on the skin for at least a minute to have an effect,” says Shirazi. “Just putting it on and rinsing it off doesn’t do much.”

If you have oily skin, opt for a foam or gel formula that will give you a deeper cleanse. If you have dry or sensitive skin, try a cleansing cream. If you wear makeup, you may want to do a double cleanse at night. First, you apply an oil-based cleansing balm that breaks down makeup, and then your foam, gel, or cream cleanser, Rabach explains.

Regardless of your skin type, do not cleanse more than twice a day as this can strip your skin of its natural oils. “Oil on our skin is healthy and normal. It keeps us from drying out,” says Tinklepaugh.

Best for combination skin

Moisturizing cream-to-foam cleanser
CeraVe Hydrating Cream-to-Foam Cleanser

Best for dry skin

Superfood Antioxidant Cleanser
Youth To The People Superfood Antioxidant Cleanser

Best for all skin types

Confidence in a Cleanser Hydrating Facial Cleanser
IT Cosmetics trust in a cleanser Hydrating Facial Cleanser

Best for oily skin

Keep It Clean Moisturizing Gel Cleansing Cream
iNNBEAUTY PROJECT Keep It Clean Hydrating Gel Cleanser

Best cleaning oil

Neroli cleansing oil
Angela Caglia Neroli Cleansing Oil

Step 2: Treatment

Now that your skin is clean, you want to apply a formula that targets your specific skin concern. It should contain an active ingredient such as vitamin C, alpha and beta hydroxy acids, niacinamide, or retinol, Shirazi says. Ingredients like these have been shown to work against dullness, dryness, uneven texture, pimples, fine lines, dark spots or loss of firmness.

To lighten skin, look for kojic acid, vitamin C, or niacinamide.
For hydration, look for ceramides, squalane, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, panthenol (Pro-Vitamin B5), shea butter, or oat complexes.
Use retinol, a retinol alternative like bakuchiol or glycolic acid, to soften fine lines or wrinkles or tighten skin.
To treat acne, try salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or retinol.

Look for a toner, essence, or serum. These are lightweight and are meant to sink into your skin. “Applying active ingredients to freshly cleansed skin increases their effectiveness,” says Ilyas.

A word of caution: “Many people try to use multiple treatments. But that can overwhelm the skin,” says Shirazi. “It’s always best to stick with an active treatment product for at least four weeks before adding a second one. And don’t combine multiple peels, such as glycolic acid and retinol. They damage the skin barrier.”

Best for acne prone skin

Skin-perfecting liquid scrub with 2% BHA
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting Liquid Scrub with 2% BHA

Best for age issues

Microdosed anti-aging retinol serum
Kiehl’s Microdose Anti-Aging Retinol Serum

Best for whitening

Brightening Serum
Perricone MD Brightening Serum

Best for dry skin


Step 3: Protection

Moisturizing your skin is the third important step. “In the morning, make sure your moisturizer contains SPF to protect you from UV and blue light,” says Ilyas. At night, use a moisturizer with premium moisturizers that will repair skin overnight. “If your skin tends to be oily, choose a light moisturizer that contains hyaluronic acid,” recommends Ilyas.

“For anti-aging, I prefer a moisturizer that contains stem cells, niacinamide, resveratrol, or caffeine to help with cell renewal,” says Shirazi.

Best Moisturizing Night Cream

Indigo Overnight Repair Serum in the cream treatment
Tatcha Indigo Overnight Repair Serum in cream treatment

Best moisturizer with SPF

Regenerist Whip Face Moisturizer SPF 25
Olay Regenerist Whip Face Moisturizer SPF 25

Now 17% discount

Best lightweight moisturizer

Daily Greens Oil Free Gel Moisturizer
Farmacy Daily Greens Oil Free Gel Moisturizer

Best for age issues

Absolutely revitalizing and brightening rich cream
Lancome Absolue Revitalizing and brightening rich cream

Now 25% discount

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