The purpose of cleansing is to gently remove dirt and cell debris. The best cleanser for you is the mildest cleanser that will clean your skin without stripping your skin of essential moisture.
The cleanser should not be harsh and should not leave your skin feeling dry or flaky. If your skin feels tight after washing with a cleanser, it is not right for your skin. In general, the more a cleanser foams, the more drying it will be because it likely contains a larger quantity of detergent. Liquid or lotion style cleansers tend to be gentler. A good oil cleanser will function as a super gentle surfactant that loosens dried up debris on your face.
If your skin tends to be acne prone, you want to wash away oil and you should consider a cleanser that has 2% salicylic acid. Otherwise, use a separate exfoliating acid not in cleanser form.
Your nighttime cleanser can be slightly stronger to wash off makeup and dirt.
Micellar water is popular. Micellation is the process which soaps and detergents break down big chemicals such as oil and dirt (and eye makeup) into smaller ones so they can rinse off the skin easily. Micellar water will do a good job removing heavy eye makeup. Otherwise you don’t really need it. If you do use it, micellar water works best using warm water.
Double cleansing is also popular, especially in Korean skin care routines. First you use an oil-based cleanser to remove heavy makeup, sun screen, and pollution. Then, you use a water-based cleanser to wash any extra dirt.
Cleansers are a great place to keep it basic and simple. There is no reason to spend money on an expensive cleanser with added ingredients that will wash off before they can be fully effective.
American style toners are mostly just exfoliators that are designed to close pores and tighten skin. Asian style toners tend to be moisturizers. Your toner may also contain ingredients that are drying, so while they may feel smooth and cool, your skin is left parched. Some toners contain moisturizing and anti-inflammatory substances like (rosewater and cucumber) to combat their drying effect. A toner containing witch hazel is rich in tannins and will feel tightening. This feeling is temporary and has no long-term effect.
The bottom line is that a separate toner is superfluous if you exfoliate and moisturize.
Exfoliation produces benefits that should be immediately noticeable (in contrast to serums which take months for effects to be perceptible). Sloughing off dead skin instantly brightens your complexion and makes it look fresher. In theory, you could also scrub dead skin cells with a loofa. Or you can use a home microdermabrasion cream which contains scrubbing granules. However, since AHAs and BHAs increase collagen production, they will provide the best result.
If you have dry or sensitive skin, try lactic acid, which is the gentlest option.
How often should you exfoliate? Exfoliation also removes the vitamin C and E embedded in the stratum corneum. Stripping these vitamins away is akin to robbing your skin of its supplies. Heavy duty exfoliators are meant to be used once per week. Lighter exfoliators can be used daily.
How long should you leave on the AHA? The first time you use an AHA, leave it on for one minute and then rinse it off. As you get used to the product, you can leave it on for longer. Ideally, you will leave it on for 20 minutes before using another product, such as a moisturizer. AHAs work at a pH of 4. At some point, your skin’s natural pH will impede the AHA.
The goal here is to repair the skin to healthy levels of nutrients, which can become depleted by poor skin care, sun and pollution, and over-exfoliation. When you massage products into your skin you are increasing the blood supply and that blood is bringing oxygen. While this may increase blood circulation, this will not increase skin cell absorption.
Repair skin with either an essence or a serum. What is the difference between an essence and a serum? An essence is simply a thin, watery lotion. Think of a traditional moisturizer only more liquefied. A serum is a lightweight, gel-like moisturizer that is less emollient than your average cream. Serums are formed from water and oil incompletely mixed. Serums mix well with skin oils and allow for the easy application of makeup.
Choose an essence or serum if you have oily skin. Choose a cream or lotion if you have dry skin.
For anti-aging, use a vitamins C and E combined serum in the morning and a retinol serum or retinol cream at night. If you wish, add a peptide serum.
For acne treatment, use a niacinamide serum and an BHA.
The best products will have occlusive moisturizers, humectant moisturizers, and hyaluronic acid. Cream moisturizers are thick oil-in-water emulsions made with mineral oil or lanolin. Moisturizing lotions are lighter. They have high water content and a specialty ingredient to give them slip (a nice feel). Gel moisturizers are clear and thick. They are made with less water than lotions. Oils are occlusive moisturizers. They form a barrier on the skin and keep other ingredients out.
Spraying an oil and water mixture on your face will provide temporary hydration and will feel nice but will not provide the same long lasting moisturization as a cream or lotion.
For daytime, you may wish to use a combination moisturizer/foundation/sunscreen. These products can be very convenient. BB Cream (blemish balm) is usually a tinted moisturizer often with the addition of sunscreen and may contain a dusting of antioxidants. CC Cream (color and correct cream) is usually a standard liquid foundation that may contain a dusting of antioxidants.
At night, you may wish to apply a moisturizer or moisturizing oil (such as squalane) after any repairing serums. If you use a hydrating serum and your skin feels refreshed, you do not necessarily need a cream or lotion moisturizer.
The majority, professional opinion is that a separate eye cream is not necessary. Eye cream is simply an additional expensive moisturizer. Use your regular chosen products around but not too close to your eyes.
There is an exception if you have dark under-eye circles which can be exacerbated by slow blood flow. To increase the blood flow use a regenerating eye cream with vitamin K. There are clinical studies demonstrating that vitamin K in eye cream stimulates microcirculation and increases collagen production.
This is not optional! All skin care professionals agree that sun protection is the single most important step in any skin care routine.
Sunscreen and sunblock are not the same thing and you may want to use both daily.
Sunscreens work by absorbing UV rays and changing them into a wavelength of light that is not harmful to the skin. UVA and UBA are different wavelengths, both of which cause DNA damage, lead to formation of free radicals, cause wrinkling, and can lead to skin cancer.
Make sure to use a “broad spectrum” product to protect against both types. Some sunscreens (especially SPF tinted moisturizers and face lotions) only protect against UVB. They do not contain the blocking ingredients that protect against UVA rays (which cause both skin cancer and premature aging) so check the label.
Chemical sunscreens with avobenzone, octinoxate, oxybenzone need time (20 minutes) to soak into your skin.
Sunblocks work by creating a physical block that sits on the skin like a barrier. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are common sunblocks. These minerals can be less irritating but they also can be unflattering and leave a white film on your face. Mineral sunscreens will provide immediate protection.
You can absolutely use a foundation, tinted moisturizer, BB or CC cream to achieve sun protection. Loose pressed powders can and should be layered on top to create a physical barrier.
Do you forget to apply sunscreen to your hands? Here is a “try this at home” hack for sun protection. Keep an SPF lotion in your car and apply it to your hands when you stop at a red light.
Putting one product over another can decrease the chance of absorption. However, most skin care companies say this is fine (no surprise). Nonetheless, it is best to allow plenty of individualized absorption time, especially for expensive items.
Apply vitamin C to clean dry skin. If applied to damp skin, vitamin C becomes destabilized and inactivated and will have no antioxidant effect. Leave your vitamin C (or C+E serum) it to do its work before applying anything additional. If using vitamin C in the morning, wait 10-15 minutes before proceeding. Some of the product will be absorbed immediately, but the longer the better.
Apply your exfoliating acid directly to skin and not on top of another product. Ideally you should let it work for several minutes (20 minutes if you have it or even overnight) before applying anything else, such as a moisturizer.
If you buy an exfoliating acid cleanser, know that most of your product is going down the drain. Buy your exfoliating acid as a liquid that you apply with a cotton pad or on an already saturated pad.
Common advice is to use a retinoid a minimum of two times per week, depending on your age. Retinoids need three to six months to show results. Evidence suggests retinoids can increase sunburns so it is more common to use a retinol product at night.
Do not exfoliate and then apply a retinoid. The exfoliating acid will interfere with the retinoid. Many companies say their products take this issue into account (by microencapsulating the retinol) and have combating agents, but it seems better just to use them separately.
Similarly, do not exfoliate and then apply vitamin C. The exfoliating acid will nullify the effectiveness of the vitamin C.
You may use a retinoid with niacinamide. However, both can be irritating so often doctors recommend using one in the morning and the other at night.
Scientifically, it doesn’t matter if your skin is super wet or dry before you apply an oil-based moisturizing lotion. Similarly, it does not matter if you pat or rub the product on.