Comprehensive Skin-Care Routine Guide

One thing has stayed constant in many of our lives during these unpredictably epidemic times—times during which the word “uncertainty” will trigger for years. It’s a skin-care routine. Perhaps you follow an influencer’s 11-step routine, or perhaps you prefer to wash, rinse, and repeat. It’s possible that your skin-care regimen has remained unchanged from before the epidemic, or you’ve added new steps, like a weekly mask or nighttime serum for extra self care. You’re in luck if you’re looking for the definitive list of the best skincare products to use in what order.

The truth is that each skin-care routine is necessarily as unique and individual as the person following it (or attempting to, anyway). But as skin care has become trendier on social media and thousands of new products have been released in recent years (containing seemingly every ingredient under the sun), it’s also gotten a little more intimidating and confusing for a beginner to get started—and for anyone to understand how to create an effective skin-care routine that works for them.

That’s where we come in. As you begin (or continue) your skin-care quest, we hope to answer as many of your questions as we can here in this skin-care 101 guide—with the help of research and experts rather than hype. Read on to find out everything you’ve ever wanted to know about all the potential skin-care routine steps and ingredients, including what you should keep in mind based on your skin type and any health conditions you may have.

Here’s how to use this guide: If you’re brand-new to the idea of a skin-care routine, it helps to start at the very beginning, where we answer your most basic questions about skin care—even the ones you may be too embarrassed to ask all your skin-care-savvy friends. If you’ve dabbled in skin care and just really want to know what ingredients might be right for you, we’ve got you too. Scroll down to learn more about the actual elements in a skin-care routine and get an overview of active ingredients that work best for certain skin conditions. We also have specific sections for skin of color, what to do if you’re pregnant, and what to keep in mind if you have a diagnosed condition that affects your skin. Plus we break down some often confusing aspects of the skin-care industry, such as whether or not the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates skin-care ingredients and what exactly manufacturers mean when they call their products “natural” or “clean.”

In each section, you’ll find links to all our coverage on that topic, so make sure you click on anything that piques your interest if you want to learn even more.

And lastly, don’t forget to check out our glossary of popular skin-care terms, which can help clear up any lingering confusion you have, and these helpful tips on how to wash your face. 

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What do you really mean when you say “skin care”?

We mean the basic care and keeping of your largest organ—your skin! It plays an important role in protecting you from outside pathogens and, you know, holds all your internal organs in place (phew). And in the same way that you regularly brush your teeth, your skin requires at least some attention to keep it functioning properly.

It also requires protection—especially from skin cancer. At SELF, when we talk about skin care we’re talking about science-backed ways to improve both the look and function of your skin to address and manage both cosmetic and medical concerns.

This guide is for anyone who is curious about what it means or what it takes to have an effective skin-care routine—from beginners who don’t know where to start all the way to seasoned skin-care enthusiasts. Consider it your ultimate skin-care manual.

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Why should I care about skin care?

Yes, caring about skin care might be quite trendy these days, especially with beauty influencers demoing everything from facial steaming to jade rolling on social media, but no matter what, giving your skin some love has both cosmetic and medical benefits. For instance, although you can’t slow down the passage of time, with a finely tuned skin-care regimen you can reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots, and sun damage. You can also quite effectively manage some more minor skin concerns, such as dryness or oiliness, with face care products.

For those with specific skin conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, and acne, skin care isn’t always optional and requires a bit more thought about ingredients that will be safe for your skin. For one, treating a specific skin condition often means you need to employ a particular skin-care regimen, and for another, your condition may make your skin more sensitive to ingredients and products in general. Finding a skin-care routine that works can offer a vital way for someone to manage and treat their condition.

There’s also the fact that many people find their skin-care routines offer some mental health benefits—having that routine may help you realize just how easy it can be to do nice things for your body and build healthy habits. “A consistent, healthy routine is important for establishing rhythm and order in our lives,” Corey L. Hartman, M.D., founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Alabama School of Medicine, tells SELF. “Whether the routine is skin care, exercise, meditation, or any other beneficial activity, the dedication to the method can bring grounding to our everyday lives, which can often feel chaotic and uncontrolled.”

Some people may also find that going through their routine or even applying the occasional mask relaxes them and helps them focus their attention on themselves, maybe for the only time in their day. Two great examples of this are “Why I Embraced Skin Care After My Mother’s Death” and “How Skin Care Became a Crucial Part of My Sobriety Toolbox,” personal essays we’ve published in recent years.

That said, some skin-care companies make a lot of big claims about what their products can do without necessarily having the evidence to back them up. At SELF, our aim is to help you make the most informed decision before buying or trying a product and to guide you toward the treatment options we know the most about.