The Science Behind the Steps: Skincare

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In the hopes to appear “naturally” pretty, I’ve been applying, then removing, several layers of goop to my face — twice a day, every day, for several years (excluding “bad day” days when I wake up to a foundation-mascara-lipgloss-vandalized pillowcase.

It started out pretty simple. A new cleanser that’s supposed to cure acne … a cult-favorite “fountain of youth” moisturizer that’s supposed to keep me young forever …

And just like that, my skincare collection multiplied, and things got complicated.

I found myself juggling serums and potions and eye creams and hydration boosters and scar-faders and balancing toners; gels, creams, leave-ons, wash-offs and spot-treats.

Every product can’t get the coveted “clean, dry skin” real estate, so how do I prioritize?

The Big Question:

Where do I start, what goes on next and do all of these steps even make a difference?

The Simple Answer:

Apply products according to texture. Start with the most fluid consistency and progress to the thickest.

Think about it — will a delicate (and $$$) serum be able to do its job if it can’t get passed a layer of luxuriously emollient “seal in the moisture” night cream? Probably not.

So here’s the breakdown. Remember, just because it’s listed here does not necessarily mean you need to, or should be, using it.

The Steps (before “the steps”)

 
CLEANSE

Must-Do for all. Twice a day, every day, everyone. The texture and benefits of your cleanser will vary depending on your skin type, but the number of times you should be doing it should stay the same.

 
TONE

Not Necessary. This step is debatable. I like to use toner because I can see residue come off on a cotton ball, even after I’ve washed my face. It’s kind of like the feeling you get when you dump out your vacuum canister after a major day of cleaning (usually follows a major few weeks of NOT cleaning).

If it’s a mattifying toner, it might kindly deposit invisible micro silica to absorb excess oil throughout the day. If it’s an anti-acne toner, there may be a bit of salicylic acid in it to clear pores. Balancing toners will hydrate and condition your skin.

Primarily, toners are meant to prepare your skin for superior absorption of the goopy goodness that follows:

The Confusing Skincare Steps, Unconfused:

 
EYE CREAM - PROTECT

It’s a good idea. Here’s why it goes first: the stuff you’re about to use next probably contains a lot of active ingredients that are too harsh for the delicate eye area. I like to use my eye cream as a protectant so that it seals the area from crepey-eye-causing ingredients.

 
SERUM

Not necessary, but for 30s and up, it’ll make you feel like you’re being proactive and investing in your skin.

When it comes to skincare, lightweight serums are the heavy-hitters. They contain skin-penetrating micronutrients and active ingredients that have important beneath-the-surface jobs to do like collagen-boosting and promoting cell turnover. They are also fast-absorbing so you can move on to step #3 in a jiffy.

 
ACNE TREATMENTS

You know if you need it. This stuff can be pretty harsh. If possible, use it sparingly, and on the areas of your face that require it.

Usually gel-like in texture, topical acne meds are lightweight and dissolve pretty quickly.

 
MOISTURIZER

A MUST for all. Your moisturizer, whether it’s the oil-free hydration kind or the rich, emollient kind — will work to add moisture, seal in the goodness you applied before it, and hopefully repel evil environmental free radicals. Oily, dry and combination skin types need hydration. No skimping on moisturizer! Just find the right one for you.

 
SUNSCREEN

Doctor’s orders, so yeah … a must. Sunscreen should be the very last skincare product you put on your face. Its sole purpose is to use reflective minerals to act as a barrier between your skin and the sun’s relentless UVA/UVB rays (aka. the rays that make you look old, fast). Those same rays also cause one of the deadliest forms of cancer — so it’s no joke.

Personally, I don’t trust “chemical sunscreens” — the kind that require a soaking time. I don’t much like the texture and oily look of physical sunscreens either (the kind I mentioned above), but for what it’s worth, I think it’s the more natural way to go since we have to use them.

So now that you understand the science behind your skincare steps, you can customize a skincare routine that works for you. Good luck and happy schmearing!


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  • Maggie Royer

    My dermatologist says that, if you have oily skin, you do not need to moisturize because the oil works as your skin’s own natural moisturizer. I have particularly oily skin and have never liked the feeling of a moisturizer of any type on it (even serums and oil free face creams), so when she said this, it really made sense to me. People with oily skin do best with a face wash with salicylic acid in it. This ingredient goes deep into pores, cleaning them out and removing excess dirt and oil. I really like Alba Organics Acne Dote face wash. Always be sure to check the ingredients to make sure the product contains no alcohol in it. Alcohol actually irritates the skin, causing inflammation and, in turn, causing more oil production.

    People often say that wrinkles come from a lack of hydration, but really, about 80% of aging comes from the sun. The sun’s rays directly break down collagen, causing wrinkles, broken capillaries, sun spots and thin, sagging skin. The UVA rays are the ones that age you and actually come through the car windows. If you take a good look, most people have more sun damage on the left side of the face from driving. That being said, wearing a good sunscreen is one of the most important things you can do for your skin on a daily basis. Look for sunscreens with at least 6% zinc or titanium (or a combination of both), because this will give you the best, most stable protection. Some of my favorite brands are Elta 46 UV Clear, ZMD SPF 30, SKinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50.

    Another very important part of your skin care routine should be the use of a Retin-A product. Retin-A is a magical thing. It encourages collagen production and skin cell turnover rate, so it helps to keep skin plump and healthy while giving it a glow. It also encourages skin cells to behave normally, so it takes care of any precancerous cells you have on your skin.

  • http://taupeisthenewblack.blogspot.com Kayleigh

    Excellent article – it really breaks down the essentials! Love it!

  • Shailyn

    I’ve struggled with adult acne since I turned 20 (8 years ago). I’ve tried everything with no results or brief results. Even the creams prescribed just jacked up my face and didn’t clear my acne. Finally I splurged on a Clarisonic. My skin hasn’t looked so smooth and clear and even since I was 16! Even better, not only can I use preventative skin care products (even oil free anti-aging creams etc would cause break outs) but they absorb into my skin so much better! I went from several 3-4 step acne systems (cleanser, toner, blemish gel, moisturizer) to just needing soap and my clarisonic! 2-3 times a day I wash my face with my clarisonic and an acne soap with at least 2% salicylic acid. Now I can honestly walk into public with nothing but a tinted moisturizer and feel amazing. I’ve been using it for 2 months and so far so good. If this begins to fail me the next step is oil cleansing.