Wellness·8 min read

Which Skincare Products To Put on Your Face and When

What Skincare Products To Put on Your Face and When
Design: theSkimm | Photo: Unsplash
July 21, 2021

The Story

Remember when Dove soap was the first and only step in your skincare routine? Simpler times. Now, there’s a longgg list of ingredients at your fingertips, ready for application. 

What skin concerns are millennial women dealing with in general? 

Depends on your lifestyle. If you’re partying like it’s 1999, you may have clogged pores (which can lead to blackheads and whiteheads) and inflammation. If you’re not getting enough sleep, you may have bags under your eyes. If you’re pregnant, you may have pigmentation changes or acne due to hormone shifts. Yep, no matter how you skin it, life leaves a mark.

I’m overwhelmed. 

Deep breaths (then check out our guide for more on how lifestyle choices affect your skin). The good news: Many skincare experts recommend a minimalist approach. Everyone’s skin is different, but you probably don’t need to face (get it?) your skin issues with a 12-step routine. 

Tell me what to do. 

Talk to a derm to figure out what works for the skin you’re in. If you’re looking for guidelines now, here are some simple steps to fit different skin types and help your skin stay healthy and glowy. Figure out how to I.D. your skin type here, and get to know these products:

  • Toner...The balancing act. It often looks and feels like water, but it’s meant to balance the skin’s pH level with ingredients that can exfoliate, control oil, and/or hydrate.

  • Serum...The concentrated type. These contain concentrated amounts of active ingredients to penetrate quickly and solve for issues like discoloration, dullness, fine lines, and/or acne.

  • Moisturizer...The smooth move. It’s the last step that seals everything in and brings, yup, moisture to your skin.

If you have combination skin...

  • AM...Cleanse, use toner, apply an antioxidant serum (like Vitamin C), moisturize, and put on SPF. Or use a moisturizer with SPF as a two-in-one.

  • PM...Cleanse, use hyaluronic acid (more on that below), apply a repairing serum (like retinol), and moisturize.

If you have oily skin

Overwashing your face is not your friend. Morning and evening is enough. The biggest mistake people with oily skin make is stripping the skin of its natural oils, which backfires by making you overcompensate and produce more oil. Do the same routine as the combo skin but make sure to use a mild cleanser, then salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide as your toner to combat acne. 

If you have dry skin

Go easy on the morning routine and consider just washing your face at night. Use moisturizers that have hyaluronic acid in them because it helps hydrate. Glycerin also gets a gold star because it seals in moisturize. 

Which ingredients should I look for? 

Let the label peeping begin. Here are some ingredients you may want in your product rotation and what they actually do for your skin.

  • Antioxidants...These are naturally occurring substances like vitamins and minerals that protect the body from free radicals — those are unstable molecules produced by pollution, sun, pesticides, and more on the hunt for an electron to be whole again. One of the first places they look is your skin. Because you can't outrun them, what you can do is get a boost from healthy foods like spinach, tomatoes, and blueberries (more on what to eat for better skin here). Or you can also apply antioxidants straight to the face, like Vitamin C serum. It helps reduce dark spots and spark healthy collagen production. Head spinning? Check out this recently updated list of options. Dermatologist Dr. Nazanin Saedi recommends The Glow Maker by MaeLove

  • AHAs and BHAs…Time for an AHA moment. These acronyms stand for alpha hydroxy acid and beta hydroxy acid. They’re exfoliating acids that help shed dead skin cells to reveal a glowier you. AHAs are best for surface concerns like scars and uneven skin tone, while BHAs are good for combating acne in oily skin types. Some products combine the two acids because sometimes two is better than one. For double duty, Dr. Saedi recommends Revision Skincare’s Brightening Face Wash

  • Hyaluronic acid...Often found in serums (what goes on after you’ve cleansed but before you’ve moisturized), this molecule’s all about moisture. It helps your skin retain water to stay supple and, yep, moisturized. Because moisture is the essence of wetness and wetness is the essence of beauty. Dr. Saedi recommends Neutrogena Hydro Boost.

  • SPF...The acronym that needs no introduction. Pssst… it stands for sun protection factor. Look for a water-resistant, broad-spectrum version (protects from both UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF of at least 30. Dr. Saedi recommends EltaMD SPF 46.

  • Retinoids...These get an A, as in Vitamin A, which is what they’re derived from. They can be prescribed or bought OTC, and you can test what strength is best for you (products have a varying percentage of retinoids usually starting at .01%). Originally marketed to treat acne, they're now a heavy hitter in the anti-aging marketplace (more on that here) because they reduce fine lines and lighten dark spots. Heads up: typical side effects include dryness, burning, peeling, and redness, especially at first. Retinols are related, but they have a lower concentration of the active retinoic acid ingredient found in retinoids.

Which ingredients should I try to avoid? 

While the guidelines vary and everyone’s skin is different, here are some ingredients you should try to avoid or use in moderation.

  • Parabens…A type of preservative that extends a product’s shelf life. They can disrupt hormones — and hormone disruption may lead to reproductive issues and breast cancer. If you’re studying a label to make sure a product’s free of parabens, look out for tongue twisters like butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben (some of the most commonly used parabens). 

  • Sulfates…Cleansing chemicals that remove dirt and oil. They’re responsible for that foamy feel, and are commonly found in shampoos, soap, and toothpastes. Totally harmless, right? Wrong: Some sulfates can irritate or dry out your skin and eyes. Look out for sodium lauryl sulfate, aka SLS, in particular.  

  • Phthalates…A group of chemicals commonly used to make plastic more pliable. They’re a suspected hormone disruptor that’s been linked to reproductive issues — but the FDA says that the exact effects of phthalate exposure aren’t clear yet. 

  • Talc…A naturally occurring mineral that’s often used in face powders and eye shadows. Talc can be contaminated with asbestos, which is a carcinogen. In early 2020, the FDA held a public meeting to discuss and obtain data around cosmetics using talc as an ingredient. But didn’t make any specific recs around avoiding it. Cool cool. 

How long does it take to tell if a product’s working on me? 

It depends. It may take some trial and error to find the right skincare routine for you. So it pays off to be patient. But something to keep in mind: It takes about six to eight weeks for the epidermis (outermost layer of skin) to turn over. Slow and steady wins the face. 

How often should I change up my routine? 

If you’ve found a routine that works for you, most dermatologists say stick with it. But you may need to switch things up based on the season. Winter temps may mean dryer skin and heavier moisturizer, while summer means lighter moisturizer and heavier SPF application. Pro-tip: Check your products to find out how long they last. The FDA doesn't require cosmetics (sunscreen or acne treatment not included) to have specific expiration dates on their labels. But in the EU, if a product has a shelf life of less than 30 months, it might be printed on the bottle or container. A lot of beauty products carry a PAO symbol (stands for period after opening). This looks like a number followed by an M and an open jar icon indicating how many months it’ll be good for. For example, a “12M” would mean you should throw the product out a year after you've opened it. See here for pics of what to look for. 

What about clean skincare? 

If you’re confused about the meaning of clean skincare, join the club. “Clean,” in the broadest sense, means free of harmful chemicals. This usually favors natural ingredients but can incorporate synthetics that aren’t necessarily problematic. There are a lot of different opinions over which ingredients are good versus evil. It doesn’t help that the FDA doesn’t technically need to approve cosmetic products or ingredients (except for color additives) before they’re available for purchase. The FDA has banned just 11 additives in cosmetic products, compared to the more than 1,300 ingredients nixed in the EU. And this year, the Senate introduced a bill which would require the FDA to ban PFAS — man-made chemicals that are in many household items — in cosmetics. But don’t expect them to do any big favors for the environment (more on that here). 


The skincare aisle may feel like a Cheesecake Factory menu: too many options, too little time. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, but your routine can likely be way less complicated than you might have envisioned. Ready, set, glow. 

theSkimm consulted with dermatologist Dr. Nazanin Saedi for this guide.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

Find a doc

Subscribe to Skimm Well

Sign up here to receive our wellness newsletter filled with actionable advice, expert-vetted content, product recs, and more — delivered directly to your inbox.