How to build the best skincare routine, per dermatologists

Skincare isn’t just a million-dollar industry. It’s a lifestyle, especially for those who have a solid routine down pat.

But, not one formula fits all. Building a basic routine can take months (I can attest), especially if you’re trying to scout the best dry skin products on the market, or if you have sensitive skin, eczema or rosacea.

After speaking with two dermatologists for the 411 on beauty, my skin has truly never looked brighter and more supple — and it’s all thanks to following the appropriate steps.

“You can get into these situations where you want to buy a ton of products, but if your skin is in a good place — if it’s healthy and glowing — you don’t want to overdo your skincare,” Dr. Rhee told The Post. “It’s good to switch up your products about every two months or so, but sometimes if a product is working for you, you roll with it.”

What’s more, I’ve been testing skincare products for years (and, may or may not have a skincare rolly cart in my bathroom that’s alphabetized from Acure to Youth to the People. I recommend the best products I tested throughout this edit below for you to shop, too.

Before we share all the recommendations to rev up your skincare routine, check out our skincare product reviews for tried-and-true formulas we approve IRL:

Please keep in mind that some of our recommended products work for multiple skin types.

What products should I include in my skincare routine and in what order?

“In general, the idea is to go from the lightest products that are most absorbed, progressively to heavier products,” Dr. King said.

Dr. Rhee recommends a simple routine in the morning — cleanser, serum, moisturizer and sunscreen — and an extended lineup at night, depending on your preference. Below, she explains each product and its benefits:

  • Cleanser: Important for removing the dirt and grime from your skin from the day to leave a clean surface.
  • Toner: Helpful to even out the skin, if there’s any oil left behind.
  • Essence: Helps to hydrate and can balance the skin.
  • Serum: Implies that it has antioxidants and other skin nutrients, which help repair skin damage and protect the skin.
  • Eye cream: To help brighten the undereye area.
  • Prescribed facial medications: If advised by your doctor, perhaps for acne. This also includes face masks.
  • Moisturizer: Helps to create a nice, healthy skin barrier so it’s not too sensitive to the environment and protects dry skin that shows accelerated signs of aging.
  • Sunscreen: Protects us from skin cancer and advanced photoaging.

What ingredients should I look for in a moisturizer if I have dry, oily, acne-prone or mature skin?

According to Dr. King, all moisturizers should contain humectants, emollients and occlusives. Here’s a breakdown of all three:

  • Humectants: Like hyaluronic acid and glycerin, these are mostly low molecular weight substances that bind water into the stratum corneum. They need to be used along with the other components to retain the water content.
  • Emollients: Like cholesterol, squalene, fatty acids, fatty alcohols and ceramides, these are saturated and unsaturated hydrocarbons that help in skin barrier function, membrane fluidity and cell signaling, leading to an overall improvement in skin texture and appearance.
  • Occlusives: Like petrolatum, beeswax, mineral oil, silicones, lanolin and zinc oxide, these are oils and waxes that form an inert layer on the skin and physically block transepidermal water loss.

“Moisturizers for all skin types should have these three components but dry or mature skin may need heavier occlusives,” Dr. King adds. “For oily and acne-prone skin, avoid any comedogenic ingredients like coconut oil, and lighter occlusives may be sufficient.”

How do I know which skin type I have?

“Those with oily skin experience shiny and oily skin in their T zone regularly and may experience oiliness beyond the T zone as well,” Dr. King said. “Those with dry skin will experience dryness regularly.”

Additionally, Dr. Rhee doesn’t like classifying skin types as “combination.”

“If you’re oily in your T-zone, it often implies you’re a combination with dry areas elsewhere, which means that your skin is likely imbalanced,” she said. “This can be caused by using harsh ingredients or over scrubbing.” 

What ingredients should I look for in a cleanser if I have dry, oily, acne-prone or mature skin?

For dry and mature skin, Dr. King recommends gentle cleansers that are free of harsh detergents and contain humectants, emollients, and occlusives to support the skin barrier and moisturize during the cleansing process.

For oily and acne-prone skin, she recommends cleansers with salicylic acid.

For dry and mature skin: Biossance Squalane + Amino Aloe Gentle Cleanser, $26

Biossance Squalane + Amino Aloe Gentle Cleanser

For oily and acne-prone skin: Alpyn Beauty Creamy Bubbling Cleanser with Vitamin C & AHAs, $36

Alpyn Beauty Creamy Bubbling Cleanser with Vitamin C & AHAs

What is salicylic acid?

“Salicylic acid is an excellent pore-clearing ingredient because it exfoliates the surface of the skin and penetrates pores to remove oil,” Dr. King said. “This is a great ingredient for people with oily and acne-prone skin and for treating and preventing comedonal acne, like blackheads and whiteheads.”

Notably, salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid, which is used for chemical exfoliation of the skin. “They dissolve the bonds that hold dull, dead skin cells on the surface of the skin, so the skin will gently shed — revealing smoother, brighter skin underneath,” she adds.

A good salicylic acid serum: Caudalie Vinopure Natural Salicylic Acid Pore-Minimizing Serum, $49

Caudalie Vinopure Natural Salicylic Acid Pore-Minimizing Serum

What is hyaluronic acid?

“Hyaluronic acid is a natural humectant capable of holding 1,000 times its own weight in water,” Dr. King said. “This makes it a key molecule involved in skin hydration.”

Dr. King adds it’s best to combine humectant ingredients — like hyaluronic acid and glycerin — with emollients and occlusives to lock in moisture and hydrate the skin, especially if you have dry skin or live in a low humidity environment.

A good hyaluronic acid serum: Farmacy Filling Good Hyaluronic Acid Plumping Serum, $44

Farmacy Filling Good Hyaluronic Acid Plumping Serum

What is niacinamide?

“Vitamin B3, or niacinamide, has been shown in several studies to help reduce some signs of skin aging, particularly skin tone and texture,” she said. “Niacinamide serves as a precursor to molecules in the body that are responsible for cell proliferation, the repair of cellular damage, and other biochemical necessities.”

Additionally, it’s a potent antioxidant that brightens the skin by fading hyperpigmentation and reducing redness. Niacinamide also increases the skin’s productions of ceramides, which help strengthen the skin’s barrier, preventing loss of moisture, according to Dr. King.

Niacinamide is safe to use daily, too, Dr. King adds. “Results will be improved with regular use. Look for products containing 5% niacinamide — the percentage proven to visibly make a difference without causing irritation.”

A good niacinamide serum: Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow Niacinamide Dew Drops, $34

Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow Niacinamide Dew Drops

What is citric acid?

“Citric acid is another form of vitamin C that’s another type of chemical exfoliator, another alpha-hydroxy acid that accelerates skin turnover,” Dr. Rhee said.

A good citric acid serum: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Gylcolic Resurfacing Night Serum, $90

Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Gylcolic Resurfacing Night Serum

What is essence in skincare?

“It’s essentially a watered-down moisturizer that rebalances the skin because it’s not as heavy as a moisturizer or thin as a toner,” Dr. Rhee said. “If you’re pressed for time or don’t want too many products, essence would be the first thing to go because it’s not so important.”

A good essence: Elemis Pro-Collagen Marine Moisture Essence, $90

Elemis Pro-Collagen Marine Moisture Essence

How is caffeine a beneficial ingredient in skincare?

“Caffeine constricts blood vessels and can thereby decrease puffiness,” Dr. King said.

Dr. Rhee further explained how caffeine is a powerhouse ingredient. “Caffeine is an antioxidant and nasal constricts, so it squeezes the blood vessels a bit,” she said. “If you have brownish, purple or even green hue under eyes, it’s because you have more blood vessels there, so caffeine helps to safely constrict those blood vessels in a way that’s not dangerous.”

A good eye cream with caffeine: Alpyn Beauty Line-Filling Eye Cream with Bakuchiol and Caffeine, $62

Alpyn Beauty Line-Filling Eye Cream with Bakuchiol and Caffeine

How is vitamin C a beneficial ingredient in skincare?

“Vitamin C is an essential part of skin health both as an antioxidant and as a critical factor for collagen synthesis,” Dr. King said. “Vitamin C contributes to photoprotection, decreases photodamage, and is needed for wound healing — also protecting from free radicals from other sources, such as pollution.”

Notably, vitamin C helps to brighten the skin and prevent and fade dark spots that result from UV radiation, Dr. King adds.

A good vitamin C serum: Glow Recipe Guava Vitamin C Dark Spot Serum, $45

Glow Recipe Guava Vitamin C Dark Spot Serum

How often should I apply moisturizer?

According to Dr. King, moisturizer should be applied after cleansing and before bed. If you have dry skin, you may have to apply moisturizer more often, she adds.

“The difference between gels and cream moisturizers just has to do with how much emollients are in there,” Dr. Rhee said. “Gels have less than creams, so creams are more moisturizing if that’s what you’re looking for.”

A good moisturizer: Korres Greek Yoghurt Nourishing Probiotic Gel-Cream, $36

Korres Greek Yoghurt Nourishing Probiotic Gel-Cream

How often should I apply a cleanser?

For most people, cleansing the face twice daily is sufficient, Dr. King explains.

A good cleanser: Paula’s Choice Resist Perfectly Balanced Foaming Cleanser, $19

Paula's Choice Resist Perfectly Balanced Foaming Cleanser

What’s the difference between an eye serum and an eye cream?

“A serum is generally lighter, more quickly absorbed, and has more potent active ingredients and lighter moisturizers, while a cream is heavier, more moisturizing and may not have as high strengths of active ingredients,” Dr. King said. “A serum can also be followed by a cream to enhance the moisturizing.”

Additionally, Dr. King said both are helpful to add to your skincare routine, as the delicate skin around the eyes is particularly prone to irritation, fine lines, dark circles and puffiness. “Those with puffiness should look for an eye cream or serum that contains caffeine to help constrict blood vessels and diminish puffiness, while those with fine lines should look for anti-aging peptides, growth factors, and retinol.”

A good eye cream: Biopelle Tensage Stem Cell Eye Cream, $180

Biopelle Tensage Stem Cell Eye Cream

Can I use a toner to remove my makeup?

If you’re wearing light, oil-free, water-based makeup, Dr. King said, a toner may be sufficient to remove makeup. However, in most cases, she recommends a makeup remover and/or a cleanser.

“There’s a caveat to toners — you want to pick a gentle, neutralizing one so it doesn’t strip your skin,” Dr. Rhee adds. She recommends using micellar water because it’s water that acts like an oil, so you don’t have to apply too much force — or use harsh ingredients found in some wipes — to remove your makeup.

A good makeup remover: Garnier SkinActive Micellar Cleansng Water, $6.78 (originally $8.99)

Garnier SkinActive Micellar Cleansng Water

How do I know which skincare face masks to buy?

“Those with dry skin may benefit from a mask that features humectants [like hyaluronic acid], emollients [like ceramides], and moisturizers,” Dr. King said. “Those with oily or acne-prone skin may benefit from a clay-based mask because clay absorbs excess sebum.”

Dr. King adds that anti-inflammatory ingredients, like vitamin C and green tea, can help soothe irritated skin.

“If your skin is nice and balanced and doesn’t feel dry, I recommend a face scrub or mask once or twice a week if your skin feels a bit sluggish or if you want that extra glow,” Dr. Rhee said. “You don’t want anything that feels too harsh or has large beads; as a general rule, if it feels too rough to put on a toddler’s hand, I wouldn’t apply it to your face.”

A good face mask: Caudalie Instant Detox Mask, $39

Caudalie Instant Detox Mask

What ingredients should I look for in a facial sunscreen?

Dr. King advocates using non-comedogenic mineral sunscreens. “I recommend physical sunscreens (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) because they sit on top of the skin to scatter and deflect UV rays, physically blocking them from penetrating the skin,” she said. “They typically contain a combination of two to six of these ingredients: oxybenzone, octinoxate, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, and homosalate.”

For tinted moisturizers and other makeup products with SPF, Dr. Rhee still recommends using a traditional facial sunscreen. “If you want to have a tinted moisturizer with SPF, that’s usually extra credit, but if people aren’t using a traditional sunscreen, they aren’t reapplying as frequently to protect your skin from the sun.”

A good facial sunscreen: Daily UV Defense Sunscreen SPF 36, $15

Daily UV Defense Sunscreen SPF 36

Our experts

  • Hadley King, MD: A board-certified dermatologist in NYC specializing in medical and cosmetic dermatology. She’s also a clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical Center.
  • Libby Rhee, MD: A board-certified dermatologist and founder of Liora Dermatology & Aesthetics in Manhattan. She specializes equally in cosmetic and medical dermatology, natural rejuvenation and preventative aging. She’s also a clinical instructor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center.

Open chat
thank you for contacting us, for more information,
please chat