Last updated: May 2, 2019

5 Important Skin Care Products and When to Apply Them

a bunch of skincare products

Whether you’re trying to clear up stubborn acne or just improve the health of your skin in general, a good skin care routine is a must. The word “routine” might make it sound like a chore, but think of it more as an investment – if you take care of your skin, your skin will take care of you, both in the short term (less acne, less drying out in the winter) and in the long term (fewer wrinkles, decreased risk of skin cancer).

Keep in mind that there’s nothing exclusively feminine about a good skin care routine, guys. This list is for everybody, no matter your age, gender, or skin type. While those factors may affect when and how often you apply certain skin care products, the fact remains the same – we all want beautiful, glowing skin!

The sheer amount of skin care products on the market can be overwhelming, with new trends popping up every week (light therapy, anyone?). But the truth is, you only really need to have these five basic skin care products in your bathroom cabinet to achieve healthier skin.

1. Cleanser

facial cleanser

If you’re just splashing your face with water before you go to bed at night, you’re not cleaning your skin as well as you should be. Your face might look clean, but dirt, oil, and dead skin cells build up on top of your skin and in your pores throughout the day – if you go to sleep without washing it off with cleanser, you risk waking up in Breakout City.

The type of cleanser you use and how often you use it is going to depend on your skin type. Which of these five skin types describes you best?

Dry: Stay away from products containing harsh ingredients like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and alcohol that can cause your skin to flake and peel. Look for cleansers with hydrating (but not pore-clogging!) ingredients like aloe vera.

Oily: While your first instinct might be to reach for the most skin-drying product on the shelf, don’t! Believe it or not, drying ingredients like alcohol can make oily skin worse by making your sebaceous glands think that they need to start working overtime to compensate.

Combination: You ever wake up with skin as dry as the desert, but then by noon you’re shinier than a disco ball? Or maybe your forehead and chin are always shiny, but the rest of your face is so dry that it’s peeling. Yup, that’s combination skin for you. You’ll probably need to do some experimenting to find the right cleanser, but natural ingredients like rosemary and lemon oil are usually good bets.

Sensitive: Does your skin seem to react negatively to everything you put on it? Are you especially prone to acne flare ups? Then you probably have sensitive skin. Avoid acidic products, cleansers containing alcohol, and anything with a fragrance.

Normal: Don’t experience any of the above? Congrats, you lucky duck, you’ve probably got normal skin! Not too oily, not too dry, not too sensitive, you can experiment with whatever cleansers you like.

If you’re having trouble choosing a skin cleanser, have a chat with your dermatologist – they’ll be able to recommend the best products based on your skin type.

When to apply:

It’s recommended that you wash your face with a gentle cleanser twice a day, once in the morning and once at night. A common mistake people make assuming that the more often you wash your face, the cleaner it will be – but using a cleanser too frequently can dry out your skin, which can worsen your acne! Moderation is key, folks.

2. Exfoliator

woman exfoliating with seasalt

Cleansers are great for washing away the daily grime, but every once in a while your skin needs a deeper clean to remove the layer of dead skin sitting on the surface – that’s where an exfoliator comes in handy.

There are two main types of exfoliators – mechanical and chemical. A mechanical exfoliator physically scrubs away the top layer of dead skin and can be something as simple as a rough sponge or loofah or as fancy as a vibrating cleansing brush. You can either use the exfoliating brush with your normal cleanser or combine it with a chemical exfoliator. Chemical exfoliators use ingredients like hydroxyl and glycolic acid to dissolve the dead skin, and tend to be less harsh on sensitive skin than mechanical exfoliators when used alone.

Exfoliators aren’t just for facial cleansing – you can exfoliate and soften your entire body with a good scrub or a rough loofah. Anything with a gritty texture (sugar and salt are the most popular) can make a great exfoliating scrub. While exfoliating will make your skin feel so cloud-soft that you’ll probably want to do it every single day, don’t! Once you remove the layer of dead skin cells, you’re rubbing and scrubbing on healthy skin, which can be super irritating and leave your skin patchy and sore.

When to apply:

You should only exfoliate once or twice a week to avoid irritating your skin. In an ideal skin care routine, the exfoliator should come after immediately after your usual gentle cleanser. Should you be exfoliating at night or first thing in the morning? It depends - do you wear makeup? If yes, night. If no, morning. Easy.

3. Toner

putting toner on the face

Another skin care must-have is toner. You’ve either never heard of it or have heard it hailed as a miracle product. While no miracle, unfortunately, skin toners can calm inflammation, remove dirt and oil from your pores, and restore your skin’s natural pH balance.

For most people (normal, sensitive, dry, and combination skin types), we recommend using a gentle, alcohol-free toner like rosewater. If your skin is oily or acne-prone, you might benefit from a little alcohol (20%) in your toner to remove excess sebum and close your pores. No matter what skin type you have, if your toner burns or irritates your skin, it’s not the right toner for you – anyone who says, “if it burns, it’s working” doesn’t know what they’re talking about!

When to apply:

Apply toner with a cotton ball once or twice a day after you’ve used your usual cleanser and, if applicable, after you’ve used an exfoliator. If you’re using a toner that contains alcohol, you might want to limit your usage to once a day (morning is best) to avoid drying out your skin. Wait until the toner has dried completely before applying a moisturizer.

4. Moisturizer

woman using a moisturizer on her face

Cleansing products like toners and exfoliates are perfect for removing dirt and oil, but they can leave you skin feeling tight and dry – that’s why it’s so important to combine them with a good moisturizer.

Moisturizer isn’t just for dry skin sufferers – even those with the combination and oily skin can benefit from using a lightweight, noncomedogenic (non-pore-clogging) formula to balance out their skin’s moisture levels. No matter what your skin type, you can’t afford to skip out on using this essential skin care product, especially in the winter time! Not only will moisturizer keep your skin from drying out and feeling like sandpaper, but daily use can prevent wrinkles, fend off acne, and help your makeup stick to your skin more quickly.

But whatever you do, DON’T use body lotion to moisturize your face! The skin on your face is much more sensitive than the skin on your arms and legs. That thick, fragrant body lotion you use on your hands and feet might be great, but using the same thing on your face will almost certainly cause you to break out. Make sure the moisturizer you choose for your face is gentle and unscented to prevent irritation.

When to apply:

Apply body lotion on clean, dry skin right after a shower or bath. Similarly, a facial moisturizer should only be used to clean skin. If you’re using an exfoliator or toner, moisturizer should come after. Always moisturize twice a day, once in the morning and once at night before you go to bed. A nickel-sized amount is usually all you need to cover your face and neck – remove any excess lotion by gently patting your skin with a clean cloth.

5. Sunscreen

sunnies and suncreen on the beach

Last, but certainly not least, you need to make sunscreen a part of your daily skincare routine. If this list changes anything about your skincare habits, let it be this. When we say sunscreen, we don’t exactly mean the same white, summer-smelling liquid that your mother smeared on your face before she let you start playing at the beach. Sunscreen for daily use is much more subtle in scent (although who wouldn’t want to smell like a day at the beach?), and can even be incorporated in your daily moisturizer or liquid foundation.

Why do we insist on sunblock? It’s not like you’re going to the beach every day, so why all the fuss? Every minute of direct sun exposure you receive ages your skin and increases your risk of skin cancer. This isn’t an exaggeration we made up to scare you – numerous studies have proven the link between UV exposure and premature aging, and 86% of melanomas are caused by the sun’s harmful rays.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends at least 30 SPF for daily use – even if the only sun you get that day is the walk from your house to your car, every second counts when it comes to sun protection. Damage from UV rays is cumulative – you don’t wake up one day with wrinkles, they form slowly over time, which is why applying sunscreen every day is so important for your skin’s health.

When to apply:

Apply sunscreen in the morning before heading out for the day. If you wear makeup, apply beforehand, or if you use an SPF 30 makeup setting spray, apply afterward. If you know, you’re going to be spending a considerable amount of time in the sun, reapply every two hours. That might sound like a lot to keep up with, but trust us (and your dermatologist), the protection is worth it.

Stick with It!

beautiful model posing

As long as you make these five products a part of your beauty regimen, you’re ready to go. But a skin care routine can only help you if you stick with it – no “I’m too tired to wash my face tonight” or and other excuses allowed. Knowing how to use these products and when to use them is the first step, but if you want healthy skin now and for years to come, you’ve got to start today and be consistent.