Wondering how to start a skincare routine and what should be in it? Here, L360 editor and qualified skin therapist Mattie Lacey-Davidson breaks it down for you.
There’s an overwhelming abundance of choice when it comes to skincare products and, from ascorbic acid and antioxidants to pantothenic acid and retinoids, understanding ingredient lists can be even harder.
Here, we debunk skincare ingredients and consolidate them into a list of must-have products suitable for all skin types that will help support skin health, and explain whether they’re best used in your morning or evening skincare routine.
Morning skincare routine: Step by step: vitamin C serum, hyaluronic acid serum (optional), moisturiser and sunscreen
Get the skincare benefits of vitamin C and other antioxidants
The first step in your skincare routine (after washing your face with a gentle cleanser, not soap), antioxidants fight free radicals that damage skin cells and cause premature ageing and dullness. The most popular antioxidant skincare ingredient is vitamin C; the scientific name you’ll find listed will usually be ascorbic acid, but there are many other variations so just look for variations of the word ‘ascorbic’. It’s one of the most researched skincare ingredients, shown to reduce photoaging (sun damage) and hyperpigmentation, reduce the production of melanin (reducing the likelihood of hyperpigmentation), even skin tone, and can increase collagen production when used long-term. Vitamin C can be drying so if that’s a concern then other highly effective antioxidants include vitamin E, ferulic acid (both go very well with vitamin C and are sometimes found together in one product) and resveratrol.
Wear sunscreen every day of the year
The very last step in your morning routine, a broad spectrum SPF should be applied every day, regardless of the weather or season. This might sound odd, but UVA rays are present year-round and penetrate deep into the skin, causing damage — UVA is one of the main causes of the visible signs of ageing. These rays can even pass through windows, so if you sit next to one all day, dermatologists recommend wearing sunscreen even when indoors. It’s UVB rays that burn skin in the summer months — think A for ageing, B for burning. SPF is the rating of protection from UVB, while broad spectrum indicates protection from UVA.
One study found that daily use of a broad spectrum SPF of 30 and above not only slowed the ageing of skin, but can actually reverse signs of photoaging.
If you have sensitive skin (or plan to visit Hawaii, where chemical SPF is banned as of this year due to a negative effect on coral reefs indicated by research), you might benefit from trying a mineral sunscreen. Look for ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Skincare that can be used both morning and evening
Hydrate and moisturise your skin
Whether your skin is dry, combination or oily, everyone needs to moisturise morning (before SPF) and evening (usually the last step in your routine, only to be followed by a facial oil such as rosehip or squalene, which are great for all skin types).
Hydration, on the other hand, has nothing to do with whether your skin is dry or oily but relates to the amount of water within skin cells. Dehydrated skin is a condition (not a skin type) that most people experience regularly whether they’re aware of it or not. It can be caused by several things — poor diet, alcohol intake, smoking, among others — and will leave skin looking lax and dull, with fine lines deepened, and sometimes skin will look flaky even if oily, which can be very confusing when trying to figure out your skin type. The best ingredients to fight this are glycerin, hyaluronic acid and vitamin B5 (also known as pantothenic acid) — to get them deep into the skin where hydration is needed these are best applied as serums right before moisturiser.
Hyaluronic acid can hold 1,000 times its weight in water. It exists naturally within the dermis but, like collagen, decreases in the body over time. When applied topically one study demonstrated it could hydrate skin as well as improving elasticity and reducing fine lines.
Get the skincare benefits of niacinamide
Niacinamide (vitamin B3) was one of the most popular ingredients of 2020. It’s great for all skin types as it helps to balance oil production, improve skin tone and firmness, and strengthens the skin barrier (helping to reduce irritation from retinol; more on this below). It can be used morning an evening and, while you can buy dedicated serums, you’ll often find it in serums or moisturisers so check your products before splashing out on a dedicated niacinamide serum.
Evening skincare routine: Step by step: double cleanse, retinol or a chemical exfoliator, niacinamide (optional), moisturiser, oil (optional)
Always end the day by double cleansing
If you wear make-up or sunscreen daily (and, as discussed, everyone should be doing the latter), then in the evenings one of the best things you can do for your skin is a double cleanse. An oil-based cleanser is the most effective way of removing make-up, SPF and build up of dirt or pollution on the skin’s surface. A lot of make-up and sunscreen contains oil, and chemistry teaches us that oils break down oil, so a water cleanse won’t be quite so effective for these products. An oil or balm cleanser (balm will melt into an oil on the skin) should be applied to dry skin to break everything down and then washed off in your second cleanse, which should be a gentle soap-free face wash.
Get the benefits of retinol
As we get older, our skin cell cycle slows down — this is the main genetic cause of ageing and gives way to wrinkles as well as dull-looking skin. Vitamin A comes under the umbrella term ‘retinoid’, with retinol being the most popular over-the-counter ingredient and with products usually having the same name. It increases skin cell turnover and is best used in the evening because it can cause sensitivity (making an SPF a must the following day and going forward), however the increase of this process helps to slow down and reduce ageing, as well as clearing spots and blackheads. Indeed, retinol was originally created as an acne treatment in the 1970s and is still used to treat both acne and acne scars, with particularly strong retinoid creams available on prescription. It’s best applied after cleansing to dry skin; beginners should start with a product containing less than 1% and only use it twice a week, then slowly increase frequency until the product ends. Then you can move up to a slightly stronger percentage and start the process again. If you start using retinol too frequently, or at a percentage too strong for your skin to tolerate, you can experience ‘retinol burn’. This is when skin becomes very dry and irritated and appears red or darker as a result.
Exfoliate in the evenings but don’t scrub
Do your skin a favour and chuck away any face scrubs and replace with an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) or beta hydroxy acid (BHA). Known as chemical exfoliators, they help to shed dead skin and are extremely effective exfoliators, also helping with breakouts, pigmentation and dullness.
The most common types of AHA are lactic acid and glycolic acid, which work on the surface of the skin, while the only BHA is salicylic acid — this can exfoliate deep in your pores and break down oil so is fantastic for spots and oily skin types but often too stripping for dry skin. Much like retinol, you should always start with a low percentage and use only twice a week. I recommend alternating between retinol and a chemical exfoliator every other night, or creating a three-night routine by using retinol one night, a chemical exfoliator the next and then giving your skin a break on the third night before starting again.