As part of Affordable Beauty Week, I thought I'd talk through what is and isn't essential for a skincare routine based on my personal experience and the evidence we have available. Let's jump in...
I think, at most, you need two cleansers; a makeup-removing option and one to cleanse your skin as a second cleanse or morning option. I really like the Ordinary's Supersize Squalane Cleanser | £13.75 | full review | because it works well as a moisturising morning cleanse, as well as for removing makeup. It's a balm-cream cleanser that you massage into dry skin then emulsify with water. If you're removing makeup, just use a damp cloth to wipe it away without the need for tugging or pulling at the skin. For the second or morning cleanser, obviously, you should just go with whatever works for your skin; if you prefer a foaming cleanser or a clay cleanser for your skin then go for it. I'm pretty much on the normal-to-dry end of the skin spectrum so I like a jelly cleanser like the CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser | £9.50 | full review. This is simple, functional and it does the job. I can use it in the morning or as a second cleanse, and it doesn't irritate my skin when it's sensitive. It's formulated with ceramides and hyaluronic acid to promote a healthy skin barrier and draw in moisture.
The next essential step in a skincare routine (for me) is an exfoliator. There are very few physical exfoliators I recommend, so (in my personal opinion) you're best going for a chemical exfoliant. Which one you choose really depends on your skin type; the pore-penetrating power of BHAs will work well for oily, spot-prone skin, AHAs are really good for hardy skin types that need all the glow they can get. My personal favourite option is PHAs; these a very gentle and work on more of a surface level, additionally offering hydrating benefits, which makes them great for dry and sensitive skin types. I absolutely love the Inkey List's PHA Toner* | £9.99 | full review. It softens, smooths and exfoliates my skin really effectively whilst being one of the few acid toners that can be suitable for daily use.
My next essential is a treatment serum of some form. Again, you're going to have to choose the right treatment for the concerns you see in your skin. If you're very oily and spot-prone you might find that a stronger BHA serum a couple of times a week is more effective than using a toner formula. It's really quite personal but two I recommend for targeting uneven pigmentation and improving overall skin health are the Indeed Labs Vitamin C Brightening Drops* | £19.99 | full review coming soon | and the Facetheory Porebright Serum N10* | £14.99 | full review coming soon. The Vitamin C serum (with ascorbic acid) really gives my skin a great glow boost and is one of the few more affordable products that really does help with post-breakout pigmentation marks. There are some other great hydrators in here like glycerin and hyaluronic acid too. The Facetheory serum is a great mixture of ingredients to keep the skin smooth, healthy and clear; niacinamide, azelaic acid and salicylic acid. You can use one treatment in the morning and one in the evening and go for formulas that target different issues if needed.
If you're over the age of 25, I really recommend getting a good retinoid into your routine. Start small in terms of the concentration and build yourself up to it, progressing from once a week. Retinoids are the only type of ingredient proven to help reverse the signs of ageing. They have the power to smooth the skin, improve the appearance of fine lines and clarify the skin, following acne scarring. I have to be honest about the one I use; I'm always hesitant to class Beauty Pie as 'affordable' when you have to be a member to access these prices, but it's the only well-priced retinoid that's made a real difference to my skin! The Beauty Pie Super Retinol Ceramide-Boost Anti-Ageing Face Serum | £13.53 | full review | has worked so well for me and it's one of those maintenance products in your routine I really think you'll thank yourself for in 15 years!
I do also view a moisturiser as essential to hydrate, soften and smooth the skin, as well as to seal in moisture. However, you definitely don't have to use a separate day cream and a night cream. Again; everyone has different skin, so it's well worth doing a bit of research into what hybrid cream will work for you. Personally, a great option for me is the Beauty Bay Thirst Class Rich Moisturiser | £7 | full review. It's softening and nourishing on my skin but not too heavy or thick to wear in the day under makeup.
Last, but certainly not least, is sunscreen! This is the most important step in your routine, because without it; everything else is pretty pointless. I personally favour SPF 50, because if it's a normal, non-sunny day at the office; I might not reapply it like you should regularly with lower-protection products. Plus everyone (even someone as conscientious as I am about application) is probably applying less sunscreen than is needed to get the full advertised protection. If the sun's out and I'm wearing makeup then I'll top up the protection with a mist. Obviously, if I'm not wearing makeup then I'll just reapply the original product. Look out for a broad-spectrum formula to protect your skin against both UVA rays (that cause ageing) and UVB rays (the cause of burning). Also, make sure you're wearing plenty! Some little pea-sized amount just isn't going to cut it. If you have very sensitive skin; I'd recommend a physical / mineral sunscreen, though I personally prefer chemical formulas because they're less likely to leave a white cast. For a day at the beach; go for it with a thick, sweat-proof and water-resistant formula that's going to stay on after a roll around in the sand. On a day-to-day basis when I don't need a product to stay on through thick and thin, my go-to budget option is the Garnier Ambre Solaire Sensitive Advanced UV Face Fluid SPF 50 | £8. It's moisturising, melts into my skin and gives no white cast.
- SKIP -
Next, I want to talk about things that are nice to have but not an essential in your routine if you don't have a lot of money to spend on your skincare and only want to include ingredients that have a lot of scientific backing.
The first is a face mist or any other form of hydrating toner. By and large, unless you have very dry and dehydrated skin and need to layer on hydration, a good moisturiser should give you everything you need. Face mists are nice to use, so if you enjoy them; keep going. If you're building an effective skincare routine on a tight budget; just give them a miss.
My next 'give it a miss' has to be collagen. I actually really enjoy collagen as a skincare ingredient; I find it incredibly hydrating and moisturising on my skin, which can give the appearance of plumper skin. However, there's no real evidence that applying it topically replaces lost collagen in the skin. I can't remember who said it but I read a really accurate analogy to this: putting a pile of hair onto a bald patch doesn't make it grow new hair! My main bugbear is that collagen can often be expensive, so it's not the best investment given the lack of science behind it as an anti-ageing ingredient. If you want to give it a go on a budget, the Inkey List do one.
For similar reasons, peptides can be a pricey investment for not much scientific backing. They're said to stimulate collagen production in the skin, but there's not enough evidence to substantiate this marketing claim. Again, they're hydrating, they're just an expensive option for this purpose. Again, there are some great affordable options out there from brands like the Ordinary, if you do want to give them a go.
Face oils are next on the list. Personally; I love face oils and feel like I need them during the winter, but I definitely think I have more dry and dehydrated skin than most. If you can put on a standard moisturiser and by morning your skin isn't tight or dry, you don't need a face oil. It's really for skin that needs an extra, nourishing seal over it.
Next I'm going to say hydrating serums, unless your skin is chronically very dehydrated (like mine!) Most moisturisers contain ingredients like hyaluronic acid, so if you have oily, combination or pretty normal skin, it might not be necessary to use a separate serum containing more of the same.
What are your essential ingredients and products and what do you think can be skipped?