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Today we're doing something a little different: we're talking creating a skincare routine, developing your own philosophy around products and staying focused in a world of buzzy ingredients...
This sounds simple, but there are basic things everyone needs to do like cleanse and use sunscreen, but the other components really depend on what you're trying to achieve. I would try to choose 3 goals, rank them in order of importance and consider where ingredients could overlap. For example: my #1 priority is probably well-ageing, followed by having an even skin tone and the treating dehydration and dryness. Someone else might say their top priority is acne, followed by treating the resultant scarring and hyperpigmentation and then well-ageing. So, for my concerns: obviously sunscreen is going to help with the skin tone and well-ageing goals but in terms of ingredients, so will my Vitamin C. Peptides can help with both hydration and well-ageing (some can even help with uneven skin tone). It's just about considering what you want from your routine and which ingredients are most proven for it and focusing on those.
If there are ingredients that might be good but aren't as proven, maybe look for them in a one-step multi-active product that combines it with ingredients with more scientific backing. You don't need to try every ingredient or product type under the sun, so keep your skin goals in mind at all times and be critical of marketing; just because a product says it's going to do all of these amazing things to fulfil your skin goals doesn't mean that's the case. I use websites like INCI Decoder and Paula's Choice to find out how ingredients work and use them as a jumping-off point to research ingredients and figure out how proven they are.
This is going to vary to a degree, but I'll talk you through my personal priorities (in order of importance) and maybe it'll be relevant to you or it will actually make you think 'no, my priorities are actually xyz'.
Sunscreen - because prevention is better than cure and it's never too soon or too late to stop future damage!
Retinoids - Vitamin A derivatives are the only ingredient proven time and again to boost up collagen production in the skin, making it pretty fundamental if you're 25 or over. This is my go-to active for a PM routine.
Vitamin C - I personally tend to go for ascorbic acid as it not only provides antioxidant benefits (shielding the skin from free radical damage) but research suggests it can stimulate collagen production in the skin, which decreases with age. However, I do think derivatives have a place, especially for those who can't tolerate the pure form. This is my go-to active for an AM routine.
A good cleanser - or two! I don't like to be super-prescriptive but it's a great idea to use an oil-based emulsifying cleanser to remove makeup and sunscreen at the end of the day in the gentlest way possible. You can then follow it with a cream or gel cleanser (depending on your preference, skin type, the time of year etc.) to remove any residue. Your skin needs to be clean to avoid breakouts and allow your leave-on products to work, but make sure it doesn't feel dry, tight or stripped after use.
A good moisturiser - because I have dry skin )this might not be right up here for you if you're oilier).
Even within this, when it comes to budgeting, I prioritise spending on my actives, which are the retinoids and the Vitamin C. You could argue that sunscreen is worth spending on; personally, I would work within your budget to find a formula that gives high broad spectrum protection and visible light defence that you're comfortable with wearing every single day (including under makeup, if you wear it) without you feeling like you can't apply it liberally. It doesn't have to be where you spend most of your budget, though - if you're in the UK or EU, you're likely going to be able to find a formula that ticks all of those boxes within the £10-£20 region.
I don't think you need to spend much on cleansers and moisturisers, personally (unless you're using them as a one-step active and cream in one e.g. a retinoid moisturiser). When I say 'good', I don't mean 'expensive for the sake of it'. They need to wash your face and moisturise it effectively respectively - you don't have to blow your budget to find a texture and experience you enjoy unless you want to and can afford it. Look out for skin-barrier-supporting ingredients like ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids in your moisturiser.
Chemical exfoliation - I've spoken at length on this topic (here), so I won't repeat myself too much here. Not everyone needs to exfoliate and almost no one needs to do it daily. When you've figured out the rest of your routine it definitely becomes a supporting element, not the star of the show (the exception being salicylic for acne treatment). However, it can support the work of other ingredients when used sensibly, so I reach for either a gentle toner 3ish times a week or a more intense peel once a week.
Other supporting actives - this is a pretty broad category, but essentially they're all the ingredients that I like but that aren't as essential to me as retinoids and Vitamin C. Ingredients like niacinamide, peptides and azelaic acid go into this category and I often look out for multi-active products that combine several great ingredients into one step.
Hydrators - again, this is going to depend on skin type and the time of year. On my dry skin, a hydrating toner can make a world of difference, especially during the colder months. If you're oily, or it's the summer, it might be less important. It also depends on the ingredients in your other skincare products - you don't need a separate hyaluronic acid serum if it's already in your Vitamin C and your moisturiser.
Targeted eye treatments - I've spoken in more depth about this before (hereand here) but most eye creams promise more than they can deliver to most people. There are all sorts of underlying causes of eye concerns that often can't be treated topically. Additionally, there are ways of using the actives you apply to your face in the eye area safely if you're careful about it. There's definitely a place for eye creams in a routine, but we're talking about prioritisation and if you've budgeted yourself, say, £120 to buy a full routine to last you 3-6 months, I'm really not going to sit here and say you should allocate £45 of that to 15ml of product that may or may not work for you. I will always try an eye cream if I get the chance to through this blog, and I'd always buy one I enjoyed with my own money when it runs out, but if I'm travelling with limited liquids or space, then I tend to leave them at home.
These are all things that could be beneficial for some people but they're not universal, so if you've tried them before in the past and haven't got the results you were going for: don't feel like you need to keep trying to force it. There are ways to treat the eye area that don't involve throwing more and more money at expensive products. There are ways to get hydration into your routine without a separate serum. There are ways to brighten and clarify the skin and increase its cell turnover without exfoliating the crap out of it! Alternatively, these might be things you just want to spend less money on. For example, if you can find a hydrating toner that you enjoy for £6-10 then you're getting that benefit for a relatively small chunk of your budget.
Active ingredients that aren't proven - this is where I have to draw a line between me as a creator and me as a consumer. I try a lot of products because I have the opportunity to and can see why people might like to use a lot of them. But, if I was spending my own money - I would maybe throw £30 at a serum with a new ingredient as its star of the show, but I'm not really going to drop £100 on a patented ingredient where the only studies done on it are by the people trying to sell it to me. I understand why retinoids and ascorbic acid can cost a little more if they're formulated for maximum stability, use encapsulation etc. but they're ingredients with a lot of scientific backing. I'm probably not going to take a punt and see what happens on expensive products that push ingredients I can't find much information on.
Wash-off non-exfoliating masks - these are your clay masks and your hydrating masks. They're nice if you have the budget, but almost no one neeeeeeds them, and I feel as though we certainly don't need as many as there are on the market for a product type most people will use once a week tops.
Sheet masks / eye patches - I do personally really enjoy an eye mask, especially if I'm going out (or I was out the night before) for that quick pick-me-up of cooling, depuffing hydration. However, they're not a high-priority item. And sheet masks can be fun, but they're essentially soaked in hydrating serum, so I just prefer to use products like that as a part of my everyday routine as opposed to a sheet mask once in a blue moon. Obviously the mask materials provide occlusivity to boost up hydration in the skin and the select few products I still use in this category provide a cooling, soothing effect. But if you like that element there are now plenty of reusable sheet mask and eye mask options on the market that you can use over your favourite hydrating skincare over and over again - they can be kept in the fridge for that soothing, depuffing boost too. Even these are an added bonus to me, though, as opposed to critical elements of a skincare routine. I don't need more than the products I've already found that work for me and if you're on a budget and want results, they might not be worth bothering with.
Neck creams - it's true that the neck is more sensitive than the skin on the face, as it's thinner. I don't personally think that means you need a whole separate product for this area; you just need to be mindful.
Obviously there's someone out there who may like or benefit from any of these products and I have some of them in my 'occasional' routine, but again: going back to the scenario of 'someone on a budget wanting to get the most bang out of it, these aren't what I'd recommend.
This process naturally comes out of your prioritisation. For example, I've decided that generally I'm probably not going to buy sheet masks in the near future because I never have time to do them these days and I'd rather use a serum to hydrate my skin every day. I also have never and will never buy a neck cream because if it's a non-active moisturiser: it can go on my neck. When it comes to actives, I've found ways of buffering them or using gentler versions of the ingredients I love on this area. I have also decided that I don't need any more face masks (excluding exfoliating peels). I have a couple of clay masks I use, I have a couple of moisturising masks I love, but they're not absolutely essential to my routine and I use them a couple of times a week, so I certainly don't need more. Those are just my examples - you might find sheet masks indispensible or find ascorbic acid too difficult to tolerate to include it in your routine. One thing that isn't necessary for a lot of people but I personally love for my skin and see a lot of benefit from (especially during the winter) are facial oils. That's kind of the point of doing your prioritisation based on your skin goals.
I also think that the more you can choose multi-active products over single-ingredient formulas, the simpler and better your routine will be. You don't need to confuse yourself over what can and can't be used together: you just pop it on and you're fine, getting all of the benefits from all of the ingredients that are formulated to work together. It also makes you realise that you don't need every ingredient out there.
Do you ever just go to your Reels suggestions on Instagram and it's just random tools no one knew needed to exist (some of them are actually kind of dangerous-looking!), food-themed face masks, skincare with glitter in it and silly gimmicks that only exist because someone out there is going to make it a thumbnail? There's so much noise in the skincare world that I'd strongly caution you against buying things just because they 'look fun' if you're on a budget or just want products that work. It takes a good long while to finish a skincare product, so why saddle yourself with fundamentally useless stuff?
The other side of this is that every skincare brand is out here releasing products they claim to contain some amazing new ingredient that will transform your skin. You can't try all of them, so if you find yourself tempted: take a step back and wait for people like me to review them before making a purchase. Then consider if the product is actually delivering something new for you and your skin. If it's totally irrelevant to your skin goals: you don't need it! If it's covering ground already covered by the rest of your routine: you don't need it! If it claims to be a new version of a trusted ingredient that already works for you: you don't need it!
None of this means you're never allowed to try something new. But, the way I like to think of my routine is that there are certain roles that need filling. If a product doesn't fit into one of those roles, I'm unlikely to use it. Likewise, if a new launch fulfils the same role in my routine as a product I'm finished with: it's definitely something I can try. For example: I'll usually use some sort of multiactive hyperpigmentation treatment in my routine so if I'm finished up a serum with niacinamide, azelaic acid and tranexamic acid, I can definitely replace that product with a new launch containing licorice root, tranexamic acid and arbutin.
All that being said, let's dive into the components of my personal routine as a bit of a case study!
At the moment in my 'every single day' routine, I have two cleansers. I personally am more than happy to use my morning cleanse as my second cleanse in the evening and because it's been winter and I have drier skin, I've been reaching for the Kate Somerville Goat Milk Cleanser* | £38 | (how haven't I reviewed this before?!) I can't remember if this one that I opened was the new formula or the old version, to be totally honest, but the version I have in my rotation right now is a creamy cleanser with a veeeery mild lathering effect if you take your time to work it in. It's gentle and non-stripping which are essential factors for a cleanser on my skin. As my first cleanse, I'm currently using the Elemis Pro-Collagen Naked Cleansing Balm | £44 | full review. This is luxurious and effective, melting into an oil to shift makeup and sunscreen and emulsifying easily when I add water. Together, this duo easily covers off all of my cleansing needs.
Hydrators, supporting actives and chemical exfoliation
Again, with me being on the drier side and us only just starting to head into the warmer months, added hydration has been more of a focus for my skin. A great product for me that gives hydration plus a little bit more is the First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Wild Oat Hydrating Toner* | £20 | full review. This is a more weighty than a traditional toner and with its fermented ingredients it's more in the vein of a Korean essence, plus it contains soothing and moisturising ingredients.
When it comes to exfoliants, I either reach for a peel (used once or twice a week) or a gentle acid toner - it really depends on where my skin is at and how strong the products I'm using in the rest of my routine are at that moment in time. My current peel of choice also doubles as providing me some of the supporting actives that boost my powerhouses, it's the Algenist Blue Algae Vitamin C Dark Spot Correcting Peel* | £80 | full review. This is a really gentle but effective peel with lots of glycerin to buffer the chemical exfoliants of glycolic acid, salicylic acid and PHAs. What you'll notice is that I usually go for multi-acid formulas, just to get the most bang for my buck and tackle my skin concerns on more than one level - AHAs give a glow and help resurface the skin, BHAs are great for breakouts and PHAs offer a gentle exfoliation on more of a surface level. This also includes ascorbic acid, tranexamic acid and azelaic acid to really target uneven skin tone. Alternatively, I'll take it easy and opt for something gentle but still effective like the Youth to the People Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant* | £32 | full review. This contains blemish-fighting salicylic acid, mandelic acid to target uneven skin tone and gently resurface the skin and a little PHA (primarily for hydration). This is what to go for if you want to use an acid alongside other products with other actives, just make sure you proceed with caution.
This is where the magic really happens, to be honest! I have my retinoid and my personal preference is the Medik8 Crystal Retinal Series* | from £39 | full review. I'm currently on 10, and the idea is that you start with the gentlest option but with each tube successfully finished off, you can move up to the next level. Retinal is the step in-between retinol and prescription tretinoin and it just seems the best balance for my skin between results and minimising potential irritation.
For my Vitamin C, I do often use derivatives but the gold standard in ascorbic acid (which is the most well-studied version of this ingredient) is the Skinceuticals C E Ferulic* | £145 | full review. Obviously, it's not cheap and I'm working through bringing you some dupes but this doesn't irritate my skin at all whilst delivering antioxidant and collagen-boosting benefits. In terms of supporting actives, my Niod Copper Amino Isolate 3 1:1* | £65 | full review | is brilliant from a well-ageing perspective and just in terms of giving me a good skin day. The only reason it's in the 'supporting' category is that it's not really compatible with my other favourite actives and to me: Vitamin C in the AM and retinoids in the PM tend to take precedent.
Then we have a hydrator with gentle 'supporting active' power, because I really appreciate having a serum I can just instinctively reach for when I want my skin to look fresh and dewy, as well as to reap some anti-inflammatory benefits from. Monday Muse's the Juice Daily Serum* | £40 | full review | is exactly that in my routine. It's formulated with niacinamide (a supporting active for my skin), panthenol and cica, amongst other ingredients. Ok, maybe not everyone neeeeeds it but it's great for when my skin feels a little sensitive and I don't want to use my usual actives, it's also an amazing everyday all-rounder for people who don't want to layer on a hyaluronic acid, then a niacinamide and so on as individual serums.
Sunscreen and moisturiser
You honestly don't need to have a separate day cream and night cream: it's all personal preference! I've just been travelling a lot more lately than I have since the start of COVID so I do really appreciate a formula that can work for day or night. For my skin, the Biossance Squalane + Omega Repair Cream* | £45 | full review | is perfection! It's a deeply-nourishing formula that supports your skin barrier but has a light and fluffy quality that makes it perfect for daytime wear. As I mentioned, oils aren't a must for everyone, but I love them for my skin so I always like to have one on-hand. The super-lightweight Zelens Power D* | £95 | full review | oil is gorgeous for nourishment and barrier repair. It's also pretty versatile: you can wear it in the daytime, at night time, under moisturiser, over moisturiser and so on!
Of course, sunscreen is fundamental! Whilst I wouldn't necessarily reach for it if I was going to the beach or on a tough hike, for everyday: the Ultra Violette Supreme Screen SPF 50+ | £34 | full review | is an absolute dream. It's the perfect radiant primer for under makeup whilst giving high-level broad-spectrum protection. It's a chemical formula so gives no cast and it's made with modern filters, meaning it doesn't irritate even my sensitive eyes.
I really hope you found this useful! Even if you don't agree with my personal priorities or picks - this is really meant to be a jumping-off point or a template for you to adapt to your skin's needs. How do you approach creating a skincare routine?
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