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The market is full of new, buzzy skincare ingredients, so today I'm highlighting my 5 absolute must-haves that will always form part of my personal skincare routine. If you're new to skincare or you're not sure what's proven or could work for you then hopefully this provides a solid starting point!
Let's kick things off with perhaps my most controversial choice (but hear me out!): ascorbic acid, AKA pure-form Vitamin C. The reason this is a bit controversial is that ascorbic acid is the gold standard in Vitamin C and has been researched extensively, so we can be confident it does what it claims to. Namely, that's boosting up collagen production (this is the stuff that gives your skin its bounce and smoothness), providing an antioxidant benefit (neutralising harmful free radicals from the environment that break down collagen) and also evening out the skin tone (whether that's as a result of hyperpigmentation after a breakout or melasma or sun damage). The issue is that it's very unstable and difficult to formulate with, so the product we'll get into is the only one I'm fully-confident using. Whilst derivatives have potential (though they probably don't have the same collagen-boosting potential) and are gentler and more stable, I personally think that for my ride-or-die list: it has to be the pure form!
My pick: the Skinceuticals C E Ferulic Vitamin C Serum* | £145. Obviously, this is not a cheap product (so I've been trying my hardest to explore other options in ascorbic acid) but its patented formula ensures maximum stability and minimal irritation (its pH and the concentration of ascorbic acid used, plus stabilising it further with antioxidants Vitamin E and ferulic acid are all covered within the scope of this patent). It's water-light and also contains hyaluronic acid so you get some moisture-attracting benefits in here too, but otherwise: it's pretty simple, though you might notice a scent that's a little reminiscent of hot dog water! It's a fantastic product if you can afford it on sale and you know it has the science to back up its claims. If your routine is focused on well-ageing, an antioxidant (plus you get those collagen-boosting benefits with ascorbic acid) is definitely something you want in your AM routine.
Next, we have niacinamide (or Vitamin B3), which is a real multi-tasker. Though be cautious: I recommend not going for serums marketed as 10%, 20% or sometimes even higher concentrations! The benefits we'll discuss have been observed using 2-5% concentrations this ingredient, and reaching for something stronger won't necessarily increase the effectiveness but will definitely increase the likelihood of irritation. Niacinamide helps boost up the skin's production of ceramides, a fundamental component of your skin barrier, which help keep the skin strong and healthy. It also has the ability to regulate oil excess production, indirectly supporting spot-prone skin. Finally, it can also help stop hyperpigmentation spreading through the skin, so you don't end up with a scar that's bigger than the original spot. It's a great ingredient for any skin type, but if you're oily, this can help support your skin every day without the need for really strong actives.
My pick: the Zelens Power B Vitamin B Concentrate* | £90 | full review. I really like this product because it gives me so much more than just niacinamide (which is obviously a great ingredient, but there are so many basic single-ingredient serums out there now). This provides an amazing active in a soothing, hydrating base with ingredients like panthenol (AKA Vitamin B5), hyaluronic acid, Vitamin E, glycerin and Beta-glucan. It's a gentle, soothing, hydrating way of getting all of those niacinamide benefits into your routine every single day.
Ceramides are part of the fatty skin barrier and we need to keep our skin barrier happy and healthy so things don't get get dry, flaky or irritated (or a compromised barrier can even cause you to break out, somewhat paradoxically). Whilst we can use ingredients like niacinamide to encourage our skin to produce more of its own, we can also apply ceramides topically to nourish and replenish the skin. Ceramides are particularly great when formulated alongside fatty acids and cholesterol; the other components of our skin barriers. They're great in and of themselves if you have dry or sensitive skin, but they're also great for using alongside stronger actives to ensure your skin barrier is supported.
My pick: the Kate Somerville DeliKate Recovery Cream* | £69 | full review. This is a really rich, replenishing hug for your face! If my skin is dry, if it's winter or I'm experiencing sensitivity or even if I've increased the strength of my retinoid recently: this is perfect. Alongside the ceramides, this moisturiser features soothing peptides, ginger to act as an anti-inflammatory, nourishing shea butter and moisturising oils like cucumber seed and sunflower seed. Overall, years later: this is still my perfect 'skin recovery' product.
Retinoids (AKA Vitamin A derivatives) are something I recommend getting into your PM routine in some capacity if you're over the age of 25. They're the only class of ingredient that can reverse existing photoageing, as well as boosting up collagen production in your skin and helping even out your skin tone. Retinoids can be a little drying and irritating initially, so it's important to start low (in terms of concentration) and go slow (gradually introducing a product into your routine). My personal perfect balance of amazing results with little-to-no irritation or peeling is retinal. This is the most direct Vitamin A derivative available as a cosmetic product, so it's more than a retinol but less than something like a prescription tretinoin. It's been a total game-changer for me since I started using it two years ago; my skin is smoother, more even and all around just better.
My pick: the Medik8 Crystal Retinal* | from £42. This is the product that introduced me to this ingredient and it's still what I recommend! If you've used retinol before, you can probably start at CR3, but if you have sensitive skin or you're a total newbie: start with CR1. From there, you work your way up through the concentrations as you empty each product and your skin stays happy with you (I have CR10 here). I love that this comes in a moisturising lotion base that will be enough on its own for some, but also layers effortlessly if you want to use this as a serum and apply your moisturiser afterwards. I didn't experience peeling or dryness with this product and the results were visible even from just a few weeks in, which gave me the motivation I needed to stick with using this product every night religiously. I'm pretty far along up the ladder and I've still never experienced irritation with any iteration of this product!
I had to round things off with an acid exfoliant, though the one I've chosen here is for my skin - if you have oily or spot-prone skin, you might prefer salicylic acid, for example, so it's not as universal as my other choices for this post. Lactic acid is the one for me because it's an Alpha-Hydroxy Acid, meaning it's water-soluble and works to break apart the bonds between dead skin cells so they can be shed, revealing smoother, more even skin. Alongside providing that immediate glow-boost, this ingredient can resurface the skin, reducing the appearance of texture and evening out its overall tone. It has a larger molecular size than something like glycolic acid, so feels less irritating on the skin, and it actually has some hydrating benefits too. This makes is a great all-rounder for my skin.
My pick: the Ordinary's Lactic Acid 10% + HA 2% | £6.90. This water-based serum is something I throw in a couple of times a week, though there's also a 5% formula for sensitive skin or if you want to use it a little more frequently or pair it alongside other actives. For a robust exfoliation: 10% is great and this formula pairs it with hyaluronic acid so you get an extra boost of hydration. It's not irritating but it works to give me smoother, more even and more radiant skin. Plus this one's really affordable!
What do you think of my picks? Which ingredients would make your top 5?