As a beauty editor, I have to incorporate and test out a lot of beauty products, oftentimes far more than I have time or room for in my regimen. I believe you have go through almostthe entire jar/tub/bottle of product to really be able to get the full benefits of its ingredients and to notice a difference in your skin. (Needless to say, the waiting list is long, my friends.) So it took me some time to figure out how to write a skin care routine post, because my products are constantly changing.
What I realized is that my routine is not so much about specific products (though yes, I have my favorites that I consistently buy), but more about specific active ingredients and categories, like vitamin C, retinol, loads of antioxidants, a hyperpigmentation fighter, and sunscreen. I also incorporate different products for my combination skin — super oily on my T-zone, getting drier and drier on my cheeks — which means double the products for essentially opposite issues. While this helps me as a beauty editor in that I have all sorts of facial real estate for testing out products for various types of skin issues (oily, dry, acneic, hyperpigmented, wrinkles, sagging), it does tend to make my morning and evening skin care routines rather time-consuming.
The good news is it makes me the perfect guinea pig. (So if you only have, say, dry skin, you only need to follow part of my regimen.) The even better news is that since I started really researching beauty and looking for specific ingredients to address my skin care concerns, I’ve seen a real difference in my skin. And just in time, too, because those inevitable, hardcore aging issues — wrinkles, sunspots, sagging — have officially hit and are really taking their toll on my complexion. So while it’s too late for my skin to return to how it looked when I was 35 (absent some serious medical intervention, something I’m too chicken to even ponder since I don’t want to look like a puffy, overly shiny Real Housewife), I do feel like I’ve significantly slowed the progress of aging on my skin, and I actually feel like my skin looks healthier and glowier than it has in years.
So are you ready? Because this post is a monster. (Yes, you can distill my regimen into 13 steps, but really, I don’t even know how many steps because, as you’ll see, my serum step has a bunch of sub-steps.) Here’s a quick summary before we get into the deep dive:
- Facial mist
- BHA & AHA exfoliation
- Vitamin C serum
- Pre-serum or booster
- Hydrating toner
- Eye serum
- Acne treatments
- Day mask & under-eye mask
- Eye cream
MORNING SKIN CARE ROUTINE
In the morning, my skin is beaming like a disco ball, thanks to eight hours of my oil glands running amok (and the sleeping mask I always apply as my last step), so I’ll start with a gentle, non-foaming, SLS-free cleanser. Lately I’ve been using cleansers with salicylic acid to address my adult acne (yes, still!). Salicylic acid is a must-have in my skin care regimen since the beta hydroxy acid is able to penetrate oil (unlike AHAs) and get deep down into pores to clear out the gunk — half the battle when you’re doing daily battle with painful cystic pimples lurking just below the surface. Salicylic acid is especially important to me during the summertime, when my oil glands go into overdrive, and my T-zone gets oily within an hour or two.
I’ll spend a good 30 seconds minimum massaging the cleanser on my skin, using a konjac sponge on my T-zone since the region is a little more hardy than my cheeks, and I need the extra exfoliation to stave off oil. I’ve been trying to massage in cleanser for longer in the summer because most experts consider actives in a cleanser a waste of money since they just get washed away. That’s why I’m really loving Murad Time Release Acne Cleanser, which contains encapsulated salicylic acid that doesn’t rinse away and offers a sustained release throughout the day. It’s also quite gentle and non-drying, with hyaluronic acid, amino acids, sesame seed extract. Another bonus is the cooling feel on contact, which I assume is the tea tree oil in the formula.
2. FACIAL MIST
Since I wash my face in a different bathroom than my vanity (hey, why not make use of the guest bathroom, right?), I’ll immediately spritz my face with a facial mist and pat it in really quickly to keep my face moist and kickstart my skin’s hydration. Right now I’m using Skin Inc.’s Pure Serum-Mist, but frankly any facial mist will do for this step.
3. BHA & AHA CHEMICAL EXFOLIATION
I used to apply my pre-serum and hydrating toner next, but after some research, decided that I need to apply my most potent active ingredients (those ingredients proven by science to have a real effect on skin and skin functions) first. After all, this category tends to contain the more expensive skin care treatments that I actually buy (I’m looking at you, Skinceuticals C E Ferulic), so why not apply it when my skin is most receptive and bare?
So every day, I’ll apply a BHA/salicylic acid on my T-zone. Right now I prefer the stronger ClarityMD Skin Clarifying Acne Pads with 2% salicylic acid and witch hazel for my overactive T-zone to my usual CosRx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid, which uses the milder willow bark version of salicylic acid.
On my cheeks, which are prone to hyperpigmentation, I don’t want to irritate them too much, so I’ll apply AHA (glycolic acid) on them every few days. Elizabeth Arden Skin Illuminating Retexturizing Pads do a good job, though the textured pad feels a bit rough so I don’t swipe as hard or as often as the ClarityMD pads.
4. VITAMIN C TREATMENT
On days when I don’t apply AHA, I apply my Skinceuticals C E Ferulic, which contains 15% of the most stable and potent form of vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid) as well as vitamin E and the super antioxidant ferulic acid to fight free radicals and strengthen skin’s barrier.
Why am I willing to pay $163 for C E Ferulic (though usually on sale at Dermstore) when I have loads of vitamin C serums available to me for free? Vitamin C is tricky because it’s notoriously unstable, and there are so many types of vitamin C on the market, some more effective, some less. It also needs to be in an opaque bottle with as little light and air exposure as possible. C E not only addresses those issues, it’s formulated with the appropriate pH for maximum absorption, and once absorbed, its effects last for 72 hours, so you only need to apply once a day. It’s a mainstay in former Allure editor Linda Wells’s skin care regimen, which is how I first heard about it years ago, and it’s now obtained a permanent spot on my vanity.
After applying my BHA and AHA or vitamin C serum, I go make my cup of coffee and check email for 5-15 minutes for it all to absorb. At first, my cheeks felt really tight and uncomfortable, since I’m not used to going barefaced for any amount of time anymore, but after a week or two, they seemed to have settled down and just accepted the reality.
Next comes a pre-serum or booster, a step borne out of Korean skin care. I added this step to my regimen after Sulwhasoo came out with their First Care Activating Serum a few years ago. It’s a way of prepping your skin, more so than just a hydrating toner, to be more receptive for all the treatment steps to follow. After finishing that bottle, I tried Shiseido Ultimune Power Infusing Concentrate, Elizabeth Arden Superstart Skin Renewal Booster, and a couple others. I went about a year after finishing those products without a booster, and I have to say, my skin definitely felt better with a pre-serum than without. I felt like it almost accelerated or magnified the effects of my serums and treatments, so now I’m back on Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum. After 5-15 minutes of my last treatment application, the two pumps I pat all over my face feel like heaven.
6. hydrating toner
Immediately after the pre-serum, I pat on a splash of hydrating toner. The toner I use varies depending on the season and my skin care needs, and I don’t consider the brand for this category too important, at least not as much as my serums. I do love SK-II toner essences, and I’m currently using SK-II Facial Treatment Clear Lotion for its inclusion of various acids, like lactic, malic and salicylic, which, again, is important for my oily summertime skin. This one I purchased, but other hydrating toners that have been perfectly fine include SK-II Facial Treatment Essence, La Mer Treatment Lotion, Iope Bio Intensive Essence, and Blithe Vital Treatment Pulp Essence – 8 Nourishing Beans.
The heading of this category is a little misleading. It’s not so much a step in my routine as it is a bunch of sub-steps. Because yes, I apply serum, and that’s a step, but under that “serum” category, I apply about seven serums. Why? Because I have many, many, many varying skin care needs.
First and foremost, I’m aging. I’m well into my 40s, and I’m feeling the effects, big time. Fine lines are getting deeper, pores are getting larger, my cheeks and jawline are starting to sag, and I’m in a constant battle with hyperpigmentation.
But following a consistent regimen, I’ve seen some improvement. That fine line by the left side of my mouth has all but disappeared. The crinkles that form all around my eyes when I smile now look more like laugh lines and less Pringles “crinkly.” And while my hyperpigmentation is still most definitely there (curse you, genetics and teenage obsession with a tan!), my skin overall looks brighter and glowier, and even those blasted sun spots look a little lighter.
I definitely have to attribute this change to my religious skin care regimen. I’m talking every single day, every single step, whether I’m in the comfort of my ever-expanding vanity, each bottle and jar perfectly organized and in its place, or trying to balance on a bobbing wooden gület ship in the middle of the Mediterranean, mini jars and sample packets of skin care scattered all over the bed. I’ve always been pretty good about skin care since my teens, but in the last six years or so, I’ve become uncompromising.
These are the serums I always have in my routine, which I apply after my hydrating toner, from lightest texture (especially the ones that come in droppers) to heaviest:
Hyperpigmentation: In addition to vitamin C, I always make sure to use something with proven lightening effects like arbutin, soy, kojic acid, and/or niacinamide. In this category, I feel like I’ve tried them all, everything from La Mer to Estée Lauder, Algenist to Clarins. And while these serums work on PIH (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation) and the occasion swath of melasma brought on by overzealous microdermabrasion or exfoliation, they don’t make a dent in my existing Asian hyperpigmentation, which is just too deep and too stubborn for mere topicals. Even my beloved tretinoin is helpless against it, unless I pair it with laser treatments from a dermatologist, in which case I’ve seen some and even vast improvement.
Nonetheless, I keep hyperpigmentation fighters in my regimen because I feel like these serums do prevent new spots from forming and reaching the surface. They also give the rest of my non-spotted skin a glow so that my skin looks clearer and more lit-from-within overall, even if not technically so. I just started White Rx Activated Serum, a much more affordable alternative at $43 from one of my favorite skin care companies, Deciem, which uses a bunch of peptides and arbutin to suppress tyrosinase, an enzyme needed for melanin production.
Antioxidants: There are many different sources of free radicals , so it’s best to use as many different types of antioxidants as possible, since each works on free radicals in different ways. Again, vitamins C and E are potent antioxidants (see why I love C E Ferulic so much?), but I also will use serums flush with resveratrol, niacinamide, green tea, and various botanical extracts. Currently, in addition to C E Ferulic, I’m using Paula’s Choice Resist Ultra-Light Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum and Yuri Pibu Artichoke Power Essence. (And since most serums these days include some form of antioxidant, I’m getting additional free radical-fighting benefits from, say, my hyaluronic acid serum as well.)
Hyaluronic Acid: I started adding a serum dedicated specifically to hyaluronic acid after the dryness level in my cheeks skyrocketed a couple winters ago. We’re talking a marked tightness around and under my eyes and temples by noon. As I’ve gotten older, my typically “normal” cheeks have gotten drier (but not my T-zone — go figure), so I’ve had to take some drastic measures in recent years. I started with Hylamide Sub-Q Anti-Age Advanced Serum (another Deciem brand), which has five kinds of hyalruonic acid, and loved it so much, I graduated to Niod Multi-Molecular Hyaluronic Complex, its “big sister” with 12 forms of hyaluronic acid. I also just started Benton Snail Bee High Content Essence, persuaded by all the Instagram posts of this K-beauty staple. It’s super light and absorbs quickly, and while I’m not sure if it’s really a necessity, it’s incredibly affordable ($20), so why not? Needless to say, ever since I started incorporating hyaluronic acid serums into my routine, I never feel that tightness around my eyes anymore.
Tea Tree Oil: This is a fairly new addition into my regimen. I started the LJH Tea Tree 90 Essence this summer to try to change the course of my adult acne, and I have to say, I’ve been impressed. The high concentration of tea tree oil (90%!), known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, has really worked to calm down flare-ups, decreasing the severity and length of my blemishes and sometimes outright stopping painful cystic acne in its tracks (which NEVER happens).
Peptides & Growth Factors: Dermatologists recommend that women over 40 start incorporating peptide or growth factors into their regimen. While I’m not as diligent about this as I should be, I do get my peptides in other serums like the Niod Multi-Molecular Hyaluronic Complex. And DNA EGF DNA Regeneration Serum, created by dermatologist Dr. Ronald Moy (whose office is where I got my most recent round of laser treatments), has clinical studies to show that its barley-derived growth factors reduces the effects of photo-damage.
Lifting and Firming: Ever since I started doing Clarins’ Manual Auto Lifting Method massage with Clarins Shaping Facial Lift Total V Contouring Serum in the mornings, I’ve been hooked. It’s a series of pressing motions that helps lymphatic drainage and reduce puffiness and fluids. I love how it makes my face feel tighter and less puffy in the mornings, and it also gives me a minute to just stop what I’m doing and take a moment to breathe and relax. Though the Clarins Shaping Serum is a bit expensive for me to buy all the time, I have done the Auto Lifting Method with other lifting and firming serums, like Shiseido Bio-Performance Lift-Dynamic Serum and VenEffect Firming Phyto-Lift Serum.
*Note: I’ll also extend whatever extra serum I have on my fingers, or a serum I maybe don’t like for my face, onto my jawline and neck, since I’m at an age where my neck is now just as important as my face.
8. EYE SERUM
With age comes fine lines, and I’m at the point now where my fine lines are becoming wrinkles. So serums dedicated to my orbital region are vital. I always incorporate one or two, alternating serums for different regions of the face, so that each serum has some time to absorb. Le Metier de Beaute Instant Line Perfecting Serum can be used on eyelids as well as the under-eye area, and it has caffeine for a tightening, tingly effect. Ren Keep Young and Beautiful Instant Brightening Beauty Shot Eye Lift (phew, that’s a Korean-esque long name) has hyaluronic acid, vital for the drier, thinner, more delicate eye are. I always pat using my ring finger, and I apply eye serums all around my eye, going as close to the lashes as I can and extending out to the brow bone and even temples.
9. acne treatments
To fight adult acne, in addition to salicylic acid cleansers and serums, I apply benzoyl peroxide (BP) to active blemishes and blemish-prone areas like under my nose and my chin. I’ve used treatments from La Roche-Posay, Estée Lauder, and Clinique, among many others, but the one I keep coming back to is Clearogen Acne Lotion. It’s a line, available at Sephora, dedicated to adult acne, so it’s potent but not drying. It is one of the few that I’ve seen that uses time-released BP for less irritation and longer effectiveness. It also works to reduce DHT (dihydrotestosterone), the hormone responsible for the overproduction of oil.
10. day mask & UNDER-EYE MASK
A press event for La Mer The Intensive Revitalizing Mask converted me to a day mask wearer. The day mask is actually a concept from Asia, but I had never heard of it before (other than the sheet mask step for day). You wear the La Mer cream mask, after your serum steps, for eight minutes and then tissue off before applying your moisturizer. It helps all your treatments to absorb and seals it all in. I was surprised that this seemingly superfluous step really made my moisturizer work better and even made my makeup go on better.
Since then, I’ve become a complete convert to the J. One Jelly Pack, my go-to morning mask now. Yes, it comes out of the bottle super-tacky, as some have complained about, but after I rub it in between my fingers and start spreading it on my face, it liquefies and as it dries down, it seems to suck in my face, like a corset for my skin. The proof is in the (super-sticky) pudding, because my makeup never looks so good or lasts so long as when I use my Jelly Pack as a morning mask.
While I wait about 10 minutes for the mask to get to work, I’ll sometimes put on an under-eye mask to help with my eye bags. Any one will do, really, because my eye bags are hereditary and not something that’s going to disappear even with the most aggressive topical or patch treatment. I’m really just looking to flush out excess fluid and puffiness, as well as provide a boost of hydration. I like that Botanic Farm Salmon Egg Hydrogel Eye Patch is a tub with a set of 30 hydrogel patches, one laying on top of the other. I use too many eye masks to justify buying individual patches (or even sets of 6 or 8).
I’m less picky about moisturizers since they can’t really make a difference in your skin the way active ingredients in serums can. “Moisturizer does not put moisture into the skin,” says dermatologist Shirley Chi, M.D. “It sits on top of skin and prevents moisture from leaking from the skin; it’s a humectant that holds water within the skin.” That said, the right moisturizer can plump up your skin, make your skin look good and your makeup go on well. I’ve had great success with Estée Lauder moisturizers — everything from the packaging to the texture and feel really excels — but I’ve also loved less well-known options like LJH Vita Propolis Cream and Jouvé Dark Spot Corrector & Brightening Cream (its tightening treatment is a miracle worker.)
Moisturizers for my T-zone is trickier because I need to hydrate the area (it’s a mistake to think you don’t need to hydrate oily skin), but I don’t want to break out or add to the oiliness. Blithe Pressed Serum Crystal Iceplant is a lightweight gel that worked well for my T-zone, as did Belif The True Cream Aqua Bomb. But for summer, my go-to is Cosmedicine Medi-Matte Perfected Oil Control Moisturizer. It has a stiff, almost resistant texture, and you have to apply it quickly because it dries down so quickly. But it immediately mattifies and, while nothing is able to truly stop the oil slick of my T-zone, it does help more than any other moisturizer I’ve tried out there.
I’ll also use whatever leftover moisturizer in my arsenal for my neck.
12. EYE CREAM
At my age, eye cream is a must, and not just any eye cream. No Millennial-approved eye cream is going to work for me. I need the heavy duty stuff, so I’ll usually turn to brands targeting an older demographic, like Estée Lauder (I’m at the bottom of the New Dimension Firm + Fill Eye System, and I’m panicking), Le Metier de Beaute, and Sulwhasoo. I don’t like my eye creams with too much dimethicone or other silicones, since they tend to migrate into my contacts.
Last but not least for my morning routine is an absolute must: sun protection. My sun protection criteria:
- A quarter-sized dollop
- SPF 30 or more
- Broad-spectrum protection, meaning it has to have zinc oxide, titanium dioxide. If I do opt for a chemical sunscreen, then the right percentages of the right active ingredients (e.g., avobenzone must be stabilized with octocrylene)
- It has to go on well, and not be too sticky or suffocating.
After much research, my current go-to’s are Paula’s Choice Resist Super-Light Wrinkle Defense SPF 30, La Roche-Posay Anthelios Clear Skin Dry Touch Sunscreen (for my T-zone), and Elizabeth Arden Prevage City Smart Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Hydrating Shield.
After slathering on a quarter-sized dollop just for my face, I ideally let everything set for at least 30 minutes before moving on to makeup.
So that’s my 13-step skin care routine. Thankfully, my regimen goes a lot quicker than it took to write this post. Next up, my evening skin care routine, which incorporates a lot of my morning routine, so hopefully the post won’t be such a monster to read! Thanks for sticking with me!