First of all this is hella information. You’ve opened Pandora’s box of skincare. Pan-Cora’s Box if you will. This is probably way more than you wanted to know, but hopefully this is useful as a reference/recommendation guide.
I’m passionate about helping people navigate a confusing and often misleading industry, and I hate how much misinformation is out there. 90% of skincare products are either harmful to the skin or do nothing. Sadly marketing hype has a lot of us fooled that expensive = better.This is a lie. There is good skincare to be had at many different price points. The secret is to find skincare experts you can trust, and research your products. Effective products don’t have to be super expensive. With that said, there are places where you can get more of a bang for your buck, and I’m going to cover a wide price range in all categories. Active ingredients are where it’s at but using them can be intimidating, and there is so much crap out there it’s like “Where the hell do I even start?” I gotchu boo.
You don’t want to try it all at once. When you can, go to places like Sephora and get samples, and work your way up to a full routine. If you have to buy things, keep the receipt, most places let you return things within a reasonable time frame.
I’ve listed all the steps in a complete skincare routine. and then broken down each step with multiple recommendations. There are some interchangeable steps, like applying oil WITH moisturizer, or Retinol AFTER moisturizer, but this is a basic guideline.
A complete skincare Routine looks like this:
First Cleanse – remove makeup with wipes or Micellar Water – PM
Second Cleanse – washing your face with cleanser – AM & PM
Acid Tone – AHA or BHA or both if you’re down like that – AM & PM
Flower Water tone – humectant luxury; – AM & PM
Treatments- vitamins, antioxidants, etc addressing your skin concerns. Some AM some PM.
Oils – not for everyone, but this is part treatment, part moisturizing. AM & PM.
Moisturizer – a gel, lotion or cream like to to lock it all in and protect AM & PM
Sunscreen- some people like a stand alone; I like a moisturizer with sunscreen. AM only- reapply if you’re going to be outside longer than an hour.
STEP 1: CLEANSING
First Cleanse/Makeup Removing
First of all, dudette… you have to use a cleanser separate from wipes- this was a hard habit for me to break too. I’ve had this conversation with most of the women our age and I get it. Wipes are easy, and Wipes are fine for taking makeup off, but you’re not getting it all off with just the wipe, and it’s not good enough to rinse your face with water after the wipe. You need to use a cleanser with either a clean washcloth that you switch out everyday or a clarisonic. The gentle friction will remove all the dead skin and debris from the environment etc…
More on exfoliation later…
I recently switched to a micellar water in place wipes. I prefer Bio Derma Sensibio which you can buy from Beautylish, but Garnier makes a drugstore option. It’s basically teeny tiny molecules of oil suspended in water. It will take off even waterproof eye makeup without stinging or making your eyes cloudy and since you wash your face with cleanser right after its fine to use all over the face.
One other note: even if you only wear sunscreen during the day consider using the micellar water or a wipe as your first cleanse anyway: Sunscreen designed to stay on, take the time to properly remove it so your nighttime skincare can sink in.
- Bioderm Sesibio- Paraben Free & the Original
- Garnier- the drugstore version. the ingredients are different and I haven’t used it.
Second cleanse- actually washing your face
If your skin is dry skip anything foamy. If your cleanser makes your skin feel even slightly dry or tight after cleaning stop using it. That tightness is micro cracks in the skin where bacteria can get in, causing acne, breaking down collagen, and will weaken the skin over time causing crepe texture and wrinkles. I like to have two cleansers, a light gel and a balmy one to mix it up, though lately I just use the jelly/balm one. Also of note: You have to wash your face in the morning. Our skin sheds cells, we sweat, and you’ve got your nighttime skincare on.
Below are a list of cleansers I recommend
general cleanser/traditional gel types
- Cera Ve Foaming face wash- huge bottle and cheap. I use this in the shower on my neck and chest too. I know the foaming bit sounds counter intuitive to what I just said. Yes it foams a little tiny bit but it doesn’t dry out skin. Zero smell, dermatologists recommended skincare line. not paraben free but you’re also rinsing it off right away so still worth considering. NOT PARBEN FREE.
- Fresh Soy facial cleanser- smells great and non really non-foaming. Expensive. Paraben Free
- first aid beauty Face wash- moderately priced. Creamy wash, gives a good clean not stripped feeling. No smell, and they sell great mini sizes for travel. Paraben Free
- Creamy/Balm/Jelly Cleanser
- NUDE skincare Perfect Cleanse Omega Cleaning Jelly- this is different from the others because you put it on the skin dry, then after you massage it in you add water and it turns into a milky consistency. Excellent for dry skin. Sephora is going to stop selling this line because- it’s stupid retail politics… Long story short they will be sold elsewhere but at Sephora this might still be available and even on sale because Sephora won’t be selling it. It’s normal $38 but I got it for $26. I haven’t had this as long as the others but so far I’m really impressed. Smells nice. Paraben Free.
- Algenist GENIUS Ultimate Anti-Aging Melting Cleanser $38- Works just like the NUDE cleanser, but you get a lot more. I haven’t tried this but I will when I run out of the NUDE version.
STEP 2: ACID TONE
Ok this part sounds scary. It’s not. The goal here is to correct the skin’s PH balance after cleansing and switch it on to a more active mode. The toner you use is really important, and if toner makes you think of the 1980’s and scary alcohol potions from Clinique or Sea Breeze, you’re not alone. Well formulated modern toners are amazing. Brilliant. Essential. The focus “ingredient” here is AHA or BHA acid. Why do you need this? Touch your face. You’re touching dead cells. Thats what makes skin appear dry, dull, etc. Plus those greedy little dead cells are soaking up all the skincare products you put on top making it hard for the good stuff to reach live cells.
But you may be thinking- can’t I just use a scrub or an exfoliator. No, you can’t, and here’s why: When you use one of those face scrubs you will eliminate some dead skin cells which is why it feels nice right after using one. But you’re also causing micro cuts in your skin which open you up to bacteria and damage. Think of it like this- Acid Toner is a chemical exfoliant that will help the skin help itself. It speeds up cell turnover, sends dead skin packing, and prevents acne, millia, and all kinds of shit we don’t want. A scrub is a physical exfoliator what it like taking a nail file to your face. It might smooth it out in the moment but it’s causing unnecessary damage.
Let me break down how they work:
AHA works on the skin’s surface weakening the bonds of dead skincells, making it easy to slough off. It helps clear and prevent breakout. Smooths fine lines. tightens skin.You can see results with this is just a day or two, full results in 30-60 days. There are a few different types of AHA, I prefer Glycolic to Lactic, tartaric, and Malic but everyone is different. Glycolic and Lactic are the most effective. I use this twice a day, some people use it once a day.
BHA works within the pore, thinning out oil, and accelerates cell turn over. Some people say they notice it breaking them out at first- really it’s just bringing forth everything that would have happened eventually. There is only one kind of BHA and its salicylic acid.
Use these and your makeup will look better, your skin will be softer and brighter. There’s other stuff but that’s the gist. Since they do different things, I recommend both. You can use them at the same time but some people like to use one at night one in the am. I use AHA Glycol twice and day, and BHA 2 times a week. It’s really important they are stable and at the right Ph in order to be effective. There might be other good ones, but these are all tested and approved by skincare experts far more knowledgable than I, and for what it’s worth I’ve also tried all of these. These are perfectly fine to use with dry skin.
There are other more aggressive options, but that’s for hard core skincare folks, and most need to be bought though med spas.
- FIRST Aid Beauty: pads. AHA. Inexpensive and more mild than a few of the others, great starter. Sometimes they sell small packs which are great for travel. Paraben Free.
- pixie glow- AHA
my personal fave. Inexpensive, available at Target, in the Pixi makeup section- great skincare and makeup line. Really effective and blows my mind how much better my skin looks. I even have Mikey using it- it’s chock full of great stuff like alcohol free witch hazel and other stuff. Highly recommended.
- dr Dennis gross pads- AHA. They sell a regular and extra strength versions. Work great but really expensive. They also sell convenient travel packs.
- Paula’s choice 2% BHA liquid. Great salicylic acid choice, inexpensive, effective. I’ve used this for years and when I was going through my less is more phase I stopped using this and my skin looked terrible. Only available online or if you can find a medspa locally. Just buy it online. Stinks like BHA, slightly vinegary. Whatever it works. Paraben Free
- Clinique mild toner- BHA really mild and no alcohol. Inexpensive. Great if the Paula’s choice is too intense. Paraben Free
It’s important to wait a few minutes before moving on so your skin can absorb this and it can activate. I usually take this time to make my coffee/ read facebook…whatever. You also want to use this all over the face- I use this on my eyelids without getting it “in” my eye. And finally use a cotton pad, not a cotton ball- the pad doesn’t soak up and waste as much product.
STEP 3: Water Toner /Moisture Mists/Flower Water
This step is totally unnecessary so feel free to skip it, however when you skin is slightly wet it will better absorb what you put on top. You do this after the regular toner because you don’t want it to be over active, and that acid needs to be the first thing on your skin. These also contain a bit of glycerine and flower extracts which act as humectants beyond what just water will do. There are lots of great options in this category but I’m only recommending two because this step isn’t essential:
- Mac Fix+ smells freaking incredible like Japanese Sugi nettles; contains glycerine, caffeine and cucumber among other things.
- Yes to Cucumbers- Excellent budget option. Green tea, Cucumber, and flower extracts. Local brand (San Francisco). Great fine mist spray which is exciting given it’s lower price point, super hydrating.
STEP 4: Treatments
This is where you can tailor your skincare routine and where you should spend the most money. This is when you apply watery textured serums. I don’t recommend any kind of silicone textured serum because it can ball up when you apply your makeup or rub other products on the face but some people swear by them. Other treatment options would be like Coq10,
There are so many different types of products worth exploring, so I’m going to focus on two main ingredient categories that I find essential – Vitamin C and retinol. I like to use Vitamin C during the day and retinol at night.
Vitamin C vastly improves skin’s brightness, fades scars and dark spots and is a major player in anti aging as it prevents future damage. It has so many benefits I can’t even list them all. I’ve linked an article about it. It is a fickle ingredient so it needs to be stabilized, so most of the truly good options are $$. The price range here is $48-$115. I’ve sampling different versions trying to see if splurging is worth it. I’m sure it is but for now in using the cheaper one.
First Aid Beauty-Facial Radiance Serum- this is the least effective has the amount of Vitamin C is small, however it’s a good one to start with as it is the cheapest. It also contains Licorice root which is a great brightener as well. It’s also chock full of peptides and other good for your skin stuff.
Paula’s Choice vitamin C serum- Chock full of peptides, vitamin E, Ferulic Acid and 15% vitamin C this is one of the stronger concentrations. Also one of the cheapest.
Drunk elephant C- Firma – Crazy awesome formula, 15% Vitamin C, Ferulic Acid, fermented Pumpkin and Pomegranate extract. Effective. Expensive. Smells awful, like metal.
Algenist Genius Ultimate Anti-Aging Vitamin C+ Serum – most elegant formula: niacinamide, algae extract, peptides, ceramides. Uses a newer form of Vitamin C. Hella expensive, Bay Area brand, Smells incredible. I originally bought the Drunk Elephant one and returned it for this.
Retinol- derived from Vitamin A this helps speed up cell turnover, boost collagen production which improved skin plumes and elasticity; it reduces both fine lines and wrinkles and improved the appearance of pores. Like for real. No bs. This stuff works. And I know you’re thinking- isn’t that what you said about those acids? Yes and no; They work in different ways, and retinol works deeper and more effectively and does a whole host more, but if needs the acids to break down the dead skin in order to get to the fresh cells. Retinol is a skin-communicating ingredient, meaning it as actually effect change in the cells. This will stop if you stop using it of course. What I’m recommending is over the counter retinol. There are also concentrated prescriptions like Retin-A which are more effective, but also more irritating. You need to go slow with this one, once or twice a week, then work your way up. You still might want to introduce some of the other things like the acid toning and vitamin c before you introduce this, however retinol is an important anti aging factor and it’s so important to at the very least try it. You’ll thank me when we’re old ladies.
Two important things to consider: Retinol can make your skin photosensitive so only use it once a day, at night. Secondly, there have been studies where it caused birth defects in huge quantities. It’s safe to use, but not while pregnant.
Paula’s choice retinol
Peter Thomas Roth retinol- retinol in a light oil. This one works pretty darn good.
Cera Ve retinol- this was the least effective for me, however it might be a nice starter since it’s the cheapest as well.
Sunday Riley Luna- this one is special- it is an oil that contains “retinol ester” which is a new form of retinol. Unlike traditional retinol or Retin-A, this won’t cause the same kind of skin irritation or flaking so don’t worry about this. This product has a patent on the ingredient, but I’m sure someone will knock it off in the future. This one is the most expensive by a long shot, but it’s the most effective one I’ve ever used, and it’s the most expensive.
First Aid beauty Water Serum
Benzoyl Peroxide for Acne
Paula’s Choice 9% bha- acne, skin exfoliation
Oils- your last step before moisturizer/Sunscreen. This helps a lot with hydration and you apply it second to last for textural reasons. This is part treatment, part moisturizer. Facial oils can work brilliantly for even oily skin so try it! So many option here, I’m not going to go into this at length but here are several I’ve tried and recommend:
Fresh SeaBerry oil
nude skincare oil
Sunday Riley Juno – dry skin
Sunday Riley Artemis – Acne prone and oily skin
Josie Maran Argan Oil/light Oil- the light oil is good if you don’t like the feel of oil.
Josie Maran Milk Oil – lightweight, think lotion like consistency
Tarte Maracuja oil
And lastly, moisturizer and sunscreen.
Frankly, this is the last thing you apply and if you’re using rockstar products from your acid toners to your treatments, you really just need something basic and hydrating with an elegant texture to seal it all in. I don’t like to go nuts and splurge here. I still use something well researched and that has great ingredients but I get the drugstore version. I’ve listed a few great ones. I like to combine my sunscreen and moisturizer during the day since my skin is combination, but some people like to have a separate sunscreen and moisturizer for added hydration. Additionally, I prefer mineral sunscreen. I could argue both sides of this but you probably give zero fucks if you’ve read all of this. Geeze Cora just recommend shit already. Ok here we go:
Moisurizer with suncreen:
First Aid Beauty: SPF 40- all Mineral/physical sunscreen
Cera Ve AM SPF 30- Mostly Chemical with Zinc Oxide
Sheishedo- expensive and undeniably one of the best sunscreens on the market. Waterproof, excellent.
Kiehls- chemical sunscreen but BUT- it actually works and has an amazing texture, works well as a makeup primer.
Moisturizer with sunscreen:
Cera Ve Am-chemical and mineral sunscreen hybrid. Cheap. Effective.
Moisturizer without sunscreen:
Cera Ve PM: cheap, contains amazing and impressive ingredients for the price- texture is amazing. Highly recommended.
Belif Aqua Bomb and Aqua Creme
I’m going to link to skincare guru Caroline Hiron’s website. Paula Begoun is another great source although she has a habit of down rating excellent skincare lines like Sunday Riley because they contain fragrant oil and some suspect that she down rates products that are competitive. Thirdly, Dr Shultz is an excellent source.
As for products lacking parabens: To be clear, here isn’t any evidence linking parabens in skincare to cancer. The main source of this worry is a study done on rats in much larger concentrations than is in skincare products much less could be absorbed by the body through the skin. Parabens/preservatives stop your products from spoiling and stabilize the active ingredients so they can work properly. With that little lecture in mind, the stigma of this was enough that most companies have phased it out of their skincare, so there still are tons of great products that don’t contain parabens if it’s still a concern 🙂 I will let you know if the products I recommend don’t contain parabens.
While all of this advice is based on science- sometimes science be damned, something does or doesn’t work. That one of the reasons there are so many different products out there.