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SaveBeauty & Style Decoding Skincare Products: What Does What?

Decoding Skincare Products: What Does What?

What is the right order to apply skincare products? We'll show you—and we'll show you how to build the best skincare routine.

Decoding Skincare Products: What Does What?

Serums, moisturizers, toners, night creams, oils, oh my! What do all of these skincare products do? And do you need all of them? There's a lot of stuff to consider here, but we'll help you design the best skincare routine possible.

Which skincare products should I use?

Before choosing products, figure out what kind of skincare routine you want to do. Here's the truth: While multi-product routines are buzzy right now, yours can be as simple or complex as you like it. Whether you love to apply a curated collection, or you'd rather keep it short and sweet, everyone can benefit from some skincare routine. At a minimum, choose a cleanser and moisturizer you can use morning and night, plus SPF for daytime protection.

When designing a routine, it's totally fine to mix different types of products, like a toner, a couple of serums, a moisturizer, and a face oil, for example. But if you're using retinol, be careful about ingredients. Retinol can cause dryness and irritation, so to avoid a red, itchy face, avoid mixing it with other ingredients that can cause similar issues. These include vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide, AHAs, and BHAs. Retinol also makes your skin more photosensitive, so use it only at night and make sure SPF is part of your AM routine.

Now let's check out some of the most common skincare products out there. Not sure which order to use them in? Our list goes in the order you'll want to use each product.

1. Start with a cleanser

This is essential for every skincare routine, morning and night. There are also many types of cleansers out there—gentle, foaming, nonfoaming, and so on, all formulated for different skin types and concerns. Experiment with travel bottles to find your favorites.

You can even cleanse with facial oils. Popular oils include mineral, coconut, jojoba, argan, olive oil, and marula. Read up on their benefits to choose the perfect fit. To cleanse, massage 1-2 teaspoons over your face to work dead skin cells and dirt free, then wipe away the oil with a warm, damp microfiber cloth. This type of cleansing can work super well for extremely dry skin.

There are also exfoliating cleansers containing clay, walnut shells, or even cellulose that forms soft beads to help buff away dead skin cells. Use these sparingly—a couple of times per week for gentle exfoliators or once a week for harsher ones. Exfoliate too much, and you can not only strip away your skin's natural moisture barrier, but you can give yourself a case of dry, scratchy skin. No fun!

2. Wash-off masks come next

Masks can do so much for your skin. They add moisture, exfoliate, and draw out impurities. If you're going to use a mask designed to be rinsed off, apply it now. These include masks with clay, oil, peel-off gel, or other bases that need to be removed.

3. Next comes toner

Toner is an optional step that can add a cleansing or oil-fighting kick.

Use an astringent toner to fight excess oil. For cleansing power, try toner featuring AHAs or BHAs like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, or lactic acid. These are known as "chemical exfoliants," which is a fancy way of saying that they work throughout the day to loosen dead skin cells so that they slough away the next time you wash your face.

Use toner morning and evening (unless you're also using retinol; use the retinol at night and toner in the morning).

3. Serums, essences, boosters, and more!

Boosters, essences, and boosters range in texture from watery to gel-like. Whatever name they go by, most fall broadly in the "serum" category and are designed to absorb easily and wear well under moisturizer.

When to use serums? These optional treatments are best used to fill in gaps that your other products don't cover. If you want more hydration, try a hyaluronic acid serum. Not getting antioxidant power? Vitamin C serums are your jam. Battling redness and puffiness? Reach for the caffeine serum. You name it, and there's a serum or essence out there to match.

4. Now it's time for spot treatments

Eye creams, acne spot treatments, scar treatments—anything that targets a specific spot goes on after your serums, but before the moisturizer "topcoat." That's because you'll want the moisturizer as a top layer to seal in the beneficial ingredients below.

5. Non-washable masks

Got some free time to chill with your favorite show? Now is the time to use masks that you wouldn't wash off, like sheet masks (try one that goes in the freezer!), masque creams, or even oils. While you can do them any time, masque creams and oils are usually designed to super-moisturize your skin while you sleep.

Using oil as a mask is super easy and a great way to seriously moisturize super dry skin. Spread a thick layer over your face and let it absorb overnight. Skip moisturizer for the night to let the oil do its best work, and put an old T-shirt over your pillow to avoid stains.

6. Moisturizer time!

Moisturizer, day cream, night cream—use any of these products for this step. What's the difference? Moisturizers are typically no-frills formulas. They might contain a few beneficial ingredients like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, vitamins, and so on, but they're designed to be used day or night.

Day creams are often designed to work well under makeup, and many contain SPF sun protection. Night creams are often supercharged with beneficial ingredients designed to do their best work while you sleep.

Also, take note here: If you plan to use retinol at night, then as mentioned above, apply it after this step.

7. If you haven't already used an oil, do it now

Like many of these steps, this one is totally optional. Why use an oil? Some like the subtle, glowy sheen a bit of oil adds. Others do it to provide extra emollients to dry skin or skin with a damaged moisture barrier.

You can use oils day or night, but night is more common since oils can interfere with makeup. Just massage a small amount into your skin.

8. SPF for daytime wear

Sun exposure causes discoloration and premature aging, so SPF is essential, even in a minimalist routine. There are so many choices! Try liquid SPF or cosmetic formulation designed for use under makeup if you want to wear foundation or if you struggle with sunscreens that make you look oily. Otherwise, choose an SPF day cream, or a BB cream or tinted moisturizer with SPF, and you'll be good to go.

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