There are thousands and thousands of skincare lines out there, and so many different skincare ingredients are constantly being touted as THE ingredient you need for glowy skin. If you’re new to skincare — and frankly, even if you’re not — it can all feel horribly overwhelming. Not only that, but the more ingredients and products you try to squeeze into your routine, the more likely you’ll be to forget some steps or skip your routine altogether.
So how can you get glowy skin without the need for a hyper-involved 12-step routine? Easily, as it turns out. We spoke to skincare experts to whittle it all down to just three simple steps to help you improve your skin health and achieve your glowiest skin yet.
The 3 Steps to Glowing Skin, According to Experts
Sticking to three simple skincare steps can make your skin totally glow. While there are plenty of other steps you could incorporate should you wish to, we love the idea of starting with three non-negotiables because it’s so simple yet so effective — especially for skincare beginners.
With the help of Madeline Gantz, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Westlake Dermatology in Austin, TX, and Magdaline Granados, a clinical aesthetician at SkinSpirit in Roseville, CA, we established that the three best building blocks for a skincare routine are: properly cleansing (including exfoliating) your skin, using anti-aging products to reverse damage to the skin, and wearing SPF daily. Below, we go into detail about what each step consists of, which products to use, and how often to do it.
Step 1: Cleansing and Exfoliating
Properly cleansing your face is foundational to any skincare regimen: You don’t want to start layering products over any dirt or oil that’s still on your skin from your daily activities. “There is plenty of junk that ends up on our face from the day, and water alone can’t possibly remove oil, dirt, sweat, pollutants, makeup, SPF, etc.,” says Granados. “Cleansing is critical. If you wear makeup, it gets trapped against the skin, and it can cause oxidative damage that prematurely ages the face. Never go to sleep without cleansing the skin.”
As well as helping reduce signs of premature aging, cleansing has a number of other important benefits, according to the experts. “By keeping your skin free of impurities, it keeps your pores unclogged, minimizes acne, blackheads and enlarged pores, and it maintains clearer and smoother skin,” she says.
In order to achieve a thorough cleanse, Granados recommends using a gentle cleanser (she likes the ZO Gentle Cleanser) twice a day every day, morning and evening, and following it up with an exfoliating cleanser (she likes the ZO Exfoliating Polish) in the morning only. The exfoliator “removes dead skin cells to instantly reveal smoother, softer and glowing skin,” she explains. “It really helps smooth out the skin and instantly gives you a polished glow. It dissolves those oils and ensures that the new skin can come through from the deeper layers. It also replenishes hydration.”
How to Cleanse Properly
- Morning: use a gentle cleanser, followed by an exfoliating cleanser
- Evening: use a gentle cleanser only
While you should be using a cleanser twice daily, you may need to build up your exfoliation routine so your skin can adjust gradually. “If you find the product to be too much for your skin, to begin with, start by using it two or three times per week and then work to using it daily,” says Granados. “Exfoliate in the morning. I personally use a pea-sized amount [of exfoliating cleanser] on dry skin and dab a little water to work it through before rinsing off.”
Step 2: Reversing Skin Damage
As noted above, your skin undergoes a ton of stress daily — from your environment, from your lifestyle habits, from what you eat, and from how much stress you’re going through as well. With so many factors to cause potential damage to your skin’s health and appearance, it’s super important to incorporate a product or two to help reverse some of that damage and keep your skin in top shape.
Antioxidants in the Morning
Both experts recommend using a great antioxidant ingredient, such as vitamin C, in the morning. “Antioxidants neutralize free radicals,” explains Dr. Gantz. “Free radicals are unstable electrons that want to be in pairs, so they scavenge around for a friend and can bind to molecules in our skin. When that happens, they cause cellular damage. They are produced naturally but are also created from environmental exposures like sun, smoking, and pollution.”
Dr. Gantz goes on to detail how exactly antioxidants work to help give you your glowiest skin. “The idea behind antioxidants in skincare is to neutralize free radicals before they have the chance to cause cellular damage in your tissue,” she says. “They not only help to protect your skin but also can help with fine lines, wrinkles, and dyspigmentation.”
Just like a revitalizing morning glass of OJ, a vitamin C serum is one of the most common antioxidant products made to use in the morning, and is a great one to add to your three-step routine. “But there are others like vitamin E, resveratrol, coenzyme Q, niacinamide, and [more],” says Dr. Gantz. “A lot of these come in serum formulations and are best applied after cleansing in the morning to help fight free radical damage during the day.”
Retinoids in the Evening
Your second step should be different in the evening because your skin has different needs before bed compared to the morning: This is where retinoids and retinols come in. These are ideal to use at night because this is when your skin cell turnover is at its highest. “Retinoids and retinols are the most effective active ingredients we have to prevent and improve the appearance of aging,” says Dr. Gantz.
The expert explains that retinoids — which are stronger than retinols — can either be available on prescription only, or over the counter (in the case of adapalene). Meanwhile, retinols are readily available in over-the-counter, mainstream skincare. “Both retinoids and retinols stimulate collagen and prevent the development of wrinkles, improve texture and radiance, and can lighten dark spots to even skin tone,” says Dr. Gantz. “To mitigate irritation, I tell patients to apply a green pea-sized amount, start every other night, and apply a moisturizer first in order to prime and hydrate the skin.”
Step 3: SPF
You probably know this already, but applying SPF in the morning as the final step of your skincare routine is non-negotiable. “Sunscreen is the most important component of your skincare regimen,” says Dr. Gantz. “It protects your skin from harmful effects of UV light that can lead to skin cancer and aging. UV breaks down the collagen and elastin in your skin, which leads to wrinkles and sagging. You want to make sure it’s broad spectrum (meaning UVA and UVB protection), SPF 30 or higher.”
As for how often you should be applying sunscreen, Dr. Gantz recommends the following guidelines. “You should be applying it to sun-exposed areas like the face, neck, chest, and hands, every single day, and reapplying every two hours with prolonged exposure,” she says. “Remember that UVA penetrates glass, and even if you’re only outside for short periods, it adds up over time.”
- Tinted SPF: For your morning application, a tinted SPF can make a great base for your makeup.
- Moisturizer with SPF: You could opt for a moisturizer formulated with SPF so you don’t have two separate steps for moisturizing and sun protection.
- Travel-size: For application throughout the day without makeup, bring a small bottle of facial SPF with you.
- Makeup Setting Spray with SPF: If you wear makeup daily, a makeup setting spray with SPF is an awesome alternative, allowing you to be protected from UV exposure without disturbing your look.
Switching up the Steps
These three steps are fairly universal in helping anyone achieve glowy skin, but you should still keep in mind that everyone’s skin is different, and you may need to modify it to suit your specific needs — such as integrating hyaluronic acid for dry skin, for example. If you’re unsure where to start, it may be a good idea to consult an aesthetician or dermatologist, who can help you design a skincare regimen that suits your skin’s needs as well as your busy lifestyle.
Additionally, your three steps will naturally be different in the morning to the evening. “When designing a skincare regimen, your morning products are for prevention and protection and your evening products are for repair,” explains Dr. Gantz. “That means that your antioxidant and sunscreen should be applied in the morning, and your retinoid or retinol should be applied at night. I’m a firm believer in keeping it simple because that is going to allow you to build consistency.”