Q: I’m confused about how to take care of the skin on my face. What are the basics?
Browsing your drugstore’s skin care aisle can be a puzzling experience — and that’s before you start looking at social media.
Doctors are frustrated, too. “Everyone’s giving skin care advice, and people are inundated with information,” said Ahmad Amin, an associate professor of dermatology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Dermatologists recommend keeping it simple and say that everyone’s skin care routine should include a few essential steps: cleansing, moisturizing and sun protection.
We asked experts to walk us through the fundamentals.
Wash your face.
You probably know you should be washing your face, but you might not really know why, or the best way to do it.
Cleansing your skin removes oil, dirt, dead skin cells, makeup and environmental pollutants, said Patricia Farris, a dermatologist in Metairie, La. This buildup can clog your pores and cause acne, and pollutants can prompt the production of free radicals, which contribute to skin aging, she explained.
Most people should wash their face twice a day, but if you have dry or sensitive skin, once is usually enough, said Hope Mitchell, a dermatologist in Perrysburg, Ohio. More than that can strip the outermost layer of skin, leading to redness, itchiness, dryness and rashes, she said.
Choosing the right facial cleanser depends on your skin type. Dr. Farris said to use a hydrating cleanser if you have dry skin, a gel-based or foaming cleanser for oily skin or a gentle, fragrance-free product for sensitive skin.
You don’t need to spend a fortune. Drugstore brands like Neutrogena, CeraVe and La Roche-Posay are effective, Dr. Farris said.
Use a moisturizer.
Daily moisturizing keeps your skin from drying out and can reduce the appearance of fine lines, Dr. Farris said. “But you’ve got to tweak the moisturizer much like you tweak the cleanser,” she added.
Choose a lightweight, oil-free moisturizer if you have oily skin. If you have dry skin, use a creamier product labeled “hydrating” or “for dry skin.” People with acne-prone skin should look for non-comedogenic moisturizers, which won’t clog pores.
Moisturizing twice a day is recommended for most people, Dr. Mitchell noted. You might need to moisturize more often during the winter, or whenever your skin is feeling especially dry.
“If your skin feels tight, it’s signaling that it needs moisture urgently,” she said.
You can generally use the same product in the morning and at night, Dr. Farris said. But if your daytime moisturizer contains sunscreen, use a different one before bed.
As with cleansers, there are plenty of effective, inexpensive moisturizers available, she said.
Sun protection should be part of everyone’s routine, regardless of skin type or skin tone, Dr. Amin said. The sun’s ultraviolet rays can increase the production of free radicals and damage collagen, accelerating the appearance of lines and wrinkles, he said.
Too much sun exposure also increases melanin production, which can lead to sunspots on the skin, he added. And it heightens your risk for skin cancer, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Look for broad-spectrum sunscreens that protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays and are at least SPF 30, which is recommended by the A.A.D., he said. There are many effective sunscreen options. Dr. Amin recommended finding one that you like and that you will actually use every day.
Moisturizers that contain sunscreen can be an option when you have limited sun exposure, Dr. Farris said. But many combination products are SPF 15, lower than the standard recommendation. So it’s often better to use a separate sunscreen, especially if you’re planning to be out in the sun for a while, she explained.
Other steps to consider.
Besides a cleanser, a moisturizer and a sunscreen, which Dr. Farris calls “the basics,” you can add a serum, an exfoliant, an eye cream or a toner. “It just depends on what you’re trying to achieve,” she noted.
These products often contain active ingredients like antioxidants, retinol or acids that can offer extra UV protection and anti-aging benefits, and eye creams are formulated specifically for the sensitive skin around your eyes, she said.
When using a combination of products, Dr. Farris said, apply serums and eye creams after cleansing but before moisturizers and sunscreens.
She recommended that any time you add steps to your skin care routine, you should try one product at a time and use it for about three weeks before adding something else.
“You don’t want to just be layering and layering, because sometimes that can trigger irritation, exacerbate dryness and even cause true allergic reactions,” Dr. Farris said. If you notice such problems, stop using the product.
If you’ve tried a few skin care products and aren’t getting the results you want, talk to a dermatologist, Dr. Amin said. You’ll get advice on which types of products and ingredients can improve your skin based on your individual needs and which ones are “more hype than actual real benefits,” he said.