Expert Skincare Routine Steps Taught by a DermatologistMay 5, 2023
Navigating skincare routine steps can be confusing. In this article, our founder board-certified dermatologist and author of Skincare Bible Dermatologist’s Tips for Cosmeceutical Skincare shares her blueprint for minimalist regimens. Understand the purpose behind each step and get maximum results. Discover how skin type affects your skincare routine steps, products to use and learn exactly how to build the best regimen for you. Included are tips on selecting plant actives suited for various skin concerns such as acne, hyperpigmentation, oily skin, wrinkles and skin sensitivity.
Build a purposeful skincare routine with these steps:
Skincare Fundamentals With Dr.TWL
The following is applicable for both day and night skincare routine steps. For night time skincare, you may omit sunscreen, and also add on application of a sheet mask and eye cream. Targeted treatment of spots such as with prescription creams containing retinol/retinoids or hydroquinone should also typically be applied at night in order to reduce the risk of photosensitivity.
Day and Night Skincare Routine Steps
Double cleansing is a 2 step process which involves first removing makeup and sunscreen, followed by a second cleanse. The first cleanse focuses on oil soluble pigments, sebum, grime whereas the second step is focused on removing the residue. The primary goal of cleansing is to restore the healthy skin microbiome—a balance of good and bad germs. However, it is equally important to respect the skin barrier. An ideal double cleansing regimen should not strip the skin of moisture. Rather, it should cleanse skin and restore moisture levels.
Skincare Routine Step 1 Makeup removal
There are two options for makeup removers. The first is a micellar formulation. The second, an oil-based cleanser or an emulsion, sometimes known as a “milk” cleanser. I will go through the pros and cons of each but first let us define some terms.
Micellar water works by hydrophobic (water-hating) and hydrophilic (water-loving) properties of a micelle. The makeup residue is attracted to the water-hating aspect, this is best thought of as a ball that is wrapped up which continues to roll on skin grabbing the residual pigment and dirt. To remove the ball which is a micelle, you use a cotton pad. Friction or rubbing is inevitable and this can be harsh for sensitive skin
Pure oil cleansers are often too greasy, my choice is an emulsion or a milk cleanser. Milk cleansers are oil in water formulations, the oil component dissolves makeup pigments and removes excess sebum. The “like for like” principle here is that oil soluble pigments are dissolved in a similar substance—an oil in water emulsion.
The benefits of an emulsion are that it is less greasy than pure oil formulations. It is also effective as a humectant if formulated with moisturising ingredients. When you physically rub off the makeup on a cotton pad, the oil component protects your skin. It acts as a barrier between the cotton pad and skin, hence reducing friction unlike with micellar solution.
Skincare Routine Step 2 Second cleanse with a lathering agent
This step is best paired with a natural emulsifier like honey or soy, or similar botanical emulsifiers. The process of generating a foam can help improve the cleansing experience, so users feel thoroughly cleansed. However, using chemical lathering agents like laureth sulfates can strip the skin of natural moisture and cause dysregulation of oil production. This can sometimes lead to the oily dehydrated skin phenomenon. Amino acid based lathering agents are also gentler on skin.
Skincare Routine Step 3 Serum application
Serums deliver high concentrations of water soluble actives such as hyaluronic acid and vitamin C. The reason why an all-in-1 skincare cream does not work well is because the entire process of skincare layering creates a moist skin healing environment, which is not achieved with the traditional cleanse-tone-moisturise regimen. Important skincare actives to look for:
Multi-weighted molecular hyaluronic acid has benefits because it can act on multiple layers of skin and activate different targets.
Stabilised forms of vitamin C include L-ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbyl phosphate or magnesium ascorbyl phosphate. L-ascorbic acid is acidic and can cause irritation to sensitive skin. For this reason, I usually recommend vitamin C serum formulations based on the latter ascorbyl phosphate compounds. Sodium ascorbyl phosphate also is effective at lower concentrations.
The effects of vitamin C are as follows:
- Skin brightening
- Antioxidant environment to fight free radical stress caused by environmental damage (UV, air pollution)
- Treatment of acne (reduces skin inflammation by inhibiting lipid peroxidation in acne-prone, oily skin)
Skincare Routine Step 4 Emulsion/Lotion
The equivalent of a day moisturising cream is a lotion or emulsion formula which is lightweight, feels comfortable on skin throughout the day and is quickly absorbed.
The oil-in-water texture is the ideal day moisturiser because it maintains effectiveness while reducing any uncomfortable sticky sensations. Some important active ingredients like ceramides and also water soluble actives like plant antioxidants show increased absorption when in an oil vehicle. The oil-in-water formula is hence ideal.
Skincare Routine Step 5 Facial Mist
Many consider this to be optional, but it is actually a key step to increase penetration of all the skincare actives. The concept of sheet masking is really wet occlusion therapy which means applying products on damp skin and creating a moist microclimate enhances skincare absorption. The outermost layer of skin known as the stratum corneum naturally impedes absorption of skincare actives, enhancing permeability is hence an important principle in effective skincare routine steps.
The ideal facial mist should contain hyaluronic and polyglutamic acid, as these are hygroscopic molecules that help trap moisture under the surface of skin. Ultimately this prevents transepidermal water loss, which is a key problem in dehydrated skin.
Skincare Routine Step 6 Sunscreen (always applied last)
For day skincare routine steps, I will usually wait 2-3 minutes for the facial mist to fully absorb before applying sunscreen. The ideal sunscreen formula should possess the following properties:
- SPF 50, broad spectrum
- Compatible with natural skin color (for asians and other skin of color individuals, a white-cast is unpleasant and will affect compliance. I.e. insufficient product use can lead to lower sunprotection)
- Lightweight, easily absorbed, cosmetically appealing tor reapply
Optional Skincare Routine Step: Face & Eye Cream application
For daytime, oily and combination skin types will do well with the day moisturiser lotion alone. However dry skin types should use a moisturiser cream formula containing ceramides both day and night. In the case of a day skincare routine, the cream should be used before sunscreen. Ideally, it should be left on to be absorbed for 3-5 minutes to minimise sunscreen or makeup pilling.
For night time, all skin types including oily and combination skin will benefit from using a ceramide based moisturiser.
It is also important to use a targeted eye cream to reduce fine lines and wrinkles. The key actives in eye creams can include
- 4% Niacinamide (skin barrier repair and skin lightening)
- Phytoceramides (anti-inflammatory, skin barrier repair)
- Oligopeptides (anti-wrinkle effect)
Night Skincare Routine Steps: Targeted treatment
Actives like prescription retinoids, hydroquinone and OTC retinol are to be used at night. This is to reduce the risk of sun sensitivity. Generally, retinoids can be used over an entire area, avoiding the part around the eyes and lips as the skin is more sensitive. Hydroquinone is a bleaching agent which should only be used on pigmented spots or as per physician’s directions.
Weekly treatment routine
It is also a good idea to include in your weekly skincare routine steps a day or two for exfoliation and masking. Masking can be done as frequently as daily, although that would also depend on the individual’s preference. I cover some points on exfoliation and masking in this final section.
Weekly Skincare Routine Step #1 Exfoliation
Exfoliation Is the removal of dead skin cells from the top most layer of skin, but most importantly, a process that encourages cell renewal. It’s also important to understand the skin cycle here, the entire process from new skin cells moving to the surface and shedding it takes about 27-28 days. Exfoliation helps remove the dead skin cells to reveal younger, brighter and more radiant skin.
There are two main types of exfoliation. Physical exfoliation using granules or abrasive beads which I don’t recommend, especially for sensitive skin or those with active inflamed acne. Chemical exfoliation with AHAs, BHAs and lactic acids exfoliate microscopically and can improve skin irregularities.
Home use chemical exfoliants: the most important aspect is a low concentration that does not irritate skin and also a formulation that has moisturising effects on skin to reduce the risk of irritant contact dermatitis.
Weekly Skincare Routine Step #2 Masking
The concept of face masks are twofold:
- Creating a micro-climate around your skin that enhances skin healing and stimulates beneficial processes like collagen production and cell talk
- Wet occlusion therapy which increases the absorption of skincare active ingredients by improving epidermal penetration. I.e. the ability of the cosmeceuticals to cross the skin barrier is important for efficacy.
There are 4 main types of face masks
- Sheet masks (reusable or one-time disposable)
- Leave on gel masks (high dose antioxidants like vitamin C, skin barrier repair actives like aloe, glycerin)
- Dry masks (polymers like silicone, hydrocolloid that create an artificial micro-climate around skin)
- Textiles (face masks, pillowcases engineered from novel nanomaterials like copper that exert anti-aging effects on skin).
I recommend using leave on gel masks together with reusable sheet masks made of polysaccharide for ideal results. Dry masking can be implemented simply by switching to biofunctional textiles for your pillowcase for instance.
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