Seriously Simple Skin Care Plan
Most of the time, the best thing you can do for your complexion is the least amount necessary. There are only three products you need to use on your skin every day: cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen.
If your skin tends to be dry: You want less soap and more moisturizer. Look for formulations such as creamy lotion or cleansing milk, or even a cold cream cleanser, a cleansing oil, or a balm; they basically all act on the same gentle cleansing principle. Cleanse at the end of the day to remove grime, sweat, makeup, and oil; then, in the morning, just rinse your skin with water.
If your skin tends to be oily or acne-prone: You can use gels, oil-free washes, soap, or synthetic detergents such as sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate. Two percent salicylic acid dissolves the dead keratin cells plugging the pores and helps prevent acne, while benzoyl peroxide prevents bacteria from overpopulating in the pores, but note that both of these ingredients are extremely drying and should be used only if you truly have oily skin.
If your skin tends to be sensitive: A less-of-everything routine is your best bet for caring for skin that gets red and irritated easily, burns quickly in the sun, or is susceptible to dark spots. Don’t wash your skin more than once per day, and use gentle formulations (cleansing lotions or milks) with anti-inflammatory ingredients such as soy, allantoin, aloe vera, or chamomile to soothe the skin and calm redness.
For most of us, except those with very oily skin, moisturizer shouldn’t be thought of as an indulgence — it’s crucial to keeping up your skin’s defenses. If the top layer of your epidermis dries out completely, it can’t protect the layers of skin underneath. Moisturizer not only makes the surface look pretty; it also seals and protects what is beneath it.
If your skin tends to be dry: Dry skin is low on natural oils and lipids, so it’s desperate for humectants and emollients. It will drink up a rich, heavy-duty moisturizer, such as a lotion or cream that’s oil-based (a water-based product won’t provide enough long-lasting moisture). Look for one that has waxy occlusive emollients such as shea butter, squalene, lanolin oil, or mineral oil.
If your skin tends to be oily or acne-prone: If your skin feels fine after washing, then skip the moisturizer. But if it feels tight (especially if your cleanser contains salicylic acid or a drying detergent), use a water-based, lightweight lotion or gel formulation that contains humectant ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid or glycerin, and make sure it’s noncomedogenic: a comedone is a blackhead or whitehead, and you certainly don’t want anything that can contribute to those.
If your skin tends to be sensitive: The fewer ingredients, the better. “Fragrance-free” and “hypoallergenic” on a product’s label means it will probably contain fewer irritants, chemicals, and preservatives. Avoid extremes: stay away from heavy emollient creams as well as drying gel formulas, and try a water-based lotion or cream instead, preferably one with an anti-inflammatory ingredient such as soy, aloe vera, cucumber, calendula, oatmeal, or allantoin.
Everyone at every age needs to use sun protection every single day (yes, on cloudy days too). It’s by far the most effective and significant thing you can do to protect your skin and prevent sun damage, skin cancer, and premature aging. If you use only one product, make it a sunblock and use it every day.
Always wear a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 to 50 and that says “broad spectrum” on the label, to ensure you get both UVA and UVB protection. Apply sunscreen every hour during intense sun exposure.
Three extras: Options to have at the ready
Be willing to change your routine as necessary. Your medicine chest should be armed with a small but mighty arsenal of products — the three basics, as well as a few extras that you can pull out when needed.
Sloughing off of dead skin cells smoothes the texture, improves skin tone, and helps unclog pores, all at the same time. Chemical exfoliants are acid-based formulas that interact immediately with the skin and dissolve dead cells. Look for beta-hydroxy acid (or salicylic acid) and alpha-hydroxy acids; if your skin is sensitive, lactic acid is the best and gentlest option. Mechanical exfoliation involves physically scrubbing the dead skin off your face with a washcloth, soft brush, or a product that includes a granular substance such as oatmeal, polyethylene beads, salt, sugar, calcium carbonate, dimethicone polymers, or tiny crystal particles. Keep in mind that over-exfoliating is dangerous; use only one exfoliating option once or twice a week.
Benzoyl peroxide spot treatment
It’s inevitable: we’re all going to wake up with a pimple (or a few) occasionally. It’s smart to be prepared with a one-two acne-fighting punch: a salicylic acid exfoliant (cleanser, liquid, or lotion) and a benzoyl peroxide treatment that can kill the bacteria that are causing the breakout, help unclog the offending pore, and reduce inflammation.
Topical steroid cream
Every medicine cabinet should have 1% hydrocortisone cream just in case. It’s fantastic for treating rashes, itchiness, bug bites, burns (even sunburns), or any kind of irritation on the skin. If this over-the-counter, low-dose product isn’t effective, get a prescription-strength version from your dermatologist.
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Dr. Ellen Marmur is the author of Simple Skin Beauty: Every Woman’s Guide to a Lifetime of Healthy, Gorgeous Skin (Simon & Schuster), a comprehensive guide to skin care that covers everything from skin cancer and sun protection to cosmetic procedures and anti-aging products.