The Ultimate Pared-Down Skin Care Routine with Only 3 Products
The skin is your body’s largest and most visible organ. No wonder so many people prioritize skin care.
According to Statista, 1.68 million people in the U.S. spent at least $500 on skin care products during the last 3 months of 2020.
But what if experts told you that it doesn’t take a vanity full of pricey products to give your skin exactly what it needs?
“We don’t believe in dumping the kitchen sink at people’s skin,” says Morgana Colombo, MD, FAAD and a co-founder of Skintap. “We believe in using things that are needed and have good active ingredients that have proven efficacy.”
Though those ingredients may vary from person to person, the building-block products remain the same.
Here’s what a pair of dermatologists say everyone needs to care for their skin. They also dished on nice-to-haves and items you can skip.
Must-have skin care products
Angelo Landriscina, MD, FAAD, says it’s easy to complicate things with so many products out there. When it comes to skin care, more isn’t always merrier.
You “can actually make your skin worse by using too many products,” he says.
A morning skin care routine is as easy as 1-2-3 (products). Landriscina advises people to apply the following three products in this order in the morning:
Landriscina says you can ditch the sunscreen at night and simply reapply cleanser and moisturizer.
Landriscina and Colombo agree that it’s essential to wash your face thoroughly with lukewarm water and a gentle cleanser before applying any other products.
This allows you to start with a clean slate and prevents other products from washing off.
Landriscina suggests keeping it basic and avoiding something that strips the skin. However, figuring out what that means for you may not be an exact science.
“It’s a trial and error thing,” he says.
Plus, what works now may not be best for you in 10 years.
“The right fit may change,” Landriscina says. “As we get older, our skin gets drier.”
He says your best bet is to start with something designed for sensitive skin, as that’s least likely to cause irritation.
If you know your skin type, Colombo suggests opting for something designed for it.
For example, people with oily or acne-prone skin often do best with a foaming cleanser, whereas people with normal or dry skin typically prefer gentle, nonfoaming options.
Colombo suggests Cetaphil Dermacontrol Foaming Cleanser for oily skin and Cerave Hydrating Cleanser for dry skin.
Landriscina explains that the skin is designed to keep the outside out (dirt, bacteria) and inside in (organs, bones, and joints).
However, it can lose water. That’s where moisturizer comes in.
“Using a good moisturizer repairs skin barrier function and holds in water,” Landriscina says.
- La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Balm B5 for those with dry skin.
- Naturium Multi-peptide Moisturizer for people with normal skin.
- Neutrogena Hydroboost Gel Cream for those with oily skin.
Though some moisturizers have SPF 15, Landriscina and Colombo say it’s essential to apply sunscreen and reapply it every 2 hours if you’re exposed to the sun.
They recommend a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which blocks both harmful UVA and UVB rays. Look for one that is at least SPF 30.
“UV rays and UV radiation are the primary modifiable risk factor when it comes to skin cancer risk,” Landriscina says. “Using sunscreen every day consistently the correct way is one of the best things you can do to prevent skin cancer.”
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD).
“It has to form an even film over the skin,” Landriscina explains. “Putting skin care products on after it can disrupt it.”
Nice-to-have skin care products
Some products aren’t necessary but having them may give your skin an extra boost. These include:
- a product with antioxidants
- hydrating serum
- retinol or retinoids
Landriscina says that products with antioxidantsTrusted Source can help prevent or reverse skin damage.
- vitamin C
- vitamin E
- vitamin B3, or niacinimide
- coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
- ferulic acid
Ingredients with these antioxidants include:
- green tea
“The primary way UV radiation damages the skin is through a process called free radical formation,” Landriscina said. “Antioxidants can neutralize those free radicals.”
Science aside, Colombo loves how these antioxidant-rich items make the skin look.
“It helps the skin look glowy and [reduces] redness,” she says.
A 2017 studyTrusted Source indicated that topical use of Vitamin C had anti-aging (or as we like to say “pro-aging”) benefits.
Another study from 2015Trusted Source suggested that topical application of products containing Ubiquinone (coQ10) could reduce free radicals.
A 2016 systematic reviewTrusted Source notes that early evidence shows tumeric could have a positive effect on skin health if applied topically or taken orally.
Landriscina says antioxidants are often present in moisturizers, so you may not need an extra product. You can also find them in serums. Colombo recommends Vidaderma Vitamin C serum.
Though a quality moisturizer should do the trick, a hydrating serum can be particularly useful for people with dry skin or who live in drier climates.
Landriscina recommends looking for one with hyaluronic acid and glycerin.
“They are humectants and lock in hydration,” Landriscina says.
A 2012 studyTrusted Source suggested that hyaluronic acid could hydrate the skin, but a 2021 studyTrusted Source indicated that these benefits depend on the molecular weight.
The AAD lists glycerin as an ingredient in creams or ointments that can help relieve dry skin.
Retinol or retinoids
Retinols and retinoids can be great for aging skin.
Colombo explains that retinols are available over the counter, whereas retinoids require a prescription from a dermatologist or primary care physician.
A 2016 studyTrusted Source found that topical application of retinoids significantly reduces wrinkles after 12 weeks.
Skin care items you can live without
Landriscina and Colombo believe skin care is about quality, not quantity. Some tools appear more valuable than they actually are.
They recommend steering clear of:
- Cleansing brushes. They can be harsh on the skin. “Two clean hands are a perfect way to clean the skin,” Landriscina says.
- One-time use facial masks. “They’re like cloth masks soaked in a hydrating serum,” Landriscina says. He adds that a hydrating serum can be used multiple times, so it’s more budget-friendly and better for the environment to opt for a bottle.
- Skin oils. “For most people, those don’t moisturize enough and can clog pores and [exacerbate acne],” Colombo says.
For skin conditions
Keeping it simple is the name of the game, but individuals with certain skin conditions, such as acne, may want to take a few extra steps.
Colombo says people with acne will want to look for specialized cleansers. Ingredients she often recommends to patients with acne include:
- salicylic acid
- alpha-lipoic acid (ALA)
A 2021 reviewTrusted Source indicated salicylic acid could assist in the treatment of mild-to-moderate acne.
A separate 2021 reviewTrusted Source noted salicylic acid likely wasn’t more effective than benzoyl peroxide. It also indicated that topical products containing sulfur at concentrations of 1 percent to 10 percent could aid in acne treatment.
Colombo suggests avoiding oil-rich products, which can worsen breakouts.
Eczema, rosacea, and sensitive skin
Fragrances can irritate eczema, rosacea, and sensitive skin, so Landriscina suggests people with these conditions avoid scented products.
Colombo suggests keeping products as basic as possible without many bells and whistles. She recommends gentle mineral cleansers and moisturizers.
“Chemical ones with acid [like glycolic acid and retinols] cause more irritation,” she adds. “Ceramides help replenish the skin barrier and retain moisture.”
Speak with a dermatologist
Landriscina says people with skin conditions should make it a point to see a dermatologist in person at least once to get customized care and recommendations.
If a person doesn’t have access to a dermatologist, he suggests seeing a primary care physician.
“A lot of them know about common skin conditions like eczema and acne and may be able to help with prescription medications,” he says.
Do a patch test
Landriscina recommends people with skin conditions, particularly individuals prone to irritation and inflammation, test products before using them. To do this, he suggests:
- Apply a small amount of the product once per day to a noncosmetically sensitive area, such as behind the ear.
- Check to see if you have a reaction.
- Repeat for several days.
- If your skin doesn’t react after several days of patch testing, it’s probably safe to use the product as intended.
- Stop use and speak with a dermatologist if you have reactions.
Skin care doesn’t have to consist of applying numerous products and constantly changing your routine. In fact, dermatologists recommend against that.
It’s best to stick to a few products that really work for you. Consider a gentle cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen your basic, nonnegotiable building blocks. Products with antioxidants and hydrating ingredients, like serums, are useful bonuses.
If you have a skin condition like acne or eczema, speak with a dermatologist or primary care physician and test products before use.