Don't cringe, but for a long time, I didn't really have a morning skincare routine. In fact, for all of high school and most of college, I would simply wake up with whatever was left of my nighttime routine (which pretty much consisted of cleanser and moisturizer), slap on some SPF, and begin my makeup application. As you can imagine, this didn't bode all that well for my acne-prone combination skin type. That being said, even when I did start washing my face every morning and incorporating more expensive—and what I considered to be "strategic"—skincare items into my routine, my breakouts only got worse. The problem: Realistically, I had no "strategy." Instead, I would try anything with pretty packaging, a buzz-worthy brand name, or five-star reviews from my friends or family. Not ideal.
It's taken a few years, but after lots of trial and error, I've finally found my holy-grail morning skincare routine, which is actually pretty basic (cleanser, toner, serum, SPF, and eye cream if it feels necessary). Slowly but surely, this exact routine has whipped my skin into a far clearer, healthier, more glowy shape, and now, for the first time pretty much ever, or at least since middle school, I actually get compliments on my skin—even when I'm completely barefaced. Ahead, you'll find my go-to morning skincare routine, which I've also catered to three different budgets. Whether you're into saving, spending, or splurging, there's something for everyone.
Step 1: A Breakout-Busting Cleanser
At just $15, this dermatologically tested cleanser lacks all the things acne-prone skin doesn't want (sulfates, comedogenic oils, soaps, and fragrances) while boasting all the things it does want, such as skin-brightening niacinamide, plumping ceramides, and glow-enhancing antioxidants.
Seven to nine months ago, my face was ridden with acne scars, whiteheads, and a perpetual fresh crop of pimples. However, after working closely with celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau, who diagnosed my skin Type 4 (oily, combination, sensitive, and prone to occasional breakouts), I finally have a stringent skincare regimen strategically catered to address my main gripes. And my skin has transformed into a glowy, clear, virtually unrecognizable version of its former self. Every morning, I use this purifying formula from Rouleau, which deep-cleans pores while maintaining hydration and suppleness. It also calms my redness and has significantly brightened my complexion over time.
Though it is, indeed, spendy, this is one of my all-time favorite cleansers for keeping finicky skin calm, radiant, and healthy. And though all of Tata Harper's cleansers are amazing, this one is specifically curated for oily and combination skin types—strategically clarifying, exfoliating, and hydrating acne-prone skin simultaneously. It starts out as a gel (if I'm using this one in the morning, I'll use a few hearty pumps), and then as you massage it into your face, it subtly lathers into a light, luxurious foam. Truly, it's dreamy.
Step 2: A Hydrating Toner
Even if you're oily and acne-prone like I am, keeping skin hydrated is still key to maintaining a healthy complexion. And, unfortunately, many toners can be horrifically dehydrating. If you're on a budget, both wellness editor Victoria Hoff and I swear by this rose, aloe vera, and witch hazel toner. The perks: tightened pores, decreased oil, and increased hydration. I recently used this for almost a week straight instead of my usual morning cleanser, and my easily riled skin wasn't phased in the slightest.
A relatively new find, this manuka, cucumber, and witch hazel formula has starred in my routine every morning for about a month now. My skin has maintained its acne-free clarity (always a worry when I incorporate something new), but I've also noticed increased luminosity and hydration. Even though it's in mist form (I detest mists), I'll give these 100% pure natural cotton pads ($19) from Koh Gen Do a few healthy spritzes before applying the elixir to my face like I would a typical toner.
I'm obsessed with both Tammy Fender, herself, and her dreamy and holistically designed skincare line. (This at-home peel made my skin look newborn-esque in luminous translucence.) And though I've been impressed with the majority of her products, this tonic is a standout. It purifies and eliminates potentially congesting toxins while maintaining the complexion's moisture barrier. (Noticing a theme yet?) Plus, thanks to the addition of orange peel, it brightens as deliciously as it smells.
Step 3: A Discoloration-Fighting Serum
Okay, first things first: If you're going to use this mega-brightening serum in the morning, be sure to mix a couple drops in with your SPF (don't worry—my favorites are coming up in a few). Or, if you're not a fan of mixing the two, simply apply this before your SPF. Significantly more affordable than lots of other vitamin C and brightening serums on the market, this formula is a game-changer if you have pigmented, dull, and depleted skin. (It's a K-beauty cult favorite.)
While SkinCeuticals' C E Ferulic seems to get all the love, my breakout-prone skin actually likes this new launch better. I don't have severe pigmentation, but I have had issues with lingering scars from past breakouts. I've been mixing three to five drops with my SPF every morning for about one month now and have already seen a big difference. In addition to HEPES (which the brand says activates the skin's natural enzymes to help break the bonds stubbornly binding dead skin cells to the surface for superior exfoliation), the serum also features niacinamide, kojic acid, and tranexamic acid.
This covetable serum from Vintner's Daughter is already legendary and the niche brand's one and only product. Essentially, it's a completely natural, 100% active hybrid. One part of facial oil, one part serum, it helps correct pigmentation, dullness, and uneven skin tone.
Step 4: An SPF That Won't Clog Pores
Known for its gentle, skin-friendly formulations CeraVe consistently creates some of the best wallet-friendly skincare products that feel like they should be about three times the price. This lightweight moisturizer is no different and has enough SPF to keep you covered.
Another favorite from Rouleau's line, this is my daily go-to and one of the only SPF formulas that never clogs my pores. There's no chalky or ashy cast, and it also contains brightening agents like green tea and licorice.
When it comes to splurge-worthy sun protection, I haven't found anything better than this lightweight sunscreen/priming formula from Tatcha. In fact, virtually everyone on the Byrdie editorial team swears by it due to its weightless texture and ability to shrink pores and lend a silky smooth finish to the complexion.
Step 5: A Brightening Eye Cream
This eye cream was first recommended to me by a dermatologist after I had complained about my consistent dark circles. At $27, this eye cream is more affordable than most, but still does it all in one fell swoop—de-puff, de-circle, and protect (from free radicals, premature wrinkles, and the like).
Simply put, this is my favorite eye cream of all time. The ingredient list is stellar and keeps my dry under-eyes supple and hydrated (think caffeine, mica, beeswax, jojoba, glycolic acid, titanium dioxide, Dimethicone, and antioxidants). It has this amazing pearlescent tint, which diffuses the appearance of even the worst dark circles and effortlessly melts into the skin without ever feeling tacky or irritating.
What I love about this eye cream from PCA Skin is you only need the teensiest tiniest amount of this stuff for it to quite literally work wonders. If I don't use Sunday Riley's Auto Correct (I like to alternate), I'll dab this fast-absorbing eye cream all over my under-eyes, lids, and sometimes even up to my brow bone. I'm convinced it reduces circles while also alleviating the appearance of the fine lines on the outer corners of my eyes.