With brands like The Ordinary democratizing beauty and allowing us to buy the individual ingredients our complexions need at an affordable price, we should all be living our best skin lives. The reality is, though, the endless choices and number of individual ingredients sold can make shopping for skincare more confusing than ever before. But, if you can identify exactly what ingredients your skin needs and understand how to factor them into your daily routine, then clearer, more glowing skin is possible. It's all about figuring out the how, which is where we come in.
To wade through the marketing speak and beauty hyperbole, I called on the following experts to shed some light on the confusing world of skincare ingredients: Dr. Marnie Nussbaum, who runs a private practice in New York; Renée Rouleau, celebrity esthetician; Megan Felton and Ksenia Selivanova, co-founders of skincare consultancy Lion/ne and Mark Curry, founder of The Inkey List, a brand selling the most-wanted skin ingredients at a fraction of the price.
In the morning: “Look for a serum that’s sole purpose is to hydrate the skin," say the co-founders of Lion/ne. "A low-molecular-weight hyaluronic acid is great for this. It's important to ‘cocoon’ the skin in the morning and lock in as much moisture as possible. Moisturizers that have ceramides and glycerin are what you are looking for," they continue. Dr. Nussbaum suggests using a cream with omega fatty acids morning and night to "revitalize the skin's moisture."
Pro tip: Seriously dry skin? “Cocktail polyglutamic acid with squalane in the day to seal in moisture before applying makeup,” says Curry.
In the evening: Gently exfoliate two to three times a week if you have dry skin. “When the complexion is dry, you will have a build-up of dead skin cells on the surface as your desquamation cycle (skin shedding) has likely slowed down," explain Felton and Selivanova. "Stick to gentle chemical exfoliants, like PHAs that are less likely to irritate." (We love the one from Zelens below, which features a combination of PHA, AHA, and BHA acids meant to exfoliate gently without irritation.)
If aging is a concern, they recommend adding a retinol (vitamin a) into your nighttime routine on the nights when you aren't exfoliating. If it's redness, try an anti-inflammatory serum (we love Dr. Sturm's Calming Serum, $250). "It really depends on the specific concerns, but with dry skin, being gentle is key,” the co-founders say.
On the nights when you're not using retinol, apply your morning hydrating serum that contains hyaluronic acid and layer a moisturizer on top to try to lock in that moisture.
In the morning: “An antioxidant serum that contains vitamin c can be really beneficial in acne-prone skin," explain the Lion/ne co-founders. "In fact, vitamin c is anti-inflammatory, it can boost wound healing, calm down redness and prevent hyperpigmentation." The powerhouse antioxidant has also been proven to help fight free radicals and brighten your overall skin tone (including any marks leftover from acne scarring). The duo recommends following with a moisturizer combined with an SPF. "It is important to select a product that is non-comedogenic to make sure it doesn’t clog pores," they say. "Your skin needs to be able to breathe, which is why combining your moisturizer and SPF step is ideal.”
Nussbaum recommends "benzoyl peroxide which is sebostatic [ed note: regulates sebum production] , comedolytic [ed note: prevents the formation of comedones] and inhibits the growth of acne. You can use it in the evening as a spot treatment, too."
In the evening:
A couple of times a week, use a chemical exfoliant to get rid of dead skin and allow your new skin to grow. The Lion/ne team explains that BHAs (beta hydroxy acids) are great for exfoliating acne-prone complexions, since they go into the pore to exfoliate, rather than just exfoliating the surface of the skin like AHAs do. "BHAs also help by removing excess oil and calming down inflammation,” they explain.
Acne-prone skin may become dehydrated so look to a serum with hyaluronic acid and finish with a light moisturizer. “Rosehip oil can also help acne-prone skins by boosting cell regeneration. Keep in mind that each skin is different and that acne can be triggered by so many different things; therefore an oil might work for one person and might make others condition worse,” warn the co-founders of Lion/ne.
Pro tip: "Topical retinoid and azelaic acid can be also great to treat acne. Retinol stimulates skin cell turnover, while azelaic acid helps to unclog pores and even out the skin texture. Both of these activate skin cell turnover, which is why, when choosing the correct products, it is essential to add these ingredients to the skin slowly and not use them all at the same time," suggests the Lion/ne team.
Sensitive or Redness-Prone Skin
Cica creams are powered by the medicinal herb centella asiatica. The ingredients has been shown to help relieve minor burns, heal scars, and soothe psoriasis.
In the morning: Sensitive skin might mean it has an impaired barrier function. "Antioxidants applied first thing in the morning will protect against potential irritants and free-radicals we come in contact with throughout the day,” says the Lion/ne team. “Sensitivity often goes hand in hand with dehydration, since the skin will be losing moisture."
A gentle hydrating serum can be used in lieu of a moisturizer followed by SPF if you have sensitive, oily skin. If you are dry and sensitive, then opt for a moisturizer on top of your hydrating serum. Nussbaum advises applying a cream with hyaluronic acid and ceramides. "Caffeine vasoconstricts and decreases redness for morning," says Nussbaum.
Pro tip: Just because products say they're for sensitive skin does not mean that this is the case. Check the ingredients on the back and avoid alcohols, fragrances, and essential oils.
In the evening:
"Look for ECGC from green tea extract as it can calm the redness at night," says Nussbaum. “Even with sensitive skin, you will need to exfoliate in order to aid in the desquamation cycle of the skin," says Felton and Selivanova. "This could be with a gentle microfiber cloth if the skin is too sensitive to take any chemical exfoliants, but PHAs are a good option here too."
Pro Tip: If your skin is always red and blood vessels are dilated, you may have rosacea. The specific cause of this skin condition is still not known, but it is more common in light skin types and is triggered by sun exposure, spicy food, alcohol, changes in temperature, and harsh skincare (i.e. soap cleansers, fragrance, essential oils, drying alcohols). The duo warns that it's important to know your triggers and try to avoid these to calm down redness.
Skin With Hyperpigmentation
Ingredients to look for: Glycolic acid, hyaluronic acid, vitamin c, retinol, niacinamide, SPF (UVA & UVB), licorice.
In the morning: “Antioxidants protect the skin from free radicals, but also improve the signs of aging, like lines, wrinkles, and pigmentation. In fact, vitamin c is also considered to be a great treatment for pigmentation,” says the Lion/ne team. “To make sure that the vitamin c is complimented, search for a serum that also contains licorice and/or niacinamide. They are great ingredients to fight brown spots."
Rouleau says SPF is key. "I tell all my clients to apply SPF daily, but this is even more important for anyone who experiences hyperpigmentation. What’s important to understand is that UV daylight (even on a cloudy day in January) will keep pigmented cells active whenever it sees the skin. The goal with discoloration is to put pigment cells to sleep, and if they are woken up due to daylight (or sunlight), they will remain on the skin longer. Without a doubt, sunscreen will greatly reduce how long the hyperpigmentation, whether caused by the sun, heat, or a blemish, will stay on the skin." Try carrying an SPF face mist in your handbag, so you can top up throughout the day.
In the evening:
“Most pigmentation treatments will contain retinol, since it's an amazing ingredient to manage this condition," Felton and Selivanova say. "Retinol helps to stimulate skin cell turnover, so dead cells fall off and new skin will rise to the surface. It also helps to disperse the melanin in the epidermis, making the pigment less visible over time. Long term, it decreases melanin and dramatically improves skin tone." When using retinol, it is important to have a soothing step to follow that will allow your skin to rest. Try a hyaluronic acid serum to soothe your skin and keep it healthy and balanced.
If you're using lots of active ingredients, keep your moisturizer simple; use one with peptides meant to strengthen the skin barrier function. "If your morning routine is very simple and you’re not currently using any retinol or pigmentation treatment, you could include a product with niacinamide or azelaic acid, which can reduce inflammation and pigmentation, especially on acne-prone skin, as your nighttime moisturizer,” adds the Lion/ne co-founders.
Salicylic acid is known for its acne-fighting abilities, but it also helps after the spot has gone. Rouleau says, "since salicylic acid is an exfoliant, it will break down scarred cells leftover from blemish marks and will help PIH (post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation) go away faster."
Pro Tip: The Lion/ne team says that hyperpigmentation can be related to hormonal imbalances, the contraceptive pill, medication, stress, and UV damage. It can also come post-procedure, such as after lasers and other treatments. "This is why it is better to try to find the root of the problem before using any anti-pigmentation treatment," they say. "However, you can add some ingredients in your skincare routine that will boost the cellular regeneration and therefore improve skin tone."
In the morning: Every expert will tell you that an antioxidant serum is one of the best active ingredients to have in an anti-aging skincare regime. "They help to prevent free radical damage and premature aging and help with the first signs of aging,” say the co-founders of Lion/ne. Rouleau leans on the antioxidant vitamin C in particular, "It’s found to be extremely effective in interfering with many aging free radicals found in the environment such as sunlight, stress, and pollutants. Vitamin C is also helpful with reducing discoloration and brown spots."
Pro tip: Curry recommends layering a Q10 serum with vitamin C for an added boost of antioxidant protection.
“The most important step in any skincare regime to prevent premature skin aging is SPF,” says the Lion/ne team. "It is essential to have a sun barrier protection that will fight against UVA and UVB rays, in order to protect the skin from future possible damage." They explain that on top of that, because aging skin requires more potent ingredients in order to see results, it is important to protect it the next day, since usually the skin is more sensitive to UV light.
Pro tip: Your moisturizer can be combined with SPF if skin is oily. If your complexion is dry, it's better to apply a separate moisturizer and top it up with SPF.
In the evening: “In aging skin, we often see pores become more open. This is mainly due to the skin becoming drier and pores 'relaxing,' especially post-menopause as estrogen levels go down)," they explain. Twice a week, exfoliate with AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) or BHAs ( beta hydroxy acids) meant to gently dissolve dead skin cells from the top layer of the skin and help to minimize the appearance of pores.
On nights when you’re not exfoliating, they recommend using a retinol. As they explain, skin cell regeneration slows with age. Retinol is the best ingredient to increase cell turnover and cellular cohesion, which is ideal for tissue regeneration.
“As the female hormones decline, so does the amount of hyaluronic acid in the skin," says the Lion/ne team. "Hyaluronic acid forms part of the dermal reserve where collagen is synthesized." They explain that this is why hyaluronic acid is a key ingredient in all anti-aging routines, as it helps to improve the support for the collagen and elastin fibrils.
"It is important to select a hyaluronic acid that has a low molecular weight. Otherwise, the HA will not be able to penetrate the skin deeply enough to do its job," they explain. "At night, it is important to feed the skin with nourishing and emollient ingredients. The best ingredients to look to are ceramides and peptides." Here's why: Ceramides actually make up a significant portion of your skin's composition. They are essential to keep your barrier function healthy and prevent any loss of water or oil. Peptides, on the other hand, are responsible for keeping everything in place. Thus, they're also a vital anti-aging ingredient meant to help your skin produce more collagen.
Telang PS. Vitamin C in dermatology. Indian Dermatol Online J. 2013;4(2):143-146. doi:10.4103/2229-5178.110593
Cleveland Clinic. Rosacea. Updated October 10, 2019
Draelos ZD, Diaz I, Namkoong J, Wu J, Boyd T. Efficacy evaluation of a topical hyaluronic acid serum in facial photoaging. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2021;11(4):1385-1394. doi:10.1007/s13555-021-00566-0
Lu J, Cong T, Wen X, et al. Salicylic acid treats acne vulgaris by suppressing AMPK/SREBP1 pathway in sebocytes. Exp Dermatol. 2019;28(7):786-794. doi:10.1111/exd.13934
Ramsdell WM. Fractional CO2 laser resurfacing complications. Semin Plast Surg. 2012;26(3):137-140. doi:10.1055/s-0032-1329415
Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. 2019;36(4):392-397. doi:10.5114/ada.2019.87443
Meckfessel MH, Brandt S. The structure, function, and importance of ceramides in skin and their use as therapeutic agents in skin-care products. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2014;71(1):177-184. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2014.01.891