As someone who hates jumping on a bandwagon, I often – to my detriment – avoid new beauty products that are generating a lot of buzz. (I know, it makes no sense.) That’s why it has taken me a whole year to try No7’s Advanced Retinol 1.5% Complex Night Concentrate, which you probably heard about back when it launched last May. It attracted a waiting list of 100,000 before it was even available to buy, has had rave reviews, and has become Boots’s best-selling retinol product. So… pretty good then.
We all know the benefits of retinoids. From treating acne to stimulating collagen and elastin production to helping improve uneven skin tone, it is one of the most effective active ingredients in skincare. There are many different types, from retinol to retinaldehyde, and dermatologists recommend incorporating some form of the ingredient into your skincare routine as collagen levels start to decline, which happens absurdly early at around the age of 27. (You can, of course, start using it earlier.)
The tricky thing with retinoids, however, is that they are known to irritate the skin. Since I am emphatically not willing to suffer for results, I seek out intelligent products that work hard, which is why I love this ultra-light (and affordable – it is £34), cream. Containing 0.3 per cent retinol, it cleverly occupies the sweet spot between a concentration that actually works and one that doesn’t irritate the skin, meaning I haven’t experienced any flakiness, redness or itching while using it. That is, in part, because it cleverly gets delivered directly into the skin – encapsulation technology takes it through the skin barrier and allows the retinol to be absorbed quickly. Hello, fast results.
“For a long time, the perception was that the higher the percentage of retinol in a product, the better it works,” Dr Mike Bell, head of science at the brand, explains. “However, our breakthrough scientific research with our partners at the University of Manchester has found that 0.3% retinol delivers virtually the same age-defying benefits as a higher concentration retinol, but with minimum irritation. It is a real game-changer.”
The formula also contains a blend of peptides to improve elasticity (cue plump, glowy skin), as well as an ingredient called bisabolol, which comes from German chamomile and helps to calm, soothe and further mitigate any irritation the product might cause. It works to smooth, soften fine lines and reduce pigmentation, while also giving skin that juicy, youthful glow. So yes, it’s ultra-clever, but besides my increasingly even-toned, healthy-looking skin, I’ve barely registered that I’m using it at all – which is exactly the skincare vibe I am here for.
The gold standard ingredient is well-known for fighting acne, exfoliating the skin, and reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. The only downside are the side effects, which can sometimes include dry, flaky skin, irritation, and redness. These symptoms can show up any time you use retinol, but they’re most likely to appear when your skin is first getting acclimated to it.
Thankfully, Biossance, a squalane-powered clean beauty brand, has heard our cries and made a product that gives you all the goodness of a traditional retinol — without the hellish side effects.
Believe it or not, this is a retinol product that’s safe to use for all skin types (yes, including sensitive. However, you should always check in with a trusted derm before adding any new products to your regimen.)
The magic is all in the formula, which uses a gentle, yet powerful, time-release retinol and retinal combo to ensure maximum results that won’t burn your face off. These ingredients are paired with sugarcane-derived squalane to help provide moisture in order to curb dryness and irritation, as well as saffron and rosemary that work to hydrate and boost radiance. Rice bran extract rounds out the formula with vitamin E for antioxidant protection.
Together, you’ll be left with smooth, bright, and gorgeously glowing skin — minus the typical retinol uglies.
If you’re new to the game, the brand recommends starting off by using the product every other night, then working your way up to nightly use. And you never, ever want to use this during the day, as retinols can increase sensitivity to the sun.
To use, pump out a pea-size amount, and apply to freshly washed and dried skin before bed. Follow up with any necessary serums, and of course a moisturizer. When you wake up, expect bright, gorgeous skin — just don’t forget to apply at least SPF 40 before heading out the door.
Among the many skin-care ingredients on the shelves, few have attained the hero status of retinoids. That’s the umbrella term for all forms of vitamin A, which include prescription-strength tretinoin along with over-the-counter derivatives. The very word retinol stirs a certain reverence, given its proven efficacy in minimizing wrinkles, speeding cell turnover, and clearing up acne—and that’s despite a well-known drawback. “Retinoids are very irritating to the skin,” says New Jersey dermatologist Naana Boayke, MD. It’s a testament to retinol’s abilities that many users have the patience to tolerate the mild discomfort, which often appears as redness, dryness, and occasional flaky skin.
But for some, retinol is simply too harsh. Plus, the ingredient can pose a challenge in the summer, given that it increases sun sensitivity, thereby making skin particularly prone to redness and burns. (SPF is a must.) That’s where retinol alternatives can be advantageous. These new, up-and-coming actives tout results comparable to retinol, but without the telltale side effects.
“Mineral-, marine-, and plant-derived ingredients have been found to have retinol-like biological pathways,” says Marisa Plescia, a research scientist at clean retailer NakedPoppy. Those shared effects range from stimulated cellular renewal to collagen synthesis, she points out.
Chief among these gentler substitutes is bakuchiol, which is derived from the babchi seed. “It’s a ‘functional analog’ to retinol, meaning it has similar chemical, physical, biochemical, or pharmacological properties,” Plescia says, noting a study in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science. Another promising ingredient is rambutan, which, she says, supports natural collagen synthesis through a mechanism similar to retinol and bakuchiol. “We are seeing this with other botanical sources, such as moth bean extract and certain algaes,” she adds.
They’ve proven so appealing that some products even pair actual retinol with retinol alternatives, such as Dr. Dennis Gross’s Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Intense Wrinkle Cream, which offers a skin-renewing trio of rambutan, bakuchiol, and retinol. While the evidence behind retinol alternatives is still growing, there’s enough promise to make such a product worth incorporating into your routine.
Dermalogica Neck Fit Contour Serum
As the delicate neck and décolletage areas are particularly vulnerable to the effects of sunlight, this formula takes a strategic approach. Not only does it combine peptides and rambutan to smooth lines (a sign of the aptly named tech neck) and address discoloration, but it also features a dedicated Flex Lift Contour technology, which creates a mesh-like network on skin to lift and tighten.
Herbivore Botanicals Moon Fruit Serum
Herbivore isn’t new to the world of retinol alternatives, but this addition to its portfolio is a welcome one. The formula pairs bakuchiol with plant-based peptides that help to further firm skin, and simultaneously hydrates to give skin a touch of radiance. Its fruity scent has proven polarizing, but early reviews suggest that it’s worth it.
The Outset Restorative Niacinamide Night Cream
One of the mainstays of Scarlett Johansson’s new, minimalist-minded skin-care line, this velvety night cream pairs bakuchiol with a proprietary Hyaluroset complex—a plant-based alternative to hyaluronic acid that deeply hydrates skin—giving it the power of a serum and moisturizer in one.
Elemis Pro-Collagen Renewal Serum
As Plescia mentioned, marine ingredients can often replicate the effects of retinol—as is the case with this serum, which is anchored in red algae, alfalfa, and stevia extracts. It’s designed to target signs of sun damage in particular, such as uneven tone and fine lines.
Tula Skincare Wrinkle Treatment Drops Retinol Alternative Serum
Delivered in an appealing dry-oil texture, which leaves behind no greasy or slick feel, this serum combines bakuchiol, alfalfa sprouts, and stevia to spur cellular turnover. Meanwhile, probiotic and prebiotic extracts (a hallmark of the brand) bring balance to the skin barrier.
Biossance Squalane + Phyto-Retinol Serum
Powered by bakuchiol, this elegant serum is ideal for more sensitive types: The blend of sugarcane-derived squalane and niacinamide work in equal measure to soothe skin, keeping it calm and comfortable.
Ole Henriksen Wrinkle Blur Bakuchiol Eye Gel Crème
One of the first brands to debut bakuchiol in skin care, Ole Henriksen has come to showcase the ingredient across its offerings. In this lightweight eye cream in particular, it works alongside orchid-derived stem cells to firm and brighten around the eyes, minimizing both crows’ feet and dark circles at once.
True Botanicals Phyto-Retinol Vitamin A Booster Serum
Encased in vegan capsules to guarantee freshness (and therefore efficacy), this serum offers a blend of vitamin A–rich botanical extracts, such as buriti and carrot root oils, which skin then converts into retinoic acid upon application. In other words, the formula works in concert with the skin’s natural processes.
Keys Soulcare Skin Transformation Cream
Formulated with guidance from a dermatologist rooted in clean beauty, this staple in singer Alicia Keys’s skin-care line delivers radiant skin with a blend of bakuchiol and ceramides. In keeping with the brand’s ritual-minded ethos, it also contains malachite, a stone that signifies transformation.
Over the past few years, hyaluronic acid and retinol have become such skin-care staples that coming across a product without one or the other is rare. “In skin care, they’re the holy grail,” says Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a dermatologist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Sure, every few months a new wunderkind skin-care ingredient is discovered in some remote locale, and pretty soon it’s everywhere—in your masks, serums, foot creams, insert-step-in-your-beauty-routine-here. But at the end of the day, there are only a handful of ingredients that have stood the test of time and truly become essential.
Hyaluronic acid and retinol do deliver results—but what exactly those results are might still be confusing. (Understandably.)
Retinol: For Softening Wrinkles and Fighting Acne
If there’s one ingredient lauded more than any other for its wrinkle-fighting, complexion-perfecting abilities, it’s this derivative of vitamin A. “Here’s the deal with retinol,” explains Hirsch. “We were talking about it in 1975, and we’re still talking about it now because it works.” In study after study, retinol has been shown to build collagen, decrease fine lines, improve skin texture, and fight acne.
When it comes to incorporating a retinol into your skin-care routine, it’s better sooner than later. “Retinol works best as prevention, so don’t wait until wrinkles and dark spots occur to start using it,” says Corey L. Hartman, M.D., the founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama. “Another misconception about retinols is that they ‘thin the skin.’ This could not be further from the truth. It actually thickens your skin by increasing production of glycosaminoglycans to keep the skin firm, taut, and smooth.”
The prescription version (which goes by retinoic acid, or Retin-A) acts fastest, but it’s pricey—and it can be drying. Over-the-counter retinol, however, take 8 to 10 weeks to show results compared with 6 weeks with an Rx, but is normally paired with anti-inflammatories to calm the redness, peeling, or dryness. It can also cost less than a prescription—which, depending on your insurance coverage, can generally start around $100.
Whichever type you use, you’ll want to ease into your retinol use slowly. “I start patients on the mildest version, one night a week at the onset,” says New York City dermatologist Amy Wechsler, M.D. As your skin begins to tolerate a pea-size amount, you can eventually go up to two nights a week. But stay off harsh physical scrubs and peels while you’re using retinol; remember to moisturize, moisturize, moisturize; and use extra sunscreen for the first six months.
Hyaluronic Acid: For Serious Moisture
Despite its name, hyaluronic acid actually doesn’t exfoliate your skin (if you’re looking for one that does, try glycolic acid instead). This tiny molecule helps lubricate joints and keep skin plump, and is one of the world’s finest humectants, or molecules that attract and retain water. Since these molecules so effectively replenish skin with water, they’re beloved for their hydrating abilities.
In addition to being a terrific hydrator, Wechsler says, HA pairs well with other active skin-care ingredients (so you can layer it with retinol, for example, and use it daily). Not only that, but it also goes above and beyond its duties as a humectant. “Along with hydrating the skin and preventing dehydration, hyaluronic acid provides an environment that keeps wrinkles away,” says Hartman.
Bottom line: “The beauty of hyaluronic acid is that it doesn’t have any fine print,” says Hirsch. “It benefits any skin type, at any age. And the truth is that everyone looks great with hydrated skin.”
What Are the Potential Side Effects?
As with any ingredient, no matter how ah-mazing they are, there are potential side effects that should be kept in mind when using. “When patients start a retinol, the hyper-exfoliation can oftentimes cause redness, peeling, and dryness during the first couple of weeks of use,” says New York City dermatologist Rita Linkner, M.D., founder of RVL Skincare.
If your skin tends to be more on the dry side, it’s worth considering how you can add that extra boost before and after applying your retinol to minimize excessive peeling as much as possible. (Newbies can also try the buffering trick to take down the sting.)
As for our hydrating superhero? “Hyaluronic acid is known to increase the permeability of the skin, making it more sieve-like—which is why it should be combined with a moisturizer to draw more water to itself,” she says.
What Are the Benefits of Combining the Two?
Good news: Retinol and hyaluronic acid actually have a synergistic effect. “They can be combined so that the benefits of retinol can be achieved more easily with concomitant use of hyaluronic acid, which helps to prevent retinol irritation,” says Hartman.
As for what that ultimately means when you look in the mirror: “Overall texture should improve when using the two actives, as well as fine lines,” says Linkner.
How to Get the Best Results
To max out your benefits, “I often recommend that patients use a hydrating serum like hyaluronic acid before they apply their retinol cream,” says Hartman. “Hyaluronic acid plays well with most ingredients, while caution must be taken when using retinol in combination with alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy acids, benzoyl peroxide, and some types of vitamin C.”
Linkner echoes the tip about avoiding vitamin C. “I also wouldn’t advise using a vitamin C after hyaluronic acid, as it can increase the irritation effects of the ascorbic acid.” (Ascorbic acid, the chemical name for vitamin C, is still an acid, after all.)
If you’re new to this combo, it’s worth doing a patch test to see how your skin reacts to the amped-up duo. Because hyaluronic acid can increase the potency of the secondary product, Linkner says, it could potentially draw out the acclimation period when you first start using a retinol.
That said, retinol and hyaluronic acid are a match made in heaven. And if you’re looking to level-up your skin-care routine with even more effective products, here are some fan favourites.
La Roche-Posay Retinol B3 Pure Retinol Serum
Thanks to vitamin B3, which can help soothe inflammation, and the gradual-release formula, this retinol serum is gentle enough even for sensitive skin types. (As with most retinols, though, you’ll still want to do a patch test and start by applying at night.) During the day, don’t forget to layer on SPF to get the most anti-wrinkle benefits.
The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5
“Hyaluronic acid is a sugar that your body makes inherently. It provides a plumping effect in the skin by drawing water to itself like a sponge,” says Linkner. This O.G. hyaluronic acid serum from The Ordinary delivers maximum hydration (thanks to the added B5) and comes in under $10.
Peter Thomas Roth Peptide 21 Wrinkle Resist Moisturizer
While you’ll want to be cautious about mixing hyaluronic acid with peptides, the payoff is pretty incredible if the combination is suitable for your skin. “Think of peptides as Legos—they’re protein building blocks,” says Hirsch of the skin strengtheners. Studies show certain peptides can boost collagen production and speed wound healing; or they can mimic the effect of Botox when applied topically. That means you’ll likely want to introduce peptides in your 30s, when you notice your skin doesn’t feel quite as firm or bouncy as it did in your 20s.
When it comes to skincare heavy hitters, retinol is often the first and last thing out of savvy shoppers’ mouths. In a world where marketing lingo runs rampant and the majority of products are hit or miss, it’s reassuring to know that retinol, at least, has reversed signs of aging for decades. From there, the decision comes to which over-the-counter retinol cream is best, and French brand Avène’s found the sweet spot.
As a successor to the brand’s beloved RetrinAL 0.1 Intensive Cream, Avène one-upped itself with the RetrinAL Advanced Wrinkle Corrector. The former excels as an anti-aging moisturizer that smoothes skin with added vitamin E and peptides, while the latter is a targeted treatment you dab anywhere you’d like skin to look significantly more plump and firm.
According to dozens of elated reviews, abracadabra, the Corrector grants that wish. Two weeks sees fine lines start to disappear, shoppers’ “deep nasolabial folds” receding in a “face altering” feat. “I saw results right away! I used this on certain parts of my face and put another retinol on the other parts to test its effectiveness, and by far this blew my other retinol out of the water,” a reviewer writes of the Corrector’s effects.
Others say the formula’s diminished deep wrinkles around their mouth and forehead so much they’re now looking for other places to put the cream, an accomplishment if we’ve ever heard one. Even 54-year-olds with “deep lines between [their] eyebrows” say a couple nights of the treatment has made an enormous difference — so, to get the science behind exactly how the Corrector puts other treatments to shame, InStyle asked Sheila Farhang, board-certified dermatologist and YouTube creator, for her thoughts on the ingredients.
“Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives, and are considered one of the ‘gold standard’ ingredients for anti-aging,” Farhang says. “They increase cell turnover, thereby increasing collagen stimulation to help with fine lines and discoloration. Retinoids also ‘de-plug’ clogged pores, which is why it’s commonly used for acne as well.” Speaking to the Avène formula specifically, she notes that it uses retinaldehyde, which is the most potent over-the-counter retinoid — so if you’ve tried other retinol creams and haven’t seen a big difference, it would be your best next step.
The stronger the retinoid, the higher the risk for redness, flaking, and irritation, so Farhang says you should always take it slow if it’s your first dance with the ingredient. Thankfully, Avène anticipated the potential sensitivity and added hyaluronic acid and thermal spring water, which she notes calm skin for “a win-win situation.”
Fellow dermatologist and YouTube creator Dr. Alexis Stephens agrees with Farhang, writing that the addition of algae-derived collactintm also helps skin look younger and more radiant. “The beauty of this formulation is that the powerful retinaldehyde is alongside Avene’s thermal spring water, which is clinically proven to smooth, soften and calm the skin,” Stephens says of the safe-for-sensitive-skin treatment. “I recommend this product so often, I carry it at my private practice for my patients.”
All of the above makes for a trauma-free experience, even for 49-year-old shoppers with “hyper-sensitive” skin. “Almost EVERYTHING gives me a bad reaction and/or breaks me out. Two and a half weeks in, and [I’m] seeing reduced neck wrinkles and pores shrunk to almost unnoticeable. I’m impressed.” As the French would say, voilà; in American English, whoomp!
Even with thousands of retinol products on the market, it’s still challenging to find the exact skincare item that matches your skin’s needs. Some are too potent and cause irritation, and others don’t really deliver any noticeable results at all. The happy medium? This creamy retinol moisturizer that shoppers can’t stop praising — and it’s only $20.
TruSkin’s Retinol Moisturizer is infused with retinol to help smooth signs of aging. Not familiar with retinol? Let’s back up a bit. Retinol is a derivative of vitamin A and belongs to a group known as retinoids. “Retinols contain lower concentrations of the retinoid,” Dr. Debra Jaliman previously told InStyle. “This means it will not give you the same effect as a prescription version.” And even though retinol doesn’t possess the same potency as retinoids, the ingredient still has miracle-like benefits — it diminishes lines, wrinkles, dark spots, and acne.
Aside from retinol, the cream incorporates hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and niacinamide to moisturize the skin and stave off any irritation and dryness that the retinol may cause. Occasionally, when you start to use retinol, you may experience some redness and sensitivity but don’t panic, as it’s quite common. “I typically say that dryness and irritation from retinoids can last four to six weeks. Around then, we may also start seeing some improvement in mild acne breakouts,” Dr. Shari Marchbein previously explained.
Shoppers love the retinol moisturizer and say that it’s a “must-have.” One reviewer wrote, “The first impression with the moisturizer is [that it’s] light, smooth, refined, and easily absorbed into the skin. But once you continue to use it, that’s when you get an effect of it. In a few weeks, my pores closed, and my skin was rejuvenated. My face started [to] even out and looked brighter.“
Another satisfied shopper explained that the cream “made wrinkles decrease, especially the deep ones.” They added, “I am 36 years old and this year, I noticed wrinkles around my eyes while smiling or laughing. I worried a lot but after using the retinol moisturizer regularly for around three weeks, I can say yes, I have seen the difference.”
Other shoppers have said the retinol cream has been an asset when it comes to combating acne. A customer even said they “decided to try this for lines and wrinkles” and the “best part” about the cream is how it helped get their acne under control, too.
“I have been using this product for only 10 days and my skin looks wonderful,” a final reviewer enthused. “[The] fine lines around my eyes are at least 50 percent gone. Lip lines are 25 percent gone. My skin looks luminous, finer, [and] makeup looks more finished.”
“It’s a yes from me. I hated using retinol, but knew its benefits,” wrote one person of Tula’s serum. “This product eliminated the terrible burning and redness I would get from actual retinol, [and] my skin looks tighter and more even. I just bought my second bottle.” Repeat buyers abound in the comments, where reviewers say that the formula smoothed out “horrible wrinkles” around their eyes and “made a world of difference” for silky smooth, younger-looking skin.
Per Tula, the serum has a laundry list of things going for it. There’s bakuchiol, the much-discussed retinol alternative that softens lines and hyperpigmentation without putting your skin through the ringer; probiotic extracts and prebiotics to firm skin and amp up its natural barrier; squalane to condition; and alfalfa extract to scavenge free radicals and reduce cell-damaging oxidative stress. Beta-carotene bundles in more antioxidants, vitamin E, and jojoba oil to add ample moisture, and gluconolactone and lactic acid gently exfoliate.
Whether they found their way to it while pregnant or on the hunt for an anti-ager fit for sensitive, dry, and irritation-prone skin, customers say they’re impressed with the brightening, firming effects they see in around two weeks. But things really start to look different in a little over a month: “Makes my skin feel so hydrated, and the appearance of fine lines is drastically reduced,” wrote a shopper of their thoughts at the six-week benchmark.
Your mileage may vary, though. In just a week’s time, one person says they were deeply pleased with the effects. “No irritation, and it does seem to be working on my fine lines around my eyes and the larger lines on my forehead.” As a last 80-year-old shopper wrote, it’s even succeeded at making their “aging skin” soft again, and dark circles less outstanding. “This product feels amazing, and I think it’s making the wrinkles less prominent. Just had a great dermatology check up, so I must be doing something right.”
Intrigued? Want to exclaim “Mamma Mia!” at your face, but in a good way? Try the serum for $68.
There is no such thing as a single “correct” skin-care routine, but there’s definitely an optimal way to apply your products. Whether you’re a minimalist who prefers sticking to a three-step routine or the type of person willing to undertake 11 steps daily in pursuit of glass skin, the way you layer your chosen products has a big impact on how well they work. The more product-intense you go, the more important this order becomes.
There’s a reason cleansing comes first, serum sits beneath moisturizer, and sunscreen goes on last. Understanding this order will ensure your favorite skin-care products work effectively—because no one wants to splurge on a luxury serum only to render it useless because of misapplication. If you’ve ever looked at a tube of retinol or a bottle of face oil and wondered exactly how (and when) to use it, wonder no more. Below, dermatologists and skin-care experts explain the most effective way to apply every single product in your routine.
The Best Order to Apply Skin-Care Products
The easiest way to break it down is to refer to the table above, which lays out the best order for your separate morning and night skin-care routines. “The principle behind ordering is to cleanse your skin, open your skin so products can soak in, add actives on, then seal with moisturizing products,” says Morgan Rabach, M.D., dermatologist and co-founder of LM Medical NYC. Below, the detailed breakdown of every single step in your daily skin care routine.
1. Makeup Remover/Cleansing Oil
Unless you went to bed with makeup on (please don’t), there’s no reason to do this step in the morning. But at night it makes your cleanser’s job a lot easier.
“Removing all makeup from your skin should always be your first step at the end of the day,” says Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta Skincare. Look for formulas that are effective enough to melt away waterproof mascara, but still gentle on your face—like micellar water. You can also double-cleanse with an emulsifying oil, which gets rid of the need to buy cotton rounds.
Do this step: Morning and night.
Now that your makeup layer is gone, you can proceed with washing your face. “A cleanser gets rid of dead skin, pollutants, oils, dirt, and bacteria,” says Rabach. Both she and Ciraldo recommend also doing this step when you first wake up in the morning, in order to prep your skin to absorb the active ingredients in your other products.
The best cleanser for you will depend on your skin type. “It’s important to pay attention to what’s in your cleanser and what’s not in it,” says Ciraldo. She recommends avoiding sulfates, which can have a harsh, stripping effect on your face, and looking for actives that suit your needs. “For normal or dry skin, I favor a hydrating cleanser with peptides,” she says. “If you’re oily or acne-prone, use a mild exfoliating cleanser with salicylic acid, which dislodges the dead cells that can clog pores.“
3. Eye Cream
Do this step: Morning and night.
The first product to go on your face? Eye cream. The reason is simple—because you’ll probably forget to do it otherwise. Ciraldo recommends patting eye cream on gently with your ring finger (this way you’ll tug less at the delicate skin there) all the way around your eyes, not just underneath them. If you’re worried about eye cream causing your concealer or eye makeup to smear, choose a more lightweight option, like a hydrating gel that sinks in quickly and stays put.
For the best results, look for ingredients like peptides—which help tighten your skin and depuff—as well as antioxidants. Rabach recommends formulas that contain hydrating hyaluronic acid, brightening caffeine, and ceramides (these lock in moisture and help strengthen your skin barrier).
Do this step: Morning and night.
Both toners and essences are meant to help further prime your skin to absorb active ingredients, but the one you choose will depend on your skin type. Old-school toners were meant to balance skin pH and counteract alkaline soaps, before soap-free cleansers became popular. Now toner usually refers to liquid formulations geared toward oily skin that’s in need of gentle exfoliation and resurfacing. Ciraldo says those with oily or acne-prone skin should look for toners with ingredients like glycolic or salicylic acid.
Essences, on the other hand, tend to be more hydrating. Rabach recommends looking for actives like hyaluronic acid, which will flood your skin with moisture that you can lock in during subsequent steps. To apply, soak a cotton pad in liquid and gently pat it over your face. Alternatively, you can use your hands to do the same thing.
Do this step: Morning and night.
This is the step where you’ll deliver the bulk of active ingredients to your toner/essence-primed face, and it’s important to do it early on in your routine. “Serums are formulated with smaller molecular-weight actives so they penetrate into deeper skin layers,” says Ciraldo. “If you apply your serum after a thicker formulation, the active ingredients may not penetrate as well.“
While you should apply serum twice a day, you shouldn’t be using the same formulation. “Serum actives differ for day and night,” says Rabach. During the day, she likes to choose serums with antioxidants that protect skin from daytime stressors like free radicals (caused by UV rays), pollutants, and blue light. The most popular ingredient for this is vitamin C, which you will have no problem finding in serum form. (Just make sure to choose one that’s properly stabilized for maximum effect.) At night, opt for a serum with peptides and growth factors to repair skin.
For both daytime and nighttime serums, Rabach also has a general list of ingredients she likes to look for across both formulations: Niacinamide to reduce redness, hyaluronic acid to pull moisture into your skin, and alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs), which help boost collagen and even out skin pigmentation. Ciraldo further splits up her preferred serum ingredients by skin type. “For acne-prone skin, look for stem cells, retinol, and green tea,” she says. “For dehydrated skin, look for lipids, hyaluronic acid, and peptides. And for hyperpigmented skin, look for vitamin C.”
Do this step: At night only.
Retinol truly deserves its own essay, but the short version is this: The vitamin A derivative boosts collagen production and increases the rate of cellular turnover. “Retinol reduces fine lines, reduces pore size, increases collagen and elastin production, takes off dead skin, reduces oil production, unclogs pores, and evens out skin tone,” says Rabach. Whether you want to clear breakouts or fade fine lines—or basically do anything to your face—retinol is your friend.
On the flip side, this is a strong ingredient, and beginners should proceed with caution when adding to their routines. Potential side effects can include flaking, dryness, retinol burn, and increased sensitivity to the sun, which is why you should stick to applying it at night. Dermatologists often recommend easing into daily application slowly. “Start three times a week for the first week or two,” says Ciraldo. From there, you can gradually increase the frequency of application.
Most will apply their retinol layer after their serums and before moisturizer, but there is one exception. If your skin has trouble tolerating retinol and you want to minimize its side effects, you can buffer it instead. Retinol buffering refers to a technique whereby you mix your retinol with your moisturizer and apply it as a single step. This helps you still get the benefits, but decreases the potential for irritation. To take it a step further, you can also apply retinol over your moisturizer. Experiment with this step, and see where it fits best in your routine.
Do this step: Morning and night.
Moisturizers are there to simultaneously hydrate and seal in hydration, which is why these formulas tend to be heavier than the layers that go underneath. “You should use moisturizers with humectants like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, which pull in water,” says Rabach. “I also recommend looking for ceramides, which seal the outer layers of skin.”
Ciraldo says that many of her patients prefer to use separate formulas for their morning and nighttime routines. This has more to do with how moisturizers feel than anything else. You can use a lightweight formula in the morning that blends better with your makeup and reserve a heavier cream for evening. Ciraldo’s additional tip is to double up on your serum and moisturizer actives. For example, if you use a vitamin C serum in the morning, you can layer a vitamin C moisturizer right on top to boost the benefits.
8. Spot Treatment
Do this step: Morning and night.
You need to use spot treatments on active breakouts only, but if you’re experiencing acne, you can apply a leave-on spot treatment both morning and night to speed up its healing cycle. According to Ciraldo, you should spot-treat after you’ve applied your moisturizer, not before. This helps make sure the product stays on top of the pimple, and doesn’t go on the rest of your face. “If you’re using a strong acid and then smear moisturizer all over your face, you run the risk of the product getting on more sensitive areas,” she says. You’ll also dilute its effectiveness. Wait for your a.m./p.m. moisturizer to sink in, then carefully pat over the affected areas.
The two most common over-the-counter ingredients for spot treatments are benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. Rabach differentiates them like this: Benzoyl peroxide helps kill acne-causing bacteria, while salicylic acid gently exfoliates and dries out your oil glands.
9. Face Oil
Do this step: Morning and night.
If there’s one step in your daily skin-care routine that surprisingly divides experts, it’s face oil. The most common recommendation is to apply it last at night and second-to-last before sunscreen in the morning. That’s because oils are occlusive, says Mona Gohara, M.D., dermatologist and associate clinical professor at Yale School of Medicine. Meaning, they help trap moisture in your skin. This is why Renée Rouleau, celebrity esthetician and founder of Renée Rouleau Skin Care, says you should think of face oils as a topcoat. “Oils provide a protective barrier to help prevent moisture from evaporating,” she says. “Anything applied over it may not be offering as much benefit to your skin because it can’t get through.”
However, some derms advise their patients to take this step earlier in their routines (usually before moisturizer), depending on the formulation of the oil they’re using. “Some oils are designed with ingredients that hydrate, others to brighten or even to strengthen your skin,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Ciraldo also says it’s okay to mix oils with your moisturizer if you prefer.
Whichever way you land, the important thing is that you don’t overdo it—with face oils, a little goes a long way. To apply, warm about two to three drops of oil in your palms and pat lightly over your face.
Do this step: In the morning only.
What derms unanimously agree on is that you should wear sunscreen every single day to prevent UV damage—whether or not you go outside. Sunscreen needs to go over face oil in order to be most effective. “You do not want anything to stop the sunscreen from working, or making it less effective,” says Gohara. “Putting an oil on top of your sunscreen can decrease it’s efficacy.”
There are two types of sunscreens to choose from for your final step: physical and chemical. Physical blockers contain minerals like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide and work by reflecting light away from your skin. Chemical blockers, on the other hand, work by absorbing light and converting it into heat, preventing it from penetrating into your skin. Rouleau says that mineral formulas are often better for sensitive skin, while chemical formulations tend to be thinner and spread more easily.
Chemical formulas also come with the benefit of not leaving a white cast on darker skin tones. While mineral sunscreens traditionally cast an ashy tone, Zeichner points out that brands have begun formulating better physical sunscreens to counteract that. “The newest formulation technology has brought us micronized sunscreens that rub in to your skin much better than ever before,” he says. “So using a zinc-based sunscreen no longer necessarily means your face will have that white cast. No matter what your personal preference is, there are sunscreens for every need.”
In the beauty world, not being able to withstand a retinol product is an Achilles heel. Touted as one of the strongest and most effective products to treat fine lines, uneven texture, discolouration, and even acne, retinol is basically the Holy Grail. It also happens to be the only ingredient the skin either absolutely can not stand, or it loves it. About an hour after putting on a retinol–even the gentlest ones on the market–some people’s skin begins to peel, develop bumps all over the face, and it’s a general mess. BUT…
“This texture is so smooth and hydrating, which is always a good sign, since retinol products are notoriously drying. After layering it with a moisturizer, I went to bed and prayed I woke up to a decent face. To my immense surprise, my skin felt silky smooth, I wasn’t having a bad reaction at all, and I even felt confident to try it again, two nights later.” – ELLE Beauty Editor
This product is a blend of retinol with fatty acids derived from sunflower seeds–which makes it less irritating–along with line-reducing stevia extract and hydrating mongo grass root extract.
As the days get shorter and the temperatures creep lower, your skin needs warm and cozy layers, too. Come fall, products with gentle, hydrating formulas help prevent dryness caused by both indoor and outdoor air.
“As we head into fall, temperatures get lower and humidity decreases. There can also be brisk winds and dry heat from heaters — and all of these factors can contribute to drying out our skin,” says Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “In low humidity environments, we lose more moisture from our skin into the air.”
The shift in seasons can also exacerbate inflammatory skin conditions, like eczema, that are associated with dehydration in the skin. “You can begin to counteract these changes by taking some initial easy steps such as turning down the water temperature to lukewarm when bathing, using a more emollient soap, and switching to a heavier moisturizer,” adds Dr. Carlos Charles, board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of 4.5.6 Skin.
Ahead, the two dermatologists help us breakdown what skincare products to use in your fall skincare routine to help prevent and repair dryness, along with what to shelve until next summer.
Add: Creamy Cleanser — Drop: Gel or Foam Cleanser
Look for a creamy cleanser that will support and cushion skin as fall weather settles in. “A creamy cleanser that supports the skin barrier while it cleanses may be helpful as the weather gets drier,” says Dr. King. “Avoid harsh detergents that strip natural oils from the skin.”
Dr. Charles adds that gel and foam formulas may fall into the drying category. “Gel and foam-based cleansers that are meant to decrease oil production and increase cell turnover may become overly drying and strip away much of the essential and innate protection of the skin as we move into the fall months,” he says.
Add: Hyaluronic Acid Serum — Drop: Chemical Exfoliant Serums
For an extra layer of moisture, Dr. Charles recommends incorporating a hyaluronic acid serum into your routine. “When evaluating serums for the fall, thicker hyaluronic acid-based serum can help lock in moisture as opposed to the lighter water-based serums that you may use in the summer,” he says.
But depending on your skin type or concerns, you may still want to use a serum with chemical exfoliants or anti-aging benefits. “Proper formulations and usage of ingredients like hydroxy acids and retinols can still be helpful, depending on your skin,” says Dr. King. “So this means that depending on your skin type, it may be best for you to decrease exfoliation in colder weather — frequency and strength. And look for exfoliators that support the skin barrier while they exfoliate.”
Given that retinol is considered the gold standard of skincare ingredients, because it can treat a number of common issues like fine lines, hyperpigmentation, acne, and uneven texture, you might want to use it year-round. Dr. Dennis Gross’ Advanced Retinol + Ferulic Acid Texture Renewal Serum has supporting ingredients that help prevent irritation and dehydration.
Add: Rich Moisturizer — Drop: Lotion
“Moisturizers should always include a combination of humectants, emollients, and occlusives, but heavy occlusives may feel like too much when the weather is hot and humid,” Dr. King explains. “Lower humidity may make heavier occlusives more important to lock in moisture.”
Dr. Charles seconds this. “Cream-based moisturizers are heavier and therefore are more effective in sealing moisture content to the skin. A lotion is lighter with more water content and less oil, whereas creams have more oil content and less water which is ideal for the dry season.” He recommends the Day Hack Matte Moisturizer from 4.5.6. Skin.
Add: Moisturizing Mask — Drop: Clay Mask
While clay masks can be effective at drawing the extra gunk out of your pores, they can also leave skin feeling dry and tight. That’s why if you’re looking to indulge in a face mask during the fall, Dr. King recommends reaching for a hydrating formula.
Topicals’ Like Butter mask is designed to soothe and minimize irritation, while strengthening the skin barrier.
Add: Hydrating Toner — Drop: Exfoliating and Alcohol-Based Toners
If you’re a fan of toners, you guessed it: ditch ones with harsh exfoliants and alcohol during the fall. “Toners are always optional, but if you want to use one, you may want to switch to a more hydrating and soothing formula that is alcohol free,” says Dr. King.