Much like a viable pension plan or a capsule wardrobe, a multi-step skincare routine is one of those adult signifiers that you’re expected to just have. The truth is, though, that we're constantly being thrown new, often conflicting advice when it comes to our complexions. We know that the old mantra of 'cleanse, tone and moisturise' might not always be the most advisable route, but we're not necessarily sure what to replace that three-step system with. We want in on the latest super-ingredients, be they hyularonic acid, retinols or the latest catchy acronym, but do we really need to use them all? Then there's hormonal fluctuations, stress and ageing to contend with, all of which can throw even the most finely-honed of regimens off kilter.
So what are the building blocks of a functional skincare routine? We asked Kate Kerr, clinical facialist and founder of Skin HQ, to break down the steps...
Cleanse: 'The first step I recommend is cleansing. The goal is to awaken your skin by increasing circulation, clearing away dead skin cells, and preparing the surface of your skin to effectively absorb your targeted daytime products.'
Prevent: 'The best way to restore skin to total health is to take a one-two punch with your daytime skincare regime, pairing a potent antioxidant serum with a broad-spectrum high SPF sunscreen. Even when you are using a SPF as high as 50, the sun’s UV rays still manage to penetrate after time, so an antioxidant serum is an essential step to ensure long-lasting protection and repair as the day goes on.'
Hydrate: 'Moisturiser is a completely optional step. The only reason most of us feel our skin is dry is because we've depended on moisturiser for many years, the effect of which compromises our skin's natural moisturising processes. The key is to reactivate this natural ability in the skin to cause an overall rejuvenating effect and help to wake the skin up to function optimally. For a true dry skin (for sufferers of eczema or dermatitis) use a lipid rich moisturiser morning and evening to help alleviate the discomfort and dryness that comes with a dry skin. If you don’t have true dry skin you can opt for a hyaluronic acid (HA) based serum to hydrate.'
Eyes: 'The most effective way to treat and protect your delicate eye area during the day is to start with an antioxidant eye serum, followed by a high SPF cream formulated especially for the eyes to protect from harmful UV rays.'
Protect: 'It's important to wear a high SPF broad-spectrum sunscreen every day without fail to keep your skin properly shielded from its No. 1 enemy. I recommend using an SPF of at least 30, though SPF 50 gives the best possible protection.'
Make-up removal: 'Use a gel-based cleanser to gently remove makeup.'
Cleanse: 'This crucial step not only removes every last bit of makeup from your skin, but also ensures the spoils of the day go with it, such as pollution, leftover makeup and the natural oils that build up and oxidise on the skin’s surface. Use a cleanser containing AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids) like glycolic acid or lactic, or BHAs (beta-hydroxy acids) such as salicylic, to help speed up cell renewal and brighten the skin.'
Correct: 'At night while you sleep your skin goes into healing mode, so it's the best time to give it a boost with a variety of active ingredients that help with cell renewal, and damage-repair. The most popular of the 'active correctives' is retinol, due not only to its high efficacy, but also to the wide variety of products and formulations designed for various skin types. Most corrective products contain high levels of active ingredients so it's best to start using them just in the evening.'
Hydrate: 'Use a lightweight hydrating serum only on the nights you're not using retinol to counteract any dryness and irritation, as well as restore your skin's natural moisture balance. For a true dry skin use an emollient rich moisturiser 10 minutes after the application of your corrective serums. If the skin feels like it needs added moisture use a hyaluronic acid based serum every night. This should be used under your retinol, but wait 10 minutes before applying retinol so as to not dilute the effects.'
Eyes: 'Give your eyes the same repair boost as your face with a product formulated to deliver active ingredients specifically to the delicate eye area.'
Adding exfoliation to your skincare regime
If there’s one thing that skincare experts can agree on, it’s the importance of exfoliation. ‘This is a key step that often gets forgotten or overlooked,’ says Elsie Rutterford, co-founder of BYBI Skincare. ‘Exfoliating can actually prep skin for the other steps in your beauty routine, removing the layer of dead skin cells and ensuring your skin is primed to absorb nutrients.’ Formulations, too, have come a long way in the past few years. Exfoliation is no longer limited to so-called ‘physical’ scrubs that slough off skin with grainy ingredients: chemical exfoliants formulated with AHAs and BHAs remove dead cell build-up, leaving the skin looking more radiant. ‘How often you should do this depends on your skin type and tolerance to certain products,’ says Elsie. ‘Those with sensitive skin may find an acid exfoliant too harsh to use on a daily basis, so perhaps limit use to once or twice a week.’
How should I layer skincare products?
Kate's rule of thumb is to start with the thinnest product and finish up with the thickest. 'In your daytime regimen, start with your antioxidant serum and then follow up with your sunscreen, which is usually of a slightly thicker consistency,' she recommends.
How long does it take to see results from your skincare routine?
As tempting as it may be to fall for buzzwords and marketing-speak, there’s no such thing as a miracle cure, so (unless you’re experiencing an adverse reaction, of course) if you’re prone to binning products that don’t yield transformative results overnight, you could end up missing out in the long run. ‘With cleansers, you should immediately notice if it’s right or wrong for you,’ says Elsie. ‘With acne treatments, you should start seeing a decrease in blackheads and whiteheads within five to six weeks, although breakouts could get worse in the first two weeks. With other targeted treatments, such as retinols, you should see an improvement within four to six weeks.’
When you start using such treatments, the skin can feel a little sore and irritated but this shouldn’t cause too much alarm. ‘When introducing active products into your regimen, it’s important to know the difference between an irritant reaction and an allergic reaction,’ Kate says. ‘With products containing AHAs, BHAs and retinol, mirror irritation, redness and peeling is completely normal as your skin adjusts to the high level of activity on your skin. The best course of action is to pull back for a day or two until these effects dissipate, then reintroduce your active product every second or third day, slowly building up to daily use.’ As a precaution, it’s best to take things slow: Kate recommends adding in one active ingredient at a time, then allowing the skin a week or more to adapt before adding another. You'll also need to up your SPF protection during the day, as acid-based skincare can make your complexion more sensitive to the sun's rays.
A skincare routine for oily skin
It’s tempting to default to sebum-controlling products in a bid to keep oily skin under control, but that can prove counterintuitive. ‘These can be effective in reducing whiteheads and acne, but there is a risk of stripping the skin of its natural oils if we use too many at once,’ says Elsie. She points out that oil-based products needn’t be off-limits, either. ‘They can actually be really balancing as the replenishment of oil tricks the skin into stopping the overproduction. Look for ingredients like jojoba or squalene,’ she recommends.
According to Kate, those of us with oily complexions tend to fall into two camps. ‘Some people have an inherently oily skin, which needs to be controlled with active ingredients like retinol, salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide,’ she explains. ‘Others have an imbalanced skin – or combination skin – which is often caused by upsetting the oil and water balance by incorrect use of skincare.’ To redress this, she recommends opting for a serum instead of a moisturiser and adding Vitamin A derivatives (including retinol) to your skincare arsenal.
Kate's recommended skincare routine for oily skin
ZO Skin Health Oilacleanse, £43
'Containing Salicylic Acid, to remove excess oil and impurities, gently removing the dead skin cells that accumulate within the pores and trap bacteria.'
Niod Multi-Molecular Hyaluronic Complex
'Use an alternative to moisturiser. Hydrates without upsetting skin's moisturising mechanisms. '
ZO Skin Health Sulfur Masque
'Absorbs surface oils and reduces oiliness.'
ZO Skin Health TE-Pads Acne Pore Treatment, £44.50
'These use 2% salicylic acid to reduce sebum.'
A skincare routine for dry skin
‘Dry skin has invisible cracks in its moisture barrier, allowing moisture to escape and irritants to get in easily,’ says Elsie. ‘Use a mild cleansing lotion and not a foaming or lathering one, and avoid products that contain alcohol and other harsh ingredients. An antioxidant serum during the day can also prevent collagen breakdown – look out for vitamins E, A, and C especially.’
It’s important, too, to note the difference between true dry and dehydrated complexions. ‘Dehydrated skin is lacking in water while dry skin is lacking in lipids or oils,’ says Kate. ‘Those with truly dry skin are unlikely to have ever experienced breakouts or an oily t-zone, and tend to have very small pores; they may be prone to eczema or dermatitis, which are tell-tale signs.’ The former needs hydration, rather than moisturisation. ‘Look for products that draw or put water back into the skin: hyaluronic acid, glycerine, urea or light, water-based products,’ she continues. ‘These formulas will provide the hydration needed without interfering with the skin’s natural moisturising processes.’ True dry skin, meanwhile, is lacking in lipids, which should be supplemented topically through moisturisers.
How often - if ever - should you change your skincare routine?
'Although it is true that if a product or routine works for you, you should stick to it, our skin is constantly changing with the seasons and changes in our body,' says Elsie. 'Therefore, sometimes it may be necessary to change which products we use depending on our skin's needs at that time.'