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A comprehensive guide to building a skincare routine

Whether you suffer from acne, redness, dryness or are lucky enough to have 'normal' skin, a consistent skincare routine will keep your skin looking and feeling its best. Here's how to tailor yours.

By Jenny Brownlees

When shopping for skincare in 2020, there’s more choice than ever.

This is a positive thing in many ways but can make things difficult unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. Furthermore, many skincare features, though wonderfully informative, expect the reader to understand not only the basics of a skincare routine but what each ingredient is and how to apply it.

Add into the mix skincare trends – J-Beauty vs K-beauty, a 12-step skincare routine vs skip-care and the wide variety of options and advice can begin to feel a little overwhelming.

Luckily, we’re here to help. We’ve compiled all the information you need to create a skincare routine that works for you, no matter your age or skin concern.

Knowledge is power, after all.

Common skincare terms and ingredients:

Alpha Arbutin – this potent ingredient is extracted from bearberry leaves, blueberries and cranberries, working to fade acne scarring and hyper-pigmentation with a two-pronged approach. Firstly, it reduces the skin’s pigment production, as well as slowing the process by which UV light causes pigmentation in the first place to offer an overall brightening effect.

Niacinamide – this is the name for vitamin B3, a hydrating ingredient that is beneficial to every skin type and concern including acne, rosacea, pigmentation issues, and wrinkles. It helps to smooth skin’s texture, reduce blackheads and blemishes.

Antioxidants – the skin’s defence against damaging free radicals. Common antioxidants include vitamins C, A and E, which work to keep the skin firm, fight damage and keep skin look healthy.

Retinol – also known as vitamin A, retinol increases cell turnover and boosts collagen production. The plumping effects mean lines and wrinkles appear ‘filled.’ Cell turnover is stimulated by retinol – meaning new, brighter skin emerges with use over time. Vitamin A also has anti-acne benefits as it helps unclog pores.

Bakuchiol – Think of this as a plant-derived, natural alternative to vitamin A (Retinol.) It will help to reduce pigmentation, improve elasticity and smooth the skin’s texture. It’s gentler than retinol, so perfect for those with more sensitive skin.

Vitamin C – A powerful antioxidant that works to reverse the effects of pollution and fade pigmentation. This brightening ingredient also has anti-ageing benefits, working to repair cell damage.

Peptides  these refer to short chains of amino acids which build proteins like collagen, elastin and keratin. When these are depleted in the skin, texture and tone are affected. Adding peptides encourages damaged cells to make new.

Ceramides – Ceramides are present in the upper layers of our skin – to act as a barrier that helps to retain moisture. As we age these deplete, which can lead to the skin becoming dry and dehydrated.

All about acids:

The word acid in skincare can still strike fear into some consumers. However, they are beneficial for many skin types, across all ages. Rather than exfoliating with harsh scrubs from days gone by, acids are actually gentler, working to rid build-ups of dead skin cells. The result? Glowing skin that feels soft and hydrated.

AHA Acids – Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are chemical exfoliants (Glycolic, Lactic, Malic acid, Citric are some common types.) They are water-soluble, meaning they only work on the skin’s surface layers. They exfoliate the top layers of skin, which will help reduce surface issues such as pigmentation and enlarged pores, but they won’t work deep into the skin. 

BHA Acids – BHAs, or beta hydroxy acid is more commonly known as salicylic acid. This works on a deeper level compared to AHA, to clear trapped sebum in the pores, slowing down the skin’s production of excess oil. This helps to clear and prevent breakouts – perfect for those with oily and congested skin. 

Hyaluronic acid – neither an AHA nor BHA, this acid is the super-hydrator. Each molecule of Hyaluronic acid can hold up to 1000 times its weight in water, drawing moisture to the skin.

Azelaic Acid – this naturally found acid, which is derived from grains works to reduce clogged pores and smooth the skin’s texture. It is beneficial to those who suffer redness – be it from rosacea, pigmentation or blemishes.

Using acids – Whilst you can use both AHA and BHA acids together on your skin, you should avoid applying them in the same routine. Instead, alternate their use on alternate evenings. Brands The Inkey List and The Ordinary have revolutionised the skincare market in recent years, offering the aforementioned ingredients at factory prices. If you’re unsure of anything, both offer complementary services to teach you when and how to use their products, in order to perfectly tailor your regimen.

Visit The Inkey List.

Visit The Ordinary.

Creating a skincare routine

Generally speaking, a skincare routine should consist of SPF 30+, a cleanser, toner, serum, targeted treatment, mask, night cream and eye cream.

You don’t have to purchase everything at once, you can start with a basic cleanse, tone, moisturise and add to your collection from there.

The internet is a wonderful free tool to research and read reviews, so take some time to read-up.

Once the shops reopen, don’t be afraid to ask for skincare samples to try before you buy.

If beauty counters seem overwhelming, online retailers are a wonderful asset – most allow you to shop by skin concern, which is vital to finding a product that will work for you.

Which order do I apply my skincare in?

The general rule of thumb is to begin your routine with the thinnest product and end at the thickest.

In the morning: Cleanse to wake up the skin, increase circulation and prep your face, so it can properly absorb the products that follow. If you exercise in the day, it is important to cleanse again afterwards to remove sweat from the skin. Follow with a toner – these generally contain plant extracts and essential oils to remove any impurities that may be leftover after cleansing.

In the daytime: Add an antioxidant serum which will penetrate deep into the skin layers. Vitamin C will work wonderfully as a brightening agent, giving you that healthy glow. Pair this with hyaluronic acid to give skin a quench of hydration. For normal or oily skin types this will suffice moisture-wise, but you have dry skin you can also use a day cream. Last but not least, that 30+ SPF.

In the evening: Cleanse thoroughly, not only to remove makeup and oils that will have built up on the skin throughout the day, but the lurking pollution that comes from city living. Use an acid exfoliant here, to remove dead cell build-up and leave skin looking radiant. Since your skin heals itself at night, a specific night-time cell-renewing moisturiser will work well. If you have dry skin, use a rich night-time moisturiser or overnight mask.

Eye care: Don’t neglect the delicate skin under your eyes. You can use an eye cream day or night, for a boost of active ingredients that moisturise and brighten.

Once a week: Apply a mask or peel treatment to clean skin after cleansing, toning and serum but before moisturiser (unless it’s an overnight mask you will leave on the skin.) For acne-prone skin, a clay mask will absorb oil and can have a gentle exfoliating effect. If you have dry skin, a hydrating sheet mask will offer a boost of hydration. For ageing skin, rich overnight masks are generally thicker and work whilst you sleep to treat the skin to a dose of potent ingredients as it repairs.

If you do just one thing? SPF, SPF, SPF.

If you take just one piece of advice, let it be this – you need to be using an SPF 30+ every day, not just when it’s sunny. This will do wonders for your skin, preventing damage from the sun which will prematurely age skin, whether it’s warm out or not. SPF will also protect against brown spots and pigmentation, discolouration and red veins.

Always buy a specific SPF for the face, no slapping on the sun cream from an old SPF bottle that accompanied you on holiday in 2016. These are our favourite face-specific SPFs:

Shop for your skin type

For normal to blemish-prone skin in your 20s and 30s, you should be looking to create a simple routine that’s non-comedogenic (this means a product won’t clog pores or trigger acne.) When it comes to creating a successful skincare routine, consistency is key. Look at this as a long term investment and a form of self-care. At this stage in your life, it’s important to be using an SPF 30+, an effective cleanser, moisturiser and gentle exfoliation to help fight blemishes and pollution.

In your late 20s to 30s, begin to protect against premature ageing and collagen breakdown by adding an antioxidant serum into your routine, and introducing a low percentage retinol to help reduce the development of fine lines, to give skin a beautiful glow.

Normal / Combination skincare favourites:

Acne / Scarring skincare favourites:

The biggest misconception if you have oily skin is that you don’t need to moisturise. Moisturising is necessary to maintain a healthy barrier function in the skin.

Again, non-comedogenic products and consistency are key. Salicylic Acid, which works deep in the skin is highly effective for acne sufferers as is a targeted blemish treatment and weekly purifying clay mask.

Anti-ageing skincare favourites:

When it comes to anti-ageing, prevention is better than a cure, so incorporating anti-ageing ingredients throughout your 30s will be beneficial.

From 40, collagen production slows  meaning skin loses elasticity and wrinkles appear. Skin becomes less hydrated, so restoring this with an ingredient like Hyaluronic acid is vital. Vitamin C, E and other antioxidants will benefit, as will a heavy-duty night cream that repairs damage overnight.

In general, spending a touch longer massaging in skincare products will aid anti-ageing, helping to reduce any puffiness, boost circulation and smooth wrinkles.

If you use retinol, introduce this slowly in the evening – using a tiny amount twice a week, building up use. As wonderful as the benefits are, Retinol can irritating if used too frequently. If you do begin using retinol, you must wear an SPF 30+ each day, as it makes the skin much more sensitive to UV rays.

Rosacea / Sensitive skincare favourites:

If you suffer the facial redness and flushing of Rosacea, a specific skincare routine that combats redness and doesn’t irritate will be needed.

Consulting a dermatologist is helpful to work out your flare-up triggers, (common are sunlight, stress, caffeine, alcohol and spicy food).

For rosacea and sensitive skin types, pharmacy brands La Roche Posay, Embryolisse, Eucerin, Avène, Cetaphil and Bioderma offer simplistic, dermatologically-led products that soothe without using harsh chemicals or fragrances.

Dry skincare favourites:

Dry skin feels uncomfortably tight and lacks a healthy-looking glow.

To replenish, look out for hydrating products that soothe and moisturise, including oils and rich overnight masks.

Avoid too-hot showers or baths, as they can breaks down the lipid barriers in the skin, leading to decreased hydration.

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