Ordinary: what Serum to Use, and When, Based on Your Skin Concerns

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Seeing as it's easy to go gangbusters on inexpensive skincare, it can be a little confusing when it comes to figuring out what to use and when. Not to mention determining which products are going to be the best pick for your skin concerns.

So unless you're a die-hard skincare guru (or a chemist), chances are you would appreciate a little guidance. That's where we come in. We've done the work to map out seven skincare routines you can try to treat everything from chronic acne to hyper-pigmentation. We've also reached out to Pudvi Kaka to get his expert advice on the science behind The Ordinary products.

ishonest No.201 - Prevent Elasticity Damage

No.201 - Prevent Elasticity Damage

Meet the Expert

Prudvi Kaka is Chief Scientific Officer at DECIEM where he leads all product development and lab research. He has a degree in pharmaceutical sciences and an advanced degree in biotechnology.

Below, we break down exactly what products from The Ordinary to try, based on your individual skin concern.

The Ordinary recommends doing a patch test for most of their products. This will help to determine whether you will have a negative initial reaction to a new product before incorporating it into your skincare routine.

For Persistent, Chronic Acne

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Ongoing acne differs from a pimple or two at that time of the month. Although this regimen is for anyone who constantly battles blemishes, including whiteheads, blackheads, and deeper cysts, Kaka adds, "It is important to note that none of DECIEM’s products are formulated to target or mitigate persistent or chronic acne as it is a medical condition. We recommend consulting a physician to address this appropriately."

Morning: Step 1

The active ingredient in this solution is none other than salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that exfoliates the skin. All it takes is dabbing a small dot directly on blemishes or over the entire face—just be sure to avoid any contact with or near your eyes—to visibly improve skin's clarity. After use, skin may be a bit sensitive (that's the salicylic acid working) so steer clear of excessive sun exposure and be sure to wear sunscreen.

Morning: Step 2

Powered by key ingredients niacinamide (vitamin B3) and zinc, this blemish- fighting formula also reduces the appearance of enlarged pores and combats excessive oil production. For best results, apply the treatment to the entire face prior to using any creams. Since this serum can affect the integrity of vitamin C, alternate its use with any topical vitamin C product that may be part of your routine.

Evening: Step 1

When it comes to retinol, it's important to separate fact from fiction. Retinol is a popular skin treatment, and for good reason. It works to reduce blemishes, as well as fine lines and wrinkles—when used correctly.

ishonest No.202 - Prevent Elasticity Damage

No.202 - Prevent Elasticity Damage

As part of your nighttime skincare routine, apply a small amount of this 1% pure retinol treatment after water-based serums and before heavier creams. Also, be sure to avoid using it with other retinoid treatments and avoid unprotected sun exposure since "retinol increases the skin's sensitivity to UV radiation," according to Kaka. Note that some peeling and skin-purging will occur within the first four to eight weeks of this regimen, however, if persistent irritation occurs, stop use and consult a physician.

For Occasional Breakouts

If your skin is feeling congested, try this routine to clear up blemishes and rebalance your complexion. Alternatively, if you suffer minor but regular breakouts, this is a less intense approach compared to the acne regimen above. Kaka adds, "Although it is not possible to control or limit the extent of a breakout, one can take precautionary measures to either avoid the onset or exacerbation of a breakout. For example, it would be best to avoid the use of ingredients that have the potential to exacerbate the compromised state of the skin. These include topical acids, retinoids, and comedogenic ingredients."

Evening: Step 1

Key Ingredients

Azelaic acid is found in grains and is produced naturally by yeast that lives on the skin. Its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties treat acne by cleaning bacteria from pores.

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This multi-functional brightening formula contains 10% high-purity azelaic acid. Apply the lightweight cream-gel to face at night, avoiding contact with the eyes and mouth. With continued use, you can expect dark spots and blemishes to fade and skin to brighten.

Twice a Week

Key Ingredients

Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that exfoliates the skin, lightens dark spots, and reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Lactic acid is the star ingredient in this peeling formula, which aims to improve skin's tone and texture. Tasmanian pepperberry plays a minor, albeit important, supporting role in reducing inflammation and sensitivity.

ishonest No.222 - Fine Lines & Wrinkles

No.222 - Fine Lines & Wrinkles

Incorporate the product into your evening skincare regimen twice per week max since its contact with skin must be kept to a limited frequency or duration. If needed, the formula can be diluted with other treatments to reduce its strength.

For Sensitive Skin

If you're constantly red and itchy or often flare up when trying new products, you need a gentle, hydrating routine that will calm you down. Kaka explains, "Redness of the skin can be attributed to the imbalance of epidermal lipids that play an important role in supporting the skin’s barrier function. Ingredients such as ceramides, niacinamide, sea buckthorn, and panthenol help to support the skin’s integrity and promote skin barrier preservation." He recommends, "avoiding the use of formulations that incorporate harsh surfactants, ingredients with low pH values, and ingredients that are aggressive in action, such as acids."

Morning: Step 1

This formula combines hydrating hyaluronic acid and repairing B5 (pantothenic acid) to help moisturize and plump skin. Apply just a few drops over the entire face in the morning before creams.

Morning: Step 2

The Natural Moisturizing Factors (NMF), a combination of amino acids, dermal lipids, and hyaluronic acid, in this formula protect the outer layer of the skin while keeping it hydrated. Apply the treatment over the entire face after serums for non-greasy, yet highly moisturized skin.

Evening: Step 1
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This 100% plant-derived squalane product actively hydrates and also prevents the loss of hydration. Apply a few drops to the entire face after any water-based treatments. If your hair is looking dull or damaged, this light-weight formula can also be used to boost shine and reduce breakage.

As a rule of thumb, it is important to read and follow each product's directions of use carefully as it may include a functional warning or caution. For instance, some products should only be applied in the evening because they contain ingredients that may increase skin's sensitivity to the sun.

For Dryness and Dehydration

If you're dehydrated and your skin is lacking water, Kaka recommends "applying formulations that are rich in texture and that incorporate ingredients that help to enhance the skin’s hydrating capacity. These include natural moisturizing factors, such as amino acids and hyaluronic acid, osmolytes like betaine, and emollients including facial oils." He also advises, "avoiding using formulations with harsh surfactants that result in the excessive stripping of epidermal lipids and moisture."

For Wrinkles

As we age, we lose elastin and collagen (translation: we wrinkle). Sure, it's inevitable (and at times, anxiety-inducing), but that doesn't mean that there aren't ways to slow down the visible signs of aging. So if lines and wrinkles are your major concern, Kaka recommends, "utilizing ingredients that have a positive impact on the structural components of the skin." In other words, a regimen consisting of "topical peptides, retinoids, and acids" will work wonders. "Although not to be combined in the same regimen, all three categories of ingredients play a role in maintaining skin firmness, elasticity, and texture," adds Kaka.

Morning: Step 1
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No.241 - Stretch Marks

"Buffet" is a multi-peptide serum comprised of hyaluronic acid, amino acids, and bio-derivatives that targets signs of aging, not to mention dryness, dullness, and uneven texture. After cleansing in the AM, apply a few drops to the entire face, and avoid using with strong antioxidants, direct acids, LAA (L-Ascorbic Acid), and ELAA (Ethylated Ascorbic Acid).

Evening: Step 1

This exfoliating toning solution combats dullness and uneven texture, bringing you brighter and visibly clearer skin. The formula of glycolic acid, amino acids, aloe vera, ginseng, and Tasmanian pepperberry is what gets the job done. After cleansing, saturate a cotton pad with the solution and wipe across your face and neck, avoiding contact with and near the eyes. Do not rinse off.

Evening: Step 2

This serum emulsion features next generation retinoid actives to improve skin's tone and texture, thereby reducing fine lines and wrinkles, sans the irritation often associated with other retinoids (including retinol). Use a small amount on your face after any water serums but before any heavier treatments.

Evening: Step 3

This lightweight oil is easily absorbed by the skin, restoring hydration and radiance. Rich in antioxidants like vitamins E and C, marula oil fights free radicals and offers protection from damaging UV rays and pollution. Applying just a few drops to the entire face is all you need for beautiful, glowing skin.

For Oiliness

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"Oiliness of skin occurs when oversized sebaceous glands produce excessive amounts of sebum, resulting in the appearance of shiny skin and visibly enlarged pores. To mitigate this, it is best practice to regularly cleanse the skin using a gentle cleanser that will not cause a disruption to the epidermal barrier or excessively strip the skin of its natural surface lipids and moisture," says Kaka. The below products will work to refine skin's texture while keeping shine to a minimum—and all without starving skin of moisture.

For Hyper-pigmentation and Uneven Skin Tone

According to Kaka, "Uneven skin tone can be addressed through the use of chemical exfoliants, such as topical acids and vitamin C. Topical acids help to reveal more radiant skin beneath by loosening the top layer of the skin to slough off dull and rough skin. Vitamin C improves the appearance of dull, uneven skin tone by targeting melanin production, promoting a brighter, more even complexion." If you have dark spots, hyper-pigmentation, or an uneven skin tone due to pregnancy or sun exposure, your ultimate brightening formula is right here.

Morning: Step 1

This concentrated serum combines purified alpha arbutin with hyaluronic acid to reduce the look of spots and hyper-pigmentation thereby improving uneven skin tone. Apply a few drops to your face in the morning and remember to use sun protection afterward.

Morning: Step 3

Key Ingredients

ishonest No.165 - Uneven Skin Tone

No.165 - Uneven Skin Tone

Ascorbyl tetraisopalmitate is an oil-soluble and extremely stable derivative of vitamin C, which has been shown to offer enhanced skin brightening benefits.

Applying a few drops of this high-strength oil solution, containing vitamin F (aka essential fatty acids), in the morning will improve skin's dullness and uneven texture (including visible signs of aging like fine lines and wrinkles).

Twice a Week

Please consult a board-certified dermatologist to discuss which treatment protocol is best for you. If irritation occurs for any of the products, cease use and consult a physician.

Levin J, Momin SB. How much do we really know about our favorite cosmeceutical ingredients?. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2010;3(2): 22-41.

Camargo FB Jr, Gaspar LR, Maia Campos PM. Skin moisturizing effects of panthenol-based formulations. J Cosmet Sci. 2011;62(4): 361-370.

Al-Niaimi F, Chiang NYZ. Topical vitamin C and the skin: mechanisms of action and clinical applications. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2017;10(7): 14-17.

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