Layers, Layers, Layers! How to Build The Perfect Skin Care Routine

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Sometimes walking down the skin care aisle feels like visiting Times Square. It’s the ads! Everywhere! Promising you entry to the world of *insert new trend here* skin!

But even if you buy every celebrity face care product or follow your favorite influencer’s “Get Ready with Me” video, replicating routines never, if rarely, give results for flawless skin. So, what gives?

3 forgotten factors of healthy skin

ishonest No.222 - Fine Lines & Wrinkles

No.222 - Fine Lines & Wrinkles

The often-forgotten piece in the skin care puzzle is genetics. There are a handful of blessed people who’ll always have gorgeous skin, no matter what they do to it.

Another piece is technology. A model’s dewy skin might look pore-less on screen but keep in mind that true and scarred skin texture is often edited or blurred away. It’s not easy to spot Photoshop edits these days, so take a step back from your phone if you feel like your skin standards are becoming skewed by social media.

Third trick in the skin care book is the dollars. Whether eating habits, product, or environment, the more dough you spend, the more access you have to the attention of experts, personalized recommendations, and high quality food or tools.

But spending money to buy someone else’s routine isn’t the same as personalizing your own skin care routine. There is no one size fits all for skin health. All skin types, environments, allergies, and/or sensitives require different products and adjustments in a routine.

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As for what adjustments you do need to make? We’re here to help. With advice from dermatologists and licensed estheticians alike, we rounded up the best advice on how to build your skin care routine, step-by-step and in the right order, from the ground up.

Psst: Based on dermatologist input, popular reviews, and editor’s picks, we’ve also included product recommendations for each step of the routine.

A foundational skin routine so easy, you can do it when feeling lazy

For beginners out there who don’t want to spend a lot of money, or don’t want to overwhelm their skin, this one’s for you. Dr. Angelo Landriscina, a dermatologist, tells us that, “All you need for your face is a gentle cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen, that’s really it. Everything else might be helpful, but it isn’t essential.”

Stick to this 5-minute or less routine to keep your skin healthy and happy.

How long does a product take to work?
ishonest No.181 - Post-Sun Exposure

No.181 - Post-Sun Exposure

Dana Murray, licensed esthetician, notes that, “The general rule with all skin care is if you don’t start seeing results with a product in 4 to 6 weeks, it may not be working for you.”

That’s just to start seeing results. For some people with reactive skin and/or sensitivities, Hadiyah Daché, licensed esthetician (aka The Fairy Glow Mother) says, “It can take up to 3 months for acne lesions to be visible.”

If you’ve ever felt confused by what stopped working (or why you’re breaking out when nothing changed), an “old” product could be the culprit. This is why you should introduce new products one at a time. “You risk having a reaction and not knowing what caused it,” says Landriscina.

First in order: Cleansing your face

After (or even right next to) sunscreen, most skin professionals agree that cleansing, to remove the debris, unnecessary oils, and dead skin cells, is crucial to your routine. “A proper cleanse is the foundation to a good skin care routine,” says Murray. But you probably don’t have to go as hard as you think.

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Most dermatologists will recommend washing gently twice a day with your fingers, for about 60 seconds. Stick to lukewarm water and keep those physical exfoliators away.

If your skin is ultra-sensitive or dry, it could be a good idea to relegate cleanser to nighttime use only and wash with water in the mornings for maximum gentleness and minimum stripping.

Should I double cleanse?

In short, situationally, but probably not every day.

Double cleansing had its start in Korea and, like much of Korea’s innovative beauty practices, has spread around the world. The idea is to start with an oil or balm cleanser to break down oils, makeup, and sunscreen, and then to move on to a water-based cleanser that targets the pores.

ishonest No.313 - Prevent Acne

No.313 - Prevent Acne

It’s best for makeup wearers or for people who feel like an oil slick at the end of the day and for whom one cleanser isn’t cutting it. Otherwise, you’ll want to stick to a single cleanse on a normal day.

A second boost: Toning for better texture

Every time we talk toners, there’s a history lesson — and there’s a reason for that! “Traditionally, toner was designed to restore balance to the skin’s pH as soaps used during cleansing were very stripping. Today, cleansers are generally pH balanced and toners now serve a few different functions,” explains Daché.

“First, when applied using a cotton round, the toner step can pick up any excess dirt you may have missed during cleansing. Secondly, skin care products are best applied on damp skin but most people completely dry their faces after cleansing. So toners also help to re-dampen the skin. I also like to think of toning as adding your first layer of hydration.”

Toners nowadays typically also feature some active ingredients for treating skin concerns. As Daché mentions, you’ll want to apply them as a mist directly onto your face or with a cotton pad.

Power treat your skin with serums

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While a serum is not a necessary part of a skin care routine, they are beloved by dermatologists and estheticians alike for their concentrated ability to target specific issues. Skin plumping, brightening, hydrating, acne-fighting, wrinkles and fine lines — serums can target whatever you need.

Do I need an eye cream?

According to Landriscina, “Absolutely not. Typically, eye creams have a HUGE markup and there’s nothing that necessarily sets them apart from regular moisturizers. However, if you have different skin care goals for your eye area than the rest of your face, they might be useful.”

For Liu, they aren’t necessary either, but she does note: “They are formulated and tested for the skin area which is more sensitive. Expectation: moisturizing may help with fine lines and puffiness, [but] will not improve dark circles.” Basically, you’ll want to manage your expectations and assess your goals and sensitivities before splurging.

Always moisturize

Moisturizers are an essential part of a good daily skin care routine (a.m. and p.m.) regardless of skin type,” says Murray. “It really doesn’t vary by skin type because even the oiliest of skin can benefit from a skin appropriate moisturizer (like a gel-cream). Otherwise the skin can become unbalanced, dehydrated (lacking water) and over produce oil to compensate for the dehydration.”

ishonest No.312 - Prevent Acne

No.312 - Prevent Acne

Liu agrees, “Anytime our skin (e.g. hands) gets wet, we should be moisturizing, otherwise it will lead to dry skin and hand dermatitis.”

Climate and season may also affect your moisturizing routine too. “For most others, I do generally recommend a heavier moisturizer during the winter and/ or applying an occlusive nightly during the winter to keep moisture locked in. [But] some oily types just don’t respond well to heavier moisturizers,” says Daché. “If that’s you, don’t feel bullied to keep what [was] suggested.”

What about face oils and night creams?

Murray simplifies face oils for us: “For normal, dry and combination skin a face oil can be mixed with moisturizer to boost moisture.” It’s not a replacement for your moisturizer, but it will help to seal in the work your moisturizer is doing for your skin.

And try not to “apply facial oils beneath or on top of SPF,” says Daché. According to her, it could break down your sunscreen formula and make it less effective. Keep oils use to nighttime, when possible.

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This also explains why night creams are a PM step. In a nutshell, some night creams might have ingredients which could make the skin more sensitive to sun damage when applied during the day.

Check the product’s instructions and warnings before use and if you see these kinds of warnings, stick to nighttime use. Be doubly sure not to skip out on your sunscreen the next day.

Sunscreen pulls its weight as the superhero

Every expert we spoke to stressed how crucial daily sunscreen use is. Indoors or outdoors, rain or shine, winter or summer, skipping sunscreen is one of the biggest mistakes a person can make, says Landriscina. “Without proper sun protection, everything else [from your routine] will be useless,” he stresses.

The sun is very damaging to the skin, can speed up the aging process, and, most severely, increase your risk for skin cancer.

ishonest No.231 - Pigmentation & Blemishes

No.231 - Pigmentation & Blemishes

After you moisturize, make sure you’re applying an adequate amount to protect your whole body. A shot glass’ worth should the job on average, or 2 to 3 tablespoons on the body and 1 to 2 for the face and neck.

Be sure to reapply after 8 hours or earlier if anything happens that could remove the sunscreen, like sweating, swimming, or friction.

To shop for sunscreen, check out our article on best sunscreen by skin type here. Here’s a preview of our selects:

Want to be extra, extra? Here’s what additional steps are worth the splurge

Of course, there’s more fun for the true enthusiasts. We’re talking exciting add-ons and tools that level you right up in ways celebrities and influencers don’t always talk about.

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Keep in mind, that these are not required by any means, and the prices are often a little eye-widening. But if you’re yearning for more, we’ve got you covered.

Clay masks

A tool for oily and acne-prone skin, clay masks work by absorbing excess oil. To avoid dehydrating your skin, limit use this 2 to 3 times a week, before moisturizing.

This 3-Minute Detox Mask from Estee Lauder ($$$) quickly absorbs excess oil and unlike many clay masks rinses off easily when you’re ready to take it off.

LED lights

LED light therapy is proven to have a host of benefits for the skin with continued use, from tackling wrinkles to inflammation.

ishonest No.201 - Prevent Elasticity Damage

No.201 - Prevent Elasticity Damage

Those with sensitive skin and lots of patience might be curious to try this out at home. Project E Beauty’s wireless mask ($$$) features a piece for your face and your neck each, and is one of the (slightly) less expensive options of the pack.

Microcurrent tools

If you’re looking to firm or tone your skin, look to microcurrent tools. Tender souls need not be afraid, this works without penetrating your skin by sending tiny electro currents that tell your muscles to tighten up.

While you shouldn’t be able to feel this treatment, some have reported teeth sensitivities. If that’s you, you may want to avoid the mouth area and use it for the glamorous forehead results.

Nuface ($$$) has become synonymous with the word microcurrent, check out their options here.

Sheet masks
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Murray notes that the physical “sheet” of the sheet mask keeps the product on your face from evaporating and pushes it into the skin. They’re great for hydration and their individually packaged nature makes them ideal for travel, but she doesn’t love them for acne-prone or inflamed skin.

If you’re a sheet mask lover, she recommends 100% Pure’s Collagen Boost Sheet Mask ($$). “I love this mask because it’s really suitable for most skin types and provides a ton of benefits. It contains vitamin C, retinol, and hyaluronic acid so you’re getting a powerhouse of ingredients!”


Microneedling works by slightly damaging the skin to prompt it to produce collagen to heal itself, which can help with acne scarring, wrinkling, and large pores.

This stamper from The Things We Do ($$$) allows you to minimize any skin dragging and also comes with a hydrating serum to help recovery. Make sure to use caution and follow the directions exactly and follow proper technique and sanitation practices if you choose to try this, or you could harm or infect your skin.

ishonest No.111 - Purge Impurities

No.111 - Purge Impurities

Alpha Hydroxy Acids and Beta Hydroxy Acids are chemical exfoliants that range in benefits, from preventing and treating acne to smoothing and brightening.

Make sure to ease into these products. For example, 30 percent glycolic acid is overkill, but an affordable 7 percent Toning Solution from The Ordinary ($) may do the trick, if you want to test the waters. It also has aloe vera to soothe your skin while you exfoliate.

Esthetician appointments

Outside of seeing a dermatologist, the best thing you can do for your skin is to book regular appointments with a licensed esthetician. Licensed estheticians are certified professionals with a depth of knowledge and expertise that the layperson lacks.

They’re able to do procedures for the skin that we can’t do at home, like laser treatments, facials, microdermabrasion, and chemical peels, just to name a few. Both professionals can also evaluate your skin, routine, and products to make sure you’re treating your skin right.

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