What Do Skincare Products Do? Here's Your Bible

Before we dive in, let’s get the first step straight. Ordering.

The general rule is to apply products from thinnest to thickest in terms of texture and from water-based formulas to waxy/balm-like formulations (note: if you have oily or acne prone skin, thicker, richer products may not be for you). 

  • Cleanser (you can skip this step in the morning if you have dry skin)
  • Essence or toner
  • Serums
  • Moisturizer
  • Face Oil
  • SPF

Do you need all these steps? No, not at all. Go through your routine and make sure your skincare isn’t repeating any ingredients and eliminate duplicates. Now, let’s talk about what each product does and the different kinds.

What is a cleanser?

Oil/balm cleanser: Are best for dry or impaired skin and great for makeup & SPF removal. If you have more oily skin, look for lighter oils or consider doing a second cleanse with a foaming cleanser.

Cream/milk cleanser: Avoids any and all “suds” (surfactants) making it ideal for rosacea prone skin or sensitive skin. Suds are the foaming agents which are great for oilier skin, but if you have naturally dry skin or easily irritated skin, those suds can further break down your barrier. For more effective makeup and SPF removal, massage these cleansers onto skin and then rinse off. 

Gel Cleanser: Thick gel consistency will produce a smaller amount of foam and a milder cleanse, making it good for combination or sensitive skin.

Foaming cleanser: Have a sudsy quality (due to surfactants) and can be good for oily and less sensitive skin that wants a deeper clean. Sudsing, for the record, doesn’t denote “cleaner” or “more effective.” Like with anything, it is best to find a cleanser that works for your skin type, not one that has a cute feature.

What about a “double cleanse”? You can double cleanse (oil cleanser followed by a gel or foaming cleanser), but it isn’t necessary to do this process. Double cleansing is particularly good if you use waterproof, stubborn makeup or waterproof SPF. Is it necessary? No. Can it be nice? Yes. 

Notice if your cleanser has an exfoliating element--either a chemical exfoliant or a physical exfoliant and try not to pile on similar ingredients throughout your routine. 

How Often:  AM: For dry skin, do a splash of water in the morning and keep the cleansing with products for the nighttime. For more oily or acne prone skin, you may want a gentle cleanse in the morning.

PM: If you’re wearing makeup or SPF, double cleansing can help remove any leftover product. 

The one thing that’s a telltale sign that your cleanser is too intense is, if it leaves you feeling super dried out and almost pulled. You want your skin feeling soft and fresh, never tight. 

What is an exfoliant?

Exfoliants work by helping to shed excess dead skin cells. You can do this with physical exfoliants (sea salt or even things branded as “scrubs”) or chemical exfoliants (Glycolic acid, Salicylic acid etc). Common Alpha Hydroxy Acids like Glycolic acid and Lactic acid help dissolve dead skin cells but you ultimately need at least some dead skin to maintain your skin’s natural barrier. It’s the excess you can shed. Beta Hydroxy Acids like Salicylic Acid are oil soluble, making them better for oilier skin, dissolving blackheads/dead skin and reducing breakouts. 

Chemical exfoliants, as skincare ingredients, can be a wild card. You can find them in serums, creams, toners--they’re more present than you might think so always check your products for them and avoid using them in multiple steps. 

In terms of exfoliating treatments, i.e. products that are marketed specifically as exfoliators, you want to space out use. Start off slow, 1-2x a week and see if you need more or less. 

Reminder: you don’t “need” to exfoliate but you do need to make sure you don’t over exfoliate. If you’re using an intense exfoliant daily, you’re more likely to irritate your skin and cause a reaction. When in doubt on how to use a product, always use less. 

How Often: Check your products first to ensure you don’t have a hidden exfoliator lurking in a product. You do not need to have one but you definitely don’t need to have five. If you do use one, make sure you aren’t pairing products with other resurfacing agents like retinol. Keep your use to 1-2 times a week and build from there. 

What is an Essence or a Toner?

The original intent of toners was to help balance your skin’s pH after cleansing your face. Traditionally, cleansers used to strip the skin and be harsh. But since, lucky for us, we don’t live in Victorian times, most cleansers are already pH balanced so the original need for a toner has changed. If you were wondering if you need a toner, the answer is you don’t *need* any step in skincare, it all depends on what you want. 

Essences and toners are usually just watered down or water-textured serums and treatments. This doesn’t mean they are weaker, it just means their purpose is different. 

Instead of focusing on “what toner should I buy?” Once you figure out your goals, see if the claims the products make fits what you need. For example, Biologique Recherche’s iconic p50 makes sense if you’re tackling problems with both texture and tone. Is it the only product out there that helps with these things? No, absolutely not. 

But keep in mind, you won’t need a serum if you’re using a toner or essence that does the same thing or has similar concentrations of “active” ingredients.

How Often: Depending on the products, toners that are exfoliating should be used sparingly (1-2 times a week to start) whereas hydrating or balancing toners and essences can be used morning and night after cleansing. If you’re prone to dry skin, you could use a hydrating essence or toner in the morning rather than splashing your face with water. 

What is a Serum? 

These definitions are all murky, but when a brand says “serum”, they typically mean a product you apply to the skin after cleansing but before moisturizing with the goal of delivering super charged ingredients to your skin. While serums can be moisturizing the main goal should be to deliver an active in a more direct way to the skin. 

It’s easy to get tripped up with the differences between serums, essences and toners here. Look at what the product does versus what a brand calls it. I.e. toners and essences usually go before serums but again, double check you aren’t duplicating ingredients. 

Do you need multiple serums? No. Serums should be targeted to goals, ideally 1-2 will cover it for you.

How Often: Look at the directions. If your serum has a certain ingredient like a retinoid or resurfacing agent like an exfoliator you may want to use less than directed. It all depends on how potent it is. For example, a 1% retinol should be used less often when starting out than a .1% retinol. Same thinking for exfoliants. If it’s an antioxidant, peptide or a gentler serum that is restorative and hydrating, you can use 2x a day.

What is a moisturizer?

Moisturizers are best at protecting and lubricating your skin. A good moisturizer is made of a blend of ingredients that fall into three categories; humectants (water loving ingredients that hold and draw water into the skin), emollients (skin conditioners) and occlusives (thicker emollients that reduce how much water leaves the skin by creating a barrier). Whether a moisturizer will work for you or not depends on your skin type and how the blend of these three categories of ingredients work in a formula. There are three main kinds of moisturizers…

Gel Moisturizers: water-based. Typically rich in water and water-loving ingredients that draw and hold water close to the skin (humectants). Gel moisturizers are best for oilier skin.

Lotions and creams: oil-based with water. These range from light to richer formulas. They tend to have skin-softening ingredients that repair and smooth out dryness with ingredients (emollients) like cocoa butter, shea butter and oils. 

Occlusive moisturizers: These moisturizers actually act as a physical barrier for your skin while preventing water loss. These are either wax, heavily silicone or oil-based. The consistency of these moisturizers is very thick, and are highly recommended for very dry skin. Think Vaseline.

How Often: After your serums, apply a moisturizer. Remember; if you live in a climate that has defined seasons and/or changing weather, your moisturization might need to change with the weather. For those in humid climates you probably don’t need anything too thick whereas a desert angel may need to layer hydrating serums and creams with a thicker cream on top. It’s not just about genetics, but your environment too!

What is a face oil? 

Face oils are not serums. They are face oils. While brands can confuse two face oils like safflower oil, squalane or rosehip, they are simply moisturizers. That means they’re an emollient (skin softening agent with conditioning ability in addition to helping retain some water in the skin) without any of the other benefits of a moisturizer. They’re simple, and are a quick hack to give your skin a shine quality or “glow”. Face oils are usually reserved for people who don’t have oily or acneic skin. While you don’t want to strip the oil from your face completely, if you’re more acne/oil prone, you don’t have much use for an oil. 

How Often: If you have dry skin, use face oils over your moisturizer. It’ll help your makeup go on smoother and will stop that midday tightness during the winter. If you have oilier skin, you may not need an oil (your moisturizer will probably be enough) and for acneic skin, a dedicated oil is probably unnecessary. 

What is an SPF?

“Chemical” and “physical” are not great categories when we talk about sunscreen ingredients. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are very much chemicals (ionic compounds) by definition. A more accurate description would be inorganic and organic sunscreens respectively. This has to do with the carbon content; “chemical” has carbon, “physical” doesn’t. 

What’s important to remember is regardless of the type, sunscreens function in very similar ways. They also have similar health and environmental effects. Both physical and chemical sunscreens absorb UV and turn it into heat, the difference is around 5% with physical sunscreens reflecting a bit more than chemical SPFs. Both sunscreen types work by forming films on the skin, they don’t need to meaningfully penetrate the skin to work. When they do penetrate the skin, this helps them last longer, but it doesn’t mean it’s absorbing. Lastly, no hormonal effects have been found when sunscreens are used in recommended quantities. And when it comes to coral reefs, Lab Muffin has an extensive post but the TLDR version is that scientists that study reefs note SPF is very low on the list of priorities, and we don’t know the full impact of physical SPFs either.

One similarity that is important to emphasize is that SPF needs to be reapplied every two hours, no matter what kind you use. That being said, if you’re spending a lot of time indoors and aren’t near a window all day, you’re likely OK with a single morning application. 

While chemical sunscreens are more likely to cause skin sensitivity (and are reported to sting the eyes more), physical SPFs like a zinc based protection can leave a white cast on your skin. 

With sunscreens, the best one for you is the one you can wear comfortably everyday. 

How Often: Apply ⅓ of a teaspoon to your face and neck every morning. From there, if in the sun, you should be reapplying every two hours. If you aren’t really outside, are in an office all day, don’t drive till nighttime or are exposed to minimal outdoor light don’t panic on reapplication, that morning hit should be enough. Also remember protective clothing like hats can work too.