Beauty Q&A: How to Set Up a Skincare Regimen

A question that I receive surprisingly often is:

What skincare products should I use?

That question that in itself is pretty open-ended and difficult to answer, and there’s a big difference between should and could (like need and want). The masks and sprays I test out a lot are “wants,” but some products are truly “needs”. In a crowded beauty market, it is increasingly difficult to know the difference.

Recently, I went through one reader’s specific concerns and mapped out what she could and should use every day. In doing so, I realized that there’s a lot of knowledge to be extrapolated from the process of piecing together her individual skincare regimen; I think we can all learn from it.

When she first approached me, here’s what she had to say:

I’m (gulp) almost 35. What wash, toner, and moisturizer (w/ spf) I guess would you recommend?I will spend some money, but not a ton. I have oiler skin I’d say. Some acne ? and I don’t ever wear makeup. Oh and I hate the feeling of lotion. So something like. I saw some dermologica (or something) stuff and wasn’t sure if that was good? Also, any undereye cream/help? And maybe an nighttime wrinkle helper? Thoughts!?!

Ahh!  I think a lot of what she said, we’ve all felt at some point or another with our skincare. I mean, where does one even start? There’s so much information and mis-information out there about skincare, that it can be overwhelming.

So here’s how I broke it down:

Step 1: Start with a Wash

No matter what your age or skin type, you gotta wash your face every day.

It’s best to use a mild, gentle cleanser, that’s not trying to do much at once. It doesn’t need to do more than clean off the dirt, debris and dead skin–and hopefully it will do so without totally stripping your skin of its natural oils in the process. Ideally, you would use a cleanser that was fine for morning and night.

My suggestion was Glossier’s Milky Jelly Face Wash ($18). Inspired by Korean jelly washes, it’s crazy gentle, good at removing makeup and dirt, and does it all without drying your skin out. I love that it only has a handful of ingredients, and is scented naturally by Rose Damascena extract. Plus, it has honeysuckle extract, which almost no other products on the market have (except REWIND!). How cool is that?

Having oily skin at 35 may be genetics or may be from over-washing or over-treating skin with OTC acne products. However, a gentle was like the Milky Jelly Face Wash should be okay for both a morning and night wash.

Step 2: Apply Some SPF

Again, regardless of age, gender, race, skin type.. whatever: sunscreen is a necessity for good-looking skin. Not just today, but tomorrow and the next day and for the rest of forever. Consistent sunscreen use is what keeps you from having to spend thousands on procedures and creams later on.

While it’s really tempting to try to do some kind of 2-in-1 or 3-in-1 on products save money, don’t rely on the SPF in a foundation or makeup; you really should use a separate sunscreen, since it’s the most important part of your anti-aging skincare routine, and the physical sunscreen (titanium dioxide) in makeup is really there as a colorant, not a sun blocker. According to Dermatologist Leslie Baumann, “Makeup does not provide enough coverage,” she says. “You need seven times the normal amount of foundation and 14 times the normal amount of powder to get the sun protection factor on the label. No one does this.” (source)

For the sunscreen, look for a drugstore one with both UVA and UVB protection and SPF 50. My favorite by L’Oreal was discontinued, but I’m sure there’s a replacement, like Neutrogena’s Sheer Dry Touch Sunscreen (SPF 100) – $13.99. Apply it to your face, neck, decollate and hands daily before makeup. Once you apply makeup, you’re ready to go for the day!

Step 3: Treat Adult Acne Gently

Now what to do at the end of the day, after cleansing?

Personally, I’d skip the toner step. Anything that may further dry out oily skin, thereby potentially causing skin to overproduce oil, should be avoided.

For occasional adult acne, I’d also skip the benzoyl peroxide products and either use a BHA or Sulfur lotion. My choice for sulfur is Kate Somerville’s EradiKate treatment ($26). Use it as a spot treatment, when you feel a pimple coming on, but it hasn’t completely come to the surface yet. It’s 10% sulfur, so it can be slightly drying. For a more “all-over” pimple-preventing treatment, I’d suggest Nerd Skincare’s Acne Lotion ($85). It’s a little pricey, but at a 3% concentration of sulfur, it’s great for drying out hormonal jawline acne without drying out the skin.

If you want to go the BHA route to prevent blackheads from becoming acne, Drunk Elephant has the best AHA/BHA combo serum (TLC Framboos Glycolic Night Serum – $90), which will do two things in one. More on that next..

Step 4: Help Your Skin Turnover (the Anti-Aging Step)

To keep skin healthy and young-looking, you need to exfoliate it regularly. I don’t mean physical exfoliation (here’s why), but a chemical exfoliant like an AHA.

While BHAs are mostly used to prevent acne and blackheads, AHAs will help increase skin cell turnover by dissolving the glue that holds skin cells together. It will brighten the appearance of skin and generally lead to softer, more supple skin even as you age.

Again, an AHA serum like Drunk Elephant’s TLC Framboos serum will do the trick nicely. If it’s a bit too pricey, word on the street is that Alpha Skincare’s Rejuvenating Serum (14% AHA, $18.99) is just as good, and a fraction of the price. You can use the AHA serum every night, or opt for every other night, to prevent accidentally auto-sensitizing you skin (source).


Step 5: Moisturize to Protect and Seal

After we’ve washed and treated, we need to moisturize your skin, to keep it hydrated and healthy. This reader hates lotion, though, so what to do?

After all of the steps above, given her skin type, I highly doubt she’d need a moisturizer. Instead, if she can suffer it, I suggested using 2-3 drops of a great face oil. While I would personally suggest SHINE because of its brightening and UV protectant properties (it’s like a toner without the harshness of a toner!), a 100% hexane free, cold pressed oil can do the moisturizing trick for a bit less $.

Argan oil is a good choice, because it’s especially non-comedogenic–so it shouldn’t cause any issues with acne–and contains essential fatty acids and vitamins that your skin wouldn’t get from lotion. It’s $16.29 on Amazon for 4oz, and at 2-3 drops a night, that should last you at least 3-4 months. 

Takeaways: Skincare Regimen

Some of you might be saying: where’s the retinol!?

Given the nature of retinols and AHAs–that they are taking off some of the top layer of already-thinning skin–it may be best to just stick to one, at least for now. Even if you do want to use both, you should wait and least 30 minutes between applying, and make damn sure to use SPF every single day, as they make one’s skin more susceptible to sun damage. Retinol treatments can be pretty harsh, so again, I’d really suggest that you just stick to one until your sure your skin can handle it.

My routine suggestion again is:


  1. Gently Wash
  2. Apply SPF
  3. Apply makeup and/or a few drops of oil


  1. Gently Wash
  2. Treat pimples with Sulfur
  3. Prevent again with AHA (or AHA/BHA combo / alternatively a retinol)
  4. Apply a few drops of oil to moisturize

Altogether, using the cheapest products that I suggested, it comes in at about $93. That’s enough skincare products for 3-4 months (the sunscreen might be a smaller supply), then you’ll need to replenish and start again. It’s a bit expensive, yes, but prevention is the biggest key to great, young looking skin into your 50s and beyond. Prevention in the form of gentle cleansing, gentle acne control, gentle exfoliation and of course, sun protection always.

And if that’s all too expensive or complicated, all I can say is.. apply your SPF! Again, 90% of the skincare battle is prevention. Oh–and try to use a face wash on your face, not a hand soap.

I hope that helps! Creating a perfect skincare routine definitely entails some trial-and-error, but at least with a good, educated starting point, you can get your skin on the right track.


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Dr. Vanessa Rodriguez is a board-certified general practitioner with more than 15 years of patient care experience. She takes an integrative approach to patient care that considers the whole person – mind, body, and spirit – and is deeply committed to assisting her patients in achieving and sustaining optimal health. Dr. Vanessa is also a skilled writer and medical reviewer, specializing in preventive care and health promotion. Her articles are written in an approachable manner that is simple to comprehend and implement in one’s own life. Dr. Vanessa’s mission is to equip her patients and readers with the knowledge and resources necessary to live their greatest lives.

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