When it comes to skincare, there’s no shortage of new products or TikTok trends to try.
But unless you’re a professional dermatologist, beauty influencer, or skincare enthusiast, nailing down a routine can range from feeling like a burdensome nightly chore to an impossibly overwhelming task when you keep hearing about “12-step” regimens. Plus, buying an assortment of random products you saw online (only to use them once) gets pricey.
Luckily, you don’t have to spackle layers of creams every night or shell out on the most expensive cleansers to take phenomenal care of your skin.
Dr. Ivy Lee, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Los Angeles, and Dr. Annie Chiu, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of The Derm Institute, both agree you mainly need five quality ingredients:
“These may not be the sexiest products you can find on Instagram nowadays, but they are the most effective ingredients for a basic, healthy skincare regimen,” said Chiu.
To make things even easier, Lee recommended buying “multi-functional” products like a moisturizer with vitamin C and sunscreen to use in the morning or a retinol combined with a moisturizer for nighttime.
Below, we’ve included Lee and Chiu’s recommendations for the best products for skincare beginners and broken down the steps and order to put them on.
“Cleansing is important to remove any oil, sweat, grime, and skincare products that accumulate on the skin throughout the day,” said Lee.
What to use:
Lee recommended CeraVe Hydrating Cream-to-Foam Cleanser, a gentle, non-clogging cleanser that contains hyaluronic acid (a hydrating ingredient) and is designed to remove makeup.
Chiu also suggested SheaMoisture Manuka Honey & Yogurt Glow Getter Nourishing Cleanser (for normal to dry skin) and Neostrata Foaming Glycolic Face Wash (for normal to oily skin) to exfoliate the skin, reduce acne, and reveal glowing skin.
Vitamin C boosts collagen production in the skin, brightening your complexion and fading dark spots and fine lines.
If you experience irritation from using it, Lee said to apply it every day — or every other day — to build tolerance.
Also check the type of vitamin C you use: water-soluble or fat-soluble. “Those with more sensitive skin can often do well on fat-soluble vitamin C,” also known as tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate, said Chiu.
What to use:
Both Lee and Chiu recommended La Roche Posay’s Vitamin C products: The 10% Pure Vitamin C serum and Active Vitamin C 10% wrinkle cream, respectively. The serum is suitable for sensitive skin while the wrinkle cream can be used on the neck as well as the face.
Lee also mentioned The Ordinary Magnesium Ascorbyl 10% Phosphate, a vitamin C cream that the brand says is best for dry skin.
If you’re looking to combine your vitamin C serum with the next step on this list, Chiu recommended Ilia C Beyond Triple Serum SPF 40, a tinted, SPF vitamin C and zinc oxide serum “so you can combine your antioxidants and sun protection into one easy step!”
“Sunscreen is essential to protect the skin from the harmful effects of ultraviolet rays,” said Lee, who cited skin cancer and premature aging as risks in “rain or shine.”
Both dermatologists recommended using a sunscreen that’s at least SPF 30, and Lee suggested sunscreens with physically blocking ingredients like iron oxide, zinc oxide, and titanium dioxide.
What to use:
Both doctors loved EltaMD UV Daily, an SPF 40 face lotion with zinc oxide and hydrating hyaluronic acid, which also comes in a tinted version for those who want to avoid a white cast.
A few other hydrating mineral sunscreens that Lee recommended include La Roche Posay’s Anthelios Mineral SPF Moisturizer with Hyaluronic Acid (SPF 30, offering 12-hour hydration) or Anthelios Mineral Tinted Sunscreen for Face SPF 50 if you’re looking for something with a higher SPF.
Another SPF 50 lotion Chiu suggested is Aveeno Positively Mineral Sensitive Skin Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50, which can be an especially nice option for those with sensitive skin.
What to use:
You can use the same cleanser you use in the morning.
If you wear makeup, Lee recommended CeraVe Makeup-Removing Cleansing Balm and Albolene Hydrating Cleansing Balm, which she’s used herself. “I have fond childhood memories of Albolene — it would take off my stage makeup from my baton-twirling days and leave my skin super soft and hydrated.”
And if you really can’t get that mascara off, Dr. Chiu suggested “cleansing balms and micellar water for more heavy-duty makeup.” Her two recs included La Roche Posay Micellar Water Ultra and Farmacy Beauty Green Clean Makeup Meltaway Cleansing Balm.
To get the full effects of retinol, another collagen-building substance, you’ll want to consult a dermatologist who can prescribe a stronger formula catered to your skin type.
However, if you’re just starting out, Chiu said that “you can start with an over-the-counter retinol and then build up a tolerance to a stronger, prescription-grade retinoid,” as retinol can cause irritation and flakiness when first used. Both doctors also suggested using retinol every other day or two at first to help your skin get acclimated.
The only step Lee and Chiu disagreed on is the order to put retinol on (a commonly debated topic in the skincare world). Lee said to put it on after you cleanse, which is in line with the theory that it’s best to layer products from thinnest to thickest to help the products absorb into your skin more easily.
But if you have sensitive skin, Chiu strongly recommended putting on retinol as step 3 (after the moisturizer) to “buffer that irritation.” She said that a high-quality retinol should still be able to penetrate the skin if applied after moisturizer and that “almost everyone’s skin can be compatible with a retinoid if you build up slowly like this.”
What to use:
Noting that Lee and Chiu could only suggest over-the-counter picks for retinol, Lee recommended any of The Ordinary’s popular retinol serums or CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum, which the brand claims is effective at minimizing acne marks and pores.
For those who are looking to fade fine lines, Chiu’s picks, The INKEY List Retinol Anti-Aging Serum and Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum, both advertise smoothing effects.
And if you want to combine steps two and three (and not have to worry about the order of the products), Lee mentioned RoC Multi Correxion 5-in-1 Night Cream, a combination retinol-moisturizer.
“Moisturization is critical for maintaining the health of the skin barrier,” said Lee.
What to use:
Both doctors recommended CeraVe products like the Moisturizing Cream and PM Lotion, which Chiu described as a “lightweight, non-clogging lotion for oily or acne-prone skin.”
Lee’s other recommendations included La Roche Posay Toleraine Cream for extra hydration and Vanicream Moisturizing Cream for sensitive skin, while Chiu loved Tatcha Water Cream Lightweight Lotion for oily or combination skin and Versed Skin Soak Rich Moisture Cream for dry skin.
For those with sensitive skin conditions, Lee usually starts them off on a regimen that skips the vitamin C and retinol, focusing solely on cleansing, moisturizing, and applying sunscreen.
Then, both doctors recommend taking it slow with applying vitamin C and retinol by spacing it out to every other day or multiple days — a process also known in the TikTok world as skin cycling.